This piece was co-authored by Robert Farquharson and myself in response to what we believe is a key misconception about moral relativism, especially in the context of Effective Altruism.
Peter Singer’s practical ethics argues that we have a remarkable opportunity and moral obligations to help those less geopolitically fortunate than ourselves. This has formed the basis for the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. What makes this model of philanthropy different to previous versions is the focus on effectiveness: EA takes a rigorously quantitative approach to assessing and engaging in ethical behaviour. The results have been more than interesting. As it turns out, saving a life or seriously reducing global poverty (see Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save) is surprisingly within our reach, giving us cause for hope. Our philanthropic missteps, however, are lamentably all too human. There are many cases of well-meant charitable causes that have, upon analysis, been found to cause more harm than good. By approaching these moral problems with the clarity and rigour of the scientific method, EA combines “the heart with the head”. This better equips us to avoid future missteps, and maximise the positive outcomes we can achieve. As the argument goes, we can and should do the most good possible.
EA has not been embraced without criticism. A prominent counterargument EA receives is that it has no grounds to comment on an objective view of ethics. Science is about measurement, and morality is about values, so we commonly perceive these as independent realms. After all, how can we measure morality? What facts about the world tell us what we should value? This is particularly problematic because, often enough, even members within the EA community itself will concede this point. People who are already dedicated to improving human well-being according to the best available evidence are unwilling to defend the moral objectivity of such a cause, preferring instead some version of moral relativism. Perhaps we can measure something about what we think about morality, but who’s to say that it can be universalised? Many of us are resigned to this kind of subjective, context sensitive view of morality, particularly when it comes to cross-cultural claims. What seems right to me may not seem so to you, but that’s okay. What’s right in our culture isn’t always going to be right in another culture, and it would be presumptuous at best to impose that view on others. Or so the argument goes.
The aim of this piece is be to discuss this line of criticism. First, the misconception that science has nothing to say about morality will be addressed. There are moral facts to be observed, these facts are just psychological and physical facts, about the world and the conscious creatures within it. Second, a double-standard that is often applied to potential objective claims to morality will be highlighted. A common rebuttal is that a science of morality can’t be fundamentally based on an assumption lest it become ‘subjective’ after all. However, most if not all other scientific domains operate in just such a way, and yet their philosophical and scientific credentials are never in doubt. Being objective is the not the same as being absolute, self-justifying, or unchanging.
It is our view that EA’s integrity as a movement precisely relies on making such objective claims to moral facts, e.g. that not all charities are equal. Being a fledgling, but promising form of a moral science, it is thus crucial for EAs to clear the air on the superiority and validity of the movement’s theoretical commitments. Responding to these criticisms could have implications for our understanding and discourse surrounding morality beyond just the EA community.
We will say here that, as a community, focusing on the ethical obligations over the opportunity that EA presents is potentially not the most effective way to encourage people to become effective altruists, but it is an important concern that we have decided to address here. This should by no means be an introduction to EA if you haven’t heard of it before! I’d recommend one of the many EA books out there, or this TED Talk by Peter Singer.
The Argument from EA
In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer proposes 3 premises:
1) Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
2) If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, it is wrong not to do so.
3) By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, at little cost to yourself.
If you agree with these premises, then Singer’s conclusion is that by not donating to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong. At the very least, you’re missing an opportunity to do something right. By breaking the logic down into these steps, it is hard to argue with, or to claim that individuals can have different ‘versions’ of morality that are equally as valid. However, while the third premise seems straightforward to most people, the first two are tougher to swallow. Accepting the third leads to a simple matter of calculus, some aid agencies just don’t prevent suffering and death as well as others. The numbers sell most people on the effectiveness clause. But why is altruism good, and why must I help? Isn’t suffering just subjective?
The Measure of Morality: Suffering, Wellbeing, & How to Find Them.
Philosopher/Neuroscientist Sam Harris invites us to imagine the ‘Worst Possible World’ (WPW). The WPW is hellish, where every conscious creature experiences the worst possible misery it can for as long as it can. Think burning alive, but that is the only conscious experience you will ever have. This is a bad state of affairs, if the word ‘bad’ means anything at all. The pain and misery being suffered in the WPW, and conversely the happiness and flourishing that we relish in this world, are realised as experiences in consciousness. This makes them subjective in one sense, in that they can’t exist in the absence of a conscious subject ‘feeling’ them. However, this doesn’t make judgements about their character merely subjective, in the sense of always ‘relative’.
If you think that pain, misery, and suffering, are merely subjective tastes, and are unsure why you shouldn’t value those states instead of things like love, laughter, and satiety, you’re thoroughly confused. Conscious experience is, by its very nature, already and immediately coloured with a certain kind of character. If you’re not sure whether or not a child dying famished and diseased is having a conscious experience on the negative end of the spectrum somewhere, you’re not playing by the same rules. The only philosophical assumption you need to make here is that suffering the worst possible misery you can for as long as you can is, indeed, the minima of conscious experience. The starving child is hovering somewhere near this minima.
