Paul Currion

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Has this line of thinking led you to consider whether it's a good use of anybody's time to pay attention to geopolitical events unless they are directly connected to their life in some way - through family or work, or (at a stretch) through participation in a forecasting tournament?

A minimal level of engagement is warranted simply because we want to be citizens of the world, but diminishing returns appear to set in incredibly quickly. It seems to be, as you imply, an inefficient use of time that can actually distract us from more important activities.

Has Singer ever made a "strategic utilitarian" case that going vegan provides a signal to others that you take the issue of animal suffering so seriously that you will make major changes to your life, and that this is a form of witness (akin to Christian religious witness) that both exposes others to and confronts them with that same issue in order to encourage them to take it seriously too? On a personal level that seems like a good strategy given our limited leverage as individuals on the industry, inasmuch as you are living according to your principles as well as having a broader impact by spreading those principles, and can also continue to campaign more directly against the industry.

“You can't just say I believe X is a virtue because in humanitarian ethics (which is ill-defined). I truly don't think you understand the concept of virtue ethics at the end of the day… You also misquoted Alastair MacIntyre and misrepresented it.”

Let me then quote MacIntyre in full, to avoid misrepresenting him.


MacIntyre defines a practice as “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity”.

MacIntyre gives a range of examples of practices, including the games of football and chess, professional disciplines of architecture and farming, scientific enquiries in physics, chemistry and biology, creative pursuits of painting and music, and “the creation and sustaining of human communities - of households, cities, nations”.

Humanitarian action meets this definition of a practice.


MacIntyre defines a good with reference to their conception in the middle ages as “The ends to which men as members of such a species move… and their movement towards or away from various goods are to be explained with reference to the virtues and vices which they have learned or failed to learn and the forms of practical reasoning which they employ.”

The humanitarian imperative “that action should be taken to prevent or alleviate human suffering arising out of disaster or conflict” meets this definition of a good.


MacIntyre defines a virtue as “an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods”.

Humanitarian principles can be treated as virtues under this definition. They are acquired human qualities which enable us to achieve a good (the human imperative) which is internal to a practice (humanitarian action).

They should be seen as professional virtues in addition to any personal virtues (the more familiar virtues such as courage or patience) that aid workers might cultivate, in the same way that architects would cultivate different virtues to farmers.


MacIntyre asserts that “A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them.”

The institutions of humanitarian aid - whether operational bodies such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, professional standards such as the Sphere Standards, or communities of practice such as the CALP Network - provide exactly this context.

You are correct to say that those institutions are not themselves possessed of the virtues, but they constitute the practice which is required to acquire these virtues, and within which the exercise of the virtue takes place.


This account is inadequate - it does not account for the wider swathe of humanitarian action happening outside the formal humanitarian sector - but it is sufficient to demonstrate that the concept of “humanitarian virtues” is coherent with MacIntyre’s conception of virtue ethics.

I am perfectly happy with the fact that you are not a virtue ethicist, and therefore simply do not agree with this argument. Your accusation that I don’t understand the concept of virtue ethics, however, simply does not hold water.

You’re clear that you don’t wish to continue this conversation because it’s not productive. Nevertheless I appreciate your engagement, so thank you for taking the time to comment over the past few days.

“I am 100% certain you don't know what virtue ethics is because you're literally describing principles of action not virtues… Virtues in virtues ethics are dispositions we cultivate in ourselves not in the consequence of the world.”

I fear that it may be you who do not know what virtue ethics is. You refer to McIntyre, who defines virtues as qualities requiring both possession *and* exercise. One does not become courageous by sitting at home thinking about how courageous one will become, but by practising acts of courage. Virtues are developed through such practice, which surely means that they are principles of action.

”Also these are canonically not virtues any well-known virtue ethicist would name!”

