Matthew C. Halteman

313 karmaJoined Feb 2023


Learned a ton about my own concerns from this post. Thank you for it!

Hi again, Maxim! Thanks for your patience. 

Your point is well taken about the risk that additional resources in higher education settings might be redundant given that college students are perhaps more likely than the general population already to be "aware of the arguments in favor of veganism." I think that this would be a serious concern if "awareness of the arguments in favor of veganism" alone were sufficient to support behavioral change over the long-term. 

In my experience, however--and I think the most recent social scientific evidence supports this observation, too--"awareness of the arguments" is generally not enough for many even to motivate serious experimentation toward behavioral change much less to support it over time. For many people, indeed, exposure to the arguments can have a counterproductive effect, in that data and argumentative support for positions they find threatening trigger identity-protective cognition that leads to a doubling-down on the attitudes and actions perceived as under threat (Ezra Klein's Why We're Polarized has some really helpful, accessible discussions of this phenomenon and its effects on people's ability to process data and arguments). 

How do we mitigate the serious threat to cultural change posed by identity-protective cognition? I'm intrigued by the strategy of implementing slow-releasing changes in the epistemic atmosphere that collectively serve to defang and normalize the data and supporting arguments so that they can be received without triggering identity-protective cognition. In other words, by creating environments that help people both pre-reflectively and communally to take the data and supporting arguments in stride and maybe even find them intriguing or inspiring, we can circumvent the threat-detection response that closes many people off to attitudinal and behavioral change. 

By pre-reflective environmental conditioning, I have in mind giving people lots of opportunities pre-reflectively to intuit that something is non-threatening, credible, and maybe even cool without having to engage in an argumentative way that threatens one's identity. By communal environmental conditioning, I have in mind giving people lots of opportunities to get social and cultural support from similarly interested people and organizations in the event that their interest is piqued. 

I'm hard-pressed to think of a better place to cultivate both pre-reflective and communal environmental conditioning than the hallowed halls of institutions of higher learning. Anyone who is paying attention to the higher ed culture wars in American institutions likely already understands the ripeness of this environment for shaping people's values and behaviors over the long term. Students come in chomping at the bit to get out from under their parents' influence and values, so they're highly open to suggestion. For 4+ years, they are surrounded on all sides by opportunities to expand their consciousness and expertise--not just explicitly by going to classes and talks and lectures, but pre-reflectively by breathing in an atmosphere that normalizes all kinds of differences that may have seemed anything but normal in one's previous day-to-day life. There are charismatic professors, compelling student leaders, amazing vocational training and networking opportunities.  Unsurprisingly, the well-funded programs that institutions innovate, support, and proudly advertise are the ones that often generate the most interest, excitement, and participation. 

So imagine what could happen if we got serious about accelerating and scaling the vegan-friendly cultures that are already seeded in higher education. Generally speaking, the faculty presence and student clubs and extracurricular opportunities in many places are already there on the ground, but are both decentralized and underfunded. In a lot of cases, scaling these cultures (or at least nudging them in the direction of scalability) could be as easy as giving a substantial lead gift for an institute or center--let the university decide how to mission-fit and brand it for galvanizing its alumni and current students (sustainability? creation care? human/animal studies? food systems? green economy?). The director(s) of the center and key faculty and administrators, then, audit everything that is going on around and tangent to these issues, build a central institutional hub to connect and empower the different intermeshed programs and opportunities, and then help faculty to build out curricular programs (majors, minors, certificate programs, themed dorms and cohorts, honors programs, etc.) and student life to build out supporting extra-curricular and cultural programs, using funding opportunities and internal grant-making programs to nudge everyone who's got anything going that is tangent to food-systems stuff (which is almost everyone, in the end) to ramp up the facets of their work that feed into creating ferment around changing our food system. Over time, there will be lots of vegan-friendly people, classes, clubs, receptions, student groups, educational and extracurricular programs, even restaurants and businesses in the town that support the ever-growing populations of students who come to do this work. People who come to the university thinking that going vegan is silly or threatening will see how exciting and transformative it is, both individually and culturally and will be much more receptive to the arguments (if indeed they even need to hear them at all; once the atmosphere is where it needs to be, the arguments themselves become redundant, which is probably better anyway given how post-hoc the average human being's relationship to "the arguments" is anyway). 

