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Effective Altruism for Animals: Consideration for different value systems

Recently i've been giving more thought to the issue of diversity and inclusion in Effective Altruism, and part of this process included wondering how the Foundational Research Institute (FRI) had considered issues around diversity[i] and inclusion at its inception.  I didn’t initially find what I was looking for, but I did happen across this article from Brian Tomisik titled: ‘Reasons to Be Nice to Other Value Systems’ (I recommend reading it before proceeding further).

I think there are fairly good reasons to be nice to other value systems, and I want to consider whether Effective Altruism for Animals (EAA) reflects this view from a foundational perspective.  For a starting point I’m going to consider the trend to utilise an animal movement model based on a welfare / abolition dichotomy.  This has tended to reflect the appearance of welfare being something which isn’t related to a certain form of ‘abolition’ (namely the Abolitionist Approach).  So in relation to this model, where Effective Altruists do not fit into the Abolitionist Approach, and choose not to advocate welfare (in an industry sense), then a good question seems to be how they fit into EAA and what this means in relation to the different value systems that Effective Altruists could utilise. 

To provide some background to this question it is useful to look at the origin of the welfare / abolition framework, something which also provides some insight into the formation of EAA, as a number of the group who divided the vegan movement (with the reasonable intention of making it more effective) are also associated with Effective Altruism.  The central aim of this division appears to have been to increase the scope of the vegan movement, however, it could also be said this scope already existed within the broader animal movement.  For instance, the largest groups have traditionally included HSUS, CIWF, RSPCA, and all are concerned primarily with welfare rather than ending exploitation.  These groups have occupied an integral part of the modern animal movement, and are closely aligned with the form of welfare advocacy with which the model was concerned.  This is to say the adoption of reducetarian or flexitarian approaches are a good fit with traditional welfarism (both exist within carnism / a framework of animal consumption). 

In terms of the decision to divide the movement, it is worth considering whether it also exacerbated some issues in relation to marginalisation, particularly where ‘welfare’ has reflected mainstream society.  For instance, the non-profit groups promoted by ACE are largely structured on a fairly standardised organisational model, which is to say they largely reflect the system of white male leadership (for instance we can look at the CEOs of successful profit making organisations to note the comparison).  If this aspect had been considered it is difficult to ascertain where it has been accounted, because the impact of utilising a patriarchal system explicitly or implicitly would need to be offset.  Otherwise we risk the negative impacts of patriarchy (sexism and misogyny in their various forms) appearing within organisations, and more generally in the animal movement as a cost of this strategy.  For people affected by this Carol J. Adams has engaged a process where issues can be reported.

When we further consider the situation that a small group of people in the animal movement created a divide in the vegan movement (perhaps with reference to the Unilateralist’s Curse), it might follow that resources were equally divided along this ideological schism, but there is no evidence of this being the case, if it were the case then we could perhaps more easily negotiate different value systems in terms of greater parity of wealth and influence.  However, the split seems to have led to further consolidation of resources to various groups weighted toward welfare, and we can identify this today with various welfare / reducetarian organisations such as HSUS, Mercy for Animals, Animal Equality, The Humane League, Pro Veg occupying positions as the recipients of a vast proportion of movement resources.  There is something of a comparison here in relation to the discussion within Effective Altruism regarding animal shelters as the beneficiary of resources over farmed animal groups.  When we look at the farmed animal movement then we can observe how a small number of welfare organisations have accumulated wealth and power[ii], whilst more ideologically diverse groups are consequently neglected in terms of both resources and consideration within EAA, and often in the broader movement at large.

