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The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 4: Lori Gruen)

Debates … between revolution and reform … can be interrupted by exploring a “third way.” Socialist theorist André Gorz introduced the idea of “non-reformist reforms” as a way to provide another option, beyond what often seem to be all-or-nothing strategies. He suggested that some reforms could make more immediate gains without compromising the larger goals of social movements for radical change.

Lori Gruen, “The change we need
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1. Recap

This is Part 4 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. Part 3 discussed Carol J Adams’ feminist care-ethical critique of effective altruism.

Today, I want to look at a middle-ground perspective offered by another of the book’s editors, Lori Gruen. Gruen is William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. Her books include Ecofeminism: Feminist intersections with other animals and the earthEthics of captivity, and Entangled empathy.

Gruen’s essay, “The change we need,” introduces a `third way’ between the revolutionary and reformist positions that have come to characterize the institutional critique of effective altruism and the subsequent response to the institutional critique. I think that this third way is worth taking seriously, and I hope that you will too.

2. Revolution versus reform

There is an ongoing debate within philanthropy and social activism between revolutionaries and reformers. Revolutionaries argue that existing systems are fatally flawed, and that there cannot be meaningful change until a new system is built. Reformists counter that even if existing systems are flawed, it is often more effective to do what we can to incrementally improve conditions within existing systems.

Gruen discusses a number of examples of the tension between revolution and reform:

  • Socialism (Early 20th century): Must socialists push for a revolution to overthrow capitalist systems? Or it is possible to push for socialist reforms within existing systems?
  • Civil rights movement (Mid 20th century): Should protestors aim to nonviolently overturn unjust practices within the broad confines of current systems (Martin Luther King Jr.) or aim to overturn injustice by any means necessary (Malcolm X)?
  • Animal advocacy (Ongoing): Should activists aim to overturn all forms of animal exploitation, or to improve conditions and shut down factory farms?
  • US abolitionist movement (19th century): Should the institution of slavery be abolished, or should reformists focus on improving the conditions of slaves?

Gruen’s discussion of these cases suggests two lessons, which I take to be broadly consonant with Gruen’s stated views:

First, most of us are neither pure reformers, nor pure revolutionaries. In some cases (for example, the abolitionist movement), the prospect of anything short of systemic reform seems horrifying and unacceptable. In other cases (for example, socialist revolution or animal advocacy), many readers may be more willing to compromise.

Second, the tension between reformers and revolutionaries is sometimes exaggerated. For example, Gruen cites James Baldwin as having said of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that “by the time each met his death, there was practically no difference between them.” Gruen rightly clarifies that we should not take such optimistic pronouncements to show there is no meaningful tension between reform and revolution. But neither should activists with common goals seek to exaggerate the tension between each camp.

3. Effective altruists as reformers

Gruen suggests that effective altruists often lie further towards the reformist end of the spectrum. For example, Gruen cites MacAskill as writing:

I think that it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that the [EA] community would focus on rectifying injustice in cases where they believed that there were other available actions which, though they would leave the injustice remaining, would do more good overall.

Similar thoughts have been voiced elsewhere – for example, in Part 2 of this series we saw that Simone De Lima sees effective altruists as too strongly allied with the reformist camp of strategic veganism. And the same thought has been a mainstay of the institutional critique of effective altruism.

It is easy for this discussion to turn into a polemic, in which warring combatants debate the precise degree to which effective altruists have embraced reform over revolution as well as the merits of reform. For example, Nathan Robinson writes at Current Affairs:

All of this sounds pretty damned in-effective in terms of how much it is likely to solve large-scale social problems, and both MacAskill and Singer strike me as being at best incredibly naive about politics and social action, and at worst utterly unwilling to entertain possible solutions that would require radical changes to the economic and political status quo.

But as in so many debates, it may turn out that the truth lies somewhere in the middle between revolution and reform. Gruen proposes a third way between pure reformism and pure revolution: non-reformist reform.

