Cross-posted from Cold Button Issues.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I was having lunch with a friend and mentioned that some of my friends donated money to buy bed nets to prevent malaria. “Waste of time,” my friend said. 

“Do bed nets not work?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s not it. Rather, people in developing countries just don’t have moral standing. People say that all lives are of equal worth, but they’d rather go on a nice vacation than donate enough to save a life through an effective charity, which I’ve heard costs $5,000.” 

She then showed me her new emerald brooch (market value: $5,001). “And even if we thought people were just dumb about charity, we would still expect politics to revolve around global poverty if all lives were of equal worth, and it doesn’t. Deep down, we all know foreigners don’t matter.”

Then I ate my veal entrée. People have told me that animal suffering is wrong, but since they seemed to rarely act on that claim, I had concluded that animal suffering was no big deal.

Anyways, this is a review of Toby Ord’s The Scourge

Ord’s Argument

Moral indifference justifies itself. Or at least that is Ord’s argument when it comes to embryos.

Some argue that human embryos have just as much moral worth as the normal, walking around type humans. Some religious people use the phrase “womb to tomb,” indicating that a human life is a human life, from conception to death.

Some argue against embryos having equal value to walking around type humans, by appeals to intuition or incredulity- it’s a clump of cells! Others point out that embryos lack some features that might make people morally valuable- desires, consciousness, self-identity, friendships with others.

Ord instead poses a thought experiment: if a new disease emerged that caused the vast majority of human deaths and targeted the young, would responding to such a nightmarish pandemic be the instant priority of all humanity? Yet if human embryos matter just as much as normal humans and we now know that the majority of embryos suffer spontaneous abortions, why is there no outcry? Why do people claim that life expectancy in the United States is near 80 years of age, instead of acknowledging that life expectancy from conception is remarkably low? Ord produces this helpful life expectancy chart from conception.

 

 

If embryos really mattered, people would care about the vast number of embryos that die naturally.  Ord argues that the “marked lack of curiosity about what is claimed to be of immense importance suggests that even now, few people really believe that full moral status begins at conception.”

People barely care about this, so embryos matter little or none. Therefore, Ord argues, appeals to the value of human embryos to argue against abortion or IVF fail. 

 

Extensions

An obvious extension of Ord’s claim is the field of global poverty. Many people say that your moral worth doesn’t depend on where you live or that your obligation to others doesn’t depend on a shared race, nationality, regional proximity, or language. However, almost everyone acts like lives are not of equal value, ergo, they are not.

The number of animals suffering in factory farms is immense. Only a small number of people are vegans and only a trivial number of people are full-time animal welfare activists or factory farm saboteurs. Ergo, animal suffering is no big deal.

Now and then, some people will say we should care about future generations. While people do appear willing to make some sacrifices for their children and grandchildren it doesn’t normally extend much further than that. As I rested in my mansion’s east wing (paid for by mortgaging my great-grandchildren’s future!), I read a book another friend had recommended, coincidentally also by Toby Ord, called The Precipice

Now he was saying we should care about people who wouldn’t even exist for millions of years!

 

Revealed vs Stated Moral Preferences

 

It isn’t a new observation that what we say matters morally, and how we act are often very different. 

Generally, we treat the stated moral preference as the real expression of moral truth and when people fail to live up to their stated moral code, we call them hypocrites. When we fail to live up to our own, we experience guilt.

Ord wants us to interpret people’s departure from their stated moral beliefs, not as moral failure or selfishness or myopia or sin, but as an argument against people’s stated moral claims.

I don’t think this idea is completely crazy. We often treat our moral intuitions as meaningful, but perhaps we should weight our moral intuitions by their strength, and stronger moral intuitions should guide our actions more. If everybody claims X, but nobody does X isn’t that an argument against that claim?

In a sea of bad and repeated arguments against effective altruism, Ord came up with a novel argument against effective altruism before the movement even existed. Much of effective altruism revolves around finding large populations that nobody currently seems to care about (farmed octopi, future generations, digital consciousnesses) and claiming we should divert huge amounts of resources to them to live up to our stated moral beliefs.

“Lol, no” my emerald-brooched friend would say. If I didn’t know that in the real world, Toby Ord thought the global poor and future generations mattered, I would say the author of the Scourge would be right alongside her. Afterall, Ord wrote that:

“Those who 'bite the bullet' and accept the Conclusion will have a very difficult time. They will have to accept a very strange ethical belief, and they cannot leave it as a purely theoretical view-for if they really believe that the Scourge is with us, then they will be compelled to fervent action. It is also a belief that will alienate them from much of the public.”

This sounds like the position that longtermists and animal welfarists are in every day! Is caring about the future or wild animal welfare a bad idea?

