Dignity as alternative EA priority - request for feedback

by tomwein1 min read25th Jun 202021 comments



I run The Dignity Project, a campaign for more respectful development. I also consider myself aligned with EA, and I've been wondering how to integrate those two interests. I'd be interested in the community's feedback on this.

I've tried to make a positive case in favour of dignity, rather than an objective assessment. What holes do you see? What evidence would you value to help resolve what weight an EA should place on dignity?

EA aims to do the greatest good. How to define that good is one of Bostrom’s ‘crucial considerations’. The past few years have seen increasing debate. ‘Lives saved’ has largely been replaced by QALYs and DALYs. GiveWell and IDinsight have been researching the moral weights people place on different outcomes. There are strong arguments for using WALYs, incorporating life satisfaction. Dignity deserves its place alongside these measures - because it meets criteria of neglectedness, solvability and scale (Wiblin, 2019).

Dignity as a definition of the good life has historically been neglected. That is starting to change. In 2019, Jeremy Shapiro’s article on cash transfers posited dignity as an important differentiator between cash and in-kind aid. Banerjee & Duflo’s new book 'Good Economics for Hard Times' urges us to study dignity; they write "Restoring human dignity to its central place...sets off a profound rethinking of economic priorities...". Just this week, Gene Sperling launched a book called Economic Dignity, and it has been an important feature in considerations of effective medical care (Jacobson, 2007). Yet I have found no projects that have attempted to evaluate interventions or advocate for them, and very few that define dignity or develop measures - and none of those that do exist are EA-aligned.

As McKaskill and others have argued, epistemic modesty suggests that when we are in a position of moral uncertainty, we should consider an intervention through multiple measures - to do so is the equivalent of robustness checks in statistical modelling. Dignity is - or should be - an important meeting point between EA’s values, and other value systems. This is doubly the case when EA has taken so little account (Brown, 2016) of the extensive articulation of the good life - underpinned by dignity - put forward by Sen, Nussbaum, Alkire and others.

Addressing dignity potentially has huge scale. Disrespect is extremely common; in 13 Afrobarometer countries more than 50% said public officials do not treat them with respect. My own experiment in Nairobi showed that experiencing disrespect was associated with feeling significantly less happy and less empowered. Since disrespect is most frequently experienced when individuals interact with bureaucracies (Scott, 1999), it is relevant for global development, government, businesses and beyond. A robust theory of dignity in EA would have implications for how we rank causes and interventions, with wellbeing and cash interventions likely to seem more urgent.

Dignity is also highly solvable. The philosophical literature already gives us a framework for generating interventions, and these include potentially highly cost-effective interventions such as listening (Wein et al, in progress). As we uncover effective interventions, they can be spread. My own research has shown that there is a unique consensus in global development: the US public say they would donate 60% more to a more respectful charity, while 79% of US non-profit professionals say they are personally committed to raising dignity with their colleagues. Senior figures in global development such as Winnie Byanyima and Antonio Guterres have called for more focus on dignity.

Some resources

More about the Dignity Project at dignityproject.net. Specific resources that may be of interest are this one page flyer summarising research so far, and this work-in-progress literature review.



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I'm not entirely clear as to whether you are applying the INT/neglectedness, solvability and scale framework to dignity as a fundamental value or to dignity-promotion as a cause area for EA (according to EA values, however we determine them).

The INT framework is usually applied as a heuristic for broad cause area selection and I don't think it works well as a heuristic for determining fundamental values. Things which are valuable are fundamentally valuable even if they are not neglected and estimating their Importance/Scale seems crucially to depend on whether and how far they are fundamentally valuable, even if they affect lots of people. Maybe it would be helpful to think more about which potential values are neglected or likely to be more or less tractable to satisfy, in order to determine whether we should dedicate more resources to trying to satisfy them, but I don't think just quickly running through the INT heuristic will be that informative.[^1]

If it's applied to the idea of dignity-promotion as a cause area (according to EA values), then it seems like we should judge it based on all our values (which for many EAs will largely determined by how well it promotes welfare, with small amounts of weight given to other values, such as dignity itself). It's not so clear that promoting-dignity performs well in those terms.

