Dorothea Brooke: an alternative origin story for Effective Altruism

Summary: A potential criticism or weakness of effective altruism is that it appeals only to a narrow spectrum of society, and exhibits a ‘monoculture’ of ideas. I introduce Dorothea Brooke, a literary character who I argue was an advocate for the principles of effective altruism -- as early as 1871 -- in a Christian ethical tradition. Rather than being of mere historic interest, I hope this will inform ideas for a wider and more inclusive conception of the philosophy of effective altruism. This is a contribution to the January blogging carnival theme ‘Origin Stories’


Background: the key elements of effective altruism

Many prominent figures in the movement are utilitarian philosophers, and the key principles of the movement are often placed in a tradition of utilitarian thought. The first key principle of this movement -- to do great good in the world, regardless of our personal ties to those who benefit -- does follow from utilitarian ethics but it is not unique to utilitarianism. Many major religions declare it a duty to help others, particularly those most in need: tithing, or giving a proportion of one's income, is a Sikh principle as well as is a tradition in the Abrahamic religions. The writings of St Thomas Aquinas and St Basil of Caesarea argue the radical alleviation of poverty is a key duty in Christianity.

The second key element of effective altruism -- using evidence and knowledge to inform our efforts -- is a newer concept. For effective altruists it is not enough simply to aim to do good: we acknowledge a duty to do as much good as our resources allow, and to support our choices with evidence. The history of 'Evidence Based Medicine' is an interesting analogy here: for though physicians have clearly sought to improve health for millennia, it was only the latter part of the 20th century that the clear and conscientious application of evidence to clinical practice became widespread. The very idea now seems self-evident, so it is worth remembering that what is now standard practice has been contested -- sometimes bitterly -- over the last 50 years. The fear of doctors that ‘cook-book medicine’ would undermine their ability to exercise clinical judgment, and 'result in reducing the autonomy of the doctor/patient relationship'[1] resembles the argument of those who believe the wide application of metrics to philanthropy threatens the altruistic urge behind the act of giving, leaving the giver 'coolly looking across humanity as a detached god'[2] [a]. Effective altruism argues that reason is a product of rather than a threat to our altruism: it arises from our recognition of breadth and depth of suffering that exists, and the great variability we observe between the actions we may take to relieve or prevent that suffering. The seriousness with which we treat that potential good our actions can create is what motivates us to seek good evidence for our decisions.

A new idea?

Many of us -- myself included -- would have said that this practice of conscientiously applying scientific rigour to altruistic acts is what makes the effective altruism movement new and different This is why I was so surprised to find an advocate, albeit fictional, of both key principles of effective altruism dating back over a century, but such a figure exists in Dorothea Brooke, of George Eliot's novel 'Middlemarch'.

Published in 1871, but set in 1830-2, Eliot's novel explores the life of a manufacturing town and surrounding countryside in the years leading up to the Great Reform Bill in Britain. At the heart of the novel is Dorothea. An orphan, recently returned from school to live with her uncle, she has some independent wealth and will inherit more if she has a son. Seeing that she has been narratively gifted with wealth, beauty and good parentage, to any reader of nineteenth century fiction it should be clear that Dorothea's plot arc will concern romance and end in matrimony. Confounding expectation and confusing her relations, Dorothea defies convention by devoting her time to improving the lot of others, in the most effective way she can.

Dorothea’s evidence based altruism

Altruism is at the core of Dorothea's life, both her words and her deeds. ‘What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?’ From our first introduction to her we see her actively pursuing opportunities to do so, with a sense of obligation and of moral urgency: ‘I think we deserve to be beaten out of our beautiful houses with a scourge of small cords -- all of us who let tenants live in such sties as we see round us.’ Her altruism is not a luxury, or a hobby to fill her time. It is so central that it remains with and sustains her when her circumstances have become unhappy:

‘If we had lost our own chief good, other people's good would remain, and that is worth trying for. Some can be happy. I seemed to see that more clearly than ever, when I was the most wretched. I can hardly think how I could have borne the trouble, if that feeling had not come to me to make strength

Thus she explains the benefits of altruism to an individual: the good of others matters just as much as our own, and increasing the well-being of others gives us a consciousness of having improved total welfare, even if we do not share in it directly.

Dorothea's sense of duty is rooted firmly in her Christianity. Religion is a very serious matter to Dorothea: her sense of the importance of her God and the preeminence of the spiritual such that she refuses to wear a necklace of her mother's, an heirloom, because she feels that to decorate a cross with jewels is to trivialise it. Her religion does not simply require ascetic self denial or self perfection, but rather looks outward:

‘I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest -- I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it.’

