It’s really difficult to ‘shut up and multiply’ in some cases.
I mean, I’m going to get personal here because it feels like the best way to articulate my problems with mathematical utilitarianism. But right now, I don’t produce anything like what I cost my society (in terms of socialized medicine, and support I receive from my parents).
I feel very strongly that I shouldn’t value myself more than a random African. But there are charities that claim I could save at least one life with what I spend on prescription fees every month. In terms of pure utilitarianism, unless I’m certain that I’m going to produce a lot more in the future and give some of that away, I probably ought to persuade my parents to give the help they give me with the rent to effective charities, borrow a bunch of money and give that to effective charities, then give the money I spend on my meds to effective charities until I basically kill myself.
That doesn’t feel right, but it’s what I get from shutting up and multiplying.
So a few things:
The ‘shut up and multiply’ ethic came out of situations where people were valuing their own sense of satisfaction or of purity or of not-responsibility over actual human lives:
…a team of researchers who evaluated the effectiveness of a certain project, calculating the cost per life saved, and recommended to the government that the project be implemented because it was cost-effective. The governmental agency rejected the report because, they said, you couldn’t put a dollar value on human life. After rejecting the report, the agency decided not to implement the measure.
When you are in a situation where you can choose between ‘doing the thing that feels intuitively nice’ and ‘doing the thing that saves human lives’, shut up and multiply.
When you are in a situation where you are not sure if your existence is the most optimal thing ever, and you wonder if you deserve to stay alive, this is the wrong ethos to be applying. I’m not sure what the right ethos is, but the one that speaks to me personally is HJPEV’s stubborn determination to save every single person, to value every single life, to figure out a tradeoff that’s actually just straight-up winning. If the rules require terrible sacrifices from us, that’s not because the universe enforces a balance of pain and joy in equal measure. It’s because we haven’t figured out how to win yet, and you don’t get rationality points for courageously accepting the painful balance of things.
"This is an unacceptable tradeoff and so I’m going to tear apart the fabric of the universe so no one has to make it" is a perfectly appropriate response to a world where someone wonders if they should stop paying for their medication to make sure children in other countries don’t die needless and terrible deaths from malaria.
The vast majority of things are non-optimal, and ‘change them all over to the most optimal possible use of resources!’ is an understandable thought when you first confront how horrifyingly suboptimal things are. But it’s not actually strategic. This is the same principle that makes people say ‘effective altruists hate cathedrals and symphonies’, when in reality there are a thousand things we could direct to more efficient works before we touch our first symphony, and a thousand cathedrals and symphonies we can dismantle before there’s any cause to touch your medication.
And by then we’d have solved the problem of global poverty - which would go away if the average American gave 5% of their income - and there’d be no cause to ask that of you at all.
The utilitarian justifications for all this are meta-level and I can provide them if requested, but: Effective altruism does not demand you throw your health and happiness into a bottomless pit of suffering. Effective altruism does not demand you have the emotional experiences, or even make the decisions, consonant with valuing everyone in the world equally. Effective altruism doesn’t ask you to give money you don’t have. At its heart, effective altruism is a bunch of people who want the world to suck less, who want people to have more choices and fewer limitations, who want no one ever to do the calculations and think ‘on the net, I’m a burden on the system’, because that system won’t matter and those people do.
The essential message of ‘shut up and multiply’ is ‘every life has value beyond measure’, not a weapon to make some people feel like burdens, or to make anyone wonder if they’ve done enough to justify their existence.