Edit: This comment makes some good points - I now think the term carries enough intellectual baggage that it is probably unhelpful as an addition to EA discourse.
This is a quick, low effort post about the idea of ‘intersectionality’, a theoretical lens which is common is the social justice sphere, and less known about in EA. I’ve probably spent less than three hours thinking about this, so there’s a good chance I’m missing some crucial considerations. Nonetheless, I want to write about it for three reasons:
- A lot of EAs implicitly endorse the idea of intersectionality already. In the interests of not reinventing the wheel, I think it would be helpful for EAs to understand what is meant by the term.
- Community builders in EA often mention diversity, equity and inclusion as an important part of community building strategy. I think that active engagement with intersectionality could make DEI initiatives in the community more effective.
- A lot of social justice-style critiques of EA explicitly or implicitly touch on intersectionality, particularly when arguing against the EA approach of optimising for one thing at a time. I think it’s important that EAs understand and engage with our critics, and this post might help some members of the community to do so.
I’m only going to cover issues (1) and (2) in this post, but I’m hoping it will also help readers to understand what is going on when they read critiques under (3). So, without further ado:
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality is the idea that ‘the overlap of various identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual’. That is to say, the disadvantages faced by an individual cannot be understood simply by totting up the separate reasons they might be disadvantaged. Instead, it's important to understand how multiple facets of an individual's social position interact to create novel problems that are greater than the sum of their parts.
The archetypal example of this phenomenon is the case of DeGraffenried v. General Motors (summarised in this Vox article), an employment law case concerning a last-hired, first-fired policy used by GM. The policy didn’t discriminate against either women or Black people but Black women, a group that was late to enter the automotive sector. Intersectional discrimination legislation would have protected the unique employment rights of Black women as Black women - as it was, DeGraffenreid lost the suit and her job.
How can we apply intersectionality to EA?
The key EA-relevant insight of the theory is that you can’t always deal with policy issues one-by-one. In fact, some important societal challenges sit right at the intersection between several separate issues, requiring an understanding of how different facets of a problem interact. This is surprisingly easy to miss, meaning there is value in using an explicitly intersectional approach as one of the tools to analyse important questions.
To flesh this out a little, I've written a few examples of intersectional approaches to EA issues below. I think intersectionality can be a helpful tool to apply at both the ‘meta-EA’, community building level, and also at the object level when trying to solve difficult, real-world problems, so I've considered one of each.
Non-human animals are treated horrendously worldwide, because many humans don’t see them as worthy of moral consideration. A highly effective way to improve animal welfare in the short-term might be advocacy around moral circle expansion to animals in factory farms. At the same time, the interests of future beings are systematically ignored, because many humans don’t see them as worthy of moral consideration. An effective way of promoting their interests might be the development of plant-based meats which minimise resource use and protect the environment for the future. However, it's not clear that a highly effective way to protect non-human animals over the long-term future is either (a) to promote the consumption of plant-based meat or (b) to promote moral circle expansion. In fact, there’s a plausible argument that either policy could increase animal suffering in the long-term future, with our increased care for non-human animals and our healthier climate increasing the number of suffering wild animals.
That's because this is an intersectional issue - we are dealing with two separate axes of disadvantage (species, time of existence) which interact in unpredictable ways, meaning that approaches which perform well on either axis won't always perform well overall. Longtermist animal advocates might recognise this explicitly look for intersectional solutions to the problem. Perhaps EAs should abandon farmed animals altogether, and go all-in on long-term wild animal welfare? Perhaps EA should publicly espouse a suffering-focused ethics, trying to move the needle towards a world where we rid the world of animals altogether? I'm dubious about either option, but an intersectional approach is nonetheless a useful way to think about these questions in depth.
A majority of EAs are WEIRD, white, male STEM and philosophy grads who went to top universities. Given this, it’s unsurprising that much of EA messaging isn’t readily convincing to folks that fall outside of this (tiny) demographic. Taking an intersectional approach to messaging in EA seems like an effective way to change this. For example, more than a few EA people of colour I’ve spoken to have expressed discomfort about only donating to maximally effective charities, and this relates directly to their intersectional identity. Being both a part of the wealthy global elite and people of colour, they feel a special obligation to help people within their own communities who are not blessed with the same advantages. Whether or not this feeling of obligation cashes out in concrete ethical positions, the emotional force of the obligation has a real effect on their donation decisions, and this tension makes them feel uncomfortable when discussing donations in EA spaces.
More explicit communication from organisations like GWWC and 80k that it’s okay to donate some of your money or career-time to effective charities which are closer to home - just like it’s okay to have kids, and okay to take the day off, or okay to have more than one goal - seems like it could broaden EAs appeal to smart, effective people who fall outside of EA’s main demographic without diluting our message. As above, a good understanding of intersectionality might thus help improve the effectiveness of the community overall.