Once we accept this superficial fact about the nature of conscious experience, we can honestly admit that any changes that lead us away from the WPW are what we mean when we say ‘morally good’. Whatever reprieve we can offer the inhabitants of the WPW, however small, would potentially be the clearest case of a moral behaviour there is. If it’s within your power, at little to no cost to you, merely offering a 10 minute window of painless respite for the immiserated sufferers of the WPW is something you ought to do. Singer’s drowning child example leans on the same principle. To leave the dying children of the developing world in such a state of persistent misery, when we could easily do otherwise, is a moral failing.
So, notions of good and bad, right and wrong, have everything to do with the changing character of experience in conscious creatures. Every moral judgement comes down to how much and in what direction an action changes the conscious experience of some agent. Bringing someone closer to the worst possible misery they can experience is movement in the wrong direction. Again, if you’re unsure about this, try and find a conscious merit in dying from forced starvation.
With changes in consciousness as our basis, we can begin measuring those changes. If we know anything about consciousness at all, we know that it correlates meaningfully with brain states. Brain states are just a kind of physical state though, and thus completely amenable to objective inquiry. Some things lead to those brain states which cause experiences of pain, misery, and suffering, while others lead to the brain states that correlate with euphoria, heightened self-esteem, and the rest of the positive emotions we all crave. Importantly, it’s possible to measure these causal relationships scientifically. That is, we can measure how some actions or social constructs regularly and reliably move conscious experience in particular directions. Our goal is to move towards well-being, loosely defined as having much of one’s experience situated on the positive end of the conscious spectrum.
To sum, if our notions of morality are about experiential changes in conscious creatures, and the manner in which those changes occur are amenable to scientific inquiry, we can measure morality just like any other physical quantity. Moreover, EAs regularly do this. There is an important distinction to make between the character of the experiences themselves, and the things that reliably lead to them. A dangerous kind of moral relativism sneaks in when we confuse these two things. There are many ways to move our conscious experiences, but there will be a fact of the matter about which things move them in what direction. Science has, in fact, a lot to say about morality.
The Big Lebowski Response
While most people are convinced by this consequentialist notion of changes in conscious experience, there is a recalcitrant meme that is often cited in reply. Just like the scene in ‘The Big Lebowski’ where the Dude says, “Yeah, well, you know…that’s just, like, your opinion, man”, we often hear that it’s just all relative. Who’s to say I should value experiences like love, euphoria, compassion, and all the rest? Alternatively, who’s to say that my versions of justice and fairness are the same as yours? And, finally, what gives you the right to enforce your version on me? Science is perceived as not just silent on these issues, but in principle incapable of addressing them.
To quote a critic, “The point is this: Effective Altruism, while very welcome, is not an “objective” look at the value of philanthropy; instead it is a method replete with philosophical assumptions. And that’s fine, so long as everyone realizes it”. The problem, it seems, is that nothing ‘objective’ can be based on a ‘philosophical assumption’. If it isn’t truly objective, it’s just your opinion, and therefore lacks any normative force that actual sciences would have. This is plainly false.
To address the first point regarding the relativity of subjective experience, it’s easy to see how this form of response would be absurd when you transpose it into any other scientific domain. For example, take physical health and medical science. There is nothing in modern health science that can tell you why you ought to value being alive or free of disease, with absolute self-justifying or ‘scientific force’. However, we just do value these things. At the base of medical science are the ‘philosophical assumptions’ that being alive is better than being dead, and consequently, that the goal of medicine is to mitigate and prevent things that cause premature death. Once we all accept this, we can investigate the objective, causal relationships between certain physical quantities and their consequences with regards to how they move us towards that goal. If the Dude were to come to you with a gangrenous leg and say, “Who are you to say you’re healthier than me? That’s just your opinion, I don’t value being free of disease and pain”, we’d dismiss him as either simply ignorant of the facts, or of unsound mind.
We’ve all come to the conclusion that sensible adults value not dying prematurely of preventable ailments, and we don’t need to be medical professionals to know that such a value statement is a good thing. We ought to value being alive, and nothing within medicine ‘scientifically’ justifies that. Finding right and wrong answers about medicine only becomes possible once we all agree that this is what we mean by ‘health’, and that we value it. The objectivity and scientific validity of medicine is never brought into question because of this foundational dependence on a ‘philosophical assumption’ though. So, by assuming that seeking out intrinsically positive conscious states, and avoiding negative ones, as our broad and loose goal set in the moral domain, we’re not doing anything different to the other sciences.