I agree. I haven’t claimed that they are, and I’ve referred to humanitarian ethics as a species of virtue ethics for that very reason. But one of the strengths of virtue ethics is that it is possible - indeed necessary - to update what the virtues mean in practice to account for the way in which the social environment has changed - and in fact there’s no reason why one shouldn’t introduce new virtues that may be more appropriate for human flourishing.

“This is also why you're confused when you name virtues because independence is a virtue in the person receiving aid not in you!... Moreover, this impartiality is more a metaethical principle that you keep violating in your own examples. If Oxfam trades off 2:1 Bangladeshis to South Sudanese (replace the countries with whatever you want) that breaks impartiality because you are necessarily saying one life is worth more than another”

I believe you are confused here. Independence is not a virtue of the person receiving aid but of the organisation providing aid - and here I’ll use the ICRC as the exemplar - which “must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles”.

Likewise you are confused about what is meant by impartiality, which requires that the organisation provides aid to individuals “guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.” It does not break impartiality to say “We should assist X rather than Y” if X is in greater need, and does not imply that X’s life is worth more than Y’s.

Let’s return to the Bangladeshi schoolchildren. If you allocate resources to support education for 800 girls instead of 1000 boys, it does not necessarily imply that you think girls are worth more than boys (although it might). The decision is being made on the basis that girls’ need for support is greater because they face more barriers to access than boys.

I am not a philosopher by any means, but I simply cannot accept your criticism that I do not understand these concepts, or how they are applied in practice.

This is definitely an uncharitable reading of humanitarian action. The humanitarian principles are rarely to be found in "charity reports and pamphlets" (by which I assume you mean public-facing documents) and if they are found there, they are not the focus of those documents at all. The exception would be for the ICRC, for the obvious reason that the principles largely originated in their work and they act as stewards to some extent.

Your characterisation of humanitarian organisations as "using poverty porn and feelings of the donor to guide judgements" and so on - well, you're welcome to your opinion, but that clearly obviates the hugely complex nature of decision-making in humanitarian action. Humanitarian organisations clearly have foundational beliefs, even if they're not sufficiently unambiguous for you. The world is unfortunately an ambiguous place.

(I should explain at this point that I am not a full-throated and unapologetic supporter of the humanitarian sector. I am in fact a sharp critic of the way in which it works, and I appreciate sharp criticism of it in general. But that criticism needs to be well-informed rather than armchair criticism, which I suppose is why I'm in this thread!)

I do in fact practice virtue ethics, and while there is some affinity between humanitarian decision-making and moral particularism, there are clearly moral principles in the former which the latter might deny - the principle of impartiality means that one is required to provide assistance to (for example) genocidaires from Rwanda when they find themselves in a refugee camp in Tanzania, regardless of what criminal actions they might have carried out in their own country.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that I won't name the thing defending because I don't know what my moral system is. My personal moral framework is one of virtue ethics, taking its cue from classical virtue ethics but aware that the virtues of the classical age are not necessarily best for flourishing in the modern age; and my professional moral framework is - as you might have guessed - based on the humanitarian principles.

You might not believe that either of these frameworks is defensible, but that's different from saying that I don't know what they are. Could you explain exactly what you meant, and why you believe it?

Yes, you're absolutely right. Academic philosophy has largely failed to engage with contemporary humanitarianism, which is puzzling given that the field of humanitarianism provides plenty of examples of actual moral dilemmas. That failure is also what leads to the situation we have now, where an academic paper that wants to engage with that topic lacks the language to describe it accurately.

This might be because the ethics of humanitarian action is (broadly) a species of virtue ethics, in which those humanitarian principles are the values that need to be cultivated by individuals and organisations in order to make the sort of utilitarian, deontological or other ethical decisions that we are using as thought experiments here, guided by the sort of "practical wisdom" that is often not factored into those thought experiments.

Thanks for your comment. I’ll try to address each of your points.

“You seem to believe people who don't share your values are simply ignorant of them… If you think your beliefs are prima facie correct, fine, most people do - but you still have to argue for them.”

