Ethical offsetting is antithetical to EA

by ClaireZabel 4y5th Jan 201675 comments


[My views are my own, not my employer's. Thanks to Michael Dickens for reviewing this post prior to publication.]

[More discussion here]


Spreading ethical offsetting is antithetical to EA values because it encourages people to focus on negating harm they personally cause rather than doing as much good as possible. Also, the most favored reference class for the offsets is rather vague and arbitrary.

There are a few positive aspects of using ethical offsets, and situations in which advocating ethical offsets may be effective.


Ethical offsetting is the practice of undoing harms caused by one's activities through donations or other acts of altruism. Examples of ethical offsetting include purchasing carbon offsets to make up for one’s carbon emissions and donating to animal charities to offset animal product consumption. More explanation and examples are available in this article.

Against offsetting

I think ethical offsetting is antithetical to EA values, and have three main objections to it.

   1) In practice, people doing ethical offsetting use vague and arbitrary reference classes.

   2) It's not the most effectively altruistic thing to do.

   3) It spreads suboptimal and non-consequentialist memes/norms about doing good.


1) The reference class people pick for ethical offsets is arbitrary.

For example, let's say I cause some harm by buying milk that came from a cow that was treated poorly, and I want to negate the harm. I have a bunch of options.


I cannot undo the exact harm done by my purchase once it's happened, but I could (try to) seek out that specific cow and try to do something nice for her, negating the harm I caused for that specific cow's utility calculus. I could donate some money to a charity that helps cows, negating my harmful effect on the total utility of cow-kind. I could donate some money to a charity that helps all farmed animals, negating my harmful effect on farmed animal-kind. Or I could donate to whatever charity I thought did the most good per dollar, negating my negative impact on the universe most cost-effectively but less directly.


People seem to settle on a sort of broad cause-area-level offsetting preference (e.g. donating to help farmed animals). While reference class seems intuitive, it's ultimately arbitrary*.


2) Ethical offsetting isn't the most effectively altruistic thing.

You should do the things you think are most effectively altruistic, and you should donate to the charities you think are most effective. If you eat dead animals and don't believe animal charities are the most effective charities, I don't think you should donate to them.

Like everything else, ethical offsetting has opportunity costs; you could use that money to donate to the best charity, which is often different from the charity you’re using for ethical offsetting. It causes a harm relative to the world where you donate only to the most effective charity.

Even if you think the charity you donate your offsetting money to is the most effective, I don’t think it’s helpful to do ethical offsetting. Much of the suffering in the world isn’t directly caused by anyone, so an offsetting mindset increases the probability that you’ll miss big sources of suffering down the line. It causes a bias towards addressing anthropogenic harms, rather than harms from nature.

3) Ethical offsetting spreads anti-EA memes and norms

Ethical offsetting reinforces a preoccupation with not doing harmful things (instead of not allowing harmful things to happen, and taking action when they do). But EAs should (and usually do) focus on the sufferers, not themselves.


By encouraging others to offset, we set norms oriented around people’s personal behavior. We encourage an inefficient model of charity that involves donating based on one’s activities, not one’s abilities or the needs of charities that help neutralize various harms. We miss the chance to communicate about core EA ideas like cause prioritization and room for more funding by establishing a framework that has little room for them.

There are some other dangers involved in ethical offsetting, although I haven’t seen much evidence they actually occur: Offsetting may also encourage unhealthy scrupulosity about the harms we inevitably contribute to in order to function (although it could also help alleviate anxiety about them). And as Scott Alexander points out, offsetting could lead people to think it’s acceptable to do big harmful things as long as they offset them. This could contribute to careless and destructive norms about personal behavior.



Offsetting is better than nothing. There may be situations in which ethical offsetting is the biggest plausible ask one can make. In such situations, I think bringing up the idea of ethical offsetting may be appropriate. And it may be an interesting conversation starter about sources of suffering and ways of alleviating them.


I've previously discussed my concerns about the obstacles to changing one's mind about cause prioritization, and I can imagine ethical offsetting at the cause area level being used to remind oneself about various causes of suffering in the world and the organizations working to stop them. This could make it easier to change one’s mind about what’s most effective. It seems somewhat plausible that offsetting would help make the community better at updating and better informed.


It may be really psychologically beneficial for some people, similar to the way donations for the dubiously-named fuzzies (donations for causes that are especially personally meaningful to the donor rather than maximally effective) sometimes are.


I think the argument that we should focus on doing lots of good rather than fixing harms we cause could drive destructive thoughtlessness about personal behavior, so I’m wary about making it too frequently. I’m most worried about this concern.




*The reference class schelling point is stronger with carbon offsets, where the harmful thing is adding some carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide molecules are pretty interchangeable. If you remove as many as you added, you neutralize the harm from your emissions-causing action very directly, which is intuitively appealing.


All suffering may be equally important, but not all forms of harm are the same, or even similar. How similar the harm you offset is to the harm you cause can vary a lot. Few other types of offsetting I’ve heard of allow the opportunity to create a future so similar to the one where the harmful activity had never been done.