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The good it promises (Part 6: Alice Crary)

EA’s god’s eye image of moral reflection constrains how we can conceive of ethical thought and practice, leaving no room for views intolerant of the idea that moral reflection proceeds from the standpoint of the universe.

Alice Crary, “Against `effective altruism’
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1. Recap

This is Part 6 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. Part 4 discussed Lori Gruen’s proposed middle-ground between revolution and reform. Part 5 discussed Andrew deCoriolis and colleagues’ call for a more ambitious approach to animal advocacy.

Today, I want to focus on an essay by one of the volume’s editors, Alice Crary, that has attracted a great deal of attention, “Against `effective altruism’.” I’ll focus on the publicly available version rather than the version printed in the anthology, so that all readers will have access to Crary’s words.

Alice Crary is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. Her books include Inside ethics: On the demands of moral thought and Beyond moral judgment.

Crary’s essay raises a number of important points that deserve careful scrutiny. A challenge in discussing Crary’s essay is that it draws on a rich network of overlapping philosophical traditions that take time to interpret and explain. I want to take the time to draw out some of the most important claims that Crary makes and to situate those claims in the context of the views and developments that motivate them.

I can’t cover all of Crary’s essay in one post. I’m not entirely sure if two posts will suffice either. Let’s get a start on some early themes from Crary’s essay today, then dig deeper into the mid-section of the paper in a later post.

2. Consequentialism

We have spoken before on this blog about the delicate relationship between effective altruism and consequentialism.

For example, in a discussion of Richard Chappell’s review of What we owe the future, we saw that Chappell complains of a tendency of critics to equate effective altruism with utilitarianism:

The animating moral principle behind the book is that future people matter too. (Note how moderate a claim this is: “I’m not claiming that the interests of present and future people should always and everywhere be given equal weight. I’m just claiming that future people matter significantly.” Beware of critics who dismiss longtermism on the basis of conflating it with more extreme claims, such as total utilitarianism.)

This is fair enough. Effective altruists need not be utilitarians, and utilitarians need not be effective altruists. However, most recurring confusions contain a healthy degree of truth, and the conflation of effective altruism with consequentialism or utilitarianism is no exception.

I said as much in my review of Chappell:

There is no doubt that many longtermists have been strongly influenced by utilitarianism. Chappell’s blog is headlined by the utilitarian flag, designed by Johan Gustafsson. In the 2019 EA survey, a whopping 80.7% of effective altruists identified as consequentialists, with the majority (69.6% of the total sample) identifying as utilitarian. Just 3.2% identified with deontological approaches. This contrasts sharply with a recent survey of professional philosophers, among whom 23.6% lean consequentialist, and 25.9% lean towards deontology. These demographic facts do not excuse the conflation of longtermism with total utilitarianism. But they might give us reason to ask whether  utilitarianism has exerted undue influence over effective altruist theorizing, and whether effective altruists who distance themselves from total utilitarianism might be downplaying the extent of their own utilitarian sympathies.

The same thought is voiced, perhaps a bit too strongly, by the philosopher Savannah Pearlman at the Blog of the APA:

Effective Altruism and Utilitarianism are by no means the same moral theory, however, it is undeniable that they share a number of central features. Far from being independent of the utilitarian framework, I think it is clear by now that the goal of Effective Altruism, as well as its strategy of execution, is inextricably linked to the hallmarks of Utilitarianism.

The same thought is also voiced, perhaps more than a bit too strongly, by Émile Torres at Aeon:

Although some longtermists insist that they aren’t utilitarians, we should right away note that this is mostly a smoke-and-mirrors act to deflect criticisms that longtermism – and, more generally, the effective altruism (EA) movement from which it emerged – is nothing more than utilitarianism repackaged. The fact is that the EA movement is deeply utilitarian, at least in practice, and indeed, before it decided upon a name, the movement’s early members, including Ord, seriously considered calling it the ‘effective utilitarian community’.

