This is a blog by Ulrik Horn:
While I am neither a philosopher nor a social psychologist by trade or training, I decided to write this post help highlight synergies between two causes I care deeply about: Helping more people care more for distant others (Common Cause) and using my resources to have the biggest, positive impact I can (Effective Altruism). I write as a layman, with an intent of catalysing constructive conversations and action, and welcome connections and critique in the comments here.
“If the only way to save another person’s life during an emergency is to sacrifice one’s own leg, then one is morally required to make this sacrifice.”
…I had stumbled upon the online Oxford Utilitarianism Scale test in one of the Effective Altruism Facebook groups. Effective Altruism, or EA, is a global movement that tries to find out, using evidence, reason and careful analysis, how to improve the world as much as possible. And then actually doing it. Many, if not most of those that consider themselves an EA (EA can mean both the movement Effective Altruism but can also refer to a person that is an Effective Altruist) also consider themselves utilitarian. I consider myself both an EA and a utilitarian, at least until I came across this test.
To date, economics, information technology, philosophy and perhaps a few other disciplines have been used to build a good first iteration of the EA framework. One observation I have made after reviewing EA writing is that there is an opportunity to put additional fields of knowledge to use, and in particular the social sciences. It is now time to draw on the vast knowledge offered by these social sciences, especially as they have decades of experience in understanding how people are made .
My knee-jerk reaction to the opening question on the Scale test is: "Of course".
But then I try to imagine a sadistic torturer giving me the choice to amputate my leg or to let another hostage die. And I remember reading about a man who amputated his own leg with a pocket-knife after lying helpless for hours under a tree-trunk, far away from people. I have no idea if I actually would do it or not. Does anyone?
I wonder, since utilitarianism is all about outcomes, and maximising well-being, why on earth am I not spending time with more realistic scenarios, such as the threat of a synthetic virus eradicating humans from the face of the earth?
Up until this point I had considered myself rather utilitarian, but having now mis-matched with the first question I was becoming less sure. If I scored as low on the remaining questions I would end up far away from my utilitarian self-image. Am I then a highly irrational person, ignorant of research and strategic ways of increasing happiness and minimising suffering? Such a conclusion to this test would not make sense to me; I am quite diligent in the way I prioritise my career in order to have a positive impact on the world.
Right. I need to make sense of this. Let us go back to basics. Utilitarians, generally speaking, want to maximise happiness and/or minimise suffering. Fine. This seems reasonable, so where did we go wrong and end up with those horrible amputation nightmares? Continuing from the basics, it seems like making oneself more utilitarian is not very impactful - if I could support 100 people going from being 2% utilitarian to 3% (measured in terms of impact, however one would measure that!), that would be twice the impact of myself going from 50% to 100% (not taking into account that increasing utilitarian thinking is probably easier in the lower end of the scale as one would run into diminishing returns, like asking people to amputate limbs). Thus, it seems more effective to make many people a little bit more effective in their quest for doing good, rather than focusing only on oneself or a small group of people. For example, maybe the going from 2% to 3% above means that a big enough number of people start caring about artificial intelligence, so that it actually comes up on the political agenda. Certainly, a world in which much less than 1% of the population cares about far-away people and future generations is a utilitarian dystopia!
Ok, back to the test. I have made it through a few more questions. The outlook is rather bleak for my self-image! "...people should care about the well-being of all human beings on the planet equally; they should not favour the well-being of people who are especially close to them..." I am trying to imagine my daughter crying in the corner of the room as she has hurt herself playing, while I am working from home in an attempt to maximise the income I can donate. Then I imagine ignoring her completely, putting my headphones on, because I have lives to save. I then imagine this pattern repeating through her childhood - what person will she grow up to be? Especially from a utilitarian perspective - is this how you raise children to care for others? All developmental models of morality answer a resounding "NO!".
Utilitarian thinking does not come out of a vacuum. Instead, it is the result of years, if not decades of beneficial circumstances where a person has had the opportunity to cultivate those parts of herself that wants to help people she does not know. As has been shown repeatedly, children across the world develop morality in pretty much the same sequence where care for distant others is the pinnacle of such development (unfortunately, many parents do not have the resources to help their children come this far). But the importance of beneficial circumstances is not limited to childhood. Repeated studies show that even as adults we continue to develop more or less care for distant others, and also non-human beings, based on the environment we live in and our immediate situation (as one example, see this study published by Common Cause Foundation). It seems that altruism is actively crafted in each one of us from the day we are born until the moment we decide to donate money to Against Malaria Foundation, or in any other way devote significant resources to people we might never meet.
It should also be noted that in mainstream moral development models, the EA mindset is already included. This is because the activity of reasoning is integral to moral development. In other words, to progress morally one also needs to progress one’s ability to use reason and logic. Thus, from a moral psychology point of view, EA is nothing new: it's just another term for the well-established final development stage in human moral development, for example in models such as developed by Kohlberg (as linked above).
