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The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 3: Carol J. Adams)

In 1999, [Peter] Singer was asked how someone who helped to shape the current theory and practice of utilitarianism explained financially supporting his mother when she needed caregivers because she had Alzheimer’s disease. He replied it was “probably not the best use you could make of my money.” … The rational-economic man is unable to say, “I care about my mother and have a responsibility to help her as she suffers this disabling illness.” Or to discuss the reciprocal nature of care: “My mother cared for me, and I want to return that care now.” To respond thusly he would have to acknowledge the validity of the ethics of care in influencing decision-making about financial resources.

Carol J. Adams, “A feminist ethics of care critique of effective altruism”
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1. Recap

This is Part 3 of my series The good it promises. This series draws lessons from a recent collection of academic essays, The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism.

Part 1 introduced the series and looked at the foreword of the book by Amia Srinivasan. Part 2 analyzed Simone de Lima’s discussion of colonialism and animal advocacy in Brazil.

Today, I want to look at a feminist perspective offered by one of the volume’s editors, Carol J. Adams. Adams is an author, feminist and animal rights advocate. Her books include The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theoryAnimals and women: Feminist theoretical explorations, and The pornography of meat.

One of the most important ethical advances contributed by feminist theorizing is the tradition of care ethics, which emphasizes the importance of ethical perspectives that put care, partiality, and interpersonal relationships at the center of ethical theorizing. Adams’ paper, “A feminist-ethics-of-care critique of effective altruism”, draws on insights from the ethics of care to problematize a set of broadly consequentialist assumptions shared by many effective altruists.

2. Singer’s dilemma

Many of us think that it is ethically permissible, even required for us to show additional concern for our friends and family. The problem is that it is notoriously hard for utilitarians to justify such partiality: if all that matters is the impartial promotion of utility, then we may be left with little grounds on which to claim that it is permissible to benefit those closest to us instead of others.

Adams makes this difficulty salient by recalling a difficult question that was once posed to Peter Singer, a leading utilitarian philosopher.

In 1999, Singer was asked how someone who helped to shape the current theory and practice of utilitarianism explained financially supporting his mother when she needed caregivers because she had Alzheimer’s disease. He replied it was “probably not the best use you could make of my money.”

Ouch. That is not an easy sentence to utter. But how might Singer have avoided it? Traditionally, utilitarians and other consequentialists have tried a number of strategies. They have stressed that we may have more information about the needs of those nearest to us; that we may be in a better position to provide our friends and family with what they need; or that the feelings of those closest to us will be deeply hurt if we do not show them special favoritism. (A variety of newer `consequentializing’ strategies on offer are more controversial, and go beyond the scope of this post).

That is all well and good. I am, for my own part, a consequentialist. I have uttered and will continue to utter all of the above sentiments. But it is important to acknowledge, in a deeply felt way, some respects in which this response may fall short.

One problem is that the traditional consequentialist view of partiality expressly forbids us from justifying our actions in the natural way, by appeal to duties of care created by our special relationships to friends and family. Adams writes:

The rational-economic man is unable to say, “I care about my mother and have a responsibility to help her as she suffers this disabling illness.” Or to discuss the reciprocal nature of care: “My mother cared for me, and I want to return that care now.” To respond thusly he would have to acknowledge the validity of the ethics of care in influencing decision-making about financial resources. Nothing in his philosophical system would allow for this.

Like Singer, I feel the intuitive pull of this reasoning. I would like to be able to utter the above sentences. I cannot utter them. But I would nonetheless show my own mother the same partiality that Singer showed to his mother. How would I justify this? Likely, as with Singer, I would judge myself to be ethically inconsistent.

At this point, Adams pounces. She thinks that I, like Singer, am taking desperate measures to save my view, to the point that we are more willing to accuse ourselves of deep-rooted inconsistencies than to change our moral views to accommodate the behaviors we seem to endorse. Adams writes of Singer:

Singer chooses to be seen as inconsistent rather than caring because it is less problematic for his utilitarianism. If there is a reason to devote extra resources to one individual because of the responsibilities of care, why not other individuals needing care, including a specific animal at an animal sanctuary?