Why might intersectional approaches be a waste of time?
I can see two strong objections to EAs making an active effort to consider intersectionality.
First, at the meta-level, taking an intersectional approach to EA messaging could reduce the fidelity of our message. Considering the issue coldly, it seems reasonable to argue that yes, it is wrong to help out closer to home when you consider the opportunity cost in lives saved. Trying to deny this fact or encouraging doublespeak by EA orgs could seriously harm the epistemics of the broader community. It might also be a losing game - talking about cause prioritisation clearly implies that some causes are more important to work on than others, and no amount of sugarcoating can hide the fact that EA thinking implies that close-to-home cause areas could be astronomically less important to work on than the most important EA causes.
Second, at the object-level, saying we should 'employ an intersectional lens' might just be another way of saying we need to consider the complex interactions between different factors when we make decisions. If EAs are doing this already, then adding a layer of jargon on top might just make discussions harder to understand for the uninitiated. I don’t completely buy this criticism - I think it’s plausible that using a specific term could help to clarify EA discourse - but it’s a fair response all the same.
Intersectional approaches to social issues are really common outside of EA, and almost never mentioned within it. I think that intersectionality is a useful idea that EAs could readily adopt to help explain and understand phenomena both within the movement, and when working on real-world problems.
In any case, hopefully, this post has helped a few EAs engage with the topic in more detail.
As I've noted in the rest of the post, intersectionality isn't just to do with race or gender, and can be applied to both issues and individuals. For that reason, you might find it more helpful to understand intersectionality as a useful tool for understanding social problems.
You said, "a good understanding of intersectionality might thus help improve the effectiveness of the community overall". But I am left wondering if a "good understanding" of intersectionality is even possible, since the term seems vague and poorly-defined.
Finally, to be honest, when I've heard people using the term "intersectional", they've often used it like this:
I recognize that's a long paragraph, but that's honestly the main context in which I've heard people use "intersectional". The political logic is reasonable enough, I suppose, if a bit cynical and realpolitik. But I think that joining a grand political alliance would be exactly the wrong thing for effective altruism at this time -- the "neutrality" of EA (both politically and in the sense of "cause neutrality") is IMO one of effective altruism's greatest virtues, which helps it attract smart people, focus clearly on what's true & important, make progress in areas that other groups can't, etc. So, even if the idea of "things sometimes overlap" turns out to need a technical term, I'd personally be very hesitant to use the word "intersectionality", until I could be convinced that the association between "intersectionality" and "...therefore we should join a totalizing political crusade" was just a quirk of my own experience and not an association that any other people share.
Thanks for your message Jackson. A few thoughts:
Even if intersectionality comes with intellectual baggage, I don't think we should shy away from using the term if it improves clarity. EAs already use terms that come with significant ideological baggage, because they're useful and help to express important ideas. The term 'nonhuman animals' is a good example here - EAs use it to indicate that the moral distinction between the two is illusory. But this term (and much of the language around veganism) is morally charged, indicating a set of beliefs is perceived by many outside of EA as an indictment of meat-eaters. Alternatively, EAs on the forum often discuss political liberalism or cosmopolitanism, and many leading EAs explicitly identify as neoliberals. All three terms are highly politically charged, identifying a fuzzily defined set of policy stances that are controversial on both sides of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, in all of the cases I've just outlined, we use these ideas because they're a helpful way of concisely explaining our ideas. I don't think intersectionality is different in any unique way from the terms I've just described.I now think that this comment is right, inasmuch as it's worth starting a new language game given the baggage that comes with the term.
I think this covers most of your comments, but please let me know if there's anything I can clarify. I expect our crux of disagreement is on how useful it is to introduce a politically charged term like intersectionality into EA discourse, and I'm happy to engage more on that topic.
this might be a nitpick, and i generally agree with your comment, but i think that question -- whether there'd be any anti-minority-women bias left after eliminating anti-women and anti-minority bias -- isn't really the right thing to ask. if the old view was that anti-minority-women bias is anti-minority bias plus anti-women bias, the intersectional view would be closer to multiplying the two factors. in that case, anti-minority-women bias would still go to zero if the other two were eliminated. it might be better to ask something like, "how much total anti-minority-women bias is there at various levels of anti-minority and anti-women bias?"
thanks for writing this. i think the version of intersectionality that you define is useful in that it highlights non-linear effects. but it's worth noting that intersectional analysis can lead us to interventions that are suboptimal from a cost-effectiveness perspective. like, an intersectional analysis of poverty could recommend providing aid for identity groups that are poor on average, but an effective altruist may prefer to give aid to people based on their income, no matter their identity.
by the way, i think this clearer thinking podcast episode with amber dawn and holly elmore was really good. it touches on intersectionality among other things.
