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    PloughCast 63: Phil Christman and Leah Libresco Sargeant on Effective Altruism

    Money, Part 3

    By Phil Christman, Leah Libresco Sargeant, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    June 21, 2023

    About This Episode

    The Good Samaritan and the effective altruist meet in the retelling of Luke 10:30–37.

    The movement that most recently hit the headlines with the downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried deserves a more sympathetic treatment than it had on the last PloughCast we covered it on. What are its tenets, and how does it work as an ethical system?

    Leah, who considers herself an effective altruist, leads Phil, Susannah, and Pete on a tour of effective altruism and its affiliated movements, including extreme long-termism and the mysterious world of the “postrats.”

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough, and what we’ve got for you today is a conversation with Leah Libresco and Phil Christman on effective altruism

    Susannah Black Roberts: Leah is a Plough contributing editor, writes everywhere, and is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option. At one point she worked as a curriculum developer for the Center for Applied Rationality, where her responsibilities included throwing a murder mystery party that was also a lesson in Bayesian statistics and updating your beliefs. Currently, she and her husband work in Catholic in lay ministry for students at Princeton. She also runs the incredible substack community Other Feminisms, and tweets at @leahlibresco.

    Peter Mommsen: Phil teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. His work has appeared in the Christian Century, Paste, Books & Culture, the Hedgehog Review, and other publications. His most recent book is the essay collection How to be Normal. Phil is a regular Plough columnist with his Book Tour reviews. Twitter: @phil_christman

    Susannah Black Roberts:

    A certain man went down from Athens to Atlanta and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment and wounded him and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain conservative megachurch head pastor that way. Now, this pastor had 14,000 sheep, and 6,000 camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses, and a 10,000-person auditorium, and much gyms. He had also seven sons and three daughters, for unto him was a smokin’ hot wife named Cyndi. She did teach yoga, but she sinned not for she called the class Stretching Our Faith and never used Sanskrit words.

    And when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side and he said unto himself, “This is what comes with woke politicians, slimy, dirty people everywhere. A decent person can’t even ride the bus. The Uber drivers always want a tip.” And he passed by on the other side.

    And came then two Duke Divinity School post-liberals, for there was in those days in that city a theology conference. And they saw him and were moved to pity. And one went to help him. But his friend said unto him, “Ho, consider and be sure. Art thou moved by the charity that is from the Lord? Or doth thou proceed from the superficial liberal humanitarianism of the Enlightenment?”

    And the other paused and did bethink himself, for he did not want to proceed from the superficial liberal humanitarianism of the Enlightenment lest the Lord wax wroth with him. And at last, he did say to his friend, “Look, this man suffereth! and would thou be treated thus? Consider that if thou were this man, thou would swap the most of for the least of these.” And his friend replied, “Whoa, buddy, thou soundeth like Rawls.” And they did argue, and growing distracted, did pass by on the other side.

    But a certain disenchanted liberal technocrat, as he journeyed, came to where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion on him and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine and set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him and did exchange with him Reddit handles.

    And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence and gave them to the host and said unto him, “Take care of him. And whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.” And the host did say, “The doctors say he needeth a new kidney.” And the man was sore afraid, but he was an effective altruist. And he said, “Lo, I have an extra one that I’m not using. And hoarding it would be irrational under the circumstances.” And he gave the man his kidney. And being recovered, he went back to his job as a consultant and great was his reward in the kingdom of God, if he would allow himself to know it.

    That was a reading from Phil Christman’s parable called The Effective Samaritan, which was published in our latest issue. And we have here on the podcast two – beyond friends of the pod, they are essentially symbionts of the pod, I would say, Phil Christman and Leah Libresco Sargeant, who is also a contributing editor to the magazine. Phil and Leah, welcome to the PloughCast.

    Phil Christman: Thanks, Susannah.

    Leah Libresco: Thank you.

    Peter Mommsen: And, I guess, none of us are going to sound like Rawls today.

