Monday, May 04, 2015

Moral Priorities

Robin Hanson notes that people generally don't like "ranking the sacred" (his example: "fighting cancer" vs. "working for racial justice").  This is a big part of what Effective Altruism is all about -- not just aiming to do some good, but seriously taking an evidence-based approach to doing the most (expected) good that one can (for a given level of investment, be it of time, money, or whatever).  This seems to rub some people the wrong way, which is frustrating since we should surely prefer that people allocate their moral efforts wisely, doing more rather than less good when possible.

Is it ever reasonable to criticize people for being unduly concerned about a low-priority moral goal? One often sees this in political conflicts, where the Blue and Red teams each become focused on "opposed" moral concerns (e.g. racism/sexism vs false accusations thereof), and accuse the other of exaggerating the harms on one side while neglecting those on the other.  This would seem to suggest that we are comfortable criticizing moral myopia in some cases.  Take the case of conservative concern about overzealous anti-racism.  It's not as though anyone sane would deny that false accusations of racism, etc., are indeed unfortunate from a moral point of view.  So the conservatives who are obsessed with these potential harms are focused on a goal that is, considered in itself, a laudable one: to minimize a certain kind of genuine harm.  Their problem (from the leftist's perspective) is that their concern seems entirely disproportionate to the real scope of the problem.  Anyone whose primary concern regarding racial justice is to ensure that nothing goes badly for (innocent) white folks is, it seems, either oblivious or willfully blind to the far greater racial injustices being perpetrated against non-whites.  That seems a real problem, and one that leftists are, in general, not shy about calling people out on.

But then, I feel much the same way when I see people getting worked up exclusively over the needs of local folks whilst completely neglecting the global poor.  Most of the attempts at "ethical mobilization" that I see on philosophy blogs and on Facebook are about intrinsically worthwhile goals (e.g. helping disadvantaged academics) that really ought to pale into insignificance once we realize how much more good we can do (to prevent vastly more serious harms) overseas: e.g. saving a quality-adjusted life year (and significantly improving school attendance) for around $50 of deworming treatments, or preventing a death from malaria for around $3000 of bednets.  It may be unfair that underprivileged academics cannot afford to attend the expensive conference dinner.  But it's orders of magnitude more unfair that villagers in Sub-Saharan Africa can't afford to invest in a proper roof (which they could if you sent them money via GiveDirectly).  In his forthcoming book, Will MacAskill talks about the "100x multiplier" you can achieve by redirecting your charitable donations overseas; if anything, I suspect that underestimates the difference (especially when compared to local causes that are not even the most high-priority or cost-effective of those locally available).

It may turn out that even global poverty isn't the best humanitarian cause available. The Open Philanthropy Project (previously "Givewell Labs") is currently investigating more speculative projects with the potential to be even more cost-effective routes to improving the world (including policy advocacy, factory-farmed animal welfare, and global catastrophic risk mitigation).  So there's a fair bit of variety in what causes people could reasonably consider "really freaking important", and deserving of the bulk of their moral concern and attention.  But it certainly isn't what most people -- even most philosophers -- seem to be implicitly prioritizing.

That needs to change.  But the only way it can change, I think, is if we're willing to raise the uncomfortable question of how to rank intrinsically morally worthwhile causes against each other.  It needs to be okay to say, "Yes, that's an intrinsically worthwhile goal, and one we should work towards when the opportunity costs are not so great.  But right now, given the broader state of the world, there are matters orders of magnitude more important that really require our attention first!"

Want to make the world a better place?  First, donate what you comfortably can to the most cost-effective charities. (Join Giving What We Can and publicize the fact on social media: if your example causes just one friend or colleague to do likewise, you've instantly doubled your impact -- more, if they in turn convince others.  GWWC just passed its 1000th member making the 10% pledge, which is awesome.  Philosophers who've taken the pledge include myself, Nir Eyal, Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, Derek Parfit, Janet Radcliffe-Richards, Tim Schroeder, Peter Singer, Neil Sinhababu, Alex Voorhoeve, and others, including dozens of grad students.  Indeed, I find it a little weird that there are still some ethicists out there who aren't yet on board...)

Where was I?  Oh yes.  First do your bit for the really important stuff.  After that, you can relax, engage in local politics, sign petitions, occupy Wall Street, whatever floats your boat.  But don't pretend that the latter is an adequate substitute for the important stuff.  Otherwise, you're making the same mistake as the conservative who fights for racial justice only by protecting innocent white people.


  1. I really agree with a lot of this post, Richard. (When I signed the inclusive fees petition, , I noted that I disagreed with point (3d) and I think effective charities can be a better alternative, depending on legal and institutional restrictions.)

    But, here, I think it's important we also keep in mind the legal and institutional restrictions in mind. And I think when we do so, a large chunk of the inclusive fees campaign survives scrutiny. The basic thought is that, given the restrictions, it's really hard to redirect the money to effective charities.

    Let's say you win a grant from a professional society to put on a conference. The professional society will let you use the money to pay for some expenses, but they won't let you give the same pot of money to GiveDirectly. Then the question is not whether to subsidize the expenses of economically underprivileged members of philosophy vs. giving to GiveDirectly, because the latter is not even an option, but to subsidize the expenses of economically underprivileged members of philosophy vs. to subsidize the expenses of economically privileged members of philosophy. That's the starting point of efforts like the inclusive conference fees campaign, as I understand it.

    (And that's also why I think honorarium is different from travel expenses, because the former can be more easily redirected to effective charities.)

    1. Yes, that's certainly fair enough! And I don't really mean to be picking on that campaign in particular. But I do worry that people (generalizing from my own case) are susceptible to what we might call "moral fatigue" -- a limited capacity for receptiveness to outside moral demands, in which case I think it's important that a greater proportion of "ethical mobilization", as I put it, be for the really important moral goals. (Which is obviously not to say that one should never advocate for small improvements; it's just worrying if the really important stuff seems to be getting systematically neglected by comparison.)

  2. Does anyone think that person A's suffering can accurately be stated to be objectively worse than person B's suffering, if both of their suffering is of an intense kind - e.g., a female stuck in sexual slavery versus a male stuck in solitary confinement? If one affliction is objectively worse, can we say this it is also always subjectively worse? If we can, wouldn't the effective altruist do the MOST good by only focusing on the objective worst suffering to befall man?
    The reason I ask these questions is because I am passionate about using a future career to help the objective worse off of humanity, but I don't know how to rank the WORST types of suffering in order to choose what to major in. Anything anyone can say is appreciated. It'd also benefit me to hear about philosophical works on this issue if anyone has came across it. I'd love to merely ask Peter Singer, but it looks like he doesn't accept emails from random members of the public. Instead of replying here, anyone with any info should email me. My email is

    Thanks so much!


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