This expression resonates with Peter Singer's concept of 'The Expanding Circle' of moral concern (an idea that he attributes to WH Lecky in the late nineteenth century).[3]

What sets Dorothea apart is the zeal with which she pursues education and evidence with the explicit goal of informing her actions and maximising their impact. Dorothea seeks knowledge because she believes there is an answer about what it is best to do: ‘I am often unable to decide. But that is from ignorance. The right conclusion is there all he same, though I am unable to see it. ‘ We find her at her desk pursuing what appears to be an early version of the Giving What We Can research team!

'She sat down in the library before her particular little heap of books on political economy and kindred matters, out of which she was trying to get light as to the best way of spending money so as not to injure one's neighbours, or--what comes to the same thing--so as to do them the most good.'

This sentence has an astounding resonance with the effective altruism project: the use of resources to help others is necessarily informed by politics and economy, and there is no demarcation in her impact between doing 'the most good' and avoiding harm. Moreover she also considers the benefits of experimentation to increase knowledge in the sphere of philanthropy. She exhorts her uncle to support his tenants by experimentation with farming methods. He decries the cost of this 'hobby' -- ‘the most expensive sort of whistle you can buy’, and she rebukes him -- ‘It is not a sin to make yourself poor in performing experiments for the good of all.’

An unsuccessful project

Simply having these goals does not ensure Dorothea achieves the kind of impact she hopes to have. She faces a number of challenges. Firstly her own uncertainty: ‘I don't feel sure about doing good in any way now: everything seems like going on a mission to a people whose language I don't know.’ Secondly, her family find her ideas alien and even unseemly. Her uncle (and guardian) copes with his oddity of a niece by ignoring her suggestions for how he could improve the lives and homes of his tenants, while her sister admonishes her for her 'notions'. This sister even considers encouraging her to channel her oddity into a more conventional course by marrying the local squire who would 'let her manage everything and carry out all her notions.' (This might be considered an early version of earning to give for a nineteenth century gentlewoman!)

She is frequently stymied by the power structures of the era. As a woman she is excluded from higher education despite her zeal for learning. She marries a scholar, thinking that by helping him she will be advancing the light of knowledge in the world and become more learned herself, but later discovers his studies are a failure, pursuing answers to questions long deemed irrelevant in his field. (He is unable to admit this, but instead attempts to extract a vow from her to pursue his fruitless enquiry after his death.) She is thwarted by her status, firstly an unmarried woman, and later a married one. Dorothea's altruistic plans for direct philanthropy depend upon having resources, but her ability to own and dispose of property is curtailed. She will only inherit her uncle's property if she has a son. When her husband dies, she finds his property willed to her but constrained by an injunction against remarriage. In the end Dorothea's impact is limited to a sort of political influence, when she marries a writer with political ambition: ‘Dorothea could have liked nothing better, since wrongs existed, than that her husband should be in the thick of a struggle against them, and that she should give him wifely help.’

Doomed or unlucky?

Her altruistic project has clearly failed her early ambition: our author declares it 'a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother.' As modern readers, we might dismiss the importance of authorial intent, but I think the framing of this narrative is key in whether we interpret Dorothea as a flawed character set forth to fail or as victim of circumstances. I would argue there is strong suggestion in the novel to the second of these.

In the prologue and conclusion which frame this sweeping novel, Dorothea's story is contrasted with Saint Theresa, another woman whose 'passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life…the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self'. While Theresa founded a religious order, Dorothea finds no 'epic life' and is eulogised as a 'foundress of nothing' whose efforts 'are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognisable deed.' In particular it is the lack of opportunity for a woman in the age to act that is presented as her chief ‘hindrance’: our impartial narrator states ‘no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done’. But it is the obstacles, not her nature which are found to be at fault by this narrator, for her society has provided 'no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.'

Why is she important?

Dorothea is a remarkable proponent of effective altruism for many reasons.

Firstly I am particularly pleased to be able to draw attention to her as the female creation of a female writer, who makes as strong an argument for our ideas as I've seen in the nineteenth century. Women currently constitute much less than half of the numbers in effective altruism organisations and discussions, which may be surprising when women just as (or even more) likely as men to think giving is important and to donate to charity[5,6]. In discussing this skew, some people have argued that the relatively small number of women in EA arise from women being innately or culturally less likely to hold these views. Consider instead that women are less likely to be found in the places where the movement has had much of its momentum, in philosophy departments and rationalist internet communities. Rather than restricting efforts to these spheres, I would argue there is low hanging fruit to be found in seeking other communities who will engage enthusiastically with our endeavours.