    Phil Christman: I might. Look, man, I’m a mainliner. I might sound a little bit like Rawls.

    Peter Mommsen: Oh, OK.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I felt so dunked on. I felt personally owned, dunked on. Oh, my gosh. “And there was in those days in that city . . .”

    Phil Christman: I was trying to make you laugh more than to dunk on you.

    Peter Mommsen: So what are we talking about today?

    Susannah Black Roberts: What are we talking about?

    Peter Mommsen: I think we’re talking about effective altruism, but we’re not dunking today.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We’re not dunking. We did do an entire episode that I actually wasn’t part of, because my computer was broken at the time, where Phil and Joey Keegan did their Phil and Joey show on effective altruism. And so we will link to that in the show notes if you really want a dunking on EA podcast. But this is going to be – Leah’s on here, which means that we’re kind. And so this is going to be the descriptive episode, a kind of tour guide to the world of effective altruism and its adjacent realms. And we are going to try to understand, on its own terms, what this is and what the good is that is being aimed at. And this is an easy one. You don’t have to dig very deep to say, “All right, what is the good here that is being aimed at?” So Pete, you were going to say something?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I was going to say, so, I mean, Phil, I loved your little parable. Maybe some people take it as inside baseball. I thought they would. When we published it on our website, I was surprised that on Elon Musk’s website people felt really picked on by what I thought was a really funny parable.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I felt picked on.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I mean, I think it’s pointed. It’s funny and it’s pointed.

    Peter Mommsen: No, Plough, was the worry, is sliding into attacking our own base.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Well, is The Screwtape Letters attacking its own base? I think Phil does this in the spirit of fraternal correction. I hope, Phil.

    Peter Mommsen: Like the original parable is in the spirit of fraternal correction.

    Susannah Black Roberts: If we can’t make fun of our own base, who can we make fun of?

    Peter Mommsen: I don’t even know who our base is.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Our base is Duke Divinity students. Come on.

    Peter Mommsen: OK. Oh, I thought it was liberal humanitarians.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, well, that I guess, yeah. I mean, probably some Tradcaths as well. Maybe not.

    Peter Mommsen: Tradcaths also get picked on in here.

    Phil Christman: If anything, there are parts of that where I’m dunking on the other. And there are several parts of it where I’m dunking on myself or other people.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That was an auto dunk. There was a lot of auto dunks there.

    Phil Christman: Or on people I’ve been, in the past. When I make fun of the post libs, that’s partly me remembering my own internal conflicts during the early 2000s. The early 2000s were the time period when I got really, really, really into Stanley Hauerwas, who I still basically think is cool and largely a force for good. And I love his cats. Every Plough reader remembers Stanley Hauerwas’s cats.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We’ll link to that as well.

    Phil Christman: Yeah, please do, ’cause that’s a truly iconic moment in the history of American theology. So the idea that you want to proceed from something other than the superficial humanitarian, liberal, good feeling of the Enlightenment, that was something I took very seriously. But then at the same time, that type of thinking provided a lot of the vocabulary that was most immediately useful in denouncing the war in Iraq. So I wasn’t sure how hard I wanted to be on it. So that’s not really a dunk from outside. And then of course, I bag on mainliners. And don’t I pick on liberation theologians?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, yeah. You pick on liberation theologians, absolutely.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s nobody who doesn’t leave alienated from your parable, Phil.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s beautiful.

    Phil Christman: Good.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s really beautiful.

    Peter Mommsen: Oh, you didn’t pick on Anabaptists though.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, I mean, but post . . . I feel like we at Plough are basically the postliberals.

    Peter Mommsen: OK. We can fit ourselves into the Hauerwas tent.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, you can. Yeah, very easily.

