Thursday, May 28, 2015

Re: How do people defend eating meat?

Over on his blog, Chris Blattman, a popular blogger and an economist who I deeply respect at the organization where I work, endorses the now commonplace view that we should eat animals, but we should treat them nicely before we do so. He argues that the marginal cost of a little meat is not that high. Given that people reason morally using taboos and the near nonexistence of humane meat (particularly chicken, which inflicts far more misery per serving than beef), I disagree. (This is yet more anecdotal evidence that now that the animal rights movement has gotten animal welfare on the table, the next step is to show that humane meat is a sham.)

I'm cross-posting the response I left on his post:

This vegetarian reader will bite. Not because I’m vegetarian, but because I’ve had dogs my whole life and would never want them to go through what chickens and other animals go through on essentially all farms. That’s the crux of the issue: there’s a scientific consensus rivaling that on climate change (see the Cambridge Consensus on Consciousness) that other animals have feelings, and rather complex ones at that. This is why Richard Dawkins and others like him say that we should be vegetarian. It’s simply untenable, as a Darwinian, to say that it’s wrong to kill or hurt humans but that there’s some bright red line where just because an animal is not of our species, it’s okay.
But let’s get to the notion of favoring reasonable treatment. As a scholar of violence and conflict, you must know how profoundly objectification and desensitization shapes our minds. When you accept that it is okay to kill animals for food, it shapes the way you see them. Do you really think you can view an animal as something to be eaten and as a sentient being with moral worth? Others have made this point far better than I can:
Moreover, the evidence bears this out. What would you say qualifies as “reasonable treatment of animals”? I would wager that your definition of “reasonable” describes no more than a negligible portion of the market. It’s standard practice at all farms, humane or not, for hens to be debeaked without painkillers (hens use their beaks the way humans use our hands), for baby animals to be separated from their mothers, for animals to be killed as babies, and for slaughter to be frequently botched. This is what investigators at a Certified Humane, cage-free Whole Foods farm found (not very graphic, FWIW):
But there’s a reason that virtually none of this “humane” farming is actually the humane, pasture-raised images we have in our heads. It’s because feeding over 300 million people with animals living decently is simply not feasible. See, for example, this piece on the sustainability of ethical meat:
Your original post shows signs of the wavering and cognitive dissonance that smart, compassionate people so frequently show when it comes to this issue. It’s not easy to take a stand against such a socially entrenched practice, but it’s the right thing to do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Join, or Die (Part 1)

In September 2014, 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City to protest inaction against climate change in what was the single biggest demonstration of the last decade in the United States. In the previous month, and in nearly every month since, protests against racism in the criminal justice system have roiled nearly every major U.S. city. This comes in a decade when the national conversation has already been shaped profoundly by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

It's common to view participation in mass protests as a choice. I want to argue that, sometimes, participation in protests is not a choice: it is wrong not to participate.

I don’t claim that community or solidarity or anything like that has inherent importance. Instead, I want to argue that it may be immoral to stay home from a protest because doing so causes harm.

To start, I offer perhaps the most influential thought experiment of contemporary times – one that has led thousands of people associated with a movement called Effective Altruism to commit their lifetime earnings to addressing extreme poverty. The thought experiment comes from Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence and Morality:
If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
By analogy, Singer argues, we are obligated to save children in developing countries by donating our money, even if it comes at the cost of our own wants.

In More Than Good Intentions, economist Dean Karlan extends this pond analogy. Suppose I don't know how to save the child - I can jump in after him or I can throw something to him in the water. Knowing which is more effective could save his life. By analogy, if we are obligated to help those suffering from extreme poverty, we are obligated to figure out the most effective way to help them. Unsurprisingly, Karlan is the founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit (where, full disclosure, I work) that is dedicated to finding effective solutions to global poverty.