The benefits for utilitarian oriented groups gathering behind a single ideology are fairly numerous from an organisational perspective, where it is possible to support one another to equalise movement discourse in such a way that groups reinforce one another.  So we could look at correlations between associated groups that dominate animal conferences, such as the International Animal Rights Conference, Animal Rights Conference and Sentience Conference (in particular).  This also means that groups can globalise under the same system, and this has happened in relation to the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA), an ideologically reducetarian organisation that has chosen not to define the parameters of the work it undertakes.  This is an approach backed by Peter Singer, Pro Veg, Faunalytics, Animal Equality, Beyond Carnism, FARM Sanctuary, Good Food Institute and HSUS through their board of advisors.  It's also worth mentioning at this point that including Peter Singer as a board advisor can make it difficult to raise critical points in relation to organisations, this seems to coincide with people giving support on the basis of an association with one of the most famous people in Effective Altruism.  So to argue against them in some way, is often to argue against the support he gives to that organisation, and essentially his judgement in doing so.

Even whilst this form of welfare / reducetarian advocacy has become the norm within EAA, it still remains that in 2016 ACE recommended both Animal Ethics and the Non-Human Rights Project, and neither necessarily fit into the welfare / abolition category,  or are they particularly related groups. However, the overall picture supports a dominant discourse that is a combination of utilitarianism and welfare, so given that influence we ought to ask how it is that EAAs are working hard to be inclusive of other organisations and value systems.  So one question might be the extent ACE are working with, and evaluating groups that exist outside the welfare paradigm in order to incorporate those issues of diversity.  In some ways there has been a little progress in relation to several interviews, the incorporation of some of the ideas as part of a symposium, and an article this year, but it remains unclear as to how important this is to ACE or EAA generally, and there is a vast disparity when comparing the work undertaken with welfare organisations, where issues such as these haven't been incorporated in a meaningful way.

We also might consider the impact that EAA backed welfare organisations have had within the broader animal movement, and the possibility that people who choose not to associate with welfarism would also become disenfranchised with Effective Altruism, or indeed choose not to engage at all.  Of course, we could wonder whether people would form their own groups, or attempt to exist outside this paradigm, though we could counter that ‘welfare’ has also become increasingly globalised, so there is a consequent difficulty in maintaining alternative spaces.  I believe the impact of this into the future has been under-considered in a similar way to how its existence has been neglected.  Given this outcome EAA is unlikely to attract leading thinkers from different value systems, and this could be accounted as a cost in the reduction of analysis from different perspectives, and perhaps analysis overall (whilst also incorporating the risk of replacing expertise with something far less useful). 

Another point to consider is where competitive movement aspects may have become limited, potentially leading to a decline in engagement.  For instance, if EAA had the appearance of considering welfare as the best thing, and anything not associated with it as secondary, less effective or ineffective, then it can also diminish the requirement for counter consideration.  Arguably we may already have reached the point that welfare has become the dominant narrative to the extent that EA frameworks are under applied, as utilising that perspective would have become self-evident.  Further to this, meta-evaluation is not considered reasonably important by either GiveWell or ACE, and neither by many people within EAA, so if we believe there is at least some validity in relation to concerns raised, there is no reference point to independent sources that could lead to validation or invalidation.

 

Concluding thoughts.

I am uncertain whether many EAAs would generally recognise they were treading on toes, but it might be one way to explain how it lacks diversity.  The best way to find this out is from people who don’t want to be involved with EAA and are critical of it.  If instead we really believe that many people in the animal movement aren’t interested in evidence, rationality, or effectiveness in relation to animal advocacy then I think this is unfortunate, because whilst some will not be, many would be interested in improving their advocacy on behalf of other animals.  It also might be that EAA (or EA) isn’t particularly interested in addressing these issues, preferring to think about other important ideas rather than foundational considerations.  However, this overlooks that without these initial considerations it is very difficult to draw potential conclusions from EAA work in relation to what might be the best, or most effective thing to do, if it isn’t based on a fair understanding of the various ideas present in the animal movement.

 

Considering some ways forward.

Meta-evaluation – with the necessary scope to consider foundational issues.

Speculation – in terms of donating to organisations that have certain values compatible with EA and that could provide a counter-point to the dominant position of utilitarian welfare groups within EAA and the broader animal movement.  Given many people would not have the time to look beyond ACE top charities there could be a standardised form of offsetting or hedging based on ACE metrics.