    Phil Christman: I’ll never, at this late date, remember where it is in his works or where I saw it, but there’s actually a paper where he talks about his love of the novels of Anthony Trollope, where he actually talks about how he mines some important theological concepts out of, I think, The Warden [series] and Barchester Towers, which I hadn’t read at that point. But those novels are both just absolute bangers. And he ends up saying at the end, “The fact that totally conventional nineteenth-century Anglicanism could produce these novels shows that there are radical possibilities even in the everyday, even in the conventional,” which I thought, yeah. I like that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m into that. Man, I’m going to have to take the opportunity to tell everyone that they need to read Susan Howatch, as well, who’s like this twentieth-century update of Trollope’s ecclesiastical novels. Anyway . . .

    Peter Mommsen: We should get to the hero of our parable and effective altruism before we get into Anthony Trollope, which would be a great thing to do, too.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We’ll do that. We’ll do another podcast.

    Peter Mommsen: But, you know what I think might be useful, Susannah, is there’s probably people listening to this podcast who don’t know what effective altruism is, and why is the effective altruist part of the parable? And why is he giving away his kidney?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yes. Who is the effective altruist? What is effective altruism? Why is he giving away his kidney? What’s going on? Leah, do you want to take it from the top? What is effective altruism?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah, why don’t I give you the tight pitch and then the wild pitch. The tight pitch is that effective altruism is the same thing people have always cared about, which is, when I give to charity, am I really doing good? How do I keep track of where my money is going? How do I pay attention to the impact? And what the EA movement did, especially through groups like GiveWell, was come with a better way for evaluating charity than groups like GuideStar, which checked, is this charity fraud? Is this charity spending most of its money on its own salaries? If this charity says it gives puppies to orphans, do the puppies actually get delivered? And what EA was trying to do is saying, “Hey, we don’t want to just check if the charity does what it says on the tin. We want to check if it matters that you do it.”

    So if you’re giving out puppies, malaria bed nets, vaccines, straight-up cash, how much good does that do? And how can we measure that? And I think it comes out of a real sense of frailty of human reason, that we want to do good for others. And it’s easy for us to wind up like Phil describes in his story, really just trying to feel like we’re doing good, to pick the easiest path to satisfy our own sentiments without actually being attentive to the needs of our neighbor. So effective altruism says, “Let’s take an experimental approach. Let’s check what happens. Let’s run randomized controlled trials of different charitable interventions.”

    And I’ll say my favorite thing about it is people shut down their organizations when they don’t think they work. And that’s something you rarely see in the non-profit world. That’s the normal pitch. So if you’ve listen that far, feel free to get onto GiftWell, look at the charities, look at their bases for them and strongly consider them.

    Here’s the wild pitch. There’s a normie core, which is more where I am. And then there’s that, “Hey, you know what I said about the frailty of human reason? What if we’re not just wrong about how good it is to give vaccines, versus bed nets, versus money? But what if we’re wrong about whether the right thing to do is to help individual people who are alive now, or people who might be alive one thousand years from now or 1 million years from now?” So if you’re going to track the impact of what you do, just like EA makes the pitch of, why be so locally limited that you don’t pay attention to global poverty, the wilder parts of EA say, “Why be so temporally locally limited that you’re not thinking about one millennium from now, and where you can have the highest leverage now to shape our light cone rather than just, you’ll feed someone today?”

    What if you could eliminate hunger, not in the sense of feeding people, but in the sense of replacing your stomach with some kind of series of pumps.

    Phil Christman: Yo, what if we could photosynthesize though?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, I mean, it’d be cool. So obviously, this all falls under a larger category of ethics. It is an ethical movement. It’s a movement of philosophical ethics focusing on, what should we do? And the kind of ethics it is, is called utilitarianism. It is a version of utilitarianism.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: It doesn’t have to be utilitarian.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK, this is what I was wondering about. Can you be an effective altruist virtue ethicist?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I know that, Leah, you are the one person who I can ask this of.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yes. The answer is yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK, how?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Because I am.

