Monday, January 4, 2016

Whipless Wednesdays

Effective Altruism (EA) is a relatively recent arrival on the social activism front. It is an idea that many people find appealing, and it makes sense on its face. The essential claim is that we ought to donate to charities that will use the money to do the most good. The underlying philosophy is that we ought to be helping the most (humans, usually) we can with our limited resources. As laudable and logical as that sounds, the conclusions it leads to sometimes seem questionable to me even when EA is applied to the animal issue; determining what "the most good" actually is turns out to be much harder than the simplistic formulas appealed to by some effective altruists.

One example is the embrace and promotion of Meatless Mondays by effective altruists trying to help animals. The EA organization, Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that in the United Kingdom, about 1,203,484,253 chickens and mammals are killed for food every year. If everyone in the UK participated in Meatless Mondays it would result in about 23 million fewer animals being killed every year. Effective altruists look at that large number of animals and conclude that it might be more effective to support charities promoting Meatless Mondays rather than charities trying to stop animal experimentation or fox hunting or banning horse-drawn carriages.

As compelling as the numbers are, they don't seem to me to add up to real progress; they don't seem likely to solve the problem, and until the problem is solved the carnage will continue. The title of this essay is an attempt to cast the issue in some historical light. I don't see how Whipless Wednesdays would have hastened the end of slavery in the U.S., no matter how many fewer lashes might have resulted every week. And imagine those British and later American abolitionists being content with asking people to forego sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Doing that alone would not have ended slavery even if it could have reduced the number of slaves; that might explain why the early abolitionists were doing other things as well.

The embrace of effective altruism has naturally led some to conclude that the most good they can do with their donations is to support charities working in the poorest areas of Africa. Dollars have more buying power in poor countries. The goal is to reduce those people's suffering by improving their standard of living. The EA organization, Give Well, promoted by Peter Singer, recommends supporting organizations that are giving mosquito nets to people in areas with a high incidence of malaria or to organizations treating children with parasitic diseases.

It will never be popular to say that maybe we shouldn't try to save the poorest sickest children on the planet, but maybe we shouldn't. Every one of the children who lives to adulthood will contribute to an increase in the local population and an increase in the consumption of consumer goods. The evidence is clear that an increase in living standard is associated with increased meat consumption which means increased environmental harm and suffering. See for instance: China in the Next Decade.

The main problem with effective altruism is the sad fact that we are unable to reliably predict the outcome of specific efforts promoting social change. Who could have predicted the result of one woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus? Using the EA model, since only she would perhaps get to keep her seat, it would have been seen ahead of time as unlikely to be effective. She would have been counseled to handout leaflets instead.

Unfortunately, numbers alone cannot and never have predicted which animal-related issue will attract public attention and lead to a change in the laws that regulate our interactions with animals. The Silver Spring monkey case is but one example. The Animal Welfare Act is largely the result of a single Life magazine article about a few dogs being stolen by bunchers and sold to university labs. It is impossible to accurately predict what campaign will do the most to hasten change; to the extent possible, and as some animal rights organizations have always done, it seems best to address the problem simultaneously on a number of fronts.


Rick Bogle said...

See too
Harrison Nathan
Dec 22, 2016
Re-evaluating Animal Charity Evaluators
A response to Jon Bockman

Rick Bogle said...

See three