Can we arrive at a more moderate version of this thought? A version of this thought is raised by Alice Crary. Like Pearlman, Crary stresses that while effective altruism is not identical to consequentialism, effective altruists often adopt significant features of the consequentialist approach:

Consequentialist ideas inform the way EA is implemented by many EA-affiliated groups … Consequentialism is a rather big tent, accommodating a variety of EAs. Some advocates argue that it is not necessary for effective altruists to be consequentialists. Others go further, claiming that EA is `independent of any theoretical commitments.’ This last claim is false … The consequentialist stances that have figured in the articulation and institutional actualization of EA presuppose a distinctive philosophical worldview.

Bringing forth and challenging the consequentialist components of this worldview is a central project of Crary’s essay. Crary continues:

It is possible to move from criticism of this worldview to a thoroughgoing attack on EA’s most destructive aspects. The resulting non-consequentialist outlook makes it possible to expose as confused EA-style talk of doing `most good’, deligitimising evaluations of charitable organizations that presuppose such talk’s coherence, and thus rendering moot the question of whether such evaluations are invariably consequentialist.

What aspects of effective altruists’ worldview does Crary see as inherited from consequentialism? And why does Crary ask us to resist them? Let’s take things slowly, one issue at a time.

3. Consequentialism’s space of alternatives

What is the central question of moral philosophy? We moderns assume that the central question of moral philosophy is a question about action: what should I do? Should I save my child’s life, or the lives of two strangers’ children?

Other traditions begin with different questions. For example, ancient virtue ethicists began with the question of what sort of person I should be. What virtues should I strive to cultivate, and what vices should I seek to avoid?

The questions we start with can affect the answers we arrive at. For example, many virtue ethicists think that a virtuous agent would be the sort of person who would save their child’s life over the lives of two strangers’ children. This is not yet to say anything about right action, although for some virtue theorists questions about virtue can be used to settle questions about right action. However, it is to say something important that may be left out of traditional consequentialist approaches.

While acknowledging that effective altruists have the tools to evaluate many things besides actions, Crary notes that many effective altruists share the modern fixation on assessment of action:

During EA’s brief history, self-avowed effective altruists have tended to take as the objects of moral assessment particular actions.

Among the many protests lodged by virtue ethicists against our fixation on action, one complaint pressed by Crary is that it may not be possible to understand the value realized by an action without appeal to the virtues, capacities, or situated forms of awareness of agents taking action. For example, you might think that a mean old curmudgeon acting charitably by luck, accident, or momentary weakness doesn’t do something quite as valuable as a virtuous person who takes the same action.

As Crary emphasizes, this is something that most effective altruists, like mainstream consequentialists, have a hard time saying:

Their abstract approach excludes any virtue-oriented view on which the rightness of actions is appropriately engaged responsiveness to circumstances, and this makes it seem more natural to account for rightness by looking to the value of actions’ consequences.

That is a metaphysical point about the values that actions actually have. But a similar point can be made in epistemological terms: certain virtues, capacities, or forms of situated responsiveness may be essential for helping us recognize valuable acts. One of the oldest, and most powerful refrains of virtue ethicists is that if you want to know what to do, you could do worse than to ask a virtuous person and follow their advice. Crary may be making this epistemological point when she writes:

EA’s god’s eye image of moral reflection constrains how we can conceive of ethical thought and practice … [for example] various outlooks, some associated with strands of virtue theory, that represent values as woven into the world’s fabric, so that we need particular sensitivities to recognize them.

It can be hard, sometimes, for effective altruists to see the possibility of such a position. Crary continues:

Many effective altruists fail to register this last exclusion as an exclusion. EA’s Oxford-trained founders work in a philosophical tradition, indebted to classic empiricism, shaped by the assumption that subjective endowments have an essential tendency to obstruct our access to the world.

Crary suggests that the work of philosophers such as G.E.M. Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch can help us to find some distance from such assumptions.

4. The view from nowhere

In one of the most-cited critiques of utilitarianism, Philippa Foot begins by acknowledging the compellingness of consequentialism:

It is remarkable how utilitarianism tends to haunt even those of us who will not believe in it. It is as if we for ever feel that it must be right, although we insist that it is wrong.

The reason why consequentialism is compelling is that it rests on a simple yet powerful insight. Foot writes:

What is it … that is so compelling about consequentialism? It is, I think, the rather simple thought that it can never be right to prefer a worse state of affairs to a better. How could it ever be right, we think, to produce less good rather than more good? It is this thought that haunts us.