I think this is only one use case, and as you pointed out, not a good one. But you could also use the intersectionality logic, for example, to inform you about communities that are missed by existing interventions, or to suggest ideas for new interventions that you could then compare to others independent of identity.
In other words, it's an analysis tool and not a measure of morality.
I totally agree with you on this Erich; in my opinion, intersectionality is a useful tool to describe the phenomena of overlapping disadvantage, but a problem isn't more important or more effective just because it's an intersectional one.
Man I miss the days EA wasn’t caught up in pop culture ethics like 1st world SJ intersectionality or DEI, and focused instead on tractable problems in the developing world.
Discrimination in the Us is bad and all (GM example above in Op’s article), sure, but it truly pails in comparison to the suffering experienced by those sick with infectious diseases like malaria or animals on factory farms.
DEI initiatives, promoted by the likes of BLM, raised dozens of millions yet hardly any of it went to save actual black lives. It was a failed experiment that makes the disastrous play pump look like a success in comparison…
I also really don’t understand the criticism supposedly voiced by EAs of colour mentioned in the article
Last time I checked, deworming and anti-malarial initiatives were NOT taking place in or benefitting the (largely white) 1st world. Most of the max effective charities help out communities of color internationally that are in a far worse shape than communities in the developed world. So this criticism seems hogwash. If one is to care about PoC and wish the save the most lives, then it should not matter where those PoC communities are. We know we can save the most lives (who happen by sheer chance to be PoC) by de-worming and anti-malaria initiatives.
Moving on. Relative to other cause areas, DEI and intersectionality seems rather wasteful or inefficient and it’s definitely not neglected.
I have yet to see sufficient evidence that DEI or intersectionality is utilitarian in the slightest. If it is consequentialist, then it certainly isn’t trying to minimize disutility or maximize utility, instead opting for the paperclips that is “diversity”. I don’t understand how diversity is an inherent/innate good when there is insufficient evidence it is even instrumental to other pursued goods.
Unless DEI initiatives are sufficiently utilitarian, the goal shouldn’t be for EA to become diverse and equitable, but rather attract the most qualified candidates, irrespective of their [intersectional] backgrounds.
It is more effective getting more people (irrespective of their backgrounds) to become EAs than to focus on fulfilling racial/ethnic quotas for signaling purposes.
We need more “X” EAs, where X can be any marginalized category. Umm… sure, but the statement still holds if you take the X out. We need more EAs and we shouldn’t care if many of them turn out to be WEIRD or not. Idk why that is even relevant. Who gives a () about what an EA looks like or what their background is? Only their beliefs, actions, and values matter for utility maximization. Not the color of their skin, gender, or sexuality.
And this is what turns me off about intersectionality, epistemically speaking. There is no attempt to mathematically quantify or statistically measure how much disutility they suffer from being X or Y, with confounding variables in mind. Their epistemology grounded in a lot of “woo” and unknowables. I’m told by intersectionalists that as a WEIRD I’ll never be able to understand or model the discrimination or pain faced by a (for example) queer, poor, Black and Muslim individual. Well, then what’s the point in engaging with that which is incalculable then?
Not the most charitable tone, I think. And I disagree strongly with your points.
You compare DEI initiatives with interventions in global health and animal suffering - but this post doesn't argue for such a comparison. This post suggests that the EA community already values diversity, inclusion, etc. and a greater understanding of intersectionality could help further those values. The applications considered in the post are how intersectionality can offer new insights or perspectives on existing cause areas, and how intersectionality might improve communications. You are attacking the post as if DEI was being proposed as a cause area, which is disingenuous.
Second, the special obligations that people of colour might feel more strongly may not attach to skin colour only or at all. Racism and its effects is complex, so special obligations might be more specific to a particular culture, ethnicity, geography, or history. For example, perhaps an obligation is due to a particular way an ethnicity is treated in a specific place, such as Cuban-Americans in Florida, or on the basis of a particular historic relationship, such as the slave trade. It's simplistic to assume that special obligations felt more strongly by people of colour must be based on skin colour, and so alleviated by helping other people of a similar skin colour.
Correct. It is a quite different ethical theory. You seem to believe that concepts must be utilitarian to be included in or considered by effective altruism. Given that you are an 'oldschoolEA' you probably don't need to be directed to the EA FAQ on this question, but for other readers it's worth quoting that:
Ibid. for your last point, which seems to claim that unless something is quantifiable it is epistemically suspect. I think there's a big range of ideas worth considering when thinking about how to do the most good in the world. Not all of those ideas are easily quantifiable.
Finally, you say
EAs are humans, not utility-maximising machines. And human psychology is complex. You can't capture who someone is by asking them to write down all their beliefs, values, and/or actions. Because we can't write them all down or test them or even know about them all, it's worth being interested in gaining perspectives from lots of different people, who have lived different kinds of lives.