[^1] For example, I think that many minority/peripheral values that we could think up would be highly neglected, affect a lot of people, and be tractable, but this doesn't tell us much about their moral importance.

This is a fair point. I've treated dignity as equivalent to a cause area here, but that's not really what it is. I think in part I'm borrowing INT because I'm not sure how philosophers make arguments over fundamental values - the empiricist in me wants to root it in some sort of popularity/preferences survey. There's definitely an unresolved tension in my thinking between regarding dignity as an end, and regarding it as a promising strategy for promoting welfare.

It's something I'll do some reading on, but if anyone has recommendations for reading on how philosophers arrive at understandings of fundamental values, I'd love to read them.

I think when people invoke the term dignity they sort of circumvent describing the issue in actual detail. Most "indignities" can be described in concrete terms, which can then be addressed, such as the inconvenience of not having toilets available, the aversiveness of having to deal with an unfriendly or incompetent government official, etc.. Some interventions require disregarding a number of preferences of those that they are ultimately aimed to help. Having "dignity" be a requirement would make that difficult or impossible.

Thanks Wolf. The reason I think to speak about dignity as a general phenomenon rather than a series of concrete indignities is that there are so many possible different indignities, which are very context dependent - but there is a sufficient similarity between how those different indignities are experienced to make them worthwhile capturing under one category. Therefore we can offer measures that are appropriate to many situations without having to come up with different specific survey questions for every different possible indignity.

To your second point, I would argue for including measures of respect not because we should always and everywhere maximize respect at the expense of other goals, but rather because by measuring it we can make informed judgments about those tradeoffs. My prior is that we would find ways of being more respectful that did not sabotage other goals, but we won't know until we measure.

It is very interesting! Glad to see this post.

Do you mind expanding a bit on what you mean by dignity and why you think that's an important measure? Should dignity be valued even at the cost of well-being or should that be used as an indirect measure (like QALY)?

Seconded - it's hard to react to your post without a more concrete definition of dignity.

Maybe you could propose some metrics, even incomplete ones, for exactly what you're trying to improve by improving dignity? I looked at the metrics proposed on your website, but I have to admit they seemed vague to me.

Thanks EdoArad and mwcvitkovic.

Drawing on work by Remy Debes and others, I define dignity as a quality possessed by each person. That quality is characteristic (it is at least part of what defines personhood), inalienable (it cannot be stripped away), and unquantifiable - no one has more or less dignity. This is called a moralized idea of dignity in the literature, and differs from the merit-based definition which says that some people have greater dignity than others.

In recognition of the fact that people have dignity, we have a duty to treat them with respect. We call this Recognition Respect, because it is the basic level of respect due to everyone - we might want to offer additional respect to great athletes or particularly eloquent forum posters. It's this respect that we measure. On the website I propose some metrics for doing so.

Does that help? It's tricky to explain at this level of abstraction!

I think the right kind of feedback here depends mainly on whether you mean to propose that EA underestimates the extent to which treating people with dignity improves their welfare or you mean to propose that EA fails to consider the importance of dignity as an intrinsically and independently valuable element of a life lived well. If dignity is only important on account of its instrumental role in improving welfare, I very much doubt that a thorough evaluation of that role would lead many EAs to conclude that they should redirect their charitable giving. Even if treating someone with dignity were associated with a truly striking increase in their welfare, it seems unlikely to me that, for instance, global health interventions with such an emphasis would outperform distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets or deworming pills. Among other things, I imagine that most parents of young children would agree to an arbitrarily large amount of undignified treatment in exchange for preventing their child from dying of malaria (revealed preferences suggest this is true). This suggests that the AMF would outperform a hypothetical charity with a dignity focus even without accounting for the positive impact of saving children’s lives unless promoting dignity were extraordinarily cheap per person affected. Similarly, I doubt that integrating concern for the role dignity may play in determining welfare into longtermist perspectives would do much to shift people’s ideas about the best giving opportunities to safeguard the long-term future of humanity.