If it seems far-fetched that such a thing could happen, consider how quickly (in the grand scheme of things, at least) universities have shifted the national and international narratives around many other cultural and political topics and movements. And of course, the history of the agriculture industry's involvement in the shape of higher education gives us a compelling case study that the university has already been used in precisely this way to shape and change the cultural and political landscape that has allowed the current food system to deflect criticism and put off urgently needed change. 

Two exciting non-profits that are pioneering this sort of holistic approach to engaging the whole human being and providing support that goes beyond just "exposure to the arguments" toward life- and institution-building are Afro-Vegan Society ( ) and CreatureKind*( . These orgs primary constituencies are Black and Christian audiences, respectively, but their holistic approaches to creating atmospheric shifts in the culture and building positive supporting institutions (rather than just handing out pamphlets with all the bad news) are valuable models that could be replicated in lots of different contexts. Also, the Good Food Institute** is engaging higher ed directly with its "Research Centers of Excellence" program: 

*I am on the board of directors for CreatureKind.

**I have a family member who works at The Good Food Institute.

Thanks so much for this positive feedback, Maxim, and for the reflections on potential impact! I really appreciate your taking the time to share them!

I have some additional thoughts, but no time at the moment to share them! So, gratitude for now and a promise to circle back when time permits! :)

Thanks for this expression of gratitude, Chris! For better or worse, with an average philosophy paper getting a readership of like 8-12 people (including sympathy reads from family members?), I tend to view even the most scathing criticism in the frame of “SOMEBODY READ IT! Victory is mine!” 🤣👍🏻

[TL; DR: I'm a little confused too, and this essay was an attempt (maybe a failed one?) to try to work out a "both/and" that would synthesize my fledgling sense that EA has something important to offer in spite of methodological idiosyncrasies, hermeneutic blindspots, and demographic challenges that seem seriously to limit its appeal and reach; and that grassroots advocacy work in various culturally influential communities that seem positioned to do great good (but are often lacking the resources to scale it and viewed with skepticism by some EAs) could benefit from EA-channeled resource-infusions.]

Hi Ben! That you have carried on with the "Keith kills it at Scrabble" thing gives me joy. An occupational hazard of doing philosophy is time sacrificed to fashioning examples calculated to seem like the effortless progeny of a rapier wit when in fact one struggles mightily and usually fails. I confess to lingering over Keith for a minute before I cut him loose, and to witness him flourishing in this comment thread even unto the Scrabble world championships...I am moist-eyed!

Before I go any further, let me confess in humility that I am a relative newcomer to thinking about EA and not very well versed in the lingua franca, so I hope that at least some of what I say is intelligible even if the words "priors", "counterfactual", and "expected value" are nowhere to be found! :)

Truthfully, I'm a little confused myself as to exactly what I'm trying to do in this essay (which is why there's all that hedging language throughout: one might this, one could that, "worries" and "reservations" rather than "objections" and "refutations," etc.). I think it's one of those "both/and" sorts of projects where I'm hoping--maybe too optimistically? maybe in vain?--that if EA diversifies the ol' methodological and cause-prioritization portfolios a bit, the whole movement and the world, too, will get more of what it wants and needs? Something like that? (By "movement" here, I've got animal advocacy in mind (the main focus of the volume), but given that my activist's imagination has been greatly shaped by the work of Carol Adams, Aph and Syl Ko, Christopher Carter and others, it's a holistic pro-flourishing/anti-oppression movement more than just a one-issue focus on animal advocacy). 

Here's how I frame this "both/and" gesture in the first few pages:

"In what follows, I'll explain each of these reservations and then suggest some exciting new initiatives--institution-building in Black vegan advocacy, higher education, and religious communities--that could mitigate these reservations, energize and diversify the movement, and remain true to the EA method of supporting underexploited but potentially high-impact causes that produce non fungible goods otherwise unlikely to be funded." (77)

If this conversation is to continue, it might help for me to fess up to a couple of idiosyncrasies in my background that really complicate my outlook on these matters and have prompted me to search for a "both/and" in a situation where some seem to think we must choose between EA and grassroots approaches. 