Are desperate measures being taken here? Certainly, there is a deep tension which should be felt, acknowledged, and not dismissed. Adams also points to another tension in the way that utilitarians handle their views prohibition of partiality: they shift the burden of partiality and care onto others, often women, who are more ready to acknowledge and assume the burdens of care. Adams writes:

Twenty years later, again given the opportunity to articulate a defense of why—contrary to utilitarianism—some of his money went to support his mother, Singer answered, “The money that my sister and I spent on my mother, and keeping her comfortable, at that level—there could have been better things you could have done with that.” … When challenged about finding himself situated in a very specific social location, the nowhere man finds his theory not only fails him in providing an explanation but condemns him for what he did. Another ethical theory existed that could help him out of this quandary: the feminist ethics of care. But acknowledging that would require him to reject utilitarianism. So he passes off caring to his sister, that other decision-maker, and justifies inconsistency with appeals to entanglement.

So far, Adams has argued that Singer, like many consequentialists, is unable to give the natural explanation for permissible partiality in terms of an ethics of care. Singer and many other consequentialists go so far as to deny that partiality towards one’s own mother is permissible, taking themselves to be deeply and irredeemably inconsistent in their views and behavior rather than changing their ethical views to accommodate the behaviors they seem to endorse. They accommodate this felt inconsistency, in part, by foisting `irrational’ duties of care upon others in their lives, often women, who are willing to bear them.

Is that what consequentialism amounts to? For my own part, I feel at once a deep-seated desire to protest and a nagging suspicion that I may be standing on weaker and less consistent ground than I would like to occupy. Certainly, I find myself moved to doubt the source of my own convictions, the consistency of my views and behaviors, and the real grounds on which these convictions are formed and maintained. I hope that other readers will be similarly moved.

3. Bro culture

Focusing on a case study of animal advocacy, Adams complains of the evolution of a type of `bro culture’ within Animal Charity Evaluators and some other EA-aligned and EA-adjacent organizations. Adams writes of:

A “bro” culture (self-named by the participants) that emphasized centralized leadership over grass-roots movements, and in which these leaders adopted over-the-top-praise schemes for each other. By fetishizing authority, they diminished the role of entire teams that make significant events possible. These “bros” were and are banded together not only through institutional association, but through financial, personal, and affective ties (some calling each other “brothers of different mothers”). They became a class of elites, offering each other jobs, praise, book promotions, and investments in new not-for-profit and for- profit companies. Protected via their leadership position, some of these “bros” were also serial sexual exploiters, whose decision to exploit others was supported or overlooked by some of the other “bros”.

That is a lot to take in. I suspect that many readers will be primed to be skeptical of Adams’ claims. Let’s unpack some of the evidence Adams offers for these claims, one at a time.

Begin with the claim that incidents of sexual harassment and abuse may have been downplayed or overlooked within the movement. Events in recent months have suggested that there may be some truth to these claims. For example, Part 4 of the Belonging series discussed a TIME Magazine investigation alleging “an environment in which sexual misconduct can be tolerated, excused, or rationalized away”. In that post, we also discussed a wide range of often dismissive or otherwise unacceptable responses to the TIME Magazine article.

Adams complains of similar incidents within the animal advocacy movement. Focusing on Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), Adams writes:

One source told Marc Gunther that ACE had been “slow to look into allegations of sexual harassment in the movement, and timid in its response” (Gunther 2018d). Their executive director, Jon Bockman, referred to “ ‘the rumblings we’ve heard for a while’ about issues of gender bias and sexual harassment in the movement” (Gunther 2018a). Just how long “for a while” continued without being attended to and why it took so long to respond is left unsaid.

Readers are invited to assess the merits of these and other specific claims raised by Adams on their own merits. But I hope that readers will keep an open mind toward the possibility that they could harbor more than a grain of truth.

Another complaint that Adams raises is that networks of men may have been “banded together not only through institutional association, but through financial, personal, and affective ties … offering each other jobs, praise, book promotions, and investments in new not-for-profit and for- profit companies”. Could this be true? It is not entirely implausible: many effective altruist organizations have largely male leadership, and some have complained that a small, largely male inner circle seems to dominate the boards of leading organizations.