If on the other hand you take dignity to be valuable in itself (apart from any role it might have in bringing about another good, like improving welfare), I wonder whether the philosophical foundation for your view is really fully compatible with EA. From what I’ve read, it seems as if most of the philosophers who take treating people with respect to be a good in itself view dignity as the sort of thing that each of us has a reason to accord to others when we interact with them. They do not, however, by and large view dignity as the sort of thing that we have a reason to impartially maximize (i.e. while it’s very important for me to treat you with dignity, it’s nowhere near as important—and may not even be valuable at all—for me to counterfactually enable you to treat someone else with dignity). In their view, the obligation to treat others with dignity “spring[s] from an agent’s special relationship to his own actions” and “the claims of those with whom we interact to be treated by us in certain ways” (Korsgaard 1993, emphasis mine), not from the objective value of the world having more dignity in it (or anything like that). As a result, some (see, for example, Taurek 1977) go so far as to argue that it is not necessarily any better for more people to be treated well than for fewer. Following Korsgaard, we might think of the value of treating people with dignity as similar to the value of keeping promises — while I have reason to keep my own promises, I likely do not have reason to promote a world in which more promises are kept. Doing so would suggest that I misunderstood the way in which keeping promises is valuable. If dignity is the kind of moral good that most clearly has a place in non-consequentialist moral views that oppose interpersonal aggregation wholesale, I suspect that at least our present philosophical concept of it may be unsuited to sit among what we might conventionally refer to as “EA values.”

That said, I should note: Like surprisingly many EAs, I am not a utilitarian. I am, however, some kind of consequentialist, and I would love for EA folks to invest more effort in developing a thorough conception of human flourishing, of what it means for a person’s life to go well for them. Without such a theory, we cannot ensure that we are actually improving others’ lives to the greatest extent possible (because we lack a robust understanding of what it means for a life to be improved). For that reason, I personally welcome posts like this that seek to draw attention in those kinds of directions and propose some less conventional ideas about what flourishing might involve.

Thanks for this very thoughtful response - I think it really clarifies some of the tensions I referred to in my response to DavidMoss above. I framed my original post as one about integration of different interests, but you are right that they proceed from different ethical commitments. As you conclude, many of us here have some personal commitment to both those ethics, but they aren't really integratable

I think some dignity-informed interventions *would* pass a cost-effectiveness test - but probably not at the very top of the effectiveness pyramid. Dignity arguments are unlikely to transform AMF's practice, or lead us to replace AMF with a different charity. They might improve effectiveness for many existing middling programs, through two routes: by providing an additional argument for converting to cash transfers, and by suggesting small welfare-increasing ameliorations to many average programs. We tend to talk about the ideal interventions here, and in terms of directing our own giving that's quite right - this might have more to tell us about the bulk of other aid.

A quick post to thank everyone for this thoughtful feedback. Personal life has kept me from responding as fully as I'd like so far, but I'll be back soon to do so properly.

I'm emerging from hibernation. Apologies for taking so long to reply.

Thank you for raising this topic.

I'm not sure yet whether I'm on board, and in order to know the answers I would need more information.

  • IMPACT: not only how widespread is the experience of not being treated with dignity, but also how bad is it? I feel that my bank treats me with indignity as a matter of course, so we need some way to factor in severity of indignity, and we shouldn't accidentally take the prevalence of all cases of indignity (severe or otherwise) and then multiply them by the most severe severity and end up with an overestimate
  • TRACTABILITY: "Dignity is also highly solvable <...> include potentially highly cost-effective interventions such as listening" I think the tractability claim needs more substantiation. Me choosing to listen more is cheap. However if I pay you to get corrupt officials in the developing world to be better active listeners, I would predict poor cost-effectiveness because it probably wouldn't work, I would guess.
  • NEGLECTEDNESS: Defining the interventions better will help us better assess neglectedness. However at first glance it seems that it's probably not neglected. If we survey lots of aid professionals and asked them "Do you want your colleagues and the aid sector as a whole to treat beneficiaries with respect" I predict that a very high proportion will say yes. However if I had a clearer picture of your action plan, I might conclude that your particular approach may well be neglected

Of these, I think the first (impact) is the most important. Any concerted effort on the topic of dignity will inevitably have opportunity costs, so we need to understand why it's more important than some other factors.