For a simple example, we want people from a range of academic disciplines. Say our community was almost entirely economists. Even if we were sure it was a really smart bunch of economists, it would be wise to try and get the perspective of some other disciplines. Similarly, if our community is particularly homogenous with respect to gender, ethnicity, culture, or class, it would be worth trying to get more involvement and ideas from people from underrepresented gender/ethnicity/culture/class. This is because how and what we think is quite contingent on the lives we have led. That is, in addition to any arguments from justice or representation, diversity also has epistemic benefits.
An uncharitable tone? Perhaps I should take it as a compliment. Being uncharitably critical is a good thing.
When I first became an EA a decade ago and familiarized myself with (blunt and iconoclastic) EA concepts and ideas, in the EA handbooks and other relevant writings, there was no talk of diversity, righting historic wrongs with equity, inclusion, and intersectionality. These were not the values the community sought to maximize or the domains of knowledge meant to be understood. They had nothing to do with increasing utility and combating disutility. Granted, not every EA was utilitarian. But EA grew out of utilitarianism and utilitarian philosophers like Singer and MacAskill. The consequentialist focus was on maximizing good via high-impact philanthropy, how one do good better, relative to QALYs and DALYs. EA wasn’t very inclusive either- it was (necessarily) harsh towards those any and all who rejected an evidence-based, quantifiable, doing good better approach, irrespective of their backgrounds.
There was extreme methodological, data-driven rigor. If you suggested that there was a pressing need to follow in the footsteps of inter-sectionalist activists and fight racial discrimination injustice in the US, adopting the jargon and flawed ideas of the intersectionalists, you’d be laughed at… or at least critiqued at an EA meeting. That cause, whilst noble, was far from a tractable priority. People, animals, and countless other sentient beings were out there dying in the world and suffering. What are 300 or so people that die at the hands of American police brutality annually compared to the 300 kids in Africa who die every hour…
Things like seeing eye dog campaigns, giving to art museums were deemed ineffective. Today we have DEI campaigns and other sorts of ineffective altruism that have crept up and infiltrated the main EA sphere. Perhaps, today we should replace the give $1 to AMF or the seeing eye-dog experiment with give $1 to AMF or a DEI educational or instructional-based campaign. One is effective, the other not so much.
DEI would be fine if there was evidence that maxing DEI was good for EA ends, but frankly, I see no evidence of that being the case. The focus on community building in EA shifted from “Growing the EA community” to complaining the EA community was somehow inherently in the wrong or discriminatory or evil for ending up mostly male, white, secular, tech based etc. Now that couldn’t stand so there was a push to turn EA more diverse and open and inclusive.
Which is great and had my initial support. But it comes with risk that those who might not share EA values and methodologies will become EAs and overtime shift EA’s values/priorities as these individuals become more numerous, influential, and rise to leadership positions. EA became increasingly big tent, in part because of this.
I initially supported this outreach, but didn’t expect the epistemic baggage and prioritized non-EA values of others to in turn infiltrate and alter EA from the inside out. Whereas previously, I found EA had a stronger ideological unity and sense of purpose. No one cared about what gender/race you were— that wasn’t important. Only your beliefs, values, epistemologies and deeds mattered. And what mattered more was discourse-driven consensus among EAs but consensus and what we all share has given way to inclusion and relativistic diversity of thought. Look at the criterion of what it means to be an EA, look how vague and non-specific it has become :(
Today the EA community is one where diversity and “equity” and “justice” became innate, disseminated values, rather than potential or circumstantial instrumental ones for prior lauded ends. I’ve watched the sad and slow evolution of this take place. And it saddens the inner utilitarian in me.
So DEI has become a cause area within a cause area, and we are all aware of it.
Intersectionality is not just a flawed, unquantitative epistemology. It is the very means by which DEI initiatives are maximized and implemented.
After all, if your goal is to maximize diversity then you need intersectionality to draw up the dozens of (imo irrelevant) demographic categories (racial, religious/lacktherof, ethnic, gender, sex, health status, socioeconomic, sexual, age, lvl of education, citizenship status, etc.) then try to make sure you have people that match all the combinations and criteria. Then you have to make sure equity is there, so all historical wrongs have to be accounted for. Then you have to shame people for making assumptions or holding beliefs about those who are part of other categories.
For ex., intersectionalists claim it’s pointless for a male to study female psychology because a male will never understand what it’s like to be female and should instead have no voice in the conversation.
These obligations, if they exist, are not EA. Period. They are not effective. Yes, they may be forms of altruism, but they are ineffective ones based on kinship, greenbeard effects, localism, etc. They aren’t EA. They aren’t neutral. We as a community used to take a harsher stance against these, because the money goes further overseas. Has that been lost?
