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The trouble with algorithmic ethics

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Sierra, May 2023

First, the good news: The much-maligned tech bros want to be ethical. But, being tech bros, they want a shiny, new ethic—one that’s iconoclastic, counter-intuitive, and algorithmic. Their ideal system is one that allows them to keep making lots of money as long as they give some of it away. The latest philosophical trend, called effective altruism, hits the spot nicely. 

The bad news is that effective altruism is flawed—and not just because its most prominent adherent is an alleged con man. Effective altruism doesn’t play well with most environmental ethics theories, in part because in the universe of effective altruism, only entities that can suffer matter. Trees, rivers, species—none of these are intrinsically valuable. Effective altruism distills all of ethics into an overriding variable: suffering. And that fatally oversimplifies the many ways in which the living world can be valuable. Effective altruism discounts the ethical dimensions of relationships, the rich braid of elements that make up a “good life,” and the moral worth of a species or a wetland.

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