For example, Adams discusses the Good Food Institute. ACE rescinded its endorsement of the Good Food Institute in 2021 due to problems with workplace culture. Five years before, in 2016, the Good Food Institute was ranked highly by ACE even though it had been founded in the very same year. Adams complains that a double-standard was applied:

One might wonder how GFI rocketed to top charity ranking in its first year, 2016. That was the year EA advocates Nick Cooney and Bruce Friedrich founded it, with funds and support from ACE-endorsed Mercy for Animals. Being a new organization, it did not have a track record of accomplishments, nor could it, as a new organization, demonstrate “cost-effectiveness” – criteria ACE used for evaluating groups.

What led to this evaluation of GFI? Adams suggests that even if GFI showed strong evidence of potential, there may well have been favoritism shown towards the male, EA-aligned founders of GFI. Adams continues:

Nathan Harrison (2016) raised this issue at the time of GFI’s early funding, “The question should not be whether GFI has potential, but whether, as ACE claims, the evaluation process was rigorous. It obviously wasn’t.” Harrison (2017) also suggested that ACE was “strongly biased toward a few nonprofit organizations, especially those in which [Nick] Cooney is involved.”

Could Adams be on to something? I will leave that to readers to decide. But here it may be helpful to put aside binaries and defensiveness and open ourselves up to the live possibility that there may be more than a small degree of truth to some of the following claims: that the culture of effective altruism, like many other movements, is often male-dominated, favoring the social and professional interests of men, paying insufficient attention to sexual harassment and other workplace issues, and drawing on male-dominated insider networks to maintain and reinforce existing hierarchies.

4. An ethics of care

In place of utilitarianism, Adams proposes an ethics of care. Since the pioneering work of the feminist scholar Carol Gilligan in her book In a different voice, care ethicists have emphasized the importance of ethical perspectives that put care, partiality, and interpersonal relationships at the center of ethical theorizing.

Adams criticizes an adherence to a concept of rational economic man underlying some utilitarian theorizing.

The rational-economic man construct gained ascendancy because it is authorized by and mirrors historic patriarchal fictions about gender: that a gender binary exists (man/woman), and that it is related to other binaries (rational/emotional; objective/subjective; abstraction/particularity). The gender binary, in its facilitation of other binaries, interacts with and is influenced by race, class, and disability status.

Adams argues that the concept of a rational economic man and the consequent marginalization of caring and sentiment is an impediment to theorizing about effective altruism, and in particular to animal advocacy:

The division between reason and emotion, or rationality and sentiment, is—like the gender binary—a fiction, but acceptance of these binaries as accurate representations of reality has distorted philosophy. The result is a valuing of disembodied rationality and the devaluing of caring. Lori Gruen and I point out how abstract reasoning is also “the capacity that historically has served to justify the hierarchical ranking of beings”, establishing a legitimization of the oppression of those ranked lower, including the other animals. With the construction of political and moral discussion as rational and “manly,” the role of “womanly” sentiment was seen as an impediment rather than an aid to engaging with the problem of what humans are doing to other animals.

In place of the rational economic man, Adams argues, we should identify at least as strongly with:

A Western philosophical tradition of sympathy that existed alongside the prizing of abstract reasoning as the preferred philosophical approach.

Adams suggests we should extend this tradition by turning to theories of care ethics developed by contemporary philosophers.

5. Taking stock

Today’s post looked at Carol J Adams’ feminist critique of effective altruism, focusing on the ethics of care. This critique urges that an ethics of care is needed to capture natural beliefs, feelings and behaviors involving those closest to us. Adams suggests that consequentialists often shield themselves from the concerns of care ethics by taking themselves to be inconsistent, or by passing off the responsibility of caring to others.

We also saw that the care ethical critique connects to broader concerns about a male-dominated bro culture within some animal advocacy spaces, as well as to broader concerns about male leadership, in-group favoritism, and the treatment of sexual harassment and abuse within the effective altruism movement.

