Was Jesus an Effective Altruist?

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler (used)

by Alex Rattee

For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate example of the virtuous life and so it is appropriate for us to look to him when contemplating how to live morally. A natural question then for Christians interested in effective altruism is to ask whether the way Jesus lived provides evidence for or against the importance of applying the principles of effectiveness to how we think about doing good. Although Jesus spent much of his time doing good, it does seem at first glance that he did not attempt to be maximally effective in doing so and as a result we might think that we needn’t either. In a coming series of posts I will explore some reasons to be wary of this argument. In this first post I present two reasons to show that our initial impression of Jesus’s ineffectiveness may be misleading.

Jesus optimising over many different values

One explanation for why Jesus does not appear to have been applying the principles of effectiveness is that he had a large set of values he was optimising over and optimising over many values often results in solutions which fail to seem as obviously optimising. Suppose that two bakers are each given a hundred dollars to cook the best cake they possibly can. The first baker is told that their cake will be evaluated solely in terms of its size, whilst the second baker is told that the goodness of the cake is to be evaluated in terms of its size, taste, smell, aesthetic qualities and speed of production. Suppose that each baker optimally uses the hundred dollars given the criteria assigned to them. The baker optimising for size will likely produce an impressively large cake, and it will be plain to non-specialists that the baker has done a good job of using the dollars effectively. However, the other baker’s cake might appear quite unremarkable: it may not be particularly large, tasty, fragrant, attractive or speedily baked. Yet it might still be the best possible cake given the criteria and the financial constraints. Given the complexity of optimising over many variables, it would, therefore, be much harder for the non-specialist to know whether this second baker had effectively used the money.

This example might help to explain why our perception of Jesus’s ineffectiveness might not track reality. Our cognitive limitations might mean that as humans we are not well placed to identify how successful particular individuals are at optimising over a plurality of values at once, this being the case we may have reason to distrust our first glance assessment of how effective Jesus was being. This humility is especially important given that we do not have a complete understanding of all the sources of value let alone how these sources of value weigh against each other. Given our cognitive limitations, it’s not clear that we could be confident that Jesus wasn’t living the optimal life to bring about good given all these sources of value. Perhaps the optimal solutions to value maximizing living do not appear to be particularly effective to people like us, just like the optimal cake that the second baker produced might not appear to be particularly optimal to the non-specialist.

These thoughts would explain why Jesus did not spend all his time alleviating suffering as effectively as possible, for that’s just what we would expect if he was also trying to work on accruing value by other means, such as maximizing the number of people in close relationship to God. To put it crudely, time spent nailed to the cross to guarantee the possibility of human salvation is time Jesus couldn’t spend on the ground alleviating suffering. It seems plausible that given our limited cognitive abilities and lack of understanding of what is intrinsically valuable, we just aren’t in a good place to be sure that the way Jesus lived wasn’t the optimal way to bring as much value as he possibly could.

Jesus optimising over the long-run

Lots of actions seem to be ineffective in the short-run but their effectiveness becomes clearer as time passes. A chess grandmaster might make a move that seems irrational at the time, but in fact, it is the move that allows her to win a hundred moves later. Therefore, we need to be careful not to equate the effectiveness of an action with how effective it seems to us in the short-run. This principle is particularly important when it comes to thinking about Jesus’s actions, as it seems quite plausible that Jesus was making his earthly decisions in the light of the far future.

One long-term goal that Jesus was working towards was training his disciples to continue the work that he started. We must not underestimate the vast long-run impact this has had. These disciples were key leaders of the early church and ultimately in the foundation of the global church we see today.  Although the church has had many failings it has overall been a remarkably potent force for good in the world. Perhaps the large amount of time that Jesus spent with his disciples which might appear so ineffective in the short-run was an effective way to mould and grow the best possible leaders for founding the remarkable institution that the global church has become.

Because we do not know all the long-term effects of Jesus’s actions, we also cannot be sure that Jesus’s actions were not maximally effective in the long run. For example, although it might appear as though Jesus’s conscious decisions to take time out to retreat from the crowds meant he was missing opportunities to do more good, it might actually be the case that by instantiating the tradition of retreats he was securing the great mental health benefits and burn-out protection that times of retreat have brought to millions of his followers in the ensuing millennia. If this can explain the effectiveness of his sneaking away from the crowds, then perhaps there are other long-run reasons which justify Jesus’s other actions which appear to be ineffective in the short-run.

What if we’re not convinced?

Even with these two arguments, some may be unconvinced and still think it likely that Jesus’s style of living counts strongly against the principles of effectiveness. But even if this is the case, the principles of effectiveness might still be the right way to think about doing good. Even if we cannot easily reconcile the way Jesus lived with effectiveness, this does not mean that they are in fact irreconcilable. It may just be that we don’t have the cognitive abilities to come up with or understand the explanation. It is important to note that there is no clear scriptural teaching against the principles of effectiveness, and arguably some in favour of it. As such, it seems that Christians who find the principles of effectiveness deeply plausible whilst also feeling that Jesus’s life contradicts them are perfectly intellectually entitled to trust that there must be some currently unknown explanations which do in fact reconcile the two. Therefore, they need not abandon Christianity or effective altruism as a result of their current inability to reconcile the two in Jesus.

One thought on “Was Jesus an Effective Altruist?

  1. One thought that occurred to me regarding your two very good points:
    Even people who believe that Jesus didn’t optimize as much as Christian EAs would expect him to do, must *at least* acknowledge that your two points show that he did so *more* than it seems at first sight. In other words, even if someone believes that Jesus didn’t optimize thoroughly, the two points show that we’re prone to underestimating to what extent he did so.


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