    Susannah Black Roberts: How can you be?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: So I would push back to say that the core thing is utilitarianism. I would say the core thing is just an experimental mindset. And I think that’s different than utilitarianism. They both have to do with paying attention to what happens. But utilitarianism cares about, I care about the outcomes, I care about the consequences. I’m a little squishy on what it takes to get there. And so you can wind up with people feeling almost morally blackmailed, where if I say, “Hey, Susannah, I’m going to feed a hundred million people and in exchange, I need you to step on the small picture of Jesus. Don’t you have to do what I want?”

    And you say “No.” You’re like, “Well, can’t I turn up the dial and make it a million people?” And you get the sense of that, I think, anyway, utilitarianism lends itself to these moral blackmail scenarios, where it’s not just how you draw the line.

    Phil Christman: You’ve got to throw the switch on the trolley and kill the guy.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Versus, as a virtue ethicist and as a Christian, I don’t believe in that kind of consequences blackmail. I think there are moral precepts that matter. I think the way we form ourselves by our moral choices matter. But what EA gives me isn’t so much utilitarianism, it’s empiricism. That to use the virtue of prudence, I do need to know something about the world. And there are a lot of questions that are just factual questions about the world that I didn’t have good answers to until EA people put time, and money, and effort behind, let’s check and see if this works. Let’s interview these people. Let’s do it in one province and not another and see what happens. And so I think it’s that empirical experimental mindset that’s really the powerhouse of EA, not the utilitarianism.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping – Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Leah and Phil after the break.


    Peter Mommsen: And the other half of the word effective altruism, so we’ve talked about the experimental side, but just in practice, many people who subscribe to this or are influenced by it really are very altruistic. So the altruism side, I mean, I guess, that’s why they made it into your parable, Phil. It’s remarkable, at least what some people have done, the person in your parable literally gives away his kidney . . .

    Susannah Black Roberts: Which is a thing that people do.

    Phil Christman: Apparently, it’s a very real thing.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I know multiple people in real life who have done this, because they’re affiliated with EA.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Leah is, in fact, part of this movement, sort of. You are socially affiliated.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I’d say I am. I’d say I’m part of it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK. Excellent.

    Peter Mommsen: And that’s why, I mean, just to put it out there, that’s also why it’s worth talking about this movement. And why, I would say, we’re all Christians here on this podcast, why Christians need to take it seriously. Because I think this isn’t just some interesting mental experiment somewhere. This is something where real people are really trying to do good – to, in Christian terms, love others.

    Phil Christman: I think Christians need to notice when people whose presuppositions we might find objectionable are just absolutely laughing at us and dunking on us in the doing good sweepstakes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But then you do get these meta questions of things like, “Would you rather have a world with billions of people who are 51 percent happy? Or would you rather have a world with a couple of hundred thousand people who are 85 percent happy?” This all sounds very good, but is there something here that is fundamentally misunderstanding aspects of being human or aspects of reality?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I don’t think this sounds good at all, Susannah, is the thing. I think there’s a danger in philosophy, of what I call high-energy experimental ethics, where you’re just taking these tools and you turn them in on themselves. So what question are you trying to answer? There isn’t a real prudential question you’re asking me about right now that I can sift using what I know about human beings. It’s everything abstracted just to the numbers. So we start to drift away from, is this related to a real question at all? It can be useful as a way to probe the structure of an ethical system and go, “What does this ethical system say? How do we judge the ethical system? What are we using to judge it?”

    But when we make up moral questions totally divorced from reality, we have to make sure we’re not sneaking in false or just ungrounded premises, we’re not taking our ethics out to a world that doesn’t exist. There’s a lot of questions that are fun and speculative about aliens, but we have to be careful that as we make up our own aliens to answer ethical questions about, we might make up a kind of being that does not and will not exist, and for whom there isn’t necessarily a coherent ethical answer.

