One of the main characters of the TV series The Good Place is Chidi Anagonye, a brilliant yet perennially indecisive moral philosopher. Chidi is full of good intentions but – as the saying goes – that’s what the road to hell is paved with.
Chidi’s extensive knowledge of ethical matters forces him to overthink everything, making him incapable of making decisions. As a result, despite his constant efforts to help others, Chidi doesn’t cause them anything but suffering and pain.
But, what if we could find a way to leverage our knowledge of all the world’s problems effectively? After all, we’ve never had so much information about the challenges we’re facing and how we could solve them.
That’s what the Effective Altruism movement is all about. Starting in the late 2000s by organizations like Giving What We Can and Givewell, Effective Altruism is a philosophy and social movement using evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to do good and make the world a better place.
Think of a super-decisive Chidi that always knows what to do and you have a good example of a typical EA activist. (Aside from the fact that EA is a white-dominated movement; more on this later.)
What problems we should tackle first
One of EA’s most intriguing – and to a certain extent, most controversial – aspects is that it doesn’t just tell you what you should do if you want to solve a certain problem. It also tells you which problems you ought to solve first in order to leave this world a little bit better than you found it. For example, banning straws is not that important.
There’s a whole area of research focusing on cause prioritization and even an EA-inspired institute at the University of Oxford dedicated to it.
In a nutshell, EA suggests that good causes that should be prioritized usually have three characteristics:
Factoring in these aspects, EA activists usually come to the conclusion that the three most-pressing issues for humanity are: extreme poverty, animal suffering, and what they call “long-term future.” That’s basically the minimization of global catastrophic risks, also known as existential risks (yes, like reaching singularity).
How we can solve these problems
When it comes to helping others, the creed is usually that there’s no better way of getting involved than dedicating our own professional lives to it. After all, who’s more altruistic than a doctor that gives up a six-figure salary to run a charitable hospital in a low-income country?
However, EA refuses – or, at least, complicates – this scenario. In his book Doing Good Better (that is sort of EA’s gospel), British philosopher William MacAskill (one of the most prominent EA evangelists), claims that certain doctors (of course, it all depends on how good these hypothetical doctors are, what their specialization is, and who would fulfill their roles if they weren’t doing what they’re doing) might do a greater good if – instead of working for a charitable organization – they’d worked for a Western hospital donating 10 percent of their fat salaries to highly effective organizations.
MacAskill calls this “earning to give” and a few years ago it was one of the most prominent EA’s fads. “Earning to give” does sound like an opportunistic way of doing good and it’s not surprising that the concept has been particularly well-received by techies. After all, what’s more appealing for a startup founder than hearing that the way they can do the most good is by pursuing their own personal interests?
At the same time, there’s robust evidence that earning to give can truly be an extraordinarily effective way of doing good.
Anyway, as I said, EA complicates, rather than refuses the idea that dedicating your own career to a good cause is the best way to save the world. There are cases in which becoming a doctor in a low-income country is the most effective way of doing good.
To help grad students, starters, and all professionals in general in their career choices, there’s an EA organization called 80,000 hours whose name refers to the rough amount of hours a person spends working over a lifetime. In this age of bullshit occupations in which the expression “meaningful job” is often reduced to a LinkedIn buzzword, an organization like 80,000 hours provides much-welcomed resources to help people lead high-impact careers.
For example, scientific research is a potentially high-impact career choice. As a tissue engineer, you could grow clean meat. As a machine learning specialist you could work to minimize the chances of global catastrophic risks, and as an economist you could research how to maximize the positive impact of charitable cash transfers. And this just to mention research that would tackle the three cause areas we should prioritize according to EA.
Altruism for the Patrick Batemans of the world
In Doing Good Better, MacAskill proposes an ethical test to his readers. Imagine you’re outside a burning house and you’re told that inside one room is a child and inside another is a painting by Picasso. You can save only one of them. Which one would you choose to do the most good?
Of course, only American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman would choose to save the painting. Yet, MacAskill argues that, if you save the Picasso, you could sell it, and use the money to buy anti-malaria nets in Africa, this way saving many more lives than the one kid in the burning house.
The argument makes sense, albeit it sounds less like a serious moral proposition than as something a know-it-all could jokingly quip. And that’s probably how MacAskill intended it.
Anyway, the child-in-the-burning-house story is a good example of the most and less convincing aspects of Effective Altruism – at least as far as I’m concerned.
Among the least convincing, there’s surely this implicit tendency of being a movement that predominantly caters to white male nerds with a major in computer science. In a memorable account for Vox, journalist Dylan Matthews recounted his experience of the 2015 EA Global conference held at Google’s Quad Campus in Mountain view. Matthews – an effective altruist himself – described the movement as “at the moment, very white, very male, and dominated by tech industry workers.” Sure, many EA groups are working to make the movement less homogeneous, but it takes time.
On the other hand, the positive moral of the Picasso vs. kid story is that if we want to do good, we need to focus on the concrete, long-term outcomes of our actions and not solely on our warm, emotional intentions. Otherwise we become like Chidi, well-meaning but ineffective, paving our way to “The Bad Place,” as hell is unsurprisingly called in the series The Good Place.
This article was originally published on Forbes
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When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.
Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.
Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.
In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security” — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”
In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.
Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.
And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.
En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.
As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.
However, while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future. At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once again, climate changes' effects are already underway.
A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.
Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.
The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.
However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.
It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”
Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.
Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.
As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.
However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.
A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.
Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.
Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.
One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.
But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.
Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.
Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?
These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.
Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.
The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.
Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.
There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.
However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.
Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.
Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.
Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.
By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.
Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.
"Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."
This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.
Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.
Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.
If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.
The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.
The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that
"For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."
Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.