Should we talk about altruism or talk about justice?

bykbog16d3rd Jul 201926 comments


In this post I went through Elizabeth Ashford's paper on EA. She first gives an explanation of how EA is good as a complement to left-wing projects, but also gives a critique where she tries to steelman left-wing criticisms of EA. The idea is that EAs use certain language about charity and altruism, but this language encourages society at large to act in bad ways. If we used language about justice instead (with leftist connotations of fairness and restoration, not the conservative emphasis on law & order), then we would have a more positive impact on social attitudes and discourse. I noted that Ashford gave a very one-sided view of the issue, listing potential upsides of justice language but not potential downsides, and it's an open question which is actually better.

This issue is not just academic; some EAs do talk about justice instead of benevolence. So here I will try to answer the question of whether talking more about 'justice' is in fact something that is better or worse for society at large, compared to talking about altruism with a more "wonk" attitude.

Policy case studies

First I will go through major political issues where the "justice" view is associated with particular attitudes, and see whether they make things better or worse compared to a more conventional approach.

The policy judgments are sourced from the Candidate Scoring System, where I spent quite a bit of time gathering up-to-date evidence and soliciting opinions from a wide range of commentators.

Animal welfare: Both welfare reforms and vegan boycotts are usually agreed to be positive developments for animal interests. Concerns over justice to animals have strongly motivated vegan-oriented animal activism, with groups like DxE, ALF, Sea Shepherd, and PETA pushing the strongest messages. The alternative is softer efforts for free range farming, reducing meat consumption, and researching plant products. There is quite a bit of controversy over which one works best; overall I don't see a clear upside or downside to the justice framing right now. (But maybe some people here can resolve this.)

Foreign aid and international philanthropy: More foreign aid and philanthropy to impoverished countries is generally a good thing. The altruism framework targets this directly by acknowledging it as good; the justice framing usually criticizes it for not fixing everything. Therefore, in this case the justice framing usually has worse results, because it gives people a sense of overriding indignance which clouds their thinking on separate-but-related issues.

Immigration: The appropriate policy approach is to greatly expand legal immigration and offer a path to citizenship for existing illegal immigrants. The justice approach generally endorses this as well, but often includes a hardline commitment to open borders or at least opposition to effective security measures against illegal immigrants. This could be good in terms of expanding migrant mobility, but could be bad for its political effects: increasing right-wing hostility to legal immigration and preventing policymakers from compromising on comprehensive immigration reform. Therefore, in this case it's not clear if the justice framing is better or worse.

Trade: The appropriate realistic policy approach is free trade, possibly with some negotiated agreements to raise environmental and labor standards. Conventional people who think about altruism and philanthropy are generally tolerant of this. However, concerns of economic justice frequently lead to boycotts and opposition to free trade, with trade deals shelved entirely when they are perceived as being unfair. Progressive leftists like Warren and Sanders are nationalist trade protectionists. Now a proper concern for economic justice does imply a preference for free trade over nothing, and ultimately demands generous trade deals in which we subsidize manufacturing in poor countries. However these points are lost for practical intents and purposes. You can see this in Ashford's paper where she only barely and grudgingly admits the superiority of free trade to economic nationalism, and in the practical policy world where Western states and political actors are not seriously considering things like reparative trade subsidies. Therefore, in this case the justice view has worse results, because it (a) gets misunderstood/coopted and (b) is too far divorced from the constraints and interests of real political actors.

Abortion: For maximizing social well-being, abortion should broadly be available. The phrase "reproductive justice" is something of a euphemism for abortion access, though it also includes a wide variety of other actions to give women control over their reproduction. Here the leftist notion of "justice" is better, because it focuses attention on women and prevents the fetus from being a subject of moral deliberation.

Climate change: The appropriate approach is a mix of carbon taxation and public spending on clean energy R&D. Climate justice approaches tend to neglect carbon taxes and R&D in favor of regulations to punish specific companies and assistance to local communities for implementing cleaner technology. This is a less effective approach. Climate justice approaches have a higher emphasis on compensating local communities for the harms of climate change, which is off-track when the most harms of climate change will be felt by foreigners in the developing world and prevention is by far most important. Finally, justice approaches empower local groups such as indigenous communities to stall or neuter local policies and projects which are good for the climate but bad for their local interests. Thus, here the notion of "justice" is worse, because it causes people to take a more narrow view at a particular set of stakeholders rather than thinking in simpler, broader terms.