I’m White and Asian, and I’ve experienced discrimination and dislike from humans who adopt tribalistic mentalities. I’m no stranger to racism, but I realize that culture and history can turn people into the opposite of what EAs strive for- cause neutrality.
Having spoken to plenty of PoC intersectional activists, there is often an emphasis on color and I find it delusional to deny it.
One such campaign (for example) is the “Buy from this business it is Black-owned etc” or support this charity because it is run entirely by PoC and is fully diverse etc. These campaigns argue there is a moral obligation to support charities or businesses based on the demographic characteristics of their owners or leaders. I find this not justifiable, relative to other charities or initiatives.
While you are not wrong in pointing out that (today) one doesn’t have to be a utilitarian to be an EA, back in the day, it was rare to find an EA who wasn’t utilitarian or an adherent to the utilitarian moral prescriptions of Singer and the like.
I agree but Ea’s strength is its focus on what is quantifiable
Humans are utility maximizing machines, though we are often very bad at it. You can get a good and workable approximation of someone based on their values, beliefs and actions.
Gonna have to disagree there. The perspective of those training seeing eye dogs or caring about art or volunteering at the local theater are not worth considering. What I like about EA was that some perspectives are more important than others, and we can hone the perspectives that matter over those that are not morally or epistemically relevant.
This seems to assume that people from from underrepresented gender/ethnicity/culture/class are incapable of generating the same ideas and that they somehow have different ideas that differ from the homogenous majority.
Or at minimum, if these ideas are in fact different, it assumes those ideas are better than what the majority has come up with (which I find unlikely, given the rarity of EA methodological rigor).
Frankly (for ex), I can’t tell the difference between a female/white/American/working class hedonistic utilitarian than a male/Black/French/middle class hedonistic utilitarian.
As far as I’m concerned, both are hedonistic utilitarians with the same (or highly similar) hedonistic utilitarian ideas. Their sex or gender or race doesn’t change that.
That's... a lot to unpack. I think we probably disagree on a lot, and I'm not sure further back-and-forth will be all that productive. I trust other readers to assess whose responses were substantive or convincing.
Two final comments:
1) As mentioned in McMahan's 'Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism', the earliest arguments by Singer and Unger were based on intuition to a thought experiment and consistency, and "there is no essential dependence of effective altruism on utilitarianism."
2) Even if we grant that early EA was 100% and whole-heartedly utilitarian, does it follow that EA today should be?
The 2019 EA survey found that the clear majority of EAs (80.7%) identified with consequentialism, especially utilitarian consequentialism. Their moral views color and influence how EA functions. So the lack of dependence of effective altruism on utilitarianism is a weak argument, historically and presently.
Yes, EA should still uphold data-driven consequentialist principles and methodologies, like those seen in contemporary utilitarian calculus.
I agree that most EAs identify with consequentialism, and that proportion was likely higher in the past. I also lean consequentialist myself. But that's not what we disagree about. You move from 'The majority of EAs lean consequentialist' to 'The only ideas EA should consider seriously are utilitarian ones' - and that I disagree with.
Moral Uncertainty is a book about what to do given there are multiple plausible ethical theories, written by two of EA's leading lights Toby Ord and Will MacAskill (in addition to Krister Bykvist). Perhaps you could consider it.
The change over time from a simplistic, first order theory of effective altruism is warranted and natural. You describe a set of thumb rules for utilitarianism, but the thing is - over time we get better at discussing how to adapt to different situations and what it even is that we want to maximise. You may prefer to keep the old ways, but that doesn't make it the "correct" EA formalism.
Overtime EA has become increasingly big tent and has ventured into offering opinions on altruistic initiatives it would have previously criticized or deemed ineffective.
That is to say, the concern is that EA is becoming merely A, overtime.
I think you might have misunderstood the scope of this post. I want to emphasise that I endorse none of the following claims:
If we remove these claims and just consider whether intersectionality would be a useful tool (of many different possible tools) for helping EAs think through difficult ideas, would this change your position at all?
Good post! I haven't really paid attention to the concept or understood it before, and a short introduction with simple examples, motivation and counterpoints was very helpful.
It may have tended to hurt Black women the most, but that doesn’t imply it discriminated against them. Any policy must necessarily hurt some group the most.
Thanks for your message David. I think this probably depends on your definition of 'discrimination' - in SJ language, discrimination is typically something that happens at a systemic, rather than an individual level. That is to say, a set of policies that systematically disadvantage a particular group can still be discrimination if they reflect a prevailing system in which that group is disadvantaged. This can be true even if there is no bad intent on the part of individuals.