Thank you again for raising a fresh idea. The questions I'm raising are intended to be positive and encouraging.

Thanks Sanjay for these responses.

I think your caution on how we could easily overestimate our impact is right. We have good evidence that disrespect is common. In a study with 239 participants from Kibera in Nairobi, a one-unit increase in disrespect score was associated with a reduction on the wellbeing scale of 0.2, and a reduction in the self-efficacy scale of 0.3 (both significant at p=>0.01) - that's suggestive, but not precise enough yet. Something for a wider study at some point!

On tractability, I think I see more promise. Charities are well-practiced at implementing changes to their processes for whatever reason, and well-defined recommendations could be taken up by their teams fairly easily. Even in the admittedly harder case of changing government practice, there are papers suggesting that day-long training sessions can have solid impacts (apologies, can't find the reference this morning).

Neglectedness, as you say, depends on exactly the level of action we are asking for. As you say many would offer a rhetorical commitment to dignity (in a recent survey, 79% of 407 US non-profit professionals personally committed to raising dignity as an issue where they could do better, with their colleagues. My impression though is that this isn't enough to actually change practice - there's a gap between that rhetorical commitment and the frequent experiences of disrespect reported by those who take part in those programs.

What evidence would you value to help resolve what weight an EA should place on dignity?

Many EAs tend to think that most interventions fail, so if you can't measure how well something works, chances are high that it doesn't work at all. To convince people who think that way, it helps to have a strong justification to incorporate a metric which is harder to measure over a well established and easier to measure metrics such as mortality and morbidity.

In the post on happiness you linked by Michael, you'll notice that he has a section on comparing subjective well being to traditional health metrics. A case is made that improving health does not necessarily improve happiness. This is important, because death and disability is easier to measure than things like happiness and dignity, so if it's a good proxy it should be used. If it turned out the that the best way to improve dignity is e.g. prevent disability, then in light of how much easier to measure disability prevention is, it would not be productive to switch focus. (Well, maybe. You might also take a close association between metrics as a positive sign that you're measuring something real. )

To get the EA community excited about a new metric, if it seems realistically possible then i'd recommend following Michael's example in this respect. After establishing a metric for dignity, try to determine how well existing top givewell interventions do on it, see what the relationship is with other metrics, and then see if there are any interventions that plausibly do better.

I think this could plausibly be done. I think there's a lot of people who favor donations to GiveDirectly because of the dignity/autonomy angle (cash performs well on quite a few metrics and perspectives, of course) - I wouldn't be surprised if there are donors who would be interested in whether you can do better than cash from that perspective.

Ishaan, thanks for sharing these thoughts. As you say, cash transfers feel like an opportune one here - I did some thinking to support Jeremy Shapiro's work on cash and recipient preferences right at the start of this project, published here. Extending that to give an overview of how different interventions compare and how their ranking might change sounds like a really productive possible project!

I think there could be a case that QALY/DALY/etc. calculations should factor in dignity in some way, and view mismatches between, say, QALY calculations and what feels "right" in terms of dignity as sign that the calculations may be leaving something important out. For example, if intervention X produces 10 QALY and makes someone feel 10% less dignified, then either we want to be sure the 10 QALY figure already incorporates that cost to dignity or it is adjusted to consider it. Seems like there is a strong case to be made for possibly more nuanced calculation of metrics, especially so we don't miss cases where ignoring something like dignity would cause us to think an intervention was good but in fact it is overall bad once dignity is factored in. That this has come up and seems an issue suggests some calculations people are doing today fail to factor it in.

Thanks Gordon - I think that's my intuitive sense as well. It also chimes with some of the work by IDinsight about how respondents differently value lives depending on age (putting a very strong emphasis on saving children's lives). I should plan to spend some good time talking with people who work on calculating QALYs to see if there are opportunities to integrate this.

Again asking for more clarification on what dignity means.

I do think though things that intuitively seem to me to be similar what you are probably talking about with dignity could be important considerations, though I suspect they are unlikely to be cost competitive with mosquito nets and vaccines if you are making direct benefit calculations.

