The good it promises (Part 7: Crary continued)

EA’s god’s eye moral epistemology disqualifies it from authoritatively trafficking in values … [This] casts new light on the institutional critique’s charge that EA fails to do justice to sets of actions aimed at progressive social change. The resulting composite critique presupposes, in line with the philosophical critique, that values are essentially woven into the texture of the social world and that EA’s Archimedean take on moral reflection deprives it of resources needed to describe – irreducibly normative – social circumstances.

Alice Crary, “Against effective altruism
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1. Recap

This is Part 7 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.

Part 6 began a two-part discussion of Alice Crary’s essay, “Against `effective altruism’.” There, we discussed the closeness of effective altruist theorizing to some views traditionally associated with consequentialism. In particular, we saw that the same Footian critique of a moral `view from nowhere’ from which the goodness of all states and acts is defined might be leveled not only at consequentialism, but also at many discussions within the effective altruist tradition.

Today’s post continues this discussion by showing how Crary weaves these points into a two-part institutional and philosophical critique of effective altruism. The resulting composite critique stresses the irreducible normativity of social life, and the difficulty that effective altruists sometimes have in heeding and relating to existing discourses of liberation.

2. The philosophical critique

Crary presses two critiques of effective altruism, the institutional critique and the philosophical critique. The institutional critique will be familiar to many readers (see Berkey 2017 for discussion and references), so I’ll focus on presenting the philosophical critique.

We saw in Part 5 that Crary follows Foot, Williams and others in targeting the idea of a god’s eye moral epistemology from which all states and acts have well-defined values. Crary’s philosophical critique applies doubts about this god’s eye moral epistemology to target aspects of effective altruism. Crary writes:

The philosophical critique is an apt moniker for a cluster of attacks on EA which target the god’s eye moral epistemology that makes it seem possible to arrive at single judgments about how to do the most good. These attacks charge that it is morally and philosophically problematic to construe moral reflection as abstract.

It is, as Crary acknowledges, a deep and difficult philosophical issue to say precisely what is targeted by these critiques, and why it is wrong. We touched on some of these issues in Part 5, though far more remains to be said. But suppose we take on board Crary’s doubts about effective altruism’s god’s eye moral epistemology. What follows?

At least two of Crary’s remarks about the philosophical critique deserve emphasis. First, Crary follows Foot in holding that once we step outside of a god’s eye moral epistemology, we see that other virtues (or duties) beyond benevolence can be relevant to moral action, and when they are, it may be misleading to focus on doing the most good, as though benevolence were the only morally relevant factor at play.

Acting rightly includes acting, when circumstances call for it, in ways that aim at the well-being of others, and, with reference to this benevolent pursuit of others’ well-being, it makes sense to talk – in a manner that may seem to echo effective altruists – about good states of affairs. But … right action also includes acting, when circumstantially appropriate, in ways that aim at ends – e.g. giving people what they are owed – that can conflict with the end of benevolence. Apt responsiveness to circumstances sometimes requires acting with an eye to others’ well-being and sometimes with an eye to other ends.

For example, we may have reparative duties to rectify historical injustices towards women, ethnic minorities, or former colonies, as well as relationship duties towards those bound to us through ties of kinship or friendship. These and other duties, which may conflict with benevolence, will come up in more detail when we discuss Crary’s composite critique.

I also want to emphasize a second remark made by Crary: the adoption of a totalizing, god’s eye evaluative perspective is often associated with unfortunate attempts by privileged groups to paint their own perspective as the view of reason, rationality, and impartiality. This remark was echoed in Part 2 of this series, glossing similar views by Simone de Lima. There, I wrote:

A … remark worth emphasizing is how the monopolization of terms such as reason and evidence functions as a strategic move within what ought to be contested conversations about philanthropy and policymaking. It is no accident that the effective altruism movement finds itself heavily invested in these rhetorical moves. Many effective altruists describe themselves as “rationalists”, committed to thinking rationally and avoiding bias in an attempt to be less wrong about the world. They congregate on blogs and fora with titles such as “Overcoming Bias” and “LessWrong.” provides an introduction to effective altruism that literally defines effective altruism as “the use of evidence and reason in search of the best ways of doing good,” and that definition is repeated elsewhere: for example, by 80,000 Hours.

