Dignity as alternative EA priority - request for feedback

by tomwein 1 min read25th Jun 202010 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 ‘Lives saved’ has largely been replaced by QALYs and DALYs.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.