    Phil Christman: So what Susannah was referring to earlier with the world of 51 percent happy people or the world of very happy people, but there’s trillions fewer of them, that’s Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion. The idea that if we follow the implications of certain premises of utilitarian moral philosophy, we have to conclude that it’s better to have trillions of people who are barely hanging on, but who aren’t actively suicidal than a world that has very few very happy people. That’s a meta question that can tell us something about what a philosophical framework supposes, but it’s not a question that helps me live.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s also, I mean, the thing is for me, that question in particular, the Parfit question is interesting because both answers seem to me to be wrong. If you conclude actually what I should be aiming for, what is better is a world with fewer very happy people, then at your worst, you do end up like a extreme social Darwinist. Let’s just prune the people. Let’s make each person maximally fit to receive the goods of the world. And let’s make there be very few of them and let’s do whatever we need to do to get there. And that also is a wrong answer. So there’s something wrong with the question. If both answers, if the 51 percent-happy- trillion-people world and the 85 percent -happy-several-hundred-thousand-people world answers feel wrong in their implications, there’s something there’s wrong with the question.

    But we’re also trying to find out what are the things that have fed into EA as a kind of movement and what’s the world that it comes out of? Leah, do you want to talk at all about rationalism and the rationalist and then maybe the post rat, I guess, trend, vibeshift?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah. For a little bit of background, I was a curriculum developer at the Center for Applied Rationality, part of the broader rationalist movement. And when I would tell people what I did, since it wasn’t really obvious from the name, I’d say I was focused on defensive driving for your brain, that we know that we’re bad thinkers in a variety of ways and a variety of contexts. And part of that is learning about cognitive biases and trying to overcome them. And part of it really is defensive driving, thinking about, when am I least prepared to make a well-reasoned, informed decision? And how do I stay out of those circumstances? Or when I’m in them do I avoid making decisions till I can reach a place of greater stability and clarity?

    So this leads to a lot of interest in probability theory and stuff you’ll see in the self-help movement of just habit setting, getting yourself out of bad cognitive ruts and into good cognitive ruts, which makes it a little virtue ethics, again. The point is to change the kind of person you are through deliberate practice and change of context.

    Susannah Black Roberts: To what degree is a virtue ethicist approach where you would focus on loves compatible with this? So with virtue ethics, you think of it as not just like, or obviously, you can be a very rationalist virtue ethicist and be like, “You should rationally choose these virtuous behaviors, which will then make you into a courageous person,” et cetera, which is not wrong. But virtue ethics in a fully Thomistic way is focused on the cultivation of different loves and desires, in a way. Are those terms at all apropos or in use?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think they’re not a major part of the rationalist language, though obviously, I use them. But I think people are more interested in talking about in the movement of the heart. Or when they talk about our loves, they tend to talk more about system 1 and system 2 thinking, what we think in a deliberate, verbal, reasoned way. And what we think in a more emotional, hard-to-put-into-words way. And the rationalists don’t disvalue system 1 thinking. They write more about system 2 thinking, because by its nature it’s easier to write about. It’s the more language-heavy part of how we think, and feel, and move through the world.

    But they’re really interested in system 1, because it’s part of how we know the world. And in some ways it’s the part that’s harder to look at, because we have more trouble using language. This is the difference between when you . . . Daniel Kahneman talks about this as “thinking fast and slow.” System 1 is when you know something is wrong. And system 2 is when you realize that your door has been left slightly ajar. Or you notice something first. You then reason to go, “Why is the hair on the back of my neck standing up?” System 1 isn’t a hundred percent accurate. Neither is system 2. But ideally, they work in concert with each other.

    Peter Mommsen: Leah, just for those who are encountering these ideas for the first time, could you give it a little overview of some of the blogs, and organizations, and possibly books where some of these ideas are developing and where these conversations are taking place?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Yeah. Some of this started on a blog by Robin Hanson, an economist, called Overcoming Bias. And then out of that spun LessWrong, which developed first with Eliezer Yudkowsky, dramatic personality, autodidact, who managed to get people really into growth and self-change through a series of reasoned essays, short-genre fiction, and a long Harry Potter fanfic. And more power to him. I have tried to get people interested in things with less success and more conventional approaches. And then in the EA world, there are groups like 80,000 Hours, which frame it through your career. It might be 80,000 hours long. Well, how are you picking your career with an eye to doing the most good?