Democratisation / accountability – EAA might consider whether the role of CEO at ACE could be limited in duration, and the potential value of rotating this role.  I am also uncertain whether the advisory board is sufficiently diverse, and it appears there is reasonable scope for improvement.

Modelling – commit resources to modelling EAA in a way that is more inclusive, whilst fostering relations between people who aren’t utilitarian or associated with the welfare movement.   In this way it might be the case that EAA doesn’t tread on toes as a matter of course (for example, where non-welfare ‘abolitionists’ are referred to as extremist, fundamentalist, puritan, dogmatic absolutists).  I also think there could be some adjustment around institutional intervention (particularly in relation to reflecting corporate organisation and hierarchy[iii]) and individual ‘mainstream’ messaging, to further consideration of social movements which emphasise shared meanings and respectful characterisation that would also relate to EA guiding principles.

Representation and diversity – emphasis on inclusion at EA Global and related events so that attendees can benefit from multiple perspectives.

 


 

[i] In this article diversity refers to the inclusion of people from traditionally marginalised groups who have been discriminated against, and also to the diversity of value systems that are reasonably compatible with Effective Altruism.  I do this because both are important, and one without the other could be tokenistic in the sense women could espouse on behalf of a patriarchal movement, or we could have white men espousing on behalf of ideological diversity. 
 
[ii] ‘The concentration of wealth leads to the concentration of power.’ Noam Chomsky.   
 
[iii] Note for instance comparisons that could be made with the work of Robert Jackall in the book ‘Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers’.

     

 

 

Comments (7)

Comment author: MikeJohnson 25 October 2017 03:53:27AM *  4 points [-]

Hi Kevin,

I think it may be useful to frame your critiques in terms of causal stories -- e.g., how strategy or structural condition X, fails to achieve goal Y, that organization Z has explicitly endorsed. Offering a gears-level model of what you think is happening, and why that's bad, is probably the best way to (1) change peoples minds, if they're wrong, and (2) allow other people to change your mind, if you're wrong.

A few more specific things that I think are worth clarifying or pushing back on:

Welfare vs exploitation framing: You note the distinction between the pro-welfare vs anti-exploitation wings of animal advocacy, and suggest that the dominance of the pro-welfare wing has created some discontent in people with alternative value systems. I think that's a fair comment, but I'd also suggest (as an observer who is not associated with the organizations you mentioned) that the welfare-centric approach may have good reasons for popularity in the marketplace of ideas. Personally, as a valence realist, I believe that caring about animal welfare is much more philosophically defensible than caring about animal exploitation, because I think welfare is more 'real' (better definable; less of a leaky reification; hews closer to what actually has value) than exploitation/justice. I certainly could be wrong and it could be there are solid reasons why I should care more about alternative framings, but I'd need to see good philosophical arguments for this.

Democratisation / accountability at ACE: I should note that I'm not affiliated with ACE whatsoever, but I have been following them as an organization. I too have some qualms about some things they've written, but it seems my qualms run in the opposite direction of yours. :) I.e., I think equity, inclusion, and diversity can be good things, but I also believe organizations have a limited 'complexity budget', and by requiring of themselves an explicit focus on these things, ACE may be watering down their core goal of helping animals. However, I would also add (1) I'm glad ACE exists, (2) my impression is they’re doing a fine job, and (3) I don't see myself as having much standing (‘skin in the game’) to critique ACE.

This is not to say your concerns are baseless, but it is to note there are people who seem to share your goals (‘being good to animals’ is a non-trivial reason why I’m doing the work I’m doing, and I assume you feel the same), yet would pull in exactly the opposite direction you would.

Probably the most effective moral trade here is that we should just let ACE be ACE.

It could be that this isn’t the best approach, and that EAA orgs should ‘pay more attention to other perspectives’. But I think the burden of proof is on those who would make this assertion to be very clear about (1) what exactly their perspective is, (2) what exactly their perspective entails, practically and philosophically, (3) whether they have any ‘skin in the game’ in relevant ways, (4) what’s uniquely ethical or effective about these perspectives, among the countless perspectives out there, and by implication (5) why EAAs (such as ACE) should change their methods and/or goals to accommodate them.

