- Core Reading
- Moral Progress as an Idea
- Possible Cause X’s (Read some but you don’t need to read all)
- Exercise (1 hour)
- People who are physically distant from us
- People who live in the far future
- Non-human animals (such as mammals and birds)
- Digital Minds
- Objects (such as a table)
- Optional (or to consider during sessions)
- Further Reading
- Moral Uncertainty
- Expanding the moral circle
This week we will consider some of the ethical positions which inspire effective altruism, how a history of changing ethical norms might affect how we want to do good, and how our own values line up with the tools EAs use.
EAs often advocate for impartiality when doing good. For example, many EAs would claim that there's no intrinsic moral reason why people who are 1000 miles away are less worth helping than people right next to you (though they may be more or less worth helping for other reasons, for example, if you have better specific opportunities available to help one of these groups of people). There are many dimensions along which you might want to be impartial, such as across space, across time, and between species. Deciding which dimensions you think you should be impartial over might drastically change what you would prefer to work on, so this question is worth a lot of attention. For example, the priority you place on improving the conditions of animals in factory farms varies drastically depending on how much moral consideration you believe animals deserve.
We know our ethical beliefs have a big effect on how we do good, but perhaps we can't trust that our current ethical beliefs are good, or will line up with our future ethical beliefs. Societies’ moral beliefs have changed drastically over the course of history and there may be reason to believe they’ll change again. Should we act in line with the moral beliefs we hold right now? Or should we try to figure out where our moral beliefs might be mistaken, or might change in future, and let that inform our actions?
Moral Progress as an Idea
- Moral patienthood (explainer on the EA Forum - <5 mins)
- The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe (Evan G. Williams, 2015) (paper - 30 mins)
- Moral Progress and Cause X (Will MacAskill, 2016) (transcript of talk excerpt - 2 mins)
- You can find the talk itself here. Start the video 48 mins in for the relevant content.
Possible Cause X’s (Read some but you don’t need to read all)
- What We Owe the Future (Will MacAskill, 2020) (talk - 40 mins)
- Suffering in Animals vs. Humans (Brian Tomasik, 2017) (post - 15 mins)
- Should animals, plants, and robots have the same rights as you? (Sigal Samuel in Vox, 2019) (article - 20 mins)
Exercise (1 hour)
In this exercise, we will explore the idea of impartiality and where we might want to apply it. You will imagine you’re in a court which decides how much moral standing to give various groups, i.e., how much an altruistic person should want to help them.
The court doesn’t care yet whether it is physically easier to help one group or another (that’s something to figure out later). It is simply asking how much we’d want to help them if it was as easy to help one group or another. It’s useful to consider what we value independently from what we can do, as this makes it easier to work in line with our values when it comes time to consider practicalities.
For example, we might think that animals do deserve moral standing, but that may not mean that we prioritise helping them because it may be very difficult (more difficult than the next opportunity)
First, you will imagine you are a lawyer on the side of always being impartial, and give the strongest arguments you can in favour of members of the group being worthy of equal moral consideration. Then, you will take the opposite side, arguing against expanding the moral circle to include this group. We expect sometimes you will find it easier to argue for impartiality and sometimes you will find it easier to argue against it, but it is still worth considering the best case for both sides.
Go through the categories below and write down all the arguments for and against giving members of the group being worthy of equal moral consideration. Try to spend about 10 minutes per category, with about 5 minutes on each side of the argument.
People who are physically distant from us
The court is evaluating whether we should be impartial between helping someone in our local community and helping someone thousands of miles away. Remember we are not yet considering how easy it is to help one person or another, assume here that it is as easy to help one as the other.
People who live in the far future
The court is evaluating whether we should be impartial between helping someone in the present and helping someone who will live thousands of years in the future. Remember we are not yet considering how easy it is to help one person or another, assume here that it is as easy to help one as the other.
Non-human animals (such as mammals and birds)
The court is evaluating whether we should be impartial between helping a human being and helping a mammal or a bird. Remember we are not yet considering how easy it is to help one individual or another, assume here that it is as easy to help one as the other.
The court is evaluating whether we should be impartial between helping a human being and helping a simulated mind which behaves like a human. Remember we are not yet considering how easy it is to help one person or another, assume here that it is as easy to help one as the other.
The court is evaluating whether we should be impartial between helping a human being and helping a plant. Remember we are not yet considering how easy it is to help one person or another, assume here that it is as easy to help one as the other.
Objects (such as a table)
The court is evaluating whether we should be impartial between helping a human being and helping a table. Remember we are not yet considering how easy it is to help one person or another, assume here that it is as easy to help one as the other.
Optional (or to consider during sessions)
Possible groups to discuss:
- Three Heuristics for Finding Cause X: A short article describing three possible avenues for discovering causes we should be working on with examples of possible cause X’s from each (Kerry Vaughan, 2016)(article - 10 mins).
- Moral uncertainty - towards a solution? A short post from Nick Bostrom about his proposed solution to moral uncertainty, a parliamentary model of moral disagreement (Nick Bostrom, 2009) (blog post - 5 mins).