4. Non-reformist reform

Gruen draws on a notion of non-reformist reforms introduced by André Gorz:

Socialist theorist André Gorz introduced the idea of “non-reformist reforms” as a way to provide another option, beyond what often seem to be all-or-nothing strategies. He suggested that some reforms could make more immediate gains without compromising the larger goals of social movements for radical change. … Gorz described “non-reformist reforms,” sometimes calling them “structural reforms,” as reforms that are clearly antithetical to the interests of capitalism, but don’t lead to immediate social transformation. These sorts of reforms have the potential to empower grass-roots activism in the pursuit of more meaningful, liberatory ends and certainly don’t promote the systems that are in need of change.

Gruen draws on the work of legal theorist Amna Akbar to characterize three concrete features of non-reformist reforms:

First, non-reformist reforms “advance a radical critique and radical imagination,” and in so doing provide frameworks “that will undermine the prevailing political, economic and social system from reproducing itself.” Second, non-reformist reforms actively shift power from the center to the margins and work to empower those who have been overlooked. And third, non-reformist reforms create the possibility for deepening independent thinking, developing creative demands, and forming new grass-roots political networks.

Here are some examples of the non-reformist reforms which Gruen cites:

(1) The AfroVegan society: Gruen writes:

The work that Brenda Sanders and the AfroVegan Society do in Baltimore, and the work others do in Black neighborhoods in New York, Atlanta, and other cities to introduce healthy, plant-based foods to the community, might … be considered non-reformist reforms. Too many people in low-income neighborhoods in the United States don’t have access to fresh, healthy foods. … The lack of access to healthy food, often framed as living in a “food desert” or as being subject to “food apartheid,” has deep ramifications for communities of color, making people vulnerable to premature death. Fortunately, there are people and organizations fighting against this threat. As the AfroVegan Society website notes, many people “have come to view veganism as both a viable solution to some of the challenges that currently face our communities as well as a vehicle for resisting the systems that are responsible for creating those challenges.”

(2) The Prison Reads program, which in its own words “uses literature to empower people to confront what prison does to the spirit,” providing prisoners with individualized libraries which “becom[e] a symbol and place of fellowship and respect, radiating a sense of dignity.” Such work does not seek to overturn the prison-industrial complex, but neither does it merely aim to improve conditions. Like other non-reformist reforms, such programs shift power (in the form of knowledge) to incarcerated people, create the possibility for dignity and independent thought, and in doing so advance a critique of the conditions of prisoners that are too often unfree, undignified, and devoid of meaningful opportunity.

5. Effective altruism and non-reformist reform

As these examples illustrate, non-reformist reforms sit squarely between the reformist impulse to take tractable interactions to improve outcomes within current systems and the revolutionary impulse to fundamentally uproot all oppressive systems before reform can begin.

However, non-reformist reforms must not be watered down. Here is Gruen:

Meaningful, non-reformist reforms must be designed to ultimately transcend the liberal, racialized capitalist paradigm and empower people to work in solidarity to bring about transformation of social/political systems. Non-reformist reforms are transitional steps that can build awareness and commitment toward radical change. As Gorz noted, “it is necessary to present not only an overall alternative but also those ‘intermediate objectives’ which lead to it and foreshadow it in the present…” They “must be conceived as means, not as ends, as dynamic phases in a process of struggle, not as resting stages.” They serve “to educate and unite” people and present a larger vision for change.

By contrast, Gruen argues, although effective altruists rightly stress that they are willing and able to support some types of systemic change, they often have a much less dramatic vision of systemic change in mind:

Consider just a few of the ways that MacAskill endorses EAs’ efforts supporting “political change.” He notes that one of the “structural” reasons that people are poor is that they aren’t able to leave their countries to become more productive, so working to support greater freedom of movement across borders is thought to be an efficient way to address poverty. But this misses the actual structures that produce and maintain wealth inequality as well as intergenerational wealth gaps that can’t be solved through immigration reform. Another allegedly “political” change involves recommending careers in “policy-oriented civil service and think tanks.” And, of course, he notes work supporting corporate campaigns to go cage-free as well as promoting scientific research and NGOs developing lab-grown meat and plant-based meat substitutes. This entirely misses the point of transformation and represents such a vanishingly “narrow” conception of systemic change that it’s hard to think that it is the critics who have the “misconception.”