My methodological worries about EA are largely rooted in my training as a hermeneutic phenomenologist. Though I studied analytic philosophy in both undergrad and graduate school, I ended up doing some coursework in both places that raised serious concerns about Enlightenment approaches to method in the humanities and social sciences, especially in cases where science-envy in these fields generates overconfident appeals to objectivity and fixation on measurement as ways to try to corral the unpredictable vicissitudes of human history (or, worse, to dominate and exploit others (e.g., colonization (society/reason vs. nature/savagery), eugenics, etc.). Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method convinced me that there are many pre-reflective and ultimately immeasurable forces at play in the interpretive contexts that are always already shaping our understanding of things, and that--as a result--staying in touch with reality requires ongoing dialogue with others whose different hermeneutic situations and life experiences offer us a clearer vantage point than even the most rigorous self- or communal reflection could leverage on the hidden blindspots and unwitting exclusions of our own limited perspectives. After reading thinkers in the hermeneutic phenomenological tradition (like Beauvoir and Fanon) who extended these insights into their implications for matters of gender, race, and systemic/institutional injustice, I became a lot more sensitive than I had been before to the risks associated with methodologically and demographically homogenous communities (not just the risks of exclusion and oppression, but the risks of falsely presumed supremacy, impoverished thinking, and cultural stagnation and decline into which homogenous cultures can unwittingly descend--maybe some of the recent events around SBF could be viewed as cautionary tales in this register?). 

One might think, given all of this, that I'd be an anti-capitalist. But it turns out my Dad is an economics professor who devoted his career to arguing that capitalism, while woefully imperfect, is the best approach we've found so far to meeting human needs and curbing human suffering in a world of scarcity (he did a lot of advisory work in the former Soviet Union and had a front row seat to some of the other approaches on offer in contrast to which capitalism, warts and all, looked much better to him). Dad was always beating the drum that the problem isn't capitalism per se, but the fact that--as a citizenry--we've failed to develop and evolve the moral sentiments and fellow feeling that would enable us to demand the proper things and create markets that deliver on those demands. He always said that the invisible hand would do a very bad job without a very good citizenry to set the parameters of its field of play, citing Adam Smith's claims that one could not understand The Wealth of Nations or pull off the project described therein without enacting the world of The Theory of Moral Sentiments first as the foundation. 

So, despite having read a bunch of stuff (and having a bunch of corroborating experiences of those insights in the philosophical, religious, and advocacy communities of which I am a part) that inclines me to think we're all doomed if we don't become significantly more methodologically and demographically diverse in our approaches to social problem solving, I've also been heavily shaped by the beliefs that capitalism is the best we human beings have done so far in terms of providing systemic solutions to scarcity and that capitalism might be able to do much, much better if our methodological and demographic diversification efforts expand our consciousness and our problem solving skills so that we can demand better things from new and better markets. These experiences are obviously in some tension with one another, and I guess the cageyness of my paper is rooted in that tension. That tension also explains why I'm excited about organizations like Afro-Vegan Society, CreatureKind, and GFI, even though they're doing very different sorts of things. 

Gosh. That was way, way too long and rambling. Better add a TL;DR before I sign off. Thanks again, Ben, for getting me to think harder about what's going on here! I hope it's a little clearer what I was trying to carry off. 

Quick follow-up that I hope isn't too pedantic (but maybe is, despite my hope?). I just had a chance to check the correction itself on my computer (my phone wouldn't take me to the link for some odd reason) and noticed that, while the unwarranted criticism has been retracted, the misattribution itself has not. The set-up for the quotation still seems to read, "Another author tells us (p. 81), 'it is morally ill-advised to invest tens of millions...', which isn't technically true. I don't "tell" readers that "it is morally ill-advised..." by observing that "One might object that it is morally ill-advised..." any more than I would have told them "Keith kills it at Scrabble" had I written "One might wonder whether Keith kills it at Scrabble." Maybe that seems like a small quibble, but if my work is going to be used as Exhibit B in a section of a book review titled "The Bad," I want to be guilty of the alleged wrongdoing, ya know? :)

Thanks, Richard! I appreciate your posting a correction. 

Thanks for this review, Richard. 