I think this broader definition is not always helpful, particularly because (a) it often fuels controversy to describe such policies as discriminatory, and (b) it is not always clear that any given policy is actually a part of a system of discrimination. That's why I've tried to use 'disadvantage' in most of the post, which is a less loaded term. Nonetheless, I feel it's the most appropriate term to use in the DeGraffenreid context, as the originators of Intersectionality Theory describe the case in terms of discrimination.
Is there a way you feel I could make this more clear?
Thanks for posting. I have a question regarding this passage:
>For example, more than a few EA people of colour I’ve spoken to have expressed discomfort about only donating to maximally effective charities, and this relates directly to their intersectional identity. Being both a part of the wealthy global elite and people of colour, they feel a special obligation to help people within their own communities who are not blessed with the same advantages.
Many people feel a desire to keep donations within whatever they perceive as their community. For example, alumni donate to their college. Former Boy Scouts donate to Boy Scouts. Etc. Are you saying that POC feel this more than other people? If so, is there any evidence to support this idea?
Hi Tyner, thanks for your message,
I don't have any studies I can point to on this, no, but the idea that privileged white men find it easier to take a universalising, impartial approach to doing good seems intuitively plausible. Admittedly, most of the data I have to support that argument are from private conversations, along with a general lack of demographic diversity in EA.
I'm open to the idea that I could be wrong here - can I ask you to explain in a little more detail why you feel that the PoC case isn't unique?
To weigh in here as someone who had to read some race studies literature in college:
I think that's probably true - the theory I've read is based on the idea that white straight men are positioned as the "norm" under racial/gender hierarchy in Western society. Everyone else is othered and seen in relation to that norm. Some oversimplified examples:
Given instances like this, it makes sense to me that white men find it easier to be impartial, and PoC are more likely to be aware of and care about issues special to us communities, because knowledge, culture, and norms seen as "impartial" often exclude us.
That being said, I don't know if PoC feel a stronger desire to donate to their communities than Boy Scouts. Personally, I think that's just a reason for EA to figure out ways to appeal to Boy Scouts, not to appeal less to PoC.
My null hypothesis is that everyone wants to keep donations in their community. Being impartial with regard to time and place and species etc. requires some extra thought or will or persuasion for all of us. I think this is hard for anyone and I am not sure why this would be harder for POC than anyone else. You state it's plausible for the most privileged to find this easier, which I agree is plausible, but I think you could also make the case that the opposite is plausible.
"Someone who has known discrimination, who has known what it feels like to be disadvantaged and voiceless, will more keenly be able to observe and sympathize with others who are voiceless." or some such.
You're suggesting that they feel a "special obligation" so it seems from my perspective that the burden of evidence would rest with you. You stated you don't have any studies, just conversations. That's fine, I just don't find it very convincing so I think the null stands until more evidence comes forth. Cheers.
I also don't think the prior should be 'people of all ethnicities feel the exact same set of charitable obligations' - that seems like a similarly strong claim.
Still, in the absence of any good data to back up my claim or yours, I think it's appropriate to be very uncertain about any hypothesis we might have about why people do or don't give.
Thanks for improving my thinking on this.
I would suggest caution with invoking intersectionality as it typically comes with some baked-in assumptions such as:
a) Each class is either privileged or oppressed, rather than some combination of both
b) Interactions consist of effects stacking - ie. if you are a member of two oppressed classes then you are doubly oppressed.
For example, the model doesn't deal very well with the fact that Asians earn more on average than people who are white or an Asian woman may be better off in some ways than an Asian man (such as dating in a Western context).
A natural question is why not invoke intersectionality without those assumptions. My response is that it'd be an uphill battle and that if you want to have nuanced discussion about this area it's almost certainly better to start a new language game. If someone wants to try persuading people to use current terms in a more nuanced way, then I respect the effort, I would just be surprised if it worked.
Hi Chris, I've responded to this somewhat in my response to Jackson above.
FWIW, I'm trying to avoid focusing on race questions here, because I think they're pretty charged and racial equality isn't an EA cause area in any case. Still, I think it's worth responding to your comment that:
I actually think the model deals very well with this, as intersectionality would predict that being Asian + a minority + male would present a separate set of issues to being Asian + a minority + female. So fact that Asian women do better off in the dating scene is actually a pretty good example of intersectionality creating novel outcomes that might not be easily predicted by just stacking up disadvantages.
If, for some reason, discrimination against minority Asian women suddenly became an EA cause area, then people wanting to tackle the issue might do better trying tospecifically tackle 'issues encountered by minority Asian women' rather than just generally 'reduce discrimination against women/minorities/Asians'.
Isn't this only true of Asian Americans (as opposed to Asians in general)?
I just edited in "in a Western context" as I was trying to refer to the fact that I've seen many more white men date Asian girls than white girls date Asian men.