    I’ve mentioned GiveWell, which is a charity evaluator group. Giving What We Can, a pledge to give 10 percent of what you earn. A number of groups like this and then, of course, Will MacAskill, who both is involved in EA, the more normie parts that I described it, but then had a recent book on long-termism with the idea of, how do we reason about our impact on the far future and approach our actions today with an idea of shaping that future?

    Peter Mommsen: So Will MacAskill, glad you mentioned him, Leah, because Phil reviewed his book for us. His book is called What We Owe the Future. It came out last year. And he is the co-founder of a bunch of effective altruism-associated organizations, including the Centre for Effective Altruism in the United Kingdom. Phil, you’d probably be able to give us an overview of his book, which I’ve been reading. And I mean, I really like the guy.

    Phil Christman: Well, that was my overall response to the book too, is I found the content of the arguments deeply exasperating. But I couldn’t get over the feeling that he’s probably a pretty nice guy personally. And I still feel that way even after the embarrassment he’s had recently with his involvement with . . . what’s that dude’s name?

    Peter Mommsen: Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of FTX.

    Phil Christman: Yes. Thank you for that actual context that isn’t just me going, “Oh, the guy and the thing and the you know . . .” and just verbal gestures.

    Peter Mommsen: So Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced founder of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange was in touch with a supporter of Will MacAskill, although, you know . . .

    Phil Christman: And my dad’s a Republican, but don’t cancel me. Sometimes our friends and loved ones, they screw up real big. And it doesn’t really say anything about we ourselves. So I think, OK, I would agree with Leah that there’s useful stuff that you can get out of some of these writers. I mean, Yudkowsky, no. That guy strikes me as a little brain-damaged, but . . .

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: He helped me become Catholic.

    Phil Christman: MacAskill, he’s the more acceptable face of the movement, I think. He starts out from asking, “How can we make the world less miserable?” And, “How can we effectively do good for the most people?” And those are good questions. I mean, they’re part of prudential reasoning. And I think for me, where he goes wrong is what’s called long-termism, which is this obsession, I think it’s fair to call it an obsession, with plotting out scenarios about the far future that seem rational to him, I think. But that to me, look like they’re resting on a series of weaker, and weaker, and weaker sort or arches, upon arches, upon arches of speculation.

    So for example, he makes the argument that we should stop burning fossil fuels very soon, which is, agreed. We should do that last month. We should do that ten years ago. Great. That seems like the correct conclusion. But the way he gets there is to say, “Well, there might be a nuclear war at some point, or something else that happens that sets us back industrially, and then we’d have to do a second Industrial Revolution. And we really need to keep some fossil fuels around by which our descendants thousands or millions of years from now can do a second Industrial Revolution. I mean, it would be really stupid to use that stuff up now, so let’s save it.” Either that immediately sounds almost like a cartoon version of philosophy to you. Or to me, it does sound cartoonish.

    Peter Mommsen: So this is what Leah was calling the wild pitch before.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: But I think this is one of the less wild parts, because I think what we often say looking back at history is that we want people to take a longer perspective to think more about the long-term impact of their actions. And it turns out what happens when people do that is you get some stuff that sounds really reasonable and some stuff that sounds pretty crazy. And the question is how you sift. And I think that’s not surprising, that once we start saying, what do we care about in the long term? There’s some stuff where it’s more obvious that what we’re doing right now is penny wise and pound foolish. And some stuff where you say, you know, “What would it have taken for people historically to have realized they had to stop doing this?”

    And the questions get more complicated. And so if we’re trying to say, “What would it look like to take that big a leap?” People just start practicing taking big leaps and you get a pretty wide range of whether those leaps feel prudent or nuts.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Leah, you said that Eliezer Yudkowsky helped you to become Catholic. I know a little bit of the story, because I used to read your blog, but can you tell that story?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Well, I think it’s a pretty long story for the podcast, but I’ll say that . . .

