Sunday, July 26, 2015


Something remarkable happened last night at Direct Action Everywhere Mass Connecticut's Day of Action. As we stood holding candles outside Chipotle sharing words about the horrors that happen to animals of other species, a man stepped out of the passing crowd and came up to me. "I love animals. Where do I have to sign?" he asked. Our chapter member Joe and I were confused before realizing he thought we were asking for a petition.

"No, nothing to sign, but you can join in," we told him as Lauri handed him a candle.

"I'm homeless," he told me, "got kicked out of my parents' house and lost my dog. I love animals. it's horrible what we do to them. I want to stand with you." I felt and could sense others' discomfort given the stereotypes and toxic prejudices our society teaches us about homeless people. He stayed with us as we rounded the corner to stand outside a Buffalo Wild Wings. Tiffany, Lauri, and Joe all said a few words as passersby asked us the question they'd asked repeatedly: "you care about animals when people are dying?"

Finally, Charlie, our new participant, spoke. I could feel people hold their breath. "Animals are skinned alive and killed for no reason," he said, "Eating their flesh is no different from human flesh. Eating them is just like eating the dogs and cats in your own home." When the action concluded, Rachael, Tiffany, Joe, and I got him dinner and helped him find a shelter since he had been repeatedly turned down, he said. We exchanged phone numbers and invited him to our future events, official or unofficial, if he needed a meal.

He took a stand, we later learned, despite still eating animals, because he knew the same truth we knew. Pointedly, this victim of repeated abuse and discrimination at the hands of humans, including us, made clear that violence is still violence even when it happens to animals. His conviction in the face of an overwhelming personal struggle is a potent reminder of the real affinity we all feel for animals and the often ignored universality of this fight.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Framing Criticisms of Effective Altruism

This has been said, and better, by Rob Wiblin and others, but I'm restating it here to draw attention to its implications. Many criticisms of effective altruism (even the excellent ones in this Boston Review forum) go like this:

1) X is important (or Y is unimportant).
2) Effective altruism ignores X (or gives undue weight to Y).
3) Therefore, effective altruism is flawed.

If the goal is to criticize the fundamental idea of EA, then I think these criticisms miss the mark. If (1) is really true, then all that implies is that EA should focus on X. If the goal is to criticize the EA community, then these criticisms are more on point, though there's a question of whether a community is defined by what its members do or by the fundamental ideas that unite them.

But similar points have been made by others, so I'd like to focus on two reasons why the framing of these criticisms matters.

1) If they consciously adopted the role of internal critics to EA, those in favor of institutional reform, for instance, could be part of a serious debate within EA over whether focusing on policy advocacy is effective. This would not just be a more precise statement of the criticisms - it could improve EA more than an external criticism. More importantly, it could fill a gap in research on the effectiveness of policy advocacy, something that would be edifying not just for EAs but for anyone who cares about evidence.

2) Framing the debate in this way could lead those who favor a systemic approach to realize their significant ability to impact the world. People who call for focusing on institutions often, it seems, take it as an excuse not to do much to address global problems. If it turns out that we can do more by focusing more directly on institutions than we can by donating to charity, this should call for those who care about policy to follow the EA movement in making a serious personal commitment to change the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

There Is No Moral Case for Meat

The non-profit environmental magazine Grist is doing a month-long feature on the future of meat. Monday's piece considers the morality of meat. There's not nearly the same sort of sophistry in the piece I've come to expect from foodie writing. Nonetheless, it merited a reply.

In Monday's piece, Nathanael Johnson argues that "we should strive to do better by animals, but that doesn’t mean we should condemn ourselves for eating meat." We should treat vegetarianism "the way religious traditions treat virtues" - as something to strive for but not to condemn ourselves for failing. Interestingly, this proposal by philosopher Paul Thompson fails by the philosopher's own standard that we "should also be prepared to apply it to humans." Would we be okay treating cannibalism in this way? No, because we know that eating someone is such a bad, easily avoidable harm that committing it is reprehensible. If this is Jesus-level sacrifice, as the the piece suggests, then our population is at least 2% Jesus.