- Will MacAskill fears our descendants will probably see us as moral monsters. What should we do about that? Podcast episode featuring professor Will MacAskill about what we should do if we are making major moral mistakes today (80,000 Hours, 2018) (podcast episode - 1 hour 52 mins).
- Practical ethics given moral uncertainty: An EA Forum post from Will MacAskill on the role of moral uncertainty in practical decisions and how this may be analogous to empirical uncertainty (Will MacAskill, 2012) (EA Forum post - 5 mins).
- Normative Uncertainty: PhD thesis by Will MacAskill on his model of moral uncertainty and a ‘meta-normative’ position, norms for metaethics. He proposes a model of maximising expected choiceworthiness in morally uncertain situations (Will MacAskill, 2014) (PhD thesis).
- Embracing the intellectual challenge of effective altruism: While it's easy to view the intellectual challenge of effective altruism as a liability, it is better to view it as an asset. In this talk from EA Global 2016, Michael Page lays out why effective altruism is hard, and how we can accept and appreciate that fact (Michael Page, 2016) (EAG Talk - 20 mins).
- Ruairí Donnelly: Moral trade: “A moral trade occurs when individuals with different values cooperate to produce an outcome that's better according to both their values than what they could have achieved individually” (Ruairí Donnelly, 2017) (EAG talk - 13 mins).
- Moral Trade: “If people have different resources, tastes, or needs, they may be able to exchange goods or services such that they each feel they have been made better off. This is trade. If people have different moral views, then there is another type of trade that is possible: they can exchange goods or services such that both parties feel that the world is a better place or that their moral obligations are better satisfied. We can call this moral trade. I introduce the idea of moral trade and explore several important theoretical and practical implications” (Toby Ord, 2015) (paper - 45 mins).
Expanding the moral circle
- The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle: Philosopher Peter Singer’s famous drowning child thought experiment, which asks us to develop global empathy (Peter Singer, 2015) (EA Forum post - 15 mins).
- Social Movement Lessons From the British Antislavery Movement - Sentience Institute: This report aims to assess (1) what factors led the British government to abolish the transatlantic Slave trade in 1807 and then human chattel slavery in 1833, and (2) what those findings suggest about how modern social movements should strategize (Kelly Anthis and Jacy Reese Anthis, 2017) (report - 2.5 hours).
- Dominion: This documentary uses drones, and hidden and handheld cameras to expose the dark side of modern animal agriculture (film - 2 hours).
- The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering - Centre on Long-Term Risk: An argument for us to take into account the well-being of animals that live in the wild (Brian Tomasik, 2020) (report - 40 mins).
- Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation: Potential for Psychological Interventions: A widely cited study into meditation-based psychological practices to increase kindness and compassion (Stefan G. Hofmann, Paul Grossman, and Devon E. Hinton, 2011) (paper - 40 mins).
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: This book by Steven Pinker illustrates why we live in the most peaceful time ever in history, by looking at what motivates us to behave violently, how these motivators are outweighed by our tendencies towards a peaceful life and which major shifts in history caused this global reduction in violence (Steven Pinker, 2011) (book).
- Ethical.diet: Tool that explains which diet changes have the biggest effects on animal welfare.
- Animal Liberation: This is Peter Singer's foundational book on animal rights. This book is often cited as the start of the animal rights movement, in it Singer addresses the question of animal welfare with emotive evidence and careful reasoning (Peter Singer, 1975) (book).
- All Animals Are Equal: The opening chapter of the book (Peter Singer, 1975) (book chapter - 25 mins).
- 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood: A long report on the moral relevance of animals, gathering research from many areas and mapping out the question in order to inform Open Philanthropy’s giving strategy (Luke Muehlhouser, 2017) (article - >2 hours).
Effective altruism aims to improve the world as much as possible. Therefore, it has (unsurprisingly) often been associated with utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism. It is important to bear in mind that, while consequences are undeniably an essential consideration for EAs, effective altruism itself does not have any normative commitments. Furthermore, there may be theoretical and/or pragmatic reasons not to become too dogmatic about consequentialism.
- What Is Utilitarianism? Utilitarianism.net gives a clear and detailed description of utilitarianism in order to clearly describe the concept without falling into any philosophical jargon (website).
- Moral Philosophy: A short overview of the moral theories most discussed by ethicists (EA Forum topics page - <5 mins).
- Naive vs. sophisticated consequentialism: A description of naive and sophisticated consequentialism and why the difference may be relevant for consequentialist EAs (EA Forum topics page - <5 mins).
- Integrity for consequentialists: Whilst a naive consequentialist might only keep their promises if doing so has obvious positive consequences, Paul Christiano argues that a policy of integrity may be beneficial for a sophisticated consequentialist (Paul Christiano, 2016) (Forum post - 10 mins).
- Gains from trade through compromise: Brian Tomasik argues that we should have a stronger intuition for compromise as this could be better on average than fighting for resources and that this compromise covers both moral and epistemic disagreements (Brian Tomasik, 2018) (article - 45 mins).
- Considering Considerateness: Why communities of do-gooders should be exceptionally considerate: This article by the Centre for Effective Altruism argues against pursuing goals dogmatically even if your goal is to do good as it is often helpful to have a good relationship with other people and communities (Centre for Effective Altruism, 2017) (article - 20 mins).