nothing is mere

Virtue, public and private

Effective altruists have been discussing animal welfare rather a lot lately, on a few different levels:

1. object-level: How likely is it that conventional food animals suffer?

2. philanthropic: Compared to other causes, how important is non-human animal welfare? How effective are existing organizations and programs in this area? Should effective altruists concentrate attention and resources here?

3. personal-norm: Is it morally acceptable for an individual to use animal products? How important is it to become a vegetarian or vegan?

4. group-norm: Should effective altruist meetings and conventions serve non-vegan food? Should the effective altruist movement rally to laud vegans and/or try to make all effective altruists go vegan?

These questions are all linked, but I’ll mostly focus on 4. For catered EA events, I think it makes sense to default to vegan food whenever feasible, and order other dishes only if particular individuals request them. I’m not a vegan myself, but I think this sends a positive message — that we respect the strength of vegans’ arguments, and the large stakes if they’re right, more than we care about non-vegans’ mild aesthetic preferences.

My views about trying to make as many EAs as possible go vegan are more complicated. As a demonstration of personal virtue, I’d put ‘become a vegan’ in the same (very rough) category as:

  • have no carbon footprint.
  • buy no product whose construction involved serious exploitation of labor.
  • give 10+% of your income to a worthy cause.
  • avoid lifestyle choices that have an unsustainable impact on marine life.
  • only use antibiotics as a last (or almost-last) resort, so as not to contribute to antibiotic resistance.
  • do your best to start a career in effective altruism.

Arguments could be made that many of these are morally obligatory for nearly all people. And most people dismiss these policies too hastily, overestimating the action’s difficulty and underestimating its urgency. Yet, all the same, I’m not confident any of these is universally obligatory — and I’m confident that it’s not a good idea to issue blanket condemnations of everyone who fails to live up to some or all of the above standards, nor to make these actions minimal conditions for respectable involvement in EA.

People with eating disorders can have good grounds for not immediately going vegan. Immunocompromised people can have good grounds for erring on the side of overusing medicine. People trying to dig their way out of debt while paying for a loved one’s medical bills can have good grounds not to give to charity every year.

The deeper problem with treating these as universal Standards of Basic Decency in our community isn’t that we’d be imposing an unreasonable demand on people. It’s that we’d be forcing lots of people to disclose very sensitive details about their personal lives to a bunch of strangers or to the public Internet — physical disabilities, mental disabilities, personal tragedies, intense aversions…. Putting people into a tight spot is a terrible way to get them on board with any of the above proposals, and it’s a great way to make people feel hounded and unsafe in their social circles.

No one’s suggested casting all non-vegans out of our midst. I have, however, heard recent complaints from people who have disabilities that make it unusually difficult to meet some of the above Standards, and who have become less enthusiastic about EA as a result of feeling socially pressured or harangued by EAs to immediately restructure their personal lives. So I think this is something to be aware of and nip in the bud.

In principle, there’s no crisp distinction between ‘personal life’ and ‘EA activities’. There may be lots of private details about a person’s life that would constitute valuable Bayesian evidence about their character, and there may be lots of private activities whose humanitarian impact over a lifetime adds up to be quite large.

Even taking that into account, we should adopt (quasi-)deontic heuristics like ‘don’t pressure people into disclosing a lot about their spending, eating, etc. habits.’ Ends don’t justify means among humans. For the sake of maximizing expected utility, lean toward not jabbing too much at people’s boundaries, and not making it hard for them to have separate private and public lives — even for the sake of maximizing expected utility.


Edit (9/1): Mason Hartman gave the following criticism of this post:

I think putting people into a tight spot is not only not a terrible way to get people on board with veganism, but basically the only way to make a vegan of anyone who hasn’t already become one on their own by 18. Most people like eating meat and would prefer not to be persuaded to stop doing it. Many more people are aware of the factory-like reality of agriculture in 2014 than are vegans. Quietly making the information available to those who seek it out is the polite strategy, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the most effective one. I’m not necessarily saying we should trade social comfort for greater efficacy re: animal activism, but this article disappoints in that it doesn’t even acknowledge that there is a tradeoff.

Also, all of our Standards of Basic Decency put an “unreasonable demand” (as defined in Robby’s post) on some people. All of them. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve made the wrong decision by having them.

In reply: The strategy that works best for public outreach won’t always be best for friends and collaborators, and it’s the latter I’m talking about. I find it a lot more plausible that open condemnation and aggressive uses of social pressure work well for strangers on the street than that they work well for coworkers, romantic partners, etc. (And I’m pretty optimistic that there are more reliable ways to change the behavior of the latter sorts of people, even when they’re past age 18.)

It’s appropriate to have a different set of norms for people you regularly interact with, assuming it’s a good idea to preserve those relationships. This is especially true when groups and relationships involve complicated personal and professional dynamics. I focused on effective altruism because it’s the sort of community that could be valuable, from an animal-welfare perspective, even if a significant portion of the community makes bad consumer decisions. That makes it likelier that we could agree on some shared group norms even if we don’t yet agree on the same set of philanthropic or individual norms.

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t try to make all EAs vegans, or get all EAs to give 10+% of their income to charity, or make EAs’ purchasing decisions more labor- or environment-friendly in other respects. At this point I’m just raising a worry that should constrain how we pursue those goals, and hopefully lead to new ideas about how we should promote ‘private’ virtue. I’d expect strategies that are very sensitive to EAs’ privacy and boundaries to work better, in that I’d expect them to make it easier for a diverse community of researchers and philanthropists to grow in size, to grow in trust, to reason together, to progressively alter habits and beliefs, and to get some important work done even when there are serious lingering disagreements within the community.

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4 Comments

  1. I thought this was a useful take on the debate. Thank you.

Trackbacks

  1. Monday Miscellany: Pasta, Purity, Public Schools | Gruntled & Hinged
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