In a similar way, Crary urges us to see the language of reason, rationality, and impartiality as contestable: that is, as a vocabulary that groups often try to claim for themselves, and that should be firmly brought back into the realm of common property where it belongs.

The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries witnessed significant philosophical assaults on abstract conceptions of reason, and there is a notable philosophical corpus in which the merits of these assaults get debated. Although it is by no means obvious that those who favour abstract views have better arguments … abstract construals of reason have for more than half a century played an organising role in the discipline of philosophy …This suggests that the construals’ staying power is at least partly a function of ideological factors independent of their philosophical credentials. That – the fact that these conceptions of reason are manifestly open to contestation – is one reason why effective altruists should attend to a philosophical critique that depends for its force on rejecting abstract images of reason.

There are more aspects of the philosophical critique beyond the two prongs that I have mentioned: emphasizing moral considerations beyond benevolence, and contesting notions of reason, rationality and impartiality. However, I want to shift into discussion of how these, and other aspects of the philosophical critique combine with the institutional critique of effective altruism to yield a new version of the institutional critique.

3. The composite critique and the normativity of social life

The philosophical critique criticizes EA’s god’s eye moral epistemology, whereas the institutional critique criticizes EA’s treatment of social institutions and movements for social change. Combining the philosophical and institutional critiques yields Crary’s composite critique:

The philosophical critique charges that EA’s god’s eye moral epistemology disqualifies it from authoritatively trafficking in values, and it thus casts new light on the institutional critique’s charge that EA fails to do justice to sets of actions aimed at progressive social change. The resulting composite critique presupposes, in line with the philosophical critique, that values are essentially woven into the texture of the social world and that EA’s Archimedean take on moral reflection deprives it of resources needed to describe – irreducibly normative – social circumstances.

Two of Crary’s remarks about the composite critique deserve special attention. The first emerges in the final sentence of the quoted passage: Crary draws on a view of social circumstances as irreducibly normative. That is to say that social circumstances cannot be understood in a purely abstract, scientific, value-neutral way: they must also be studied through more normatively enmeshed methods.

The call to regard social circumstances as irreducibly normative has featured prominently in a number of debates across fields. Crary writes:

Arguments for conceiving social understanding as thus normative can be found in numerous discussions about methods and authority of the social sciences. This includes anti-positivist debates in sociology, disputes in anthropology about the need for ethnographic methods alongside quantitative ones and calls by Frankfurt School theorists to retain an ineluctably normative notion of social analysis.

What arguments are made by each camp? Here again we run up against the frustrating richness of Crary’s text: the essay draws on a number of overlapping literatures that would require entire books to summarize.

Perhaps one example of what Crary is after is the debate within anthropology about the place of qualitative, ethnographic methods based on long immersion within a community, in a world increasingly obsessed with quantitative facts, figures and studies. Here Crary cites the book Textures of the ordinary by the anthropologist Veena Das, who puts the point as follows:

Foucault makes a distinction between two different conceptions of truth (see Foucault 2003). The first is demonstrative truth that underlies the contemporary scientific understanding of demonstrating through marshalling of evidence whether a hypothesis is true or false, and thus, in theory, allowing anyone with the right qualifications to judge its truth or falsity. The second is a notion of truth that only some people by virtue of their position or by some special dispensation are allowed to pronounce (e.g., oracles, prophets).

Das uses quantitive scientific methods to incorporate the first type of truth, but also allows a role for the second type of truth to be expressed through more qualitative, embedded ethnographic study:

One way that I can describe the method I follow is to incorporate both notions of truth within the ethnography rather than elevating one above the other. Thus, for some purposes it matters to me that I have carefully collected information on how an authorized map of a neighborhood was made and what consequences it had for securing electricity meters; or the number of households that had access to municipal water through taps within the house; or why houses had several addresses inscribed on the wall … On the other side, an allusive sentence—“I refer to my husband by his name”—said in the context of a discussion on reproductive histories signaled something that I would need to hold, to wait, to receive as a kind of grace, for its significance to dawn—slowly or in a flash.

