Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Short Critique of 'The Effective Altruism Handbook'

Today I read the recently published Effective Altruism Handbook. I had been looking forward to reading it, hoping to read something that I would both agree with and learn from. Unfortunately, the main lesson I learned was that there is a big problem with the effective altruism movement in its current form.

The problem is actually well exemplified by my personal experience with donating based on GiveWell’s recommendations. I came upon GiveWell and their work about two years ago, and this encounter prompted me to immediately redirect my donations to their three top recommended charities at the time, namely Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World Initiative and GiveDirectly.

This made the best sense ethically. Or so I thought. For about a year later, I got an email update from GiveDirectly, which informed me what the money I donated was being spent on: a plurality was being spent on “livestock.” Having just finished writing the essay ‘Why “Happy Meat” Is Always Wrong’ at the time, my position on this matter was quite thoroughly considered, and the conclusion was clear: I could by no means continue supporting GiveDirectly, so I cancelled my donations to them.

One might object that my cancellation was unfair. After all, the goal of GiveDirectly is poverty reduction, not anti-speciesism, so can we not give them a break? The answer is no, and the reason why is captured perfectly in the following nine words from Peter Singer’s piece on speciesism in the EA Handbook: “[…] “speciesism,” by analogy with racism, must also be condemned.”[1]

Unfortunately, my reading of the EA Handbook made it clear to me that this indeed is a big problem in the EA movement today: it is profoundly speciesist. What else can one call it when its evaluations of success and effectiveness almost always focus uniquely on one species, homo sapiens sapiens?

Given the ubiquity of speciesism in our world today, this should perhaps not come as a big surprise, yet the EA movement really should do better. After all, the EA Handbook itself contains a chapter on speciesism that soundly argues for its rejection, yet unfortunately the book, including that chapter itself, fails completely to make explicit the most basic of implications of such a rejection, even though the main implications of rejecting speciesism could have been listed fairly shortly: embrace veganism, end the property status of non-human individuals, and take the suffering of non-human beings in nature seriously.
Elaboration on these points can all be found in my recent book on the subject, yet it actually does not take that much to see why these implications follow from a rejection of speciesism:

1) We do not find it justifiable to buy products of enslavement and killing of humans, so upon rejecting speciesism, we obviously should not find it justifiable to buy products of enslavement and killing of non-human beings. 2) We rightly reject the property status of human individuals, no matter what cognitive abilities they may have, and upon rejecting speciesism, we should obviously also reject the property status of non-human individuals. 3) We do not disregard human beings just because they find themselves in “nature” or otherwise outside of any human society, and upon rejecting speciesism, we obviously cannot disregard non-human beings on those grounds either.

These are all rather relevant points, and the failure to include these three, much less just one of them, in the EA Handbook must be considered a serious omission, especially when one considers the astronomical numbers involved. As Luke Muehlhauser recognizes in one of his two chapters in book, the vast majority of sentient beings on the planet are of non-human rather than human kind, and the vast majority of these, more than 99.9 percent, are living in nature. Who speaks for them? There actually seems to be a growing number of people in the wider effective altruism community that do, and, thankfully, Muehlhauser mentions two of the most important spearheads: David Pearce and Brian Tomasik.

My criticism notwithstanding, I do think the Effective Altruism Handbook is worth the read for anyone new to the movement and the concept of effective altruism. For in spite of its almost exclusively anthropocentric focus, it does manage to convey some important ideas and to show why the social movement it represents is extremely important and has great potential.

Hopefully, the EA movement will keep on advancing and eventually live up to its dedication to the well-being of all sentient beings and follow the implications of such a dedication: to become a force against speciesism and for veganism (the latter follows from the former). Unfortunately, today, the bulk of the movement appears little else than profoundly confused when it comes to non-human beings and our obligations toward them.

[1] It must indeed, and just as we obviously should not finance people’s buying, owning or killing other people, no matter what cognitive abilities or body shapes these people may have, and no matter how “useful” other people may be as property, we should not finance people’s buying, owning or killing non-human beings, no matter what cognitive abilities or body shapes these non-human beings may have, and no matter how “useful” they may be as property.
This statement is controversial for sure, but only if one fails to take the perspective of the non-human victims. Only if one fails to reject and condemn speciesism. Alternative ways to give and intervene should be sought and examined. There are some already, and it would be interesting to measure these against others in a non-speciesist evaluation.