Responding to Objections & Controversies
Image: EA UiO
Julia Wise, March 2017
Information on how to prevent and handle controversies that commonly come up for groups in effective altruism.
In autumn 2015, a Giving What We Can chapter organised an event described as a "poverty simulation.” Many found the content and presentation of the event disrespectful. The event itself wasn’t unusual; Oxfam has been hosting Hunger Banquets for 40 years with a very similar program. Several things seem to have created the problem:
Photo of an African child in dirty conditions
Emphasis on dismal environment, almost like a haunted house: “transforming Clare College cellars into a run-down oppressive slum," “will you descend into the gloom…?”
Juxtaposition of a serious topic with lighthearted fun (“We hope everyone will stay afterwards for a drink in the bar”)
Similar concerns have come up around the “Live Below the Line” project, in which people in developed countries raise money by spending below a certain amount on food for a week. Obviously this is not the same as actually living below the poverty line, and care is needed to avoid depicting it as such.
Steps to take:
Emphasize the difficult choices people living in poverty face, the active role they play in affecting their own outcomes despite limited choices, and the resourcefulness and resilience needed to cope with poverty. Portray people as active agents, not passive victims.
Avoid depictions that would be embarrassing to the person being portrayed.
Don’t assume participants have no first-hand familiarity with poverty or have only seen it while visiting other countries, since they may have personal or family experience of poverty.
More in Guidelines on depicting poverty.
EA and disability, particularly relating to Peter Singer
You can search for “Peter Singer protest” to get a sense for the history of protests against him going back to 1989. These protests are generally about his stance on disability and particularly his advocacy for the euthanasia of disabled infants under some circumstances.
Most recently, in March 2017 an event at University of Victoria at which Singer was giving a Skype talk was disrupted by protesters with a megaphone.
Despite the fact that he hasn’t really said anything new on this topic in decades, objection to what he has written seems to be heating up, and you should be aware if you choose to host him either in person or virtually at events.
Action steps below.
Thomas Pogge sexual misconduct accusations
Pogge is a philosopher whose work on obligations to the very poor were influential to EA, and he was an original signer of the Giving What We Can pledge. He has been accused multiple times of sexual misconduct and was disciplined at Columbia for inappropriate treatment of a student (this was not made public until after his involvement with Giving What We Can).
Presentation of EA as unrealistic
While we want to convey enthusiasm and determination to tackle difficult problems, viewers sometimes take this as naive self-assurance. See Dylan Matthews’ article on EA Global 2015.
There’s also a good question: what makes us think we’re going to be so much better at this than all the people who have tried before? Try to temper optimism with humility about what we know and how we can draw on existing knowledge.
Presentation of EA as single-cause
It’s unfortunately easy for someone going to an event about a particular topic within EA (or even going to a whole conference but mostly going to tracks about a specific topic) to come away with the impression that EA is all about that topic.
If a speaker is brought in to speak about EA in general but actually just speaks about their specialty (nuclear disarmament) and it’s easy to come away with the understanding that EA is basically about nuclear disarmament. Check with speakers what they plan to speak about, and if it’s topic-based rather than an overview (which it likely will be, since most speakers don’t know enough about EA to give an overview), your materials and your introduction to the speaker can frame them as speaking about a particular topic of interest to those interested in the broader area of effective altruism.
If your group is particularly focused on a certain issue, acknowledge that. Some groups that are former GWWC chapters or formed largely of people who came in through GWWC retain a strong focus on global health/development. That’s fine, but be clear to group members that this represents a particular focus within the larger spectrum of EA. For example, when I give an introductory talk on EA most of my examples are about global poverty because that’s the area where I’ve been most active and that I know the most about, but I try to flag that and give indicators of where people can find more information about other areas (describing ACE as well as GiveWell, for example).
Lack of diversity
EA groups tend to be narrow in terms of nationality, class, race, academic/professional background, and often gender. This is something that pretty consistently worries people, and it's a very easy brush to tar us with (again, see Dylan Matthews).
Step one: Make your group as welcoming as you can to excellent people from underrepresented groups. Making your group more welcoming
Step two: Make the most of the diversity you have. If your group has three male organizers and one female, be sure the woman is regularly in a visible role (sending out emails, introducing speakers, etc.)
If you're from an underrepresented group, please consider putting yourself in more visible roles even if that's not what you normally lean towards.
Steps to take:
Reach out to us
Always feel free to let us know if you’re concerned about public reception of your events. If you’re not sure who to contact, firstname.lastname@example.org can always put you in touch with the right person.
Reach out to potential protesters
It’s best to be in touch with people or groups who express disagreement with your event. This allows for the possibility of smoothing things over, and limits the chance of you being accused of being uncooperative or uncommunicative.