Where, if anywhere, does this insight go wrong? Foot suggests that consequentialists err in their conception of value itself. Consequentialists assume that it makes rigorous sense to adopt an objective point of view, sometimes called the point of view of the universe, the view from nowhere, or the impartial point of view, from which all things have values attached to them.

Foot explores a variety of things that could be meant by the point of view of the universe, in which all acts and states of affairs can be given values. Foot acknowledges that this talk makes good rigorous sense in some contexts, but holds that its application is limited:

What the non consequentialist should say is that `good state of affairs’ is an expression which has a very limited use … It belongs to cases in which benevolence is free to pursue its ends, and chooses among possibilities … But the expression has no meaning when we try to use it to say something about a whole consisting of what we would illicitly do, allow or wish for, together with its consequences. In the abstract, a benevolent person must wish that loss and harm be minimized. He does not, however, wish that the whole consisting of a killing to minimize killings should be actualized either by his own agency or that of anyone else.

In such a context, the consequentialist’s fundamental insight is not false, but rather inapplicable: a nonconsequentialist does not willingly bring about a suboptimal state of affairs, but rather refuses to accept the consequentialist’s assumption that all states of affairs have values. Foot continues:

So there is no reason on this score to say that he must regard it as the `better state of affairs.’ And therefore there is no reason for the non consequentialist … to describe the refusal as a choice of a worse state of affairs.

Crary follows Foot in seeing the adoption of an impartial point of view from which all states and acts have values as something that effective altruists have inherited from consequentialism:

There is a further respect in which effective altruists fly consequentialist colours. Consequentialists sometimes gloss their take on the moral enterprise by suggesting that moral reflection is undertaken from the `point of view of the universe,’ accenting that they conceive such reflection as disengaged and dispassionate.

Here Crary draws on Peter Singer’s well-known pond case:

The morally radical suggestion is that our ability to act so as to produce value anywhere places the same moral demands on us as our ability to produce value in our immediate circumstances … If we take well-being as a value, our ability to act so as to address suffering in any spot on earth places the same moral demands on us as does our ability to address the suffering of an unaccompanied toddler drowning in a shallow pond next to the road on which we’re walking.

Crary suggests that the adoption of an impartial, disengaged point of view of the universe informs two central contentions of effective altruism:

First, effective altruists inherit it when they extort us to be guided by their recommendations in a way that treats as irrelevant the question of who is helped, without following our passions or favouring projects to which we have particular attachments. Second, effective altruists presuppose a radical take on an abstract moral epistemology in urging us to do the most good … It is the idea that rightness is a matter of the value of quantifiable consequences, allowing for difficulties of juggling different classes of values, that makes it seem coherent to speak of single judgments about how to do the most good.

That is, I think, fair enough. Effective altruists do often treat questions of who is helped as irrelevant or secondary, and certainly do urge us to do the most good.

I don’t ask readers to accept the Footian critique of the point of view of the universe. This is one of the most longstanding debates within philosophy, and I would be happy enough if I could convince readers to take this critique seriously, and perhaps to read some central texts advancing the critique.

Instead, I want to ask what would follow from taking Foot’s critique seriously. The next post in this series will look at some observations about effective altruism that Crary draws from Foot’s critique.

5. Summary

Today’s post looked at Alice Crary’s essay, “Against `effective altruism’“, which argues that effective altruism, while not reducible to consequentialism, inherits a number of assumptions from consequentialism that deserve critical examination.

We saw that many theorists have agreed with Crary’s suspicion that effective altruism inherits a good deal from consequentialism. We considered Crary’s proposal that effective altruism limits the space of alternatives by framing moral questions as in the first instance questions about what to do, rather than, for example, what kind of a person to be. We concluded by looking at Foot’s critique of the point of view of the universe, and saw that Crary takes Foot’s critique to have important implications for effective altruism.

What are those implications? I am afraid I will have to leave these as a cliffhanger for now. The next post in this series will discuss some – perhaps, if I am lucky, even most – of the implications that Crary proposes to draw from Foot’s critique.


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