    Susannah Black Roberts: OK, Eliezer blog.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: So let me just give Eliezer a specific credit that he deserves. I talk about my conversion in my book, Arriving at Amen. But the thing that’s really helpful from Eliezer is that I think he does blend the system 1 and system 2 as well. That’s why he uses fiction as well as non-fiction. And he wrote really well about the urgency of changing your mind when you’re wrong, really setting aside your desire to not change your mind and thinking about where you might be wrong, thinking about where even the enemies you hate most might have a valid point as a heroic act.

    But it was both more explicitly rationalist practices that helped me think through the philosophical challenges to my atheism. But it was also this desire to be a hero. And that heroism is found not in conquering others, but in submitting to the truth. And Yudkowsky writes really movingly about that and it was helpful to me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, we will definitely link to both your blog and your book.

    Peter Mommsen: I mean, that is one aspect to this movement, this love for truth and the willingness to do whatever it takes. One recognizes the truth to set aside long-held habits of mind and habits of life. That really does seem to have something in common with the Sermon on the Mount, for instance.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So many of Jesus’ parables and his teaching has to do with, let’s really game out what it means if the kingdom of God is real and is at hand. If that’s true, what are the implications? Let’s act on those implications even if they seem crazy, or imprudent, or just bizarre. And that kind of approach and that kind of willingness to do that, one of the things that’s called is faith, which is interesting because faith and reason are so often opposed to each other. But the ability to act on what is truly rational is also faith. It’s a trust in both. In a Christian context, a trust in God himself who is reason and a trust that if you act according to what is truly rational, you’re not going to be let down. And that, I don’t know, there is something very interesting there.

    One of the things that’s happened recently with the rationalist movement and with effective altruism, which is a child of it to a certain degree, is that there has been this turn from, maybe a turn from pure rational is the wrong phrase, but post rationalism or the post rats are a new iteration of that same group or of many of the same people in that group. And our friend of the pod, Tara Isabella Burton, has recently written a piece for the New Atlantis on the post rats. Leah, do you want to talk a little bit about who they are and what it is that they are seeing and trying to do?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think the post rationalists are taking what I said about being attentive to what you get from system 1 and turning that to 11 a little bit. And I think they have that sincere curiosity about, what out there in the world is powerful for shaping how you understand the world or understand yourself? And then having a very magpie, curious approach to, if it looks like it might be powerful, let’s lean in and find out what we should get out of it.

    And that means getting into Enneagrams, getting into wooier stuff, a lot of drugs, sometimes religion. But there’s a sense of, these all work powerfully on humans and I am a human, so I’m leaving a lot that might be interesting on the table if I don’t lean into this. I’m skeptical of this kind of, you know . . . if you find something very powerful, do not immediately snort it up your nose, whether it’s drugs, or personality tests, or religion.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Or Tarot cards, which, I mean, there is a certain amount of like, wow, this could be very effective. And I mean, the thing that the postrats remind me most of actually is C. S. Lewis talks about the way that in the Renaissance, the recovery of classical reason as a way of approaching the world, and a kind of attempt to master nature through protoscientific approach, proto-Enlightenment approach, came hand in hand with, I guess, magic as we would understand it now.

    There wasn’t really that much magic in the Middle Ages in the sense of trying to tinker with supernatural forces or do a sciencey approach to manipulating them. And there’s a certain amount of Renaissance magic vibe that I get from a lot of the post rats.

    Peter Mommsen: Which obviously, from a Christian point of view, you’d absolutely say stay far away.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Because it’ll work.

