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.