This doesn't just mean engaging women, but engaging a plurality of moral theories. It would be a great mistake to believe that effective altruism belongs only or mostly to utilitarianism. I've tried to make a case here for why EA may arise naturally out of Christian morality, a phenomenon that has been observed elsewhere [6,7]. While many influential people within effective altruism stress that it needn’t rest on utilitarian foundations, this is still a very common misconception and more could be done to show how it can have a much wider appeal, including encouraging more voices that come to effective altruism from these other foundations

Finally, through Dorothea's story Eliot is able to explore a number of barriers to the success of these ideas: a lack of education or evidence to put them into action; a lack of shared community to explore ideas; the opposition of friends and family. We can learn from the failure of Dorothea's projects, and fortify ourselves against these pitfalls, to avoid her 'tragic failure, which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.'

Thanks to Larissa MacFarquhar, Toby Ord and Michelle Hutchinson for comments on an earlier draft

References and footnotes:

[Unless otherwise specified, quotations are from George Eliot Middlemarch 1871-2]

[1] Aaron Michael Cohen, P. Zoë Stavri, William R. Hersh A categorization and analysis of the criticisms of Evidence-Based Medicine International Journal of Medical Informatics (2004) 73, 35—43

[2] William Schambra The coming showdown between philanthrolocalism and effective altruism, Philanthropy Daily 22/5/2014 retrieved from http://www.philanthropydaily.com/the-coming-showdown-between-philanthrolocalism-and-effective-altruism/

[a] I'm not aware of this analogy having been made before, but I think it's a fruitful one. The critics of Evidence Based Medicine could provide us with some of the 'outside criticism' Ryan Carey has written about recently.

[3] Peter Singer ‘The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle’ New Internationalist, April, 1997

[4] 'What are the main trends in charitable giving?' UK Civil Society Almanac 2012 Retrieved from http://data.ncvo.org.uk/a/almanac12/what-are-the-main-trends-in-charitable-giving/

[5]'Women Give 2012' Women's Philanthopy Institute, Indiana University, August 2012

[6] Charles Camosy Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, (Cambridge: CUP), 2012

[7] Toby Ord Global poverty and the demands of morality. In J Perry (ed.) God, The Good, and Utilitarianism: Perspectives on Peter Singer, (Cambridge: CUP), 177–91, 2014.

Comments (19)

Comment author: RyanCarey 25 January 2015 09:35:41PM 7 points [-]

It's nice to see us touching on literature and the importance of diversity. Thanks for writing this, Bernadette!

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 26 January 2015 07:49:57PM 1 point [-]

Thanks Ryan (It's good to get some practical use from that BA!). Actually the year I studied Middlemarch was the same year I read Peter Singer's One World and started giving at least 1% - that arts degree had several good points!

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 26 January 2015 04:24:48AM 6 points [-]

This was a really beautiful piece. Thank you.

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 26 January 2015 07:50:15PM 1 point [-]

That's really kind, thanks Peter.

Comment author: Geuss 28 January 2015 01:33:07AM *  3 points [-]

That Dorothea so closely resembles an effective altruist is not all that surprising, historically. George Eliot edited and wrote for the Westminster Review, a progressive journal established by Jeremy Bentham, and circulated in a milieu of Victorian high culture counting J.S. Mill and Herbert Spencer among its members. As did her husband, George Henry Lewes - a philosopher. I should also perhaps clarify that insofar Eliot spoke of utilitarianism herself, it was mostly negatively.

In any case, that a notional effective altruist is the moral core in one of the putatively greatest texts of the nineteenth century is to be celebrated, and of great affective potential.

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 30 January 2015 08:56:19PM 1 point [-]

It is indeed interesting that George Eliot had such an intersection with Mill, but as you say she is emphatically not utilitarian.

Yes, while there is much new (and exciting) in effective altruism, I thinks it's useful to understand how we might link to the past

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 29 January 2015 03:06:43AM *  2 points [-]

"some people have argued that the relatively small number of women in EA arise from women being innately or culturally less likely to hold these views."

On this I was interested to find out that there is no gender difference in responses to the original trolly problem (would you divert the trolley from a track with five people on it to a track with one person). There was however a gender difference in enthusiasm for a different question which involved more conspicuously doing harm (would you push a fat man off a bridge to stop the train). Whether this is picking up differences in utilitarian attitudes as suggested in the paper, or rather just that men are actually less morally concerned, or physically stronger - and so have fewer reservations about the idea of pushing someone off a bridge - is an open question. There was a recent paper finding that both utilitarians and people with generally low moral concern gave superficially 'utilitarian' answers to trolley problems, but only the former would go on to accept personal sacrifices to help others.