    Peter Mommsen: It’ll work in ways that you don’t want. But yet that, I guess, what was interesting to me about Tara’s article and I’d be interested what, Leah, you and Phil think about this, she interviewed one person who had worked at Will MacAskill’s Center for Effective Altruism. And he said the reason he had gotten into where the things he was into now, he had grown up fundamentalist and stuff, so, I guess, there’s that biographical background too was that he felt that living in this world of pure rationality, of the suspicion of emotion, it felt like living without enough vitamins.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: You don’t have to get to the post rationalists to get people who agree with that. From way back on, Less Wrong and Eliezer Yudkowsky and Julia Galef, who’s another figure in the movement where people are saying, “We’re not arguing that everyone should be Vulcans.” Rationalists, for the most part, see themselves as arguing for a more integrated humanity, getting the most out of both deliberate thinking and your more instinctive perceptive parts. I’d say it’s more utilitarians who take the Vulcan approach. I do think that’s a different movement. It’s a Venn diagram overlap with the rationalists where there’s that sense of your feelings are irrelevant, you have to learn to put them away. And that’s not, for the most part, the argument the rationalist movement makes.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, Phil, your parable actually gets a bit at this, because the effective rationalist who donates his kidney is a consultant. He’s doing his 80,000 hours.

    Phil Christman: I mean, that was mostly just me being mean about the idea that you can consult for a living. I know some very nice people who consult for a living. I’ve just never wrapped my mind around the idea that that’s an actual job. But I mean, the post rat thing, I haven’t read Tara’s article yet. It looks interesting. I want to. I just haven’t. I’m writing a book, but it reminds me of, more generally, I guess, the way that every attempt to say, “We’re banishing enchantment. We’re banishing all that wacky, gooey, new-age, girly feeling stuff. We’re getting rid of that and we’re getting down to what is true.” Every attempt at that ultimately ends up letting back in all of that other stuff in other ways that end up sounding just as fantastic as whatever it was you started out to critique.

    The way that people who try to reduce human consciousness to like, “Oh, it’s just a kind of computing function.” Then you end up following that argument out too long and you end up with people arguing that light switches are conscious. People wind up back at a kind of animism. I mean, good, cool. That would be really fun if light switches were conscious or people end up making arguments that are almost panpsychism, but I don’t realize that it’s panpsychism, which to me, that’s delightful. I like watching that spectacle happen over and over again. I like watching how these really minimalist programs across various types of thought always end up letting back in what they’re trying to keep out. I think it’s amusing . . .

    Peter Mommsen: We need to wrap this conversation up, but I think it would be useful just to end. Leah and then you, Phil, so what can we Christians learn from effective altruists? What’s the takeaway?

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: I think effective altruists are shamelessly earnest in a way that Christians are also called to be. They’re shamelessly counter-cultural and they’re not afraid to look weird for the sake of a neglected truth. And they really are giving a lot is the other thing to remember, where there’s no reason it should be only EAs who are doing altruistic kidney donation. That should be a thing we see a lot of Christians do also. So that real hunger for and curiosity of ways to give as much as we can and to ask, not only does the coat in my closet belong to someone else, but does the kidney in my body belong to someone else?

    Phil Christman: I like what Leah said. I agree about the earnestness. I agree about the willingness to seem like a huge weirdo. And I think too, the concern that charity be genuinely charitable, that it be about the effect that it is having outside myself. And that it not collapse into being this gesture that is for me, in some sense, or that makes me feel better.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, Leah and Phil, I feel like we were probably 60 percent effective at not dunking, which could be improved. And you know what you can measure, you can improve. But I am really grateful to both of you for this conversation and we will provide links in the show notes for all this stuff.

    Peter Mommsen: We’ll provide a lot of reading for anybody interested in digging into this. There’s going to be a lot.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Including Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, if anyone wants to go back to 2008, I guess, and just relive the last fifteen years. Anyway, thanks, you guys. And we will be catching up very soon with both of you and go with God and be reasonable.

    Phil Christman: Thanks, y’all.

    Leah Libresco Sargeant: Bye, guys.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, we’ll be speaking with the theologian Alastair Roberts about Mary of Bethany and magnificence; Alastair is also Susannah’s husband!

    Contributed By PhilChristman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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    Contributed By LeahLibrescoSargeant Leah Libresco Sargeant

    Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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