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I stopped by at the Wee Red Lounge in the arts college this evening to attend the latest of the “ToMax Talks,” which was concerned with establishing the place of “Altruism in the Age of Austerity.” Some people torture themselves and their loved ones by trying to live altruistically. Others, including myself, tend to regard altruism as being at best a necessary fiction. Missionaries and NGOs have at times inflicted immense damage through actions that they imagine to be altruistic. Altruism has no straightforward connection to austerity, as the altruist freely gives whatever they can, even if this may amount to virtually nothing. ToMax began with what promised to be a fascinating discussion, but I left the Wee Red Lounge uncertain whether I had attended a genuine or a serious public meeting.

At this ToMax Talk, I had essentially paid five pounds to listen to lengthy adverts for two different companies. The first speaker, Simon Smith, is a gorblimey Essex bloke – the only working class accent in the room, as it happens – who has set up an adventure travel company and raised over £3.5 million for good causes. He enjoys aping about in front of the mic, putting on a silly Sussex accent and telling anecdotes about meeting the Royal Family. Yet his contribution to the talk is mostly an evangelist-style testimony about his personal values. Of course, ten years ago he was lost in sin, working in the city and addicted to drugs. During a trip to India, however, he witnessed the innocent simplicity of the village people, and everything changed. He did not need money, or at least money by itself.

It all gets a bit confused. Smith urges us all to be altruistic, as if it was that easy, and he tells us that we are (like himself) amazing people with fantastic ideas. This evening is an “ideas party” and the ideas that are bubbling away here tonight could go on to change the world. We need to fight the capitalist system which is “raping the planet,” although it is hard to square this with his earlier boasts about taking Prince William on holiday.

The next speaker also has a company to tell us about. Ben Todd’s 80,000 Hours instructs rich students about how to take ethical career decisions (it is named after the amount that the average person purportedly works during their lifetime).Todd looks agreeably patrician and he addresses us like a landed Tory giving his gardeners new instructions. His main point was the observation that if you throw away a job that your father has found you in a bank, to become an ethical activist, then somebody else will take that job and your decision will have made no difference. This is essentially a theory of human disposability, or even of our total pointlessness, and I could not follow where it led.

One laugh out loud moment came when Todd was in the middle of describing his personal policy of giving ten percent of his income to charity. Simon Smith, sitting behind him, suddenly and dramatically pledged that he would do the same. Todd blinked. “Err, cool…” he said awkwardly. Mercifully, the audience eventually cottoned on that they were supposed to applaud.

The final speaker, Michael Northcott, thankfully had no company to flog. Northcott is an environmental theologian, who looks sternly Presbyterian with his piercing gaze and granite features, although he turned out to be as floppy as a Buddha. He delivered the sort of rambling, disconnected speech which we all give late into a long party. Apparently, John Calvin was a monument of selfishness, and his cosmic opposition to altruism has since informed the emergence of a destructive neoliberal capitalism. Northcott ended by showing Power Point slides of adverts which manipulate consumers, and he scoffed at one which urged people to be ethical and help the environment whilst saving their own money. Fortunately, Simon Smith failed to spot that Northcott’s criticism of conflating ethics and self-interest appiled just as readily to his own policy of selling ethical adventures.

These dopey marshmallows were turned over to the audience for the tenderest of grillings. I thought about asking when the talk was going to start. Some sort of communist tried to take the panel to task, but he did not know where to begin. His protracted questions visibly annoyed everybody in the room and the organisers tried to deny him the floor. Smith and Todd, the guys with companies, had been flown in from England for this bizarre evening. Surely they have just paid to obtain access to potential customers and ToMax have disguised their convoluted adverts as a public debate?

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