In any case, as the vast majority of things effective altruists do only require the attitude in the first question - willingness to prioritise benefits, rather than willingness to harm a specific person - this seems like a point in favour of the idea we could get close to an even gender balance without softening the core idea of prioritisation.

It is weak evidence that men might be more willing to do things they regard as directly harmful (for example, some people view working in finance as immoral in itself) for a greater good. But that only covers a small fraction of all the paths we suggest.

Source: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/26787145_Gender-related_differences_in_moral_judgments

Comment author: William_MacAskill 27 January 2015 04:53:42PM 2 points [-]

I loved this piece. Between this and Jeff Kaufman's discussion of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, it makes me wonder how many other effective altruists there are in history.

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 28 January 2015 01:23:29PM 1 point [-]

Thanks Will! I'm interested to hear Jeff's take on the methodists - do you know if he's written it down anywhere?

Comment author: Andy_Schultz 29 January 2015 01:18:04AM *  1 point [-]

Here is Jeff's post about John Wesley: http://www.jefftk.com/p/history-of-earning-to-give-iii-john-wesley

If you have any questions about the Methodist church, feel free to ask - I am a United Methodist.

Comment author: tomstocker 29 January 2015 11:55:24AM 0 points [-]

What about other seminal Christians? -Frys, Rowntrees?

The fabled buddhist monk that apparently persuaded King Ashoka to do what he could for his population?

Then, there are loads of politicians, scientists and doctors that have applied themselves and DONE a great deal of good, or thought about ways to improve the practice of medicine. The aim to help the most patients seems to have driven many of them, but its hard to tell whether they're EAs or whether that matters?

Comment author: tomstocker 29 January 2015 11:39:54AM *  1 point [-]

Absolutely loved reading this. Thank you.

Does anyone else feel like EA thinking /personality takes them in this direction: "Dorothea finds no 'epic life' and is eulogised as a 'foundress of nothing' whose efforts 'are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognisable deed.'"

when perhaps modern society and the structure of fame in such a big world works in favour of those with an 'epic' narrative that is easily accessible?

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 30 January 2015 09:05:00PM 1 point [-]

I think that western society in general privileges narratives about individual achievement, as well as it being a prominent feature of celebrity culture etc. I suspect that this is such a difference to the norm that we do better to embrace as a difference, if that makes sense. for myself, I'm heartened by an idea that says 'nope, it's not about the giver, it's about the beneficiaries.'

Then again sometimes I crunch the numbers (like the fact I've personally funded the deworming of over 100,000 children. Then I feel like a goddamm superhero :)

Comment author: tomstocker 04 February 2015 08:06:10PM 0 points [-]

Yes. Absolutely. And you are obviously a goddamm superhero :)

The implicit question was whether we could be more effective with a public profile, usually these are built around one narrative and changed maybe once or twice. I think Toby, WIll, Peter have this and as a result seem to have better opportunities to serve / focus on the beneficiaries?

I'm thinking that this is particularly important for people trying to solve big tractable problems with multiple interested parties hardly interested in EA?

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 26 January 2015 05:13:22AM *  1 point [-]

I liked this post. Does anyone have ideas on how to reach out to modern-day Dorotheas?

Comment author: tomstocker 29 January 2015 11:38:32AM 1 point [-]

Idea: Set up a new EA group with a specifically christian / muslim / whatever (but I think we have enough christians to start a christian one) morality/theological grounding and reach out to churches through talks (v easy to do, and marginal returns to sunday mornings are usually pretty low) Same might be able to be done with a womens branding: then you could get on to women's hour etc.?

Comment author: Bernadette_Young 26 January 2015 07:52:42PM 1 point [-]

Interesting question. I think in outreach we have some big advantages over the Victorian era. A modern day Dorothea would be able to google her questions! I think having a welcoming accessible site and community are a good first step, but maybe we also need to work harder at capturing people's imaginations.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 January 2015 04:37:31AM 0 points [-]

A modern day Dorothea would be able to google her questions!

Good point. I wonder if any of the major EA outreach orgs are doing SEO (essentially finding common search queries that indicate someone is looking for what you have, then generating content for your site so Google will likely present it in response to their searches. For example, right now when I google for "how to save lives most efficiently", I don't see any results that seem good. Creating a web page with "how to save lives most efficiently" as the title might be able to change that.)

Comment author: Ben_Todd 01 February 2015 05:31:57PM 0 points [-]

We're doing that for career related questions at least, and 'what are the biggest problems in the world'. There's still a lot more work to be done. We've focused on those with the most traffic first, rather than stuff like 'how to save lives most efficiently', though you might get some interesting people in those even if there's only like 5 per month!