There is a good deal of interpretive work to be done in unpacking what Crary and Das are after, and in unifying that with the normative view of social circumstances advanced by theorists in other fields. But I think that readers may get a good sense of what Crary is after here by thinking through some of the debates mentioned by Crary, and trying as hard as they can to put into words what is lost as the study of social reality is increasingly reduced to a quantitive, scientific matter. Surely we lose something. What do we lose? Try to say it, really try, and see if that helps you understand what Crary is after here.

4. The composite critique and discourses of liberation

In her introduction to the volume, Amia Srinivasan reminds us that many of the most important social movements have been founded on liberatory discourses, which aimed to reveal and then dismantle oppressive structures:

The historically most significant social movements … have offered complex analyses of the interrelations between different structures of oppression: between, say, racial domination and capitalist exploitation; the plight of poor women of the Global South and the climate crisis; or neoliberalism, mass incarceration, and the assault on the dignity of people with disabilities. These social movements have also, at their best, shown us that another, radically different world might be possible – a world not just with less harm and suffering, but with substantially more freedom, democracy, and equality in all its guises – even as they articulate concrete programs for reform. These movements have pushed us to think about a world beyond, for example, capitalism, the gender binary, the nuclear family, prisons, and the nation-state. Effective altruism … calls us back from these exercises of radical political imagination.

This passage focuses on the question of how oppressive structures are revealed, interrogated, and challenged. But suppose we turn the question around: how are oppressive structures hidden, left unquestioned and maintained?

Here, the concern is that dominant discourses about value, reason, morality and well-being can be weaponized to mask oppression by presenting themselves as universal truths that cannot, and need not be questioned. In this vein, Crary writes:

Further support [for the composite critique] can be found in contemporary discourses of liberation. Anguish at the violence of being forced to live within ‘false universals’ is a rallying cry echoing through numerous strands of twentieth and twenty-first century emancipatory thought. What inspires the cry is the experience of being subjected to forms of social life that appear to conform to laudable social ideals (e.g. equality, freedom and non-violence) only when looked at from elite perspectives that are wrongly presented as neutral and universal. Expressions of this experience often go hand in hand with claims about how the route to a just understanding of a set of unjust social circumstances must involve, not a new supposedly neutral stance, but a stance shaped by an appreciation of the suffering of the marginalised. Such claims recur in a wide array of overlapping – feminist, anti-racist, anti- colonial, anti-ableist – liberating theories, and, against the backdrop of this theoretical corpus, EA’s insistence on an abstract approach to evaluation assumes the aspect of a refusal to listen to demands for justice.

Crary suggests, echoing Srinivasan, that the evaluative lens employed by effective altruists will lead them to be skeptical of many efforts aimed at systemic change because they are unable to assign significant value towards these efforts within their preferred framework:

In practice, the composite critique suggests that, within any domain in which they operate, charities guided by EA-ratings will in general direct funds towards simple interventions capturable with metrics such as income levels or health outcomes, and in a manner relatively insensitive to whether these interventions contribute to perpetuating the institutions that reliably produce the ills they address, while also disparaging as less ‘effective’ systematic attempts to change these institutions.

It is, by now, a familiar point that effective altruists are not as sympathetic as many others to efforts aimed at systemic change. But the composite critique puts an important new spin on this point by linking it to the idea of a purportedly impartial, god’s eye epistemology that Crary suggests we should challenge again, just as it has already been challenged by feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial activists, among many others.

That is, I think, an interesting way to frame the institutional critique, and one which locates the critique within a broad history of successful and impactful social reform.

5. Conclusion

In today’s post, we saw how Crary combines the institutional critique of effective altruism with a philosophical critique focused on the God’s eye moral epistemology implicit in many discussions. The resulting composite critique combines these two critiques to emphasize the importance of capturing irreducibly normative social circumstances, and of paying appropriate attention to liberatory discourses.

I have to say that I have found it both difficult and rewarding to work through some of the intricacies of Crary’s essay. There is, doubtless, more that can be said, but I think this may be a good place to leave the discussion for now.


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