In general, no - I do not believe that people who don’t share my values are simply ignorant of them, and I have communicated poorly if that is your impression. Nor do I believe that my beliefs are prima facie correct, and I don’t think I’ve claimed that in any of these comments. I did not post here to argue for my beliefs - I don’t expect anybody on this forum to agree with them - but to point out that the paper under discussion fails to deal with those beliefs adequately, which seemed to me a weakness.

“You mischaracterize utilitarianism in ways that are frankly incomprehensible, and become evasive when those characterizations are challenged.”

I think it’s an exaggeration to say that my characterisation is “frankly incomprehensible” and that I “become evasive” when challenged. My characterisation may be slightly inaccurate, but it’s not as if I am a million miles away from common understanding, and I have tried to be as direct as possible in my responses.

The confusion may arise from the fact that when I claim that effectiveness is an intrinsic value, I am making that claim for effective altruism specifically, rather than utilitarianism more broadly. And indeed effectiveness does appear to be an intrinsic value for effective altruism - because if what effective altruists proposed was not effective, it would not constitute effective altruism.

Your final point has the most traction:

“Bafflingly, given (1), you also don't seem to feel the need to explain what your values are! You name them (or at least it seems these are yours) and move on, as if we all understood… I'm guessing, having just googled that quote, that you mean something like this”

I was indeed referring to these principles, and you’re right - I didn’t explain them! This may have been a mistake on my part, but as I implied above, my intent was not to persuade anybody here to accept those principles. I am not expecting random people on a message board to even be aware of these principles - but I would expect an academic who writes a paper on the subject that in part intends to refute the arguments of organisations involved in humanitarian action to refer to these principles at least in passing, wouldn’t you?

“you're almost certainly using "intrinsic value" and "instrumental value" in a very different sense from the people you're talking to.”

Yes, this may be the case. In another comment in this thread I reconsidered my position, and suggested that humanitarian principles are a curious mix of intrinsic and instrumental. But I’m not sure my usage is that far away from the common usage, is it? I also raised the point that they are in fact contested - partly for the cultural reason you raise - and the way in which they are viewed varies from organisation to organisation. Obviously this will cause more concern for people who prefer their principles much cleaner!

Likewise I think I agree with everything in this post. I appreciate that you took the time to engage with this discussion, and for finding grounds for agreement at least around the hazy edges.

Thanks, yes. I think I'm elucidating it pretty clearly, but perhaps I'm wrong!

As I've said, I'm not denying that cost effectiveness is a determinant in decision-making - it plainly is a determinant, and an important one. What I am claiming is that it is not the primary determinant in decision-making, and simple calculus (as in the original thought experiment) is not really useful for decision-making.

I think we need to get away from “countries” as a frame - the thought experiment is the same whether it’s between countries, within a country, or even within a community. So my claim is not that “it is sometimes better to distribute money to more countries even though it helps less people”.

If we take the Bangladeshi school thought experiment - that with available funding, you can educate either 1000 boys or 800 girls, because girls face more barriers to access education - my claim is obviously not that “it is sometimes better to distribute money to more genders even though it helps less people”. You could definitely describe it that way - just as Chappell describes Goldring’s statement - but that is clearly not the basis of the decision itself, which is more concerned with relative needs in an equity framework.

You are right to describe my basis for making decisions as context-specific. It is therefore fair to say that I believe that in some circumstances it is morally justified to help fewer people if those people are in greater need. The view that this is *always* better is clearly wrong, but I don’t make that assessment on the basis of the thought experiment, but on the basis that moral decisions are almost always context-specific and often fuzzy around the edges.

So while I agree that it is always going to look a bit hazy what determines your priorities, I don’t see it as a problem, but simply as the background against which decisions need to be made. Would you agree that one of the appeals of utilitarianism is that it claims to resolve at least some of that haziness?

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