I have a pretty conventional view on morality- I view my moral ideals as true and departures from acting on my ideals as a challenge to my own moral character rather than to my ideals themselves. 

The Scourge’s argument, that moral indifference justifies itself is interesting, but it’s hard (more like impossible) to see why it would be okay to apply to embryos but not animals or future people or people in other countries.

If you’re looking for a reason to leave effective altruism, I give the Scourge five out of five revealed preferences

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25 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:09 AM

I think this piece mostly misunderstands Ord's argument, through confusing reductios with revealed preferences. Although you quote the last sentence of the work in terms of revealed preferences, I think you get a better picture of Ord's main argument from his description of it:

The argument then, is as follows. The embryo has the same moral status as an adult human (the Claim). Medical studies show that more than 60% of all people are killed by spontaneous abortion (a biological fact). Therefore, spontaneous abortion is one of the most serious problems facing humanity, and we must do our utmost to investigate ways of preventing this death—even if this is to the detriment of other pressing issues (the Conclusion).

Note there's nothing here about hypocrisy, and the argument isn't  "Ord wants us to interpret people’s departure from their stated moral beliefs, not as moral failure or selfishness or myopia or sin, but as an argument against people’s stated moral claims." 

This wouldn't be much of an argument anyway: besides the Phil-101 points around "Even if pro-lifers are hypocrites their (pretended) belief could still be true", it's still very weak as an abductive consideration. If indeed pro-lifers were hypocritical this gives some evidence their (stated) beliefs are false (through a few mechanisms I'll spare elaborating), this counts for little unless this hypocrisy was of  a remarkably greater degree than others. As moral hypocrisy is all-but-universal, and merely showing (e.g.) that stereotypical Kantians sometimes lie, utilitarians give less than they say they ought to charity (etc. etc.) is not much of a revelation, I doubt this (or the other extensions in the OP) bear much significance in terms of identifying particularly discrediting hypocrisy.  

The challenge of the Scourge is that a common bioconservative belief ("The embryo has the same moral status as an adult human") may entail another which seems facially highly implausible ("Therefore, spontaneous abortion is one of the most serious problems facing humanity, and we must do our utmost to investigate ways of preventing this death—even if this is to the detriment of other pressing issues"). Many (most?) find the latter bizarre, so if they believed it was entailed by the bioconservative claim would infer this claim must be false. Again, this reasoning is basically orthogonal to any putative hypocrisy among those asserting its truth: even if it were the case (e.g.) the Catholic Church was monomaniacal in its efforts to combat natural embryo loss, the argument would still lead me to think they were mistaken.

Ord again:

One certainly could save the Claim by embracing the Conclusion, however I doubt that many of its supporters would want to do so. Instead, I suspect that they would either try to find some flaw in the argument, or abandon the Claim. Even if they were personally prepared to embrace the Conclusion, the Claim would lose much of its persuasive power. Many of the people they were trying to convince are likely to see the Conclusion as too bitter a pill, and to decide that if these embryo-related practices are wrong at all, it cannot be due to the embryo having full moral status.

The challenge of the Scourge is that a common bioconservative belief ("The embryo has the same moral status as an adult human") may entail another which seems facially highly implausible ("Therefore, spontaneous abortion is one of the most serious problems facing humanity, and we must do our utmost to investigate ways of preventing this death—even if this is to the detriment of other pressing issues"). Many (most?) find the latter bizarre, so if they believed it was entailed by the bioconservative claim would infer this claim must be false. 

I don't really see how this helps, because it seems a similar thing applies to EAs, regardless of whether the issue is hypocrisy or a modus ponens / modus tollens.  We use common moral beliefs (future people have value) to entail others which seem facially highly implausible (we should spend vast sums of money on strange projects, even if this is to the detriment of other pressing issues). Many (most?) find the latter bizarre, so if they believed it was entailed by the future-people-have-value claim would infer this claim must be false. In both cases the argument is using common 'near' moral views to deduce sweeping global moral imperatives.

Sure - I'm not claiming "EA doctrine" has no putative counter-examples which should lead us to doubt it. But these counter-examples should rely on beliefs about propositions not assessments of behaviour: if EA says "it is better to do X than Y", yet this seems wrong, this is a reason to doubt EA, but whether anyone is actually doing X (or X instead of Y) is irrelevant. "EA doctrine" (ditto most other moral views) urges us to be much less selfish - that I am selfish anyway is not an argument against it.

One could really draw parallels with future people and Longtermism here. If the conclusion from caring about all potential future people is that we need to pay AI researchers with money that would've otherwise gone to save African children, then most people who'd find this conclusion hard to swallow should reject the premise.

I just find the form of the argument really unconvincing. It reads as a general argument against demanding moral theories. He has the points that

  1. Valuing embryos would require a lot of work regarding spontaneous abortion and people don't want to do what that entails.
  2. People don't act like they value embryos.