The arguments that the piece essentially admits are irrefutable - from Singer to Scully - do not just argue that vegetarianism is nice. They argue that eating animals should be condemned, and their arguments are, as the author more or less admits, correct. So if you want to lump vegetarianism into the category of nice but not morally required things (the official term is supererogatory), you have to say where those arguments go wrong. This is not some philosophical pipe dream - there are real lives at stake here - such as the resilient, affectionate, and elegant hen who died yesterday of complications from having been bred for food.

The problem is perhaps a motivational one - it's just hard to give up the taste even if it's wrong. This I must say I find deeply troubling as a gay man who can remember countless times in my childhood that people expressed blatant homophobia, as is common, on the basis of thinly rationalized disgust, an emotion that shares a psychological and linguistic kinship with taste.

The piece concludes, bizarrely, that the "the black and white strategy hasn’t gotten many people to become vegan." Our culture is replete with articles calling for better treatment of farmed animals, improved welfare, and modified farming facilities. Animal welfare, not animal rights, is the prevailing dogma. It's rather odd to conclude that the black-and-white approach has failed, when it has barely even been tried.

(Besides, there is far more to a strategy than its message - there is also the delivery, which has thus far not included the strong grassroots work that has carried the day for past movements. The issue extends beyond the content of the message.)

In announcing this special journal series, Grist announced that "We're asking the tough questions on meat." That may be the case, but, like many environmentalists, they do not appear prepared to offer the tough answers. There is one tough question they have not asked: why is it okay to kill someone who does not want to die?

The Loss of a Voice

Today, the animal rights movement lost a hero. I'm sharing a link to the eulogy written by her caretaker. Mei Hua survived a Whole Foods "Certified Humane" cage free facility only because she was rescued.

A common worry within and without the animal rights movement is that nonhuman animals lack the ability to speak for themselves - making animal rights activists "a voice for the voiceless." Past movements relied on the voices of the oppressed - from Sojourner Truth to Cesar Chavez to Harvey Milk.

Mei Hua was an answer to this worry. Though I never met her, it feels as if I have after watching her escape from the jaws of death and hearing her rescuers speak of her. She was full of life. Though Mei Hua's caretaker writes that she was scarred by her past, she staged a resilient comeback, fell in love, and developed friendships. Her story inspired hundreds of thousands, including many of my friends and family.

Sadly, Mei Hua died today of ovarian cancer - a disease brought on by deliberate breeding by humans so that she would produce as many eggs as possible. I didn't think hearing of her passing would bring tears to my eyes, but it did. Today is a day of mourning, because tomorrow the urgent fight resumes to ensure that this violence stops.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Comment on the "Dismal Science"

Howie Lempel pointed out that my post yesterday described "today's economics" in overly broad strokes. There are indeed many economists, for example, comparing outcomes between persons. Anytime an economist argues for a policy on the basis of some averaging or aggregating metric is comparing outcomes across persons. Using the effect on GDP per capita to determine the value of a policy, for instance, implies that the gain from an additional dollar is equal regardless of who is gaining the extra dollar. Though Piketty and Saez's work on inequality is largely descriptive, it clearly implies that distribution matters. Similar things can be said for the work of organizations, like my employer, that study global poverty. Many scholars of public choice theory and welfare economics propose ways to evaluate outcomes across persons. So there is a more recent history of work with an eye toward a more robust conception of justice.

More precisely, what concerns me are the following:

1) A lot of economic theory and undergraduate instruction in economics sweep distributional concerns under the rug. It would be good to see views like those mentioned above that take comparisons of outcomes seriously be more central and explicit. Even in the examples above, many of the implied comparisons are hidden. Popular economics often separates concerns about "efficiency" from concerns about "equity." The assumption that equity can be separated out from efficiency is itself a moral claim, as my former professor John Roemer frequently pointed out. This too-common overlooking of moral claims is problematic (there is evidence that economics instruction even makes students more selfish). I do not think it lives up to the heritage of earlier economic theorists who, as I noted in my original post, supported the moral equality of nonhuman and human animals.