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 25 October 2017 11:07:17AM *  -1 points [-]

Thank you for the feedback. Do you have a few examples of the gears-level model being used so that I could look at how that works? Is it something like this perhaps? If that’s the case I could make the article fit a broader critique of Effective Altruism based on previously acknowledged areas, which may be more useful for people, rather than it perhaps appearing more like a standalone piece.

In terms of the other two points you make, I’m more familiar with that perspective. So I agree that welfare would have more popularity in the marketplace of ideas, this is because it fits with carnism and cultural speciesism. So conventional welfare is constructed on the idea of consuming animals and therefore it is easier to relate. However, this is fairly dependent on our interpretation of welfare. There is a difference here between ‘welfare that deceives’ and ‘authentic welfare’ (Lee Hall) so there is the industry interpretation of welfare advocacy, and there is welfare as consideration of the situation of other animals. So, one study suggested that drawing attention to the experience / well being (or lack thereof) within a farming system can lead to a reduction in meat consumption. However, contrary to this there is the ‘humane myth’ which works to reassure people that consuming animals is a good thing, and this is underpinned by such things as the Five Freedoms (Melanie Joy discussed this as compassionate carnism ). So the mainstream groups, particularly those such as Mercy for Animals are both campaigning for a reduction in animal consumption and reifying meat consumption at the same time. Even within the broader animal movement concerned with harm reduction there would be some contention around this, but where the ideas are separated there is likely to be less contention over where they have been amalgamated. I recently read this paper about the Five Freedoms which I thought made some useful points.

In terms of the complexity budget, I tend to view this as being used as a way to avoid doing complexity well. I’m not that interested in taking the focus off of other animals, however, there is a parallel here in terms of what groups such as Non-Humans First prescribe, essentially where little else matters except other animals because their situation is presently so dire. However, in terms of movement building this is not a good idea because it inevitably means the door is wide open to ‘everyone’ to join the movement, and it is no surprise they have an association with the far right. In this way I wonder how it is the 'mainstream' movement differentiates from that position in a meaningful way? It is not unusual to find thought leaders in the mainstream movement say they want everyone to adopt a plant based diet, and whilst it is the case that I do too, it is also the case that I don’t want the far right to be associated with the movement because inclusion can lead to exclusion. This is because unless people see themselves represented they will likely be less interested in becoming involved, whilst why would anyone want to walk into a situation where they find people discriminating against them? On a broader level, I think the larger groups need to bear some responsibility for failing to reflect the broader population we are trying to appeal to. I also think this is the problem at a very basic level, and it is one that EAA hasn’t really grasped.

In terms of ACE, i think it is more likely the case they are doing more than any other group, because there aren’t any other groups in that space. It remains that few charities are evaluated, and that claims around finding the most effective charities in the animal movement are weak. It’s true some analysis takes place, but their criteria is limited in such a way that the larger groups are most likely going to be the top charities. It could also be the case they are the best charities, but it is also the case they often conflict with EA value systems, and this conflict isn’t addressed in a meaningful way, and therefore ACE creates issues it chooses not to account for.

Overall, I think it is somewhat difficult to be critical, when ACE and other EAAs are not particularly clear about what those issues might be. The responsibility is on ACE as an organisation to consider a variety of issues thoroughly, and engaging in critical self awareness seems to be low, with the burden of proof disproportionately placed on people who are peripherally involved in Effective Altruism. Sometimes it is said that transparency and openness are key to promoting changes, but if EAs aren’t conversant in the various issues that are generated by EAA then it becomes difficult to make a case for reform because of the high burden of proof / need to educate on issues that aren’t known about (and a disinclination among EAA generally to take an interest in them). We could perhaps argue in favour of expanding ACE to increase scope, but without consideration for foundational issues ACE would in my view likely just do more of a sub-optimal thing, rather than engage in any particularly critical and progressive work.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 27 October 2017 09:19:05AM *  3 points [-]

As a brief point, it's not right to consider different values merely because they are different values. Our intrinsic evaluation should only pay attention to values in accordance with our determination of how likely they are to be correct. After that, and only after that, you can add all the PR/marketing/coalition-building strategies that you want. I admit that I only skimmed this post but I feel as if it serves to obfuscate the difference.