Adams proposes that effective altruists could draw on an ethics of care to improve the consistency of their beliefs and behaviors, strengthen the climate for women within the movement, and improve the results of altruistic activities.

Perhaps it might help to invite effective altruists to view the turn to care ethics in non-binary terms. There is a large gulf between the staunch utilitarian who clings so firmly to his views that he refuses to admit the moral permissibility of caring for his own mother, and the most firmly anti-utilitarian ethical positions which take the promotion of value to have little or no moral importance in its own right. Drawing in part on traditions such as care ethics may be an important way to deepen the beliefs and behaviors in a movement that is often heavily responsive to, and driven by utilitarian considerations.


6 responses to “The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 3: Carol J. Adams)”

  1. Nathan Barnard Avatar
    Nathan Barnard

    I think this critique doesn’t engage with the fact that Singer caring for his mother rather than donating the money means that multiple children will die. When phrased in these terms, – choosing between protecting the declining health of ones mother vs letting children die – Singer’s preference for inconsistency over rejecting utilitarianism doesn’t seem so strange.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Nathan!

      One claim made by many nonconsequentialist ethical traditions is that agents may be permitted or even required to show partiality towards those with whom they have particular kinds of relationships: family, friends, and the like. Care ethics gives us a particular way of articulating this claim, which roots ethical theorizing in a situated relationship of care between, in this case, a son and his mother.

      It is, of course, possible to find ethical traditions which deny that we have any special obligations to look after those closest to us, even our own mothers, beyond those that can be derived from impartial considerations such as utility promotion. Nevertheless, even many consequentialists have felt that the view is biting a large bullet at this point. While some, including perhaps myself, would be willing to bite that bullet, we should not be too eager to dismiss the counter-intuitiveness of the verdict we have accepted.

      When a world-leading philosopher is, over a period of many years, unable to stop themselves from acting inconsistently in caring for their mother, this might give us grounds to suspect that they have enough doubts about the correctness or force of utilitarian moral theories to drive them to outright inconsistency, something that philosophers are often keen to avoid. This is, I think a sign of moral struggle and a clear indication that a moral bullet has been bitten.

      Ideally, one should not have to express a preference for inconsistency over abandoning one’s favorite moral theory.

  2. Alex Avatar

    I appreciate the discussion of Singer and his mother here — this does seem a crux for the moral views in question. Like Nathan, I’d prefer if Adams [or this summary of her] more readily acknowledged that she has her own bullets to bite here. But the discussion here is still really good regardless.

    Without having read the essay in question yet (although I plan to), I’m puzzled by section 4. It seems to be missing too much context for me to make any sense of it. Some claims are made that are pretty counterintuitive to me, and I’m left with no real understanding of why one would agree with them.

    To take two examples:

    • In what sense does the belief in a gender binary underlie utilitarian theorizing? (It doesn’t seem to at first glance, since the theory makes no explicit reference to gender. Of course the claim is about the *theorizing*, not the theory; I’m just not sure what to make of this.) This point seems to underlie the whole section (as we should wish to replace this “rational economic man”), so without a better understanding I’m already lost.

    • Is it true that abstract reasoning “[serves] to justify the hierarchical ranking of beings”? (In my own case and the case of many EAs, abstract reasoning is the source of a drastically widened circle of moral concern. I suppose this does involve weighting bugs less than dogs less than humans, though; do Adams and Gruen find this objectionable?)

    [My best (wild) guess at a response to my own questions is something like “the critique implicates this entire abstract systematic approach, so it’s hopeless to look for an answer within that framework.” I hope it’s not as bad as that, since it’s unclear to me how philosophy would work without such abstract reasoning.]

    To be clear, my point is less to argue against / ask questions of Adams (I’m sure my questions are naive and she would have ready answers) than to say that I would have really liked more from this summary on this point: more explication of what is meant by these points, and perhaps some critical engagement as to whether the author finds them valuable and how.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Alex, this is really helpful!

      I’m glad to hear that you are planning on reading the Adams piece. I found it to be useful and enjoyable to read. Please do let me know what you think of it.