I think the theory of intersectionality actually does address this well, though perhaps for a different reason than John:
a) Intersectionality is explicitly about the idea that people can be both privileged and oppressed, e.g. Black men having privilege along a gender axis but oppression along a racial axis
b) Intersectionality is explicitly not about "double oppression", it is about unique forms of oppression.
For instance, we can break down this idea that Asians earn more than white people in the US. When you consider factors like country of origin, class, and immigration status, there's actually substantial variability in earnings; in particular, East and South Asians tend to earn more than whites, and Southeast Asians tend to earn less. (I haven't read this study in detail, but it's an example of this finding.) Therefore, simply categorically ignoring Asians in analyses of economic inequality would (and does) leave Southeast Asians neglected. Southeast Asians will probably not be addressed by interventions to help low-income people in general or interventions to help Asian people in general, because the causes of their suffering are different.
And it's true that Asian women are seen as more desirable than Asian men in America, but that's mostly because of fetishization of Asian women. As an Asian-American woman, yes, it's nice to be able to get a Tinder date or whatever. But overall, being fetishized is rather undesirable, and sometimes involves unfortunate outcomes such as dying in a mass shooting. Addressing the emasculation of Asian men and fetishization of Asian women in American culture are two interrelated but separate problems, which is again what intersectional theory would posit.
Intersectionality is a word that has often been thrown around improperly over the years, so it's certainly possible that these misinterpretations of the theory would hamper nuanced discussion. But it wouldn't be due to the academic theory itself.
Yes, but it only predicts it when you are a member of a "privileged" class and an "oppressed" class*. It doesn't predict that being a member of two "oppressed" classes can result in an intersectional "privilege".
When you examine things through the lens of intersectionality, this apparent advantage that Asian women have over Asian men has to be reframed as a disadvantage. From the social justice perspective, it can be acknowledged that Asian men are stereotypically seen as less masculine, but when it comes to the difference in dating this has to be seen as a function of fetishization rather than a result of this emasculation. I haven't seen the research in this area, so I can't be certain about the exact allocation, but I'm pretty sure that this belief is coming from theory rather than empirics.
In any case, there are disadvantages associated with fetishization, but acknowledging this group's relative dating advantage as an advantage would break the model*. I'm not claiming that Asian women are better off than Asian men, just that it is incompatible with the simplistic version of the theory.
You're right, I didn't describe it very well. It's more about "triple oppression"^ - ie. a black women gets the disadvantages of being black, of being a woman and of being a black women*.
*Here I'm referring to how the version of intersectionality that seems to be used in practice, even if the theory differs. If the theory is actually more sophisticated than this (I'm not completely certain that academic circles do use it in a more sophisticated than this) then that's great, hopefully someday people start actually using it rather than the simplified version.
^ I'm not claiming that social justice advocates would explain the concept in this way just describing how I've seen the concept function in discourse.
That said, your comment has shifted me towards your perspective that intersectionality is unlikely to be useful for EAs, and it's better to start a new language game. I think the word comes with enough baggage that it is hard to use as a neutral tool for analysing issues, and is liable to be misunderstood.
Thanks for helping to improve my thinking here.
Ah, I apologize, I think I've phrased my first comment poorly. I believe that the difference in desirability is due to both fetishization of women and emasculation of men. My initial comment did not make that clear due to the word "mostly", which was the wrong word to use. I meant simply to highlight that desirability as an Asian woman is not without its downsides.
I actually think that this is perfectly compatible with intersectional theory:
I do share the hope that in popular discourse we start to see more understanding of the nuances of the theory, because it is absolutely more sophisticated in academia than it is on Twitter (or in my EA Forum comments!).
Hmm... I think it's worth considering the implications of considering that subjective. I assume that there's some women (likely a small group) who would prefer the old 1950s system where women didn't have to work, but they were discriminated against in the job market? Should we say that's subjective too? Do we end up in a space where everything is subjective because we can always find a minority with unusual views? I'm not saying that's right or wrong, just trying to figure out what it would mean.
I think that's precisely what I'm saying - people have different preferences, but that doesn't negate the existence of broader dynamics of privilege, i.e. John's earlier comment, and doesn't negate that the facts of the matter are shaped by intersecting oppressions.
Assuming that we take as true that systemic oppression is a real thing, the distinction is this: I don't consider myself to have a dating "advantage", but I do think that I have a larger dating pool than the average Asian man because of the ways in which Asian women sit at the intersection of racism and sexism. I'm sure plenty of 1950s housewives considered themselves to be advantaged personally, but that doesn't negate that they were structurally disempowered.
I am no philosopher, but I think it's a bit slippery-slope to go from "we disagree on whether larger dating pools have inherent goodness" to "everything is subjective"!