If this argument works, it also seems like we should say caring about animal welfare is absurd (how many people think we should modify the environment to help wild animals), caring about the far future is absurd, and so forth. I think in function this is a general anti-EA argument, although in practice Ord obviously did a lot to start and support EA and promote concern for the future.

I agree this form of argument is very unconvincing. That "people don't act as if Y is true" is a pretty rubbish defeater for "people believe Y is true", and a very rubbish defeater for "X being true" simpliciter. But this argument isn't Ord's, but one of your own creation.

Again, the validity of the philosophical argument doesn't depend on how sincerely a belief is commonly held (or whether anyone believes it at all). The form is simply modus tollens:

  1. If X (~sanctity of life from conception) then Y (natural embryo loss is - e.g. a much greater moral priority than HIV)
  2. ¬Y (Natural embryo loss is not a much greater moral priority than (e.g.) HIV)
  3. ¬X (The sanctity of life from conception view is false)

Crucially, ¬Y is not motivated by interpreting supposed revealed preferences from behaviour. Besides it being ~irrelevant ("Person or group does not (really?) believe Y -->?? Y is false") this apparent hypocrisy can be explained by ignorance rather than insincerity: it's not like statistics around natural embryo loss are common knowledge, so their inaction towards the Scourge could be owed to them being unaware of it.

¬Y is mainly motivated by appeals to Y's apparent absurdity. Ord (correctly) anticipates very few people on reflection would find Y plausible, and so would find if X indeed entailed Y, this would be a reason to doubt X. Again, it is the implausibility on rational reflection, not the concordance of practice to those who claim to believe it, which drives the argument .

I think Ord's argument is something like :"If you have an EA view of the world, and you think humans matter equally from conception, then natural embryo loss is very important. That people don't take it seriously implies they don't really think moral worth begins at conception". And maybe this is equivalent to what you're saying (it's a bit hard to tell with all the humor) but where his argument falls down is that people with this view rarely have an EA outlook.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but isn't Ord's argument "People who give moral status to embryos would care about this, and they don't" rather than "everyone would care about this, and they don't"?

Generally, people who care enough about animal suffering are vegans (I hope). People who care enough about poverty try to use political or financial power to affect it, etc. So the same argument wouldn't work for these ideas.

Also I don't get it, is Ord's graph real or imagined?

People who claim to care about embryos may oppose abortion or even support embryo adoption- does their failure to care about spontaneous abortions discredit them? They're not doing all they can.

People who care to claim about animals may be vegans- does their failure to become an animal rights advocate discredit them? They're not doing all they can.

People who claim to care about the global poor may donate money- but do they donate all their money? They're not doing all they can.

I reject the form of this argument. People are hypocrites and moral failures- they can still be correct  in their claims.

I'm not asking whether they're doing something about spontaneous abortion (maybe they can't or have other priorities), but whether they even care about it. I think that is a measurement of the seriousness of their professed belief.

Thanks, I understand the distinction you're making . I still disagree that we can reject their moral claims because they don't take it care far enough- I think animal advocates are pretty sincere even though virtually none of them ever care about wild animals. But I still animal advocates make fair points.

Very good argument imo! It shows there's a different explanation rather than "people don't really care about dying embryos" that can be derived from this comparison. People tend to differentiate between what happens "naturally" (or accidentally) vs deliberate human actions. When it comes to wild animal suffering, even if people believe it exists, many will think something along the lines of "it's not human-made suffering, so it's not our moral responsibility to do something about it" - which is weird to a consequentialist, but probably quite intuitive for most people.

It takes a few non-obvious steps in reasoning to get to the conclusion that we should care about wild animal suffering. And while fewer steps may be required in the embryo situation, it is still very conceivable that a person who actually cares a lot about embryos might not initially get to the conclusion that the scope of the problem exceeds abortion.

That's a better point. Also,

I think animal advocates are pretty sincere even though virtually none of them ever care about wild animals.

Guilty as charged. I sometimes think whether I should, but so far I've always come to the conclusion that either there's a major moral difference (e.g. our direct responsibility for the suffering, or the moral importance of nature), or that interventions to meaningfully change wild animal suffering are bound to have devastating side effects.

I'm not convinced of the act omission distinction, but I'm not ready to throw it away. 

I think one argument about wild animal suffering that might be true or might be rationalization is that there's nothing we can do for now- but you can promote general compassion to animals through activism or veganism or something.

> is Ord's graph real or imagined?

Real. P4 of http://amirrorclear.net/files/the-scourge.pdf

I actually think EA is extremely well positioned to eat that take, digest it, become immensely stronger as a result of it, remain standing as the only great scourge-pilled moral community, immune to preference falsification cascades, members henceforth unrelentingly straightforward and authentic about what their values are, and so, more likely to effectively pursue them, instead of fake values that they don't hold.