I implore fellow utilitarians, and especially EAs, to pay more attention to altruism itself. Currently a large part of the movement seems to take the altruism part as constant and hard to work on, while the effectiveness aspect consumes a disproportionate amount of resources. One might think that it is easier to have someone who cares for others but is spending their time inefficiently become more efficient in their donations than it would be to induce a less caring but quite rational person to start to donate. However, this is not clear, nor is it in alignment with EAs ambition of becoming a large, impactful and global movement.
First, we know all too well how hard it is to encourage people to act more rationally: just look at recent election outcomes across the world!
Second, while there might be a few low-hanging fruits for EA in finding people that care but are not spending their resources effectively, the real challenge for EA and the rest of the global NGO sector is that currently way too few people actually exhibit care by spending money or time working for distant others, whether effectively or otherwise. To my knowledge, this is somewhat accepted in parts of the EA movement and some people associated with EA are making the argument that it is better to look for effectiveness-oriented people who one can encourage to act altruistically rather than to communicate the merits of effectiveness to existing altruists (although, as mentioned above, combining care and reason is simply the last stage of moral development).
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, making people care is tractable (tractability being one of EAs main criteria for effective causes): it is established and widely accepted both how to, in the long term, make a person more inclined to help distant others as well as how to, in an immediate situation, increase the chances of altruistic outcomes.
As explained below, Common Cause has both summarised evidence, including peer-reviewed publications and also their own research and projects, where it can be shown that utilitarian outcomes can be achieved cost effectively. In short, Common Cause, like social psychology at large, considers that like many other aspects of human psychology, “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit … are more like muscles that grow stronger with exercise”. Thus, a significant part of interventions suggested by Common Cause are based on exposing people to frequent, altruistic messaging.
Another pivotal approach from Common Cause is to demonstrate the reality of compassionate values in action and help organisations facilitate interactions among their audience in ways which provide a lived-experience, exploration and expression of shared cares (for example, connections between strangers in public spaces, like museums and cultural institutions). The interventions suggested can be very cost effective by ‘piggybacking’ on the budgets of already planned campaigns by large NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations). Like EA, big NGOs seem to consistently neglect knowledge about what causes a person who did not previously donate to start donating. Instead, they engage in a war over the existing donors instead of trying to expand total donations by making new people donate. I know that on this last point EA is actually tracking to some degree whether the donations collected cannibalises others or not, and from what I know EA seems to be better than most NGOs at encouraging people who did not previously donate to start donating. Still, EA could do better and while there might be some low hanging fruit at the moment in terms of having more people donate, if EA wants to actually solve the issues they work on, they need to drastically increase the total amount of donations, and impactful donations in particular. (Common Cause Communication: A Toolkit for Charities includes resources to help explore this need)
Lastly, and ironically, the fact that EA has ignored evidence on increasing altruism is good news! This is because neglectedness is another key characteristic of an effective cause, as defined by EA. The reason EA focuses on neglectedness is because EA considers that an individual can have much more positive impact if they work on something that few others are working on.
Because so little work has been done in the field of encouraging more people to give time or money to distant others, there are ripe opportunities which are low-cost, high-impact interventions. For example, part of Common Cause’s current strategy is to help future NGO campaigns elicit altruistic behaviour in their target audience. More specifically, they are working with campaign managers, etc. inside NGOs to support them in evolving their communications in order to get a deeper, but more importantly a broader, altruistic response. For example, a campaign focused on plastic pollution in our seas which is designed based on Common Cause principles, will encourage altruistic behaviour in other parts of the audience’s lives. Perhaps someone reading campaign material shortly thereafter is confronted with her brother’s birthday fundraiser for a deworming initiative. Now, because this person has had their altruistic senses sharpened, she is more likely to donate to her brother’s fundraiser than if she did not engage with this carefully crafted anti-plastic campaign material. Thus, even an effectively designed campaign focused on ocean plastic pollution, would likely have the side effect of increasing donations, among other ripples of altruistic effects.
Common Cause helps maximise positive outcomes by embedding attitudes and action in compassionate values, and shares the utilitarian vision of a world where more of us care strongly for distant others. Personally, as a supporter of Common Cause, I am a utilitiarian. A pragmatic utilitarian. This is because, distinct from many mainstream utilitarians, I base my decisions on a broad range of evidence, including social psychology and thus acknowledge the requirements of a society that supports a drastic increase in the number of people making utilitarian decisions. "PRACTICAL ETHICS," reads the heading of the web page that took me to the questionnaire. Practically impossible then, is a utilitarian outcome given the lack of consultation with research on how to make people care more for others.