I think perhaps we mean different things when we use the words 'privilege' and 'oppression'. Under intersectionality theory, Group X is privileged in respect of Group Y if they are the beneficiaries of the power relationship, all things considered. Similarly, Group Y is oppressed if they are generally disadvantaged by that relationship. That doesn't mean that Group X benefits 100%, or that Group Y always suffers.
To unpack that a bit, you might imagine the general structure of a male-female relationship in the early 1900s: Broadly-speaking, a woman born in 1900 would be disadvantaged compared to a man born in the same year. She was treated as subservient to her husband, she would be excluded from positions of power where men were not, and she was (in many countries) denied the vote.
Men were the overall beneficiaries of this arrangement, essentially having a lifelong live-in servant and childcarer. However, women also benefitted from this relationship in some ways - a 1900s woman would never have been expected to go to war, and once her children had grown up she would not have been expected to work a job. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the power relationship between men and women in earliest 20th Century was a unequal one. This is the sense in which intersectionality theory would describe women as oppressed and men as privileged.
This logic then extends to intersectional disadvantages, meaning that the model doesn't break even if you get an intersectional 'privilege'. Going back to Western Asian women, it seems to be true that Asian folks are treated as more 'feminine' than White folks. The feminisation of Western Asians might therefore benefit Asian women (who are 'hyperfeminised', and so get even more of the benefits which accrue to women) and disadvantage Asian men (who are emasculated, and so get fewer of the benefits which accrue to men).
Given the definition of privilege I've just set out, 'privilege' is probably the wrong word for what's going on here, but you get my point.
Could you clarify? Have I used the term "oppression" or "privilege" here to refer to something that isn't a power relationship?
So, your comment here:
’It doesn't predict that being a member of two "oppressed" classes can result in an intersectional "privilege".’
Is referring to the advantage that western Asian women receive on the dating scene. My point is that this is compatible with intersectionality theory, because although the general structure of the power relationships between men/women, majority/minority ethnic groups, and white people/Asians disadvantages western Asian women, none of these relationships are 100% downside.
So, the idea is that on balance the relationship is oppressive, rather than that the relationship is just 100% beneficial/harmful for either side.
Is that more clear?
This seems like an important question/topic. It also has a lot of thought on it already, implicitly and explicitly.
Maybe this topic needs more thought or a new framework, but maybe it does not.
However, this presentation of "intersectionality" just seems list out basic considerations (and a subset at that). It doesn't seem to contribute a way to resolve them, or even how to get started.
By the above, do you mean that focusing on one cause area neglects the other? If so, that observation doesn't seem like a contribution.
Otherwise, if you meant something else, that seems like "original research" as these speculations and tradeoffs pulls on a vast range of topics. I'm skeptical that this theory helps thinking here.
There is a very large supply of framework/ideologies/worldviews.
In addition to the noise/chatter/attention demands of having to examine them, some of them have a large amount of issues/baggage/subtext.
Because of this, even if a framework produced a coherent answer (which I am unsure it does here), it's unclear it will be useful.
Thanks for your message Charles. First, to respond to:
I don't mean that focusing on one cause area always neglects the other. Rather, I mean that some issues EAs care about could be at the intersection of two types of disadvantage, and that it is helpful to conceptualise these issues as intersectional. In the example above, the point is that just 'working to help future people' and 'working to help animals' may do little or nothing to help 'future animals', and that an explicitly intersectional approach can help us to spot this error.
I think this is a really great point, and by far one of the strongest considerations against using intersectionality or other ideas taken from SJ-aligned academia. Still, I've discussed this in a bit more detail in my comment to Jackson above, which I hope addresses this concern.
I don't necessarily disagree with you in saying that it doesn't contribute a way to resolve issues. However, I think that misses the point. Concepts like 'deadweight loss' or 'moral foundations' don't contribute solutions, but they provide conceptual clarity which helps us understand and explain what is going on in economic or moral psychology. I think intersectionality can be useful on this front, without providing solutions as such.
I've seen two EA Forum posts about non-human animals in the future being neglected on two axes simultaneously:
Hi evelynciara, thanks for sharing these. Can I ask - are you raising these as an indication that you support my thesis, or just to add to the discussion?
I've been thinking about the (perceived or actual) tension between intersectionality and effective giving for a while now and haven't had the words to think through it productively, so thank you for providing those words and sparking this discussion!
One thing I would add that is relevant to EAs thinking about this:
I think there is an argument that helping people within our own communities can be more effective; i.e. that, given two otherwise equal interventions, one within a community and one outside it, an EA should choose the one within the community. This is because:
Obviously, this advantage isn't enough to justify funding an extremely ineffective, intra-community intervention over an extremely effective, outside intervention. I'm using Chicago here as an example of a community, and not making the argument that anyone should fund charities in Chicago.
tl;dr it seems to me that preferring intra-community giving should be compatible with EA principles. Curious what other folks think about this; I'm not totally confident in it.