Gruen closes by suggesting that effective altruists might consider investing more heavily in non-reformist reforms, in the process aiming to produce a broader type of systemic change while staying comfortably away from the zeal of the revolutionary.

6. Reconceptualizing the institutional critique

Speaking for myself, this is the second time in this volume that I have learned to see the institutional critique of effective altruism in a different light.

Part 1 of this series discussed the foreword to the book by Amia Srinivasan. There, we saw that the institutional critique may not be so much a matter of what effective altruists’ principles allow them to say, but rather a question of how those principles are systematically interpreted. Srinivasan writes:

Political critique does not, and should not, merely address what social and political movements say about themselves. Political critique does, and should, also think about what social and political movements do: what effects they systematically bring about in the world, which structures they tend to reinforce, and which people they empower and which they silence. When movements fail to “do” what they “say,” it is not always just a matter of failed “implementation,” easily correctable through a doubling-down on the movement’s core principles. Sometimes, contradictions between what a movement “says” and “does” reveal something deep about how the movement practically works – and why it is successful. In turn, such revelations can tell us something about the limits of what such a movement can plausibly achieve.

Today, we discussed a second way to reconceptualise the institutional critique, by seeking a middle ground between revolution and reform. Sometimes, advocates of the institutional critique fall into the radical trap of demanding that effective altruists throw their weight behind controversial revolutionary causes, such as anti-capitalist revolution. This has led many effective altruists to discount the institutional critique, on the grounds that they are not personally in favor of anti-capitalist revolution.

Gruen offers non-reformist reforms as a potentially viable middle ground, neither abandoning the institutional critique’s demand for meaningful challenges to existing systems and narratives, nor forcing the reformist to abandon her efforts in favor of revolution.

Could Gruen be right? I am not sure. But I tend to think that Gruen, like Srinivasan, has taught us something important about how debates about the institutional critique should be conducted, and has probably helped us to come to a place where we may be more likely to find meaningful common ground together with actionable solutions.


7 responses to “The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 4: Lori Gruen)”

  1. Alex Avatar

    “This has led many effective altruists to discount the institutional critique, on the grounds that they are not personally in favor of anti-capitalist revolution.

    “Gruen offers non-reformist reforms as a potentially viable middle ground, neither abandoning the institutional critique’s demand for meaningful challenges to existing systems and narratives, nor forcing the reformist to abandon her efforts in favor of revolution.”

    I’m less optimistic about this middle ground (at least concerning the average member of the existing EA community) than you are, considering that non-reformist reforms are defined as being “clearly antithetical to the interests of capitalism.” It’s understating the case to say most EAs are not in favor of anti-capitalist *revolution* — they’re positively *in favor of capitalism*. So if the theory of impact behind a given intervention is that it will tend to undermine capitalism, many will see that as a reason *not* to pursue it.

    On the other hand, this essay sounds like it could be an interesting contribution to “socialist effective altruism,” i.e. accepting the “question” of EA and trying to answer it from a different ideological position. That’s a project I’d be very excited about!

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Alex!

      I think your comment brings out an important distinction between two questions: (1) whether a given systemic change would be desirable, should it happen and (2) whether actions directed at systemic change are preferable to less revolutionary, reformist acts. You’re quite right that for a given systemic change (say, socialist revolution), someone who answers “no” to (1) will be very pro-reform in answer to (2).

      I think that one of the most valuable contributions of Gruen’s piece is to take the notion of non-reformist reforms out of its original home (within socialist theory) and generalize it, along the lines described by Akbar. This allows people who may be skeptical of some revolutionary changes (say, socialist revolution) to consider non-reformist reforms as an alternative to other revolutionary changes that could be potentially desirable (say, challenging patriarchy, the meat industry, or the prison-industrial complex).