In the section titled, "The Bad," you cite a passage from my essay--"Diversifying Effective Altruism's Longshots in Animal Advocacy"--and then go on to say the following: 

"Another author tells us (p. 81):

it is morally ill-advised to invest tens of millions of dollars in tech long shots that might someday have a huge impact on the world at large while failing to combat intimately related systemic injustices that are doing disproportionate damage right now to already at-risk communities.

(Of course, no argument is offered in support of this short-sighted thinking. It’s just supposed to be obvious to all right-thinking individuals. This sort of vacuous moralizing, in the total absence of any sort of grappling with—or even recognition of—opposing arguments, is found throughout the volume.)"

It sounds from your framing like you take it that I assert the claim in question, believe that the alleged claim is obvious, and hold this belief "in the total absence of any sort of grappling with--or even recognition of--opposing arguments." 

With respect, I don't think your reading is fair on any of these fronts.

First, I don't assert the claim in question. The passage you (partially) cite actually reads "One might object that it is morally ill-advised to invest...", and what I'm trying to do in this context is to get behind why someone skeptical of certain EA cause-prioritizations might be worried that it is morally ill-advised given other considerations that you don't mention in your review. (I recognize that one has limited space in a review and can't get to everything.)

Second, I don't believe that the claim you misattribute to me is "obvious to all right-thinking individuals." Here are two bits of support for my explicit recognition (in the chapter) of my belief that right-thinking people might disagree:

(i) On pages 79-80, the pages immediately before the passage you cite, I consider the hope to "mitigate important but often neglected 'longtermist' concerns about suffering-risk", providing footnotes to an FAQ on s-risk, citations to work by MacAskill, Bostrom, and Ord, and gratitude to Dominic Roser for "helping me to see the complexity of this problem through the lens of intergenerational justice." I go on to say, "Though it is tempting, given the pressing concern of inequitable cause prioritization, to weigh the opportunity costs of funding such tech long shots only in terms of the interests of presently disadvantaged communities, there are also the interests of future disadvantaged communities to consider", citing Roser and Seidel 2017. 

(ii) On page 80, about four lines of text before the passage that you cite as an instance of "vacuous moralizing", I say this: "A reasonable person could be forgiven, it seems, for judging the opportunity costs associated with possibly foiling a misaligned AI in fifty years to be too high, and for suspecting that these millions of dollars could be better invested elsewhere. (I should add that the same reasonable person might simultaneously conclude that it is nonetheless wise to devote some resources to mitigating s-risk; my intent here is not to try to minimize these serious risks, but to emphasize that significant investment in their potential mitigation, however important, is nonetheless a long shot with present opportunity costs worth keeping in mind.") 

Third, the above two bits also seem to me to sit ill with the framing of my essay as "lacking any sort of grappling with--or even recognition of--opposing arguments." I may still be engaged in "vacuous moralizing" by your lights, and perhaps I've fallen short of your standard for "any sort of grappling". But I hope I've at least succeeded in recognizing the existence of opposing arguments (maybe I cited the wrong people or too few of them?). 

On the bright side, those in this thread who are skeptical of steel-manning as a strategy for engaging critics will have no quarrel with you. :)

Thanks again for reading the piece and I'm sorry that it was a dispiriting experience!

Update: There was a printing error in the original pdf I posted, which led to pp. 82-83 appearing twice while pp. 84-85 were omitted. I have corrected the error. Apologies to anyone who may have downloaded the incomplete version.

Thanks very much, Kyle, for starting this thread. I put the penultimate draft of my essay up at, for anyone who might be interested in reading Chapter 6, "Diversifying EA Long Shots: An Invitation to Prioritize Black Vegans, Higher Education, and Religious Communities." 

Abstract, keywords, and free download are available here: . Please note that the pagination mostly tracks with the published version, but there are limits to my rinky-dink MS-Word formatting efforts to make the penultimate draft (which is slightly different in places) read as much like the published version as possible. :)

Writing this essay was a fun learning experience for me (though I'm sure you'll see I'm still on the learning curve) and I especially appreciated the always careful, always kind critical feedback I received from members of the EA community including JD Bauman, Caleb Parikh, Dominic Roser, and Zak Weston. 

Feedback welcome here but I confess to being old, not very online lively, and more of a reader and a ruminator than a forum commenter. Much gratitude for the opportunity to post!

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