Meta-evaluation – with the necessary scope to consider foundational issues.

I think MacAskill's moral uncertainty algorithm is best for this. Web implementation coming soon (TM) !

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 27 October 2017 01:08:56PM 0 points [-]

In reference to moral uncertainty? In this article i'm saying two things which i think have a fairly similar basis. Firstly, that we need to give consideration to different value systems or we risk gravitating to a single value system by default, which is what i argue has generally happened in EAA. So i outline some ways this could be addressed.

In terms of how the issues are negotiated, if referenced to this article, i'm not in favour of normative externalism which in my view represents the main situation of EAA at present (welfare / reducetarianism). My favourite theory probably wouldn't work either because other theories are marginalised in EAA, so it would be disproportionate in such a way that different theories likely wouldn't be heard. Maximising choice worthiness could work better if frameworks for intervention were more thoroughly applied and there was an improvement in cross movement communication. The parliamentary model could be a possibility, but again there is an issue of representation, and part of the reason certain moral theories aren't represented is because there isn't space for their inclusion, or they aren't well understood / the drive toward normative externalism has obfuscated them.

There is an issue in relation to how i'm talking about two seemingly different issues of inclusion concurrently, but in my view the idea of 'inclusion' is fairly broad in EA and there are a number of commonalities which can be applied to being inclusive of different value systems and of people who are marginalised by mainstream society (indeed sometimes both considerations need to be applied at the same time). This isn't to say we need to include everyone, or all value systems, though i am saying more consideration needs to be given to systems compatible with Effective Altruism so that it can better inform the work we do, and that more consideration needs to be given to people who have less privilege. If we are merely truth seeking within our own value systems, i think this isn't going to be so worthwhile, and i am less certain this really represents what Effective Altruism is about.

As i view it, there is at least some concern around these issues that is often expressed within Effective Altruism, but not so much agreement in terms of what needs to happen, or indeed, of the consequences of the present situation. However, i think there are some things that many EAs could be persuaded, and that could include the utility of meta-evaluation, and I think this would also provide a stronger foundation for making suggestions about potential changes to address issues of inclusion. This could be grounded in moral uncertainty, but as i suggested i think there could be some steps before reaching that stage, such as how value systems are represented.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 27 October 2017 06:33:18PM *  0 points [-]

As a quick comment, because now I'm busy. I'm not sure that any of those accounts of moral uncertainty are mutually exclusive, with the exceptions of MEC-MFT and Parliament-MFT. Parliamentary model is vaguely defined and MEC is the theoretically best way to construe the parliamentary model, IMO.

I think there's a rigid distinction between values systems and utility functions on one hand, and empirical questions of cause effectiveness on the other, and the former can't directly inform the latter - it's like a reverse is-ought gap.

An availability cascade of a moral theory - people assume it's right because other people believe it, and so on - is definitely bad and ought to be avoided.

Comment author: casebash 28 October 2017 01:56:39PM *  1 point [-]

"The best way to find this out is from people who don’t want to be involved with EAA and are critical of it" - there is a real significant problem here in that what people say they care about often isn't very indicative of actions. Like anyone strongly aligned with social justice will be strongly pushed by their world view to say both that they dislike the lack of diversity initiatives and that they would be more likely to become involved if they were put in place, but this is independent of any effect on behaviour.

Comment author: KevinWatkinson  (EA Profile) 28 October 2017 05:13:57PM *  0 points [-]

Yes, it's difficult to know whether it would have an impact in terms of more people becoming involved. Though i don't think that means it isn't worthwhile in terms of calibrating value systems within EAA, so we still need to know we are representing different value systems well, even if other people don't necessarily want to get involved.