Radical Empathy

Radical Empathy

Week By Week Guides

This session is focused on moral circle expansion, with a particular focus on farmed animal welfare as a case example. This session is geared around getting participants to think about their own values and the practical implications that these have.

Key Principles

  • Impartiality: Helping those that need it the most, across location, time, and species.
  • Expected value: We’re often uncertain about how much something will help. In such circumstances, it may make sense to weigh each of the outcomes by the likelihood that they occur and pick the action that looks best in expectation.
  • The importance (and difficulty) of considering unusual ideas: Society’s consensus has been wrong about many things over history (e.g. the sun circling the earth, the morality of slavery). In order to avoid making similar mistakes, we need to be open to considering unusual ideas and moral positions, while still thinking critically about the issues and acting cooperatively with others.

Key Points

  • Awareness of historical moral circle expansion, and that “common-sense” morality has often been wrong
  • Awareness of various groups which could potentially be within our moral circle
    • There are some strong ethical and empirical arguments to think that animals are morally valuable.
  • There are vast numbers of animals suffering in factory farms, and we have very cost-effective ways to help them.
    • So the choice of where we draw our moral circles can have large practical implications for doing good.
    • Participants reflect on their own personal values and the practical implications of these values.

Tips for this Session

This week, it’s important to consider the tradeoff between exploring more novel or weird-sounding ideas (such as digital sentience or wild animal suffering), and focussing specifically on farmed animal welfare, and farmed animals as valuable beings.

Additionally, people often get upset that we are talking about animals as a case study of moral expansion, and that it feels like we are implicitly saying that issues like racism or sexism are resolved. One potential response is something like acknowledging that these things aren't anywhere close to being resolved, but there are also more spaces to engage in them outside of this fellowship. During the fellowship, we are trying to present ideas that are less often talked about and that you may have not encountered before. This is one of the reasons we focus on animal welfare as a case study. Part of this neglectedness is what makes it potentially so impactful to work on.

Two contrasting failure modes to avoid:

  • The group talks mainly about weird stuff and spends little time talking about farmed animal welfare and veganism. The vegans in the group feel like EA doesn’t care about farmed animals, and is too theoretical, weird, and out of touch.
  • The group only talks about farmed animal welfare and veganism. There isn’t much time to talk about more speculative things, and the tone around animal welfare is pushy and demanding. Omnivores feel like you have to be vegan or vegetarian to be an EA, EA is unwelcoming and dogmatic, and there isn’t space to discuss more speculative ideas
    • Focusing on the effectiveness of Animal Charity Evaluators’ top charities, and of systemic changes like clean meat can relieve this somewhat, as it can reduce the focus on individual dietary choices.

Some potential solutions:

  • Paying attention to the group and steering the conversation towards their interests
  • Avoid bringing up digital sentience, and discuss it carefully if brought up, acknowledging that it’s a very unconventional idea

Discussing animal welfare can be uncomfortable, especially for people who eat meat. It can feel like they are being told they are a bad person which can make them defensive. It's really important to navigate this sensitively, noting that people have different experiences and cultures that influence where they stand on this. We recommend you:

  • Reiterate that the purpose of the program is not to convince participants of specific moral convictions but to present them with influential works and arguments they may have not been exposed to before so that they can come to their own conclusions.
  • Note that although there are, of course, strong arguments to be vegan or vegetarian, eating meat is normalized in society and changing your diet can be difficult. Remind participants that we want to have an open space where different views are welcome and we respect each other's autonomy.

During the Session

Icebreaker suggestion (10 mins)

  • Speed friending: 4 rounds of 30 seconds conversation with someone you haven’t spoken to before or haven’t talked to that much. Talk about what the highlight of your semester has been so far.

Discussion questions

Discuss the exercise

  • What did you write in your letter to the past?
  • How easy did you find it to convince this past person of a moral wrong?
  • What sorts of arguments did you use?
  • How difficult did you find the exercise from your future self, given that we don’t know where we’re going wrong?

Moral circle expansion

  • Is ‘moral circle expansion’ a good description of what has happened in the past?
  • Why have we historically failed to recognise the moral importance of others?
  • Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about society improving its values over time?
  • How likely do you think it is that we currently do not show moral concern to beings that deserve it? Why?
    • If you think it is likely, then how should we strike the right balance between showing moral concern for beings not widely accepted as morally relevant, and not wasting effort trying to help things that are morally irrelevant?
    • Are there any general techniques or tools we can use to avoid being complicit in atrocities, given that it’s hard to know where we’re going wrong?
    • If you think it is unlikely, do you accept that the ‘moral circles’ of every previous generation have been too narrow? If so, isn’t it suspicious that you think we live in the first generation where we have arrived at the correct moral circle?
  • What sorts of things make people commit atrocities? Ignorance, selfishness, confusion, malevolence?

Farmed animal welfare

  • Do you think farmed animals matter morally?
  • Do you think it could even make sense to donate to help farmed animals, instead of donating to help people in extreme poverty, say if the animals are much easier to help?
  • If you could magically find out, what information about animals would you most like to know, to help you decide how much they matter morally?
  • Is anyone here vegan or vegetarian? If you feel comfortable, would you share what inspired you to become vegan or vegetarian?

Uncertainty and moral concern

  • Do you agree that we ought to be open to ‘strange’ arguments about which beings are of moral concern?
  • If you are 99% sure that insects are morally irrelevant, but think there is a 1% chance that they should be considered morally equivalent to a human, how should you treat it?