The Recorder – The World Keeps Turning: It’s all about the numbers

Posted: 04/09/2022 12:48:48

Modified: 04/09/2022 12:45:00

Scanning a recent New Yorker (cartoons first, before all the heavier but delightfully written articles), I came across a full-page, full-face photo of a quietly amused young man. The caption identified him as “the philosopher William MacAskill”.

Wait a minute! Aren’t philosophers supposed to be old and weathered, maybe with a long beard to pull while pondering the mysteries of life? MacAskill, 35, sports a trendy pair of glasses, skillfully tousled hair and a hopeful beard that seems incapable of ever turning into a sage’s beard.

But around 18, he devoted himself to an ascetic lifestyle which he called “effective altruism” (EA designates both philosophy and its followers) in order to “do good”. This included a lifetime commitment to non-profit giving of 10% or more of his income, even if he lived on minimal scholarships to Oxford University.

Seeking donations to non-profits as a young man, he would often quote figures for their effectiveness (like 20p to save a life from polio) that were “just plain wrong”. MacAskill and his followers have worked to quantify the value of donations, often using a metric coined by health economists called QALYs: Quality Adjusted Life Years.

MacAskill and EA encourage people to improve the world by giving “in the most far-sighted, ambitious, and unsentimental way possible.” They calculate that no one should donate to a cause in the already developed and industrialized world, since the same amount of donations in developing countries multiplies the QALYs by a hundred or more. Even there, it is important to identify the best cost-benefit ratio. Low-cost treatments for blindness in poor countries (as little as $25 per person) do not necessarily provide (in American slang) “the best value”; treatment of intestinal parasites created at least 100 times more QALYs.

I see this quantification of intangibles as part of a consistent pattern in a data-inundated world. I have seen “analyticals” (employed by young people called “numbers geeks” by those of us too old or stubborn to understand) turn the intuitive and pastoral game of baseball into a series of computer-generated, on data. . This includes moving infields to remove a batter’s likely power lanes, retiring a pitcher late innings even if working on a no-hitter, and using an endless parade of relievers best suited (according to statistics) to retire a particular batter.

Baseball writers now routinely cite a player’s WAR (Wins Against Replacement) which compares a player to a fictional average player of the position and calculates the first player’s impact on winning a game. Although most of the stats involved are subjective, WAR has also been applied to all historical players. (OK, Babe Ruth is the all-time leader, but Roger Clemens is WAR’s eighth most valuable player of all time.)

The same goes for other cultural activities. I know elementary school students who are adept at giving a 1-10 rating to burgers, ice cream cones, and movies. People are often characterized as giving 110% effort, even though it is mathematically impossible.

An EA writer uses a computer simulation as a metaphor and suggests buying “fuzzies and utils separately.” Fuzzies refer to the warm feelings people get when doing local volunteer work or directly help others, while utilons represent the greatest good for the greatest number of people, or “utilitarianism”. At one point, EAs suggested that college graduates could do the most good by working in a high-income field (finance, banking) and then finding the most efficient way to donate large sums. It was okay to invest time and/or money “altruistically,” as long as people knew the goal was “self-interest” rather than “impartial” or quantifiable good.

I have always marveled at the big, generous hearts shown by the donations of time and money to our local nonprofits, especially in areas that are consistently ranked among the poorest in the state. And for some reason, I’ve always known that my own volunteer efforts (including literacy and unpaid writing) are driven by self-interest: I’ve done them because they make me feel good.

“Effective altruism” holds that giving should be done impartially and not sentimentally. But I join others in being a supporter of helping neighbors. The sense of building community cannot be quantified or minimized. It might be different if we were Bill Gates, or EAs who now control up to $30 billion in funds (according to The New Yorker), but we aren’t, and we don’t. Communities that are built by people who help their neighbors make us wealthy beyond the numbers.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “Sword and Scabbard”, and resident of Greenfield. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at

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