Protesters may be very upset about the disagreement they have with the group, but you want to maintain a kind and cooperative attitude even if their objections feel unfair.
Here’s a sample letter sent to two people who had posted on a Facebook event page about planning to protest the event:
Dear [names of protest organizers],
My name is [name] and I'm the [role in organizing the group]. I am writing to reach out to you in connection with some concerns you've expressed regarding Peter Singer's controversial views on disability (on the Giving What We Can at St Andrews Facebook page). I was wondering if you might be willing to schedule a phone conversation with me about this. Would you possibly be interested in that? Sometime next week would be great.
For now, please just let me say that we would certainly welcome you or others advocating for disability rights at the Peter Singer event (which by the way will be on effective altruism and the moral importance of helping people in extreme poverty), and we would also be glad for you to participate in the Q&A session. We hope to allow several questions from the audience, and we could if you like make sure that you get the opportunity to ask a question. However, I would like to respectfully ask you to reconsider planning a "disruption" that would prevent St Andrews students from having the opportunity to hear from and engage with an important speaker. All of us here at the Giving What We Can chapter as well as the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs are firmly opposed to discrimination on the basis of disability, and therefore we also applaud those who - like yourselves - oppose such discrimination. At the same time, we believe that having an open exchange of ideas is what would be most productive for all parties. Moreover, in the spirit of having an open exchange of ideas, since I see you're both at neighboring universities here in Scotland, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I genuinely hope we could collaborate on issues concerning disability that are of mutual interest.
So again, please do let me know if either or both of you are interested in having a phone chat at some point. Many thanks for your time and consideration.
With best regards,
Some talking points used during the University of Victoria controversy:
Emphasize the purpose of the event (whatever the topic is). E.g. Singer is giving a talk about ending global poverty. We're interested in what he has to say about this, because he's done so much advocacy against poverty.
We as organizers don't agree with everything he's said over the years on every issue.
We understand that many people strongly disagree with things he's said about euthanasia, and certainly we respect their right to express their disagreement. In a free and open society people should be free to challenge things they believe are wrong.
As for us, we're having him speak because we think global poverty is wrong, and we're interested to hear his views on that as a person who's written a great deal about combating global poverty.
Don’t feel you have to talk to media
You have no obligation to speak to reporters who want to get a story about a controversy. If you don’t feel prepared, just decline to talk to them.
Don’t cite things you’re not sure about
To use a particular example: Peter Singer has written a lot about disability. Aside from his pieces on how to treat humans, much of his work on animals includes arguments comparing animals and people with disabilities to decide which are “persons.”
I suggest not getting into the weeds in discussion with his opponents. You don’t want to claim he doesn’t support a certain thing, only to find out he did actually support it in a 1979 essay.
Some claims, however, are ludicrous enough that you probably have enough information to politely disagree. People sometimes describe Singer as “a Nazi”, but he is notably not a fan of Nazism. “As three of my grandparents died in the Holocaust, and the fourth was fortunate to survive in Theresienstadt, I am sure that it had some impact on my thought — on my abhorrence of cruelty, of the naked use of power over the defenceless, and, of course, of racism.” (source)
Think carefully about examples that pit one group against another
There’s an example many of us have used, originally in this paper, comparing the cost-effectiveness of training a guide dog in the US ($42,000) or reversing blindness by providing trachoma surgery in Africa ($25). Obviously this doesn’t always fly well with people who care about what happens to blind people in developed countries. It’s also easy to trip on technical details about the treatment.
Singer’s Batkid vs. AMF example doesn’t always go over well either, as it strikes some people as mean to kids with cancer.
Options if you’re going to use these examples:
Make such examples as part of a giving game (even just a have 30 seconds to think, then a show of hands game during a talk) so you don’t need to say which charity is better but allow the audience to choose
Recognize the awkwardness of such decisions, and talk about how you feel uncomfortable making this comparison but believe it is important conversation to have
Make a case for the worse charity still being a good thing. "I’m sure I would pay £1m to save my life."
If possible choose a worse charity that you personally or someone you know has benefited from in the past.
Some alternative examples to use:
Poorly planned charity
Charities that accomplish something vs. ones that accomplish nothing (or actually make things worse). E.g. Play Pumps.
Aid vs. military spending
The US Army has lost track of how it spent $6.5 trillion. Meanwhile the most recent US foreign aid budget slated $24.6 billion annually for economic and development assistance. A comparison of military and aid spending.
Prevention vs. treatment in the same population
It costs four times as much to diagnose and treat a case of malaria as it does to provide an insecticide-treated bednet for a year to prevent malaria.