I'd like to extend the pond analogy in a different way. Suppose I am walking past a deep pond and see a child drowning in it. The child is drowning in the middle of the pond, where I would have to swim in to get him. This is not safe - I risk being pulled in by the drowning victim. Instead, I see a large plank of wood that I could throw to the child as a flotation device. With a group of about 10 people, we could throw the wood to the middle of the pond to reach the child. Any less, and we would not be strong enough for it to reach the child. There is no time to run and get any additional people.

If there are nine other people around the lake determined to help, I ought to assist them in throwing the plank of wood. The choice isn't much different from that in the original analogy. If there are eight people, and I really know that we need at least ten to throw it, then it seems I am under no obligation to assist. If there are ten or more, then I am again under no obligation to assist, because they will save the child on their own.

Now the number should not really matter for this decision - if it takes one million people to throw the plank of wood and I am the millionth person, then my obligation is equally strong. Similarly, it should not matter whether the child is in a far away country, living in the far future, or of a different species.

Clearly, this example is both trivial and unrealistic. So we can relax some the assumptions. Maybe I don't know how many people it will take to throw the plank of wood. In that case, if there is still a significant chance I am the threshold person, and I don’t have an equally pressing need to rush off to, I am obligated to help the group.

We can modify the thought experiment in another way: maybe there isn't a sharp cutoff where we can suddenly throw the plank, but each additional person helps get the plank a little bit closer. Again, this modification is easily dealt with - if I significantly increase the chance that the plank reaches the child, I am obligated to assist (and given that a child's life is on the line, I don't need to make much of a contribution for it to be wrong to sit out).

We can modify this hypothetical in further ways, but the basic idea is clear: if collective action can produce major change, and my potential contribution is large enough, it is wrong to stay home. If a collective action’s potential impact is great, even a tiny contribution to it may be morally required.

Singer’s pond analogy makes very salient our individual obligation to those in need. The growing numbers of people – termed Effective Altruists – who take his analogy seriously are changing the world in a meaningful way. I would identify myself as an EA and encourage readers of my blog to join this compelling and rapidly growing movement. Effective Altruists (EAs) are collaborating more and more to build a community. But EAs’ outward engagement with the world tends to focus overly narrowly on ways to act alone. Donating to effective charities and eating a vegan diet are important and necessary ways to relieve suffering, but sometimes, more traditional collective action is required too. I fear a movement centered around doing the most good risks doing far less good for overlooking more traditional forms of protest.

The months following the People’s Climate March saw a new accord between the U.S. and China, the defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. Senate, and the growth of a vibrant fossil fuelsdivestment movement across the U.S. The #blacklivesmatter marches that have swept the country are leading police departments even in cities untouched by the national spotlight to revise their training. And there is evidence that not just the Tea Party movement but specific Tea Party protests altered the course of national and local politics.

It is far from rare that collective action changes the world. If we can contribute meaningfully to it – which if we cannot do as an individual activist, we almost certainly can as an organizer – we have no choice but to do so.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Welcome to the Groff Spot! This will be a blog (for now) about effective altruism, economics, animal liberation and anything at the nexus of numbers and justice. If I feel like it, I might throw in a film review or two (for those of you who don't know, I'm a cinephile). All views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or any organization with which I am associated.

As for me, I'm a recent Yale College graduate working as a Research Analyst at Innovations for Poverty Action, which researches the most effective ways to help the world's poor. I will be applying to Ph.D. programs in economics in the fall. I am anti-speciesist (this includes leaving animals off my plate) and donate 10% of my salary (with an aim to contribute much more later) to highly effective charities.

I'm also a Connecticut organizer for Direct Action Everywhere, a network of animal rights activists that take nonviolent direct action on behalf of farmed animals.

As for what I'll be talking about on this blog, here are some quick ideas for topics I may discuss in the near future:

-Effective Altruism (EA) and collective action problems
-Activism and intellectual detachment
-Social progress and nonhuman animals

Here are some things I've written on other sites:
On Animal Liberation: Why We Fight
How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture
Youth and Animal Activism

Feel free to comment below on any of these topics or anything else you'd like me to write about. Thank you for visiting!