Summary of "The Most Good We Can Do or the Best Person We Can Be?" - a Critique of EA

by EdoArad2 min read28th Nov 20203 comments

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Criticism (EA Movement)Moral Philosophy
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This paper, by Michel Bourban & Lisa Broussois, argues that by focusing on effectiveness, EAs acts in less morally virtuous ways and should focus more on cultivating good intentions. They claim that cultivating good intentions is both instrumentally good and should be considered of an intrinsic value.

In what follows, I write in my own words the main claims that they make. I try to write it in a way that makes sense to me as plausible arguments, with slight steelmanning on my part.

Considering the example of Earning to Give, where a person interested in climate change might do best by going to work at a petrochemical company (which supposedly does net harm) and donating some of her income to carbon offset. They raise three possible problems:

  1. This kind of work is more likely to cause value drift.
  2. This is a message of support toward harmful industries.
  3. This represents another opportunity for some people to present themselves as living ethically while actually following mostly selfish goals.

They argue that in order to fight global injustices like global poverty and climate change, we should live a lifestyle that does not contribute to these in the first place. Furthermore, we should display in our everyday life a commitment to not participate in harmful actions. One worry about EA here is that this kind of a "fully ethical life" is very hard to live, so we need the best reasons in order to stay firm.

They make the case that by focusing on improving effectiveness we will not necessarily increase the benevolence, or "pure altruism", of people. Benevolence seems to them to be more important because 

  1. It will make efforts to do good more substantial by having more motivation.
  2. The criteria according to which we measure effectiveness require strong sensitivity and common-sense morality to be representative of what we actually care about. This sensitivity will be enhanced if we cultivate more benevolent intentions.
  3. Motivation to improve oneself and society comes from feelings of altruism. Without these feelings, one cannot make moral progress.

They view the world as an increasingly egoistic and unethical world, and the problems in it as resulting from a lack of caring. As a society, we are neglecting moral virtue.

Regarding offsetting to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), they raise similar problems as with earning to give.

  1. Presenting the option of offsetting as a way to compensate for one own's carbon footprint makes it seem like it would be okay to contribute to GHG emissions where in fact one can reduce their own GHG emissions substantially directly. 
  2. Using offsetting without taking major actions to reduce one's own footprint violates their moral integrity. "She would claim that national and international GHG emissions need to be drastically reduced, but at the same time, she would not be ready to apply the same principle to her own course of action." This is considered a hypocritical action. Furthermore, taken to the extreme, they are worried about a scenario where all countries are only paying for offsetting without actual effort for mitigating GHG.
  3. The self-regulation that one practice when changing one's lifestyle to be better for the environment is by itself a virtuous act. This kind of living exemplifies the change needed in the world both to oneself and to others.

They write quite a bit about geoengineering as something which people in EA (MacAskill, Singer, Gates) think would be a good investment of money to research. One thing they say which I found interesting is 

  1. By supporting research, even if we are worried of the risks, we in fact give support to governments and people who think of geoengineering as a cheap silver bullet. 

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Furthermore, taken to the extreme, they are worried about a scenario where all countries are only paying for offsetting without actual effort for mitigating GHG.

If each country fully offsets its emissions, there'd be no net emissions left, right? Offsets might become more expensive as more do it.

I think you're right but I didn't check and the authors don't supply any information. Perhaps you could offset carbon by planting trees or by future carbon capture tech. 

It feels to me like many arguments in this paper fall under some form of Moral Universalizability -  it would be morally wrong to do something if it will clearly be bad if everyone would do it. I think that EA is quite unique as a social movement in that regard, where the actions advocated for by EAs can and should change a lot if they get a lot of success.

I find this topic interesting, especially when contemplating my own moral intuitions regarding virtues which often oppose or don't take into account "cold utilitarian logic". I found a lot of the arguments to be unpersuasive or not entirely relevant to how I view EA. That said, it was interesting to read, and here are some of my takeaways:

  1. I am generally quite permissive of other people's different levels of commitment to doing good and acting virtuously when it comes to being involved in EA. I think that this might be problematic if I'm worried about value-drift or presenting a poor image of EA.
  2. I find some analogies between this criticism and some critiques of foreign aid. 
    1. They both claim that the root cause is not solved (egoism / corruption).
    2. Both EA claims/efforts and foreign aid are susceptible to exploitation by self-interested people. 
  3. I feel that common sense morality is indignant of, say, people working toward reducing animal suffering and yet consuming animal products. This results in lower credibility, and many people might take this apparent lack of moral integrity as a sign of one not actually caring about animals and thus they discount their work. It is especially problematic given that many such cases don't leave room for high-fidelity discussion. 
    1. I think that this is actually a good reason for leaders in the community to adopt practices that seem benevolent (like kindness, frugality, veganism, personally reducing emissions).
    2. However, this is also a great reason to avoid these kinds of practices if one can actually do much more good otherwise and be able to show it. This is because people can also be persuaded to do good more effectively. 
  4. Some people in EA work on moral circle expansion. Perhaps it would also be important to work on improving other societal virtues.