2) The claim that interpersonal comparisons of utility are unintelligible is philosophically ludicrous. It should give way to more reasonable approaches that perhaps acknowledge the inability to compare utility perfectly without flat out rejecting comparisons. It may be possible to reject comparisons when utility is taken as representing superficial preferences, but as soon as utility becomes a way to judge an economic outcome, as it often does, it takes on a different character. It is good for the sake of intellectual debate when views take as their basis more reasonable assumptions.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Dismal Science Could Not Be So Dismal

This weekend the Library of Economics and Liberty has a nice piece on why economics is often called the "dismal science." According to the post, the phrase originated not in a debate over economic growth, as is commonly believed, but in a debate over slavery. John Stuart Mill, one of economics's foundational thinkers, strongly supported emancipation because "economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty."

It's interesting to note the contrast between the strong morality in John Stuart Mill's economics and the flaccid morality of today's economics, which is restrained by its rejection of any comparison between two persons' outcomes (one exception might be todays' economists' broad support of open borders).

One way this bears itself out is the treatment of animals in modern economics. John Stuart Mill's intellectual forbears and descendants are notable for supporting basic equality for animals. The claim is different from the human slavery case because Mill's criticism of slavery invoked the equality of ability, whereas criticisms of animal husbandry rest more simply on the moral equality of animal suffering and human suffering. Nonetheless, the implication is strikingly similar: that viewing animals as property without any intrinsic value is untenable. Today's economics ignores this simple and just claim. Modern economic analysis regards a dog or a pig no differently from a sofa, with the scant literature on the subject determining their value entirely by the decisions of the consumer. It would be good to see economics reclaim its moral heritage and begin regarding animals' well-being as having a value in its own right, independent of humans'.

(It should go without saying that I do not wish to compare black slaves of the nineteenth century to nonhuman animals, especially given the potentially violent results of such comparisons. What I am saying is that there is a similarity in the desire to draw an arbitrary line of moral consideration, and that economics should reject this.)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Where have I seen this before?

From today's New York Times Briefing:

President Obama visits the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City today, where he will talk about the need for more humane conditions in prisons.

As with the case of animal agriculture, it's easy to call for humane treatment, but we should really ask ourselves, "why are they locked up at all?" According to the Sentencing Project, nearly half a million of those locked up - about a quarter of the total incarcerated population - are locked up for drug offenses.  Beyond incarceration, half of all drug arrests are for the possession of marijuana.

Among its many consequences, one result of this policy is a staggering number of missing black men.

Humane is better, but what we most need is freedom for people wrongly behind bars. And it bears saying that drug offenses are the low-hanging fruit. The American incarceration problem goes well deeper than that. More broadly, we deal with violent offenses with a view to revenge, something far from the euphemistic term "corrections." That's not just an issue of being humane - it's an issue of justice.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Effective Altruist's Prisoners' Dilemma

A discussion recently erupted with several friends over a tweet about an extra credit question posed by a professor at the University of Maryland:

One of my friends commented that the rational thing to do is to select 6% - unless you happen to be that marginal student whose choice brings everyone down, you can only expect to gain by selecting 6%.

My immediate reaction was that, well no, that's the rational thing to do provided you are egoistic and only care about your own exam score. If you're a rational altruist, though, the rational thing to do may be to select 2%, since in the unlikely event that you are the marginal student, you threaten to lose points for everyone. Depending on the size of the class and the way you value each additional point on the exam, this could easily outweigh the slight chance of getting an extra 4% for yourself.

As is often the case, things are more complicated. The reason is this: what if there is a curve? If there's a curve, then additional points on the exam only serve to set you aside from anyone else, and if you cause everybody to lose their bonus points, you just leave the relative distribution unchanged. From an altruistic perspective, if the value of everybody's exam score is equal, then it's unclear which way to answer this question.

It's more likely that everybody's exam score is not equal, though. If I'm a truly effective, altruistic person and (almost) the rest of the class is not, then I should select 6%, since in the scheme of things, it's better for those who will do good with their credentials to outcompete those who won't.

The irony is that a radically altruistic position leads to the same choice as a radically egoistic one. It seems to me that this is likely the correct assessment. I could see worries that effective altruism could lead to a cutthroat world, but these are easily allayed by the fact that the calculation changes if I know that 10% of the class is likely to be effective altruists.

In fact, this could be somewhat comforting for those who worry about effective altruism requiring some holier-than-thou self-sacrifice. Certainly, a dose of self-sacrifice is called for. But if you want to be not simply altruistic but also effective, the best default way of behaving in many situations may be the rationally egoistic one.