      I wonder if you might be more sympathetic to some of the examples offered by Gruen, such as the AfroVegan society and the Prison Reads program, which could be desirable to many people who are not socialists?

      1. Alex Avatar

        Thanks for the response — I guess I was reading the initial definition of “non-reformist reform” too literally here, focusing too narrowly on anti-capitalism in particular.

        I haven’t looked into them further, but the AfroVegan society and Prison Reads program both sound like very good organizations. However, if one is critiquing effective altruism and proposing alternative organizations to support, my view is they have quite a high bar: they need to make the case that supporting these alternatives is, in some sense, “better” than supporting e.g. malaria nets or catastrophic pandemic prevention.

        Since that bar excludes most good causes (by design), I would guess by default that these organizations probably don’t clear it. I could come up with some reasons they might: it might be particularly cost-effective to help prisoners in this way, given how poor their conditions tend to be. The AfroVegan society is likely on par with other vegan outreach, which could easily be cost-effective from an animal welfare perspective.

        What I was alluding to in my first comment (which was possibly based on a misunderstanding of the way Gruen is using “non-reformist reform”) was the idea that, *if* these projects are also “antithetical to the interests of capital,” then that might count strongly in favor of their effectiveness from the perspective of anti-capitalists.

        So perhaps they wouldn’t be able to convince *me* (less sold on anti-capitalism) that these (or other similarly justified projects) are the most effective organizations to support, but *would* convince other socialists based on this logic.

  2. Jason Avatar

    Given that the book is largely about animal advocacy, and corporate campaigns are the flagship EA animal-welfare program, it is fair for Gruen to focus on those campaigns. That being said, those programs are probably the high-water mark of what Catholic moral thinkers would call cooperation with evil in EA. I do think the calculus is quite different when one’s actions create a perceptible risk of propping up an evil system versus merely operating orthogonally to it.

    I think most EAs recognize the risks of “humanewashing” — e.g., that reforms could provide cover to factory farming operations and lead people to believe that eating factory farmed eggs is now OK since the hens were “cage free.” I think one potential crux between most EAs and Gruen is why “humanewashing” is problematic. Although I can’t speak for Gruen, I suspect she may find corporate campaigns problematic on moral grounds and wouldn’t think it necessary to rest her objections on empiricial assertions about the effect of corporate campaigns on consumer willingness to eat fewer (or zero) animal products.

    In contrast, most EAs would see the problem of “humanewashing” as an empiricial one — if they could, they would run a bunch of simulations of various strategies on an all-knowing supercomputer, decide which one would meet with the most support from a hypothetical Council of Chickens, and go with that. (It’s plausible that the corporate campaigns have net negative expected value even under orthodox EA theory.) Personally, I don’t donate to corporate campaigns, but instead to suing Big Chicken corporations with horrible records.

    I am somewhat skeptical of “non-reformist reforms” as a major third way, although some edge cases likely exist. I don’t have any reason to think that the most effective ways of alleviating suffering are going to have meaningful proto-revolutionary potential, or that the most effective ways of promoting revolutionary change are going to have much direct anti-suffering effect. Kicking a significantly more effective anti-suffering program because it does not “advance a radical critique,” “actively shift power” or “create the possibility” of certain things would be too much for me to accept, as I think imposing that kind of ideological litmus test risks disempowering the intended beneficiaries who are already powerless (chickens, young children, etc.)

    I fear that insisting on a decent “score” under two very different paradigms would cause selection of initiatives that are rather middling on both. I’d prefer a world in which reformers do their thing, and revolutionaries do theirs, albeit with better coordination and cooperation to avoid materially impeding the other branch’s work, and a good deal less internecine conflict.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Jason! Just wanted to let you know I’m running late on replying to both of your comments (sorry!). I’m organizing two conferences at once right now and I pushed back replying to regular readers for a day or two since I know you’ll still be around.