Perhaps we mean something like: Being respected by your community, and treated with respect by the system as a whole, having direct control over your life and what you do day to day, ie being able to meaningfully choose are important components of the good life that an intervention ideally should support rather than oppose.

At the same time, if I was an individual who both was disrespected by the people around him, and dying of malaria, I'd probably strongly prefer to get anti malarial drugs than respect, so unless the respect is much cheaper to provide than DALY, focusing on DALY probably makes more sense.

I suspect a large part of the value of large direct cash transfers is that it makes the person who receives it, because they have more resources, automatically become more respected in their community, and feel more in control of their own choices. So in that sense we might already be pushing interventions that support dignity.

The dignity of the poor being better protected on a large scale is the sort of thing which would require actual systemic change (possibly opposed to systemic change just being a synonym for 'boo capitalism'), and we don't know about robust ways to achieve most types of systemic change which don't have a high chance of backfiring and causing more problems than they fix.

I do think this is an important thing to think about, and that it is at least plausible if you could improve access to and respect for dignity it could lead to a large improvement in well being, comparable possibly to a large increase in income (though probably not comparable to a substantial increase in life expectancy).

Hi Tim. Thanks for your comment. I've tried to explain in a little more depth what I mean by dignity in a response above, and there's a deeper discussion in my WIP literature review. But I think your definition is a reasonable approximation - and your closing thought seems about the same level that I would estimate the possible scale of this. Cash transfers seem like a good example of an intervention that is pretty dignity-focused.

I like your point about how the individual might trade-off between respectful treatment and malarial drugs, because it nicely illustrates what we don't know - in that case, the trade-off is probably clear, whereas in the case of for example a disrespectful but otherwise useful entrepreneurship training scheme, the trade-off is much less clear. Without measuring respectfulness, we can't be precise about those trade-offs - but as I said in a response above, this probably has more relevance for the bulk of mid-level development interventions, and less relevance for the most effective interventions that EAs are most concerned about.

Thanks for raising this Tom.

"Dignity" is among 9-80 considerations, all of which are highly solvable.

That's 7-80 depending how you list/categorise/boundary them ...

... and Tom I'm sorry if this response appears to complicate what would otherwise be a simple pleasure-dignity duo!

Economist Manfred Max-Neef has 9 which don't translate too well from Spanish but here they are: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, recreation, creation, identity and freedom. In this scheme/categorisation, dignity could be part of identity, protection and freedom.

Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg  has useful categories described well here, and dignity would probably be a part of autonomy, and also respect/self-respect in his "connection" category.

A key distinction is between these values/needs/qualities and the strategies used to satisfy them, with travelling and money being obvious examples of a strategies that can be used to meet some (but not all) needs/values. Money is not essential to meeting any of them i.e. the needs/values/qualities and are universal, the strategies can vary according to circumstance and resources.

In the health care and therapy world, the same broad understanding of needs/values is held by Human Givens therapy.

This broader understanding of needs/values also helps explain why everyone doesn't want to live in Denmark, or be rich, and why people do low paid and "difficult" jobs like California Conservation Corps or being a marine or a circus performer. It also helps explain why the same behaviour or item or circumstance can be very pleasing to one person and anathema to others, and also how the same thing can provoke different responses in the same person at different times.

Someone asked about measurement. Fortunately Rosenberg's needs in practice and communication produce, when met/satisfied, observable reactions, and self rating is often viable. Work has also been done measuring needs satisfaction in the categories used by Maslow in the hierarchy of needs.

I am not sure how a dignity emphasis could be separate from a well-being emphasis as it seems well-being is in part constituted by dignity. Unless one is a hedonist about well-being (which few philosophers today are), it is hard to imagine someone’s dignity (if you believe there is such a thing) will not be included in their overall well-being. By allowing someone to have basic life essentials you are thereby allowing them to live more a dignified life which we tacitly believe people deserve by virtue of being people.

Also, some philosophers have argued precisely that dignity is the reason we care about welfare at all. There is a property that an entity has which we believe makes it the subject of our moral concern.