      **On Section 4, and care ethics**

      You raise a good point about Section 4. I think that what I wrote there is far too short to give a proper introduction to care ethics. Adams’ paper is definitely better, in the sense that she is far better versed in the subject than I am. Adams’ paper is also not intended as an introduction to care ethics, but rather as an application of it, so it might also be a good idea to start by reading some foundational treatments of care ethics. If you’re up for a book, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982) and Nel Nodding’s Caring: A Feminine Approach … (1984) are often recommended. If you’d like something more reference-like, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good entry on feminist ethics ( including a more general treatment of care ethics in Section 2.2

      To reiterate: I think I wrote Section 4 badly. Your comment has helped me to see that I didn’t say enough about care ethics to tell my readers what is going on. Mea culpa.

      **On belief in the gender binary**

      It might help to remember that the gender binary functions in the first sentence of the quotation (“The division between …”) as an example of a fiction whose acceptance distorts reality. The first sentence of that quotation isn’t claiming that utilitarianism is committed to a gender binary. There is a lower-down entanglement that goes something like this: utilitarianism is often defended based on abstract reasoning (gendered “masculine”) as opposed to emotion/sentiment (gendered “feminine”). It’s an interesting question whether utilitarianism has to be defended in this way. Certainly it often is.

      **On abstract reasoning and the hierarchical ranking of beings**

      I think it’s important to note that Gruen and Adams are making a historical claim: abstract reasoning is “the capacity that *historically* has served to justify the hierarchical ranking of beings”. Reason can be used, or misused, in any number of ways. To say that reason has often been misused to justify oppression, hierarchy and the like is not (yet) to say that reason inevitably must be used to justify those things. (Adams is, after all, using reason and evidence to justify her own opinions). I don’t want to speak for Adams and Gruen, who may well have concerns about the ways that reason is likely to be used by EAs in the future. But I think they might be very happy to see reason being used to expand the circle of moral concern, even if they might be a bit skeptical about some other ways that reason is used within the movement.

      **Implicating the entire abstract, systematic approach**

      You do, quite perceptively, hit on an important crux in many of the papers in this volume when you say:

      [My best (wild) guess at a response to my own questions is something like “the critique implicates this entire abstract systematic approach, so it’s hopeless to look for an answer within that framework.”]

      A lot of the papers in this volume aim to fundamentally problematize aspects of the broader approach or worldview underlying effective altruism. Those kinds of broad-brush challenges to an approach or worldview can be difficult and frustrating to engage with – it’s tempting to either dismiss them or else try to translate them into the language of the worldview being criticized. The best response really is the response that you outline: looking outside the framework, i.e. learning a lot about the different worldviews being used and defended in this volume.

      I realize that is a time-consuming thing to ask. So too, I think, do the authors of this volume: they’re trying to meet effective altruists halfway by providing relevant summaries and upshots of some of the worldviews in question. However, it’s hard to summarize and apply a worldview in a few pages. It’s always best, when possible, to go back to the source.

  3. Jonathan Paulson Avatar
    Jonathan Paulson

    The discussion of the ethics of care assumes a backdrop where we are 100% committed to consequentialism and perhaps we should consider relaxing this somewhat in favor of more partial considerations like our duty to our family.

    But the situation in the real world is almost the opposite of this; almost all decisions are made in an extremely partial way, and impartial benevolence is very rare. Probably we shouldn’t be 100% impartial, but at current margins more impartiality is very beneficial, and that will continue to be true for the foreseeable future. Effective altruism being ~totally committed to impartial benevolence is a useful counterweight against the prevailing culture (and I’d bet even most effective altruists are more partial than not).

    Governments are the closest thing to a counterexample to this, but even at their best, they are extremely partial towards their own citizens, and of course most governments are not usually at their best.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Jonathan!

      I think that many care ethicists would be happy to see a discussion of the relative weight that should be placed on duties of care against other duties. I suspect that the reason why Adams phrased this portion of her essay as a critique of utilitarian attitudes towards care is that, as you know, many effective altruists are utilitarians.

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