    2. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Jason!

      Sorry for the very late reply.

      One thing that I think we both appreciate about this book is that a number of authors focus on animal advocacy, which isn’t always discussed in critiques of EA.

      I’m not sure that Gruen is especially focused on animal advocacy. While Gruen does initially mention animal advocacy as one of four examples of the tension between revolution and reform, she also mentions three other examples, and most of the non-reformist reforms she discusses are unrelated to animal advocacy.

      In particular, I don’t think that Gruen is primarily concerned with humane-washing in this article. Concerns about humane-washing answer the question `how might philanthropy bolster unjust systems?’. By contrast, Gruen is concerned with the question `how might philanthropy challenge unjust systems?’. She proposes non-reformist reforms as a way to challenge unjust systems without aiming for outright revolution.

      I sometimes share your skepticism of half-measures. It is perhaps not always true that the best way to balance desires for revolution and reform is to fund interventions which satisfy both desires to some degree, i.e. non-reformist reforms. I’m not sure that either of us needs to *always* be skeptical of half-measures, but there is certainly something important about this kind of skepticism.

      Perhaps one way of thinking about the extent of our skepticism about half-measures would be this. Suppose you think that existing systems are really bad, and that it’s very important to challenge them. Between very extreme acts (revolution) or moderate challenges (non-reformist reforms), which would you prefer to fund?

      Of course, it’s open to respond that at the end of the day, reform is better than either of the more radical options. And sometimes that is right. But if across many different cause areas, we always end up concluding that reform is better than revolution, we might wonder whether there are some underlying empirical or ideological disagreements about the need for systemic change.

  3. Jason Avatar

    I think that’s a great diagnostic question in the abstract, but at least for me it’s challenging to deploy.

    I’d probably rephrase “which would you prefer to fund” to “in what proportions would you fund if you had control of all the relevant monies?” To me, the former isn’t a great proxy for what I think of the current systems / revolution, it’s heavily dependent on what other people have already decided to fund. It’s really hard for me to answer at a donor level in the abstract.

    Also, for someone who identifies as a donor with GiveWellian approaches, I’d struggle with figuring out which revolutionaries were worth funding, while I feel much more confident in my ability to pick out a good reformist cause. It’s likely that revolutionary potential impact is concentrated in a relatively small number of opportunities, and I don’t feel like I can select good ones without being close to a revolutionary myself. I don’t know if that’s a critique of the revolutionary community or of me!

    There’s also the emotional aspect, which is not “EA approved”: giving 15-20% of my family’s income isn’t small potatoes, and for a significant fraction of that — it feels comforting to know how many bednets I got out the door, as opposed to wondering whether the money I gave successfully accomplished anything in the real world. I think I’d be more adventurous as a billionaire who could diversify more, though. So I think that’s primarily picking up on some risk aversion rather than an empirical or ideological disagreement.

    I think there are clearly some empirical/ideological disagreements. There is, of course, a significant wing within EA that thinks everything will fundamentally change with artificial general intelligence and a resulting technological explosion. If one thinks that, one might also think that the existing bad structures in some cause areas will wither away / be outcompeted given a massive economic boom and technological advancement. For instance, it will be much more efficient to produce cultured meat, and so farmed animal welfare will be “solved.” Even global health may be largely solved. I am pretty skeptical of that reasoning myself. But if a person believed the AI/technological revolution was inevitable in 25-50 years anyway, and that the non-AI revolutionaries were rather unlikely to accomplish much before then, those beliefs would probably support a 100% reformist approach in a number of cause areas no matter how wretched one thought the current systems were.

    For me, the fundamental problem is that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Moral progress is possible, but no revolution (ideological or technological) is going to change the fundamental truth behind Solzhenitsyn’s quote. The systems that replace the awful systems as a result of a revolution will almost certainly have their own significant problems, although probably not as bad. So I probably value revolution less than the median revolutionary.

    So as with many things, I find myself somewhere in between orthodox EAs and their critics . . . .

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