Criminal justice: the appropriate approach is reduced incarceration. Notions of racial injustice have played a crucial role in moving the American political system towards better policies, as liberal scholars were ignored. However, there is reason to be concerned that now the worries about racial injustice have become too intense and extreme, as Republicans and police are increasingly accepting reduced incarceration, some BLM stances are controversial, and racial dissatisfaction in America has turned into a formidable zeitgeist. Thus, currently it's not clear whether it's better for people to keep talking about racial justice, or to relax to a more basic altruistic/benevolent approach to improving the criminal justice system. (Maybe someone who knows more details about the state of these reforms can answer this.)

Healthcare: concerns of economic justice lead to a strong commitment to Medicare-for-All, whereas more conventional attitudes are associated with support for a wide variety of perfectly viable alternatives (such as a Medicare buy-in option). The narrow-mindedness of the economic justice view can cause problems, as seen with the fiscal flaws of Sanders' bill, and M4A absolutism might cause complete failure in a divided congress. But on the other hand healthcare reform in the US is badly stalled and it might be important to harshly sweep away the complexity and dysfunction with a strong reform movement. Obamacare basically failed, largely because it was weak and undermined by Republicans. Therefore it's currently not clear which approach is better.

Taxation and budget: Concerns over economic justice motivate higher taxes on millionaires and billionaires, which is good. However they also motivate equalizing capital gains with income taxes and high corporate taxes, which are bad. They further motivate a shift to make income taxes much more progressive across regular income brackets, but the impact of this is unclear. Overall, it's not clear whether justice concerns make attitudes better or worse.

Capitalism and socialism: Concerns of economic justice are well aligned with socialism, but socialism would probably be worse than capitalism. Therefore justice attitudes are harmful here.

Summary: talking about justice is better than conventional attitudes in 1 case, neither better nor worse in 5 cases, and worse in 4 cases.

Impact on discourse and civility

Different language may have different effects on people's attitudes towards each other. Talking about justice can create a strong commitment to being an "ally" of people who marginalized. But more importantly, it creates a more adversarial and harsher approach to resolving disputes. It can actively foster a sense of grievance from things such as historical wrongs. Meanwhile, talking about altruism puts everyone loosely on the same side.

Now, given people's divisions and senses of grievance, some attention to justice is appropriate for encouraging a lasting solution. A fully wonky or philanthropic attitude might not do anything to heal grievances and divides.

That being said, fully committing to justice-language often means taking one particular side of a dispute and assuming or hoping that you will be able to restructure society so as to be on the 'right side of history,' creating tolerance via solidarity. If any gaps appear then this can backfire.

So overall, it seems like we should have a presumption in favor of the altruist framing, but with some empathetic and communicative abilities to refer to other perspectives in certain circumstances (not just justice, but also other things like rights, freedoms, etc).


Another important factor is which point of view is most appealing to people, particularly for spreading EA. The justice framing is more appealing in leftist circles, whereas talking about altruism is more appealing in a broader swathe of the population. It's worth noting that it was Peter Singer's argument for altruism that caught the most attention and popularity - not Pogges' argument for economic justice. It's nice to imagine that EA could gain the kind of mass dedicated support of left justice movements like LGBT, feminism and racial liberation, but this support is not possible when the victims are not in the same country or species or generation, as demonstrated by the lackluster performance of animal liberation and international human rights campaigns.

So I think the right approach is to have the movement maintain its broad and simple idea of altruism, but be fluent at code-switching to express the same ideas in justice language to the right audiences. Or have some people who constantly talk/think that way, in order to show a different side of the movement.


The way Ashford seems to think about benevolence, it almost looks like she doesn't think of it as an obligatory concept. But that's not true. In utilitarianism as well as the Kantian value of benevolence, EA activities are obligated. And within EA, people seem adequately willing to heavily revise their careers and donate most of their spare money.

In justice-oriented movements and communities, people frequently sacrifice too, becoming full-time activists. But other people change nearly nothing about their lives, except for voicing moral support to a cause.

It's hard to compare directly because justice-oriented groups focus more on the lifestyle and community rather than career achievements and donations. But generally speaking, both approaches seem adequate for motivating people to sacrifice.


From what I can tell, it would be a bad idea for EAs to broadly adopt the liberal/leftist framing of justice and moral debts. We should mostly stay the course with the altruist framing. However, EAs are right to use the justice framing in a few contexts and to have some people who genuinely communicate in those terms.