Because:

  1. Most movements operate through voting. We instead tend to operate through philanthropy (often anonymized philanthropy) and career change, which each require an easily quantifiable sacrifice, they're much closer to being unfakable signals of revealed preference.
  2. EA is sort of built on the foundation of rationalism where eating nasty truths and accepting nasty truthtellers is a norm.
  3. A lot of that theory also makes negotiating peace between conflicting factions easier. Statistics and decision theory form a basis and an intro to economic theory and cooperative bargaining theory, for instance. And the orthogonality thesis, the claim that an intelligent thing can also have values that conflict with ours, is also the claim that a person with values that conflict with ours can be intelligent (and so worthy of respect)!

An  example of an argument matching the OP's thesis: Bryan Caplan rejecting animal rights (disagreeing with his favorite philosopher, Michael Huemer) based on the demands of applying a right to life to wild insects.

If you’re looking for a reason to leave effective altruism, I give the Scourge five out of five revealed preferences

Why would a paper with no reference to EA that one major author who identifies with EA wrote 14 years ago be a conclusive reason to leave EA? Even if abortion was something EAs usually defend, you could just see EA as "a tower of assumptions" (https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/effective-altruism-as-a-tower-of)

I genuinely think he wrote what turned out to be a decent anti-EA article. 

If most people follow their moral principles, they run into really challenging situations- like confronting millions of spontaneous abortions per year.  One response is to bite the bullet (rare), one is to not think about the implications of your moral commitments (common), and another is to argue that the fact that nobody follows a principle fully, you can discard it (I dislike this approach), but it's a possible conclusion.

Instead, I think people should bite the bullet on moral reasoning, and not use arguments like "that's weird" or "that's too hard" and not conclude that if other people aren't living out their claimed values, their values are wrong. 

Edited to add this: If you think people not following through on the implications of moral claim X, lets you reject X, you can easily reject EA.  Almost nobody outside of EA follows through on a lot of central EA claims about the future, global poor, or wild animals. Few EAs fully follow through- but I don't think that justifies indifference to those claims.

I was gonna add that maybe what you meant is that Ord's argument would justify a subjectivist moral theory. But I don't see anything implying it in the text, though. His point is more like some sort of reflexive equilibrium, when one has to see which of the inconsistent moral intuitions must remain. that's how moral reasoning usually works. Your way of solving this is by biting the bullet that embryos might be the moral tragedy of our time. Others will solve the inconsistency in some other way. But one's modus ponens is someone else's modus tollens (https://www.gwern.net/Modus)... if someone replied that selfish behavior is inconsistent with altruistic principles, I'd have to agree - at least since Thrasymacus people have used this when arguing for some sort of moral skepticism. The reasonig is logically valid; that's precisely why this position is kind of hard to retort. You can't just reply that this is wrong; you must show how it conflicts with other beliefs the person is supposed to have.

Edit: on the fun side: on of the moral pros of assisted reproduction is that it helps save us from the non-identity problem, as it mitigates the contingencies of human reproduction.

I'm not making any claim about the moral value of embryos. 

I just think Ord's claim that embryo valuers don't care about embryos (in the right way, in all circumstances) says that their general view can be discarded is not convincing. I know tons of people who claim X, but don't act on X. That doesn't mean they're wrong about X- they might be weak or hypocritical or bad at reasoning!

I shouldn't have implied you made any claim about the moral value of embryos. I should have said, instead, that someone who thinks they are morally valuable would bite the bullet...
And Ord thinks that's a very problematic position - it apparently implies that we should try to prevent the loss embryos even if it happens right after conception. So it is not absurd to see his point as akin to a reductio.

On the other hand

That doesn't mean they're wrong about X- they might be weak or hypocritical or bad at reasoning

If they are "weak or hypocritical or bad at reasoning" then their failing to act on X conflicts with other beliefs - like their belief in X. They can solve the conflict by either dropping X, or changing their behavior. We usaully don't convince people to donate to GD by first convincing them that suffering matters; we assume they agree that suffering matters and show them that their belief that suffering matters imply they should donate...
If someone says "Oh, but now I don't think suffering matters anymore" you need to use different arguments - you have to show that this new position conflicts with other premises they defend

The fact that the founder of EA wrote the article is largely irrelevant to ColdButtonIssues's argument; he just thinks an equivalent argument could be used against EA.

I recognized it on my second reply and addressed this. I still think it misses the point.
I don't think it provides a point against EAs - which usually start from ideas people already agree with (and are not willing to give up on - that's the whole point of the reversal  test  advocated by Toby Ord to precisely eliminate status quo bias) and then draw the corresponding conclusions.