The second point on relativism speaks to the fact that different people or cultures talk about ‘morality’ in different ways. Things like ‘justice’ mean different things in different places, and even in the same place but at different times. It seems like we’re all zeroing in on the same meta-principles, but the devil is very much in the detail. Again, we can look at physical health as a useful analogy.
Take Jasmuheen, an advocate of ‘breatharianism’. She claims that she survived for years on very little to no food or water, but was nourished by “pranic energy” instead. Ostensibly, she’s talking about the same thing my local GP and dietitian are talking about, like ‘health’, ‘energy’, and ‘nourishment’. These are words they use too. What has science got to say about which version of health and nourishment I should value? Quite obviously, a lot.
When asked to demonstrate her claims for a TV experiment, Jasmuheen agreed to live in a hotel room, watched by a security guard to ensure she consumed no food or water, and was regularly monitored by a professional doctor. After 48 hours she was presenting symptoms of acute dehydration, stress, slurred speech, weight loss, and high blood pressure, to name a few. In other words, exactly what medical science predicts will happen if you stop consuming actual nourishment. After 4 days the experiment was abandoned on the advice of the doctor, as kidney failure and death were likely to follow, and the results were broadcast for everyone to see.
Who’s version of health should we value? Demonstrated by the physical consequences, consuming “pranic energy” isn’t as nourishing as terrestrial food and water. Notice that at no point are we obliged to humour Jasmuheen or breatharianism as offering a potential ‘alternative framework’ for physical health. It isn’t just about our opinions. The universe is not forgiving in this way; at least 3 incidents of breatharian followers died after trying to emulate Jasmuheen. The breatharian is talking about the same meta-principles, like health and nutrition, they’re just wrong about how to move towards them.
It isn’t dogmatic or imperialist to say that breatharianism is dangerous, and to point out the obvious; it is not conducive to health and well-being. We as a community, either directly or via the state, are perfectly able, if not obliged, to intervene with clear conscience, the same way we ‘dogmatically’ intervene and tax cigarettes, or vaccinate our children. Once we’re honest with ourselves about what our goals are, there will be evidence to suggest the best and worst ways of achieving them. Following the evidence wherever it may lead is anathema to dogmatism. If someone thinks their infant dying of preventable diseases is a good thing, we simply don’t have to take them seriously. Similarly, if they think exposing their baby to a dangerous disease is an alternative way to inoculate them, we don’t need to indulge their ignorance.
It’s important to notice that we all engage in this kind of empirical scepticism constantly; we’re all everyday empiricists. When I call a plumber to fix my pipes, it’s because I trust they have the relevant expertise to achieve the goal of ‘good plumbing’, i.e. flowing water out of my taps, and having no leaks. Knowledge of the facts of plumbing is what separates me from them. I don’t pretend to know an ‘alternative framework’ for good plumbing, nor do I argue with the valuation that good plumbing entails a lack of leaks. When my faucet spews water I don’t tell guests, “Who are you to say your plumbing is better than mine? To me, good plumbing is about water coming from as many places at once as possible”.
There is no difference when it comes to the domain of morality and the promotion of wellbeing; not all positions are equal. Others may be using the terms ‘morality’, and ‘well-being’. However, the question is not, “what do those things mean for them?”. If they don’t think morality has something to do with changing conscious states for the better, they’re like the weird plumber who values leaks, and we have to admit that openly. The more important question is, instead, “how well are those things working out for them?”. How satisfied are the weird plumber’s customers? On the other hand, if they do value conscious wellbeing, but they think systematically subjugating an entire gender is a possible route to that end, for example, they’re like the breatharian. They’re talking about the same meta-principles, but simply confused about the facts. Again, we have to admit this openly.
For EA’s, this is most relevant when the effective ways to do good are convoluted and counterintuitive. But just because these solutions are hard to find, or intuitively unpalatable, does not mean that there is no answer at all or that we shouldn’t try to find one. For example, an ethical shopper might avoid goods produced in sweatshops so as to not support the exploitative workplace practices. In Doing Good Better, William MacAskill explains that this is well intended, but is not the most effective way to help workers in developing nations, and can actually cause more harm than good. How? The sweatshop jobs are actually the most desired in some countries. The other jobs require hard labour and are lower paid, and for some the choice is between working in a sweatshop and unemployment. Boycotting sweatshops can eliminate these jobs. Furthermore, sweatshop goods tend to cost less than those produced elsewhere, so one is usually better off buying the sweatshop shirt and donating the savings to a charity that helps the poor. This is just one of the endless examples of counterintuitive ways to maximise well-being.
The Absolute/Objective Conflation
Emphatically, this is not to say that there aren’t or won’t be many equivalent ways to be moral, or to promote well-being. There is no ‘one’ way to be healthy, or to have good plumbing either. Similarly, in light of new evidence and technology, both those definitions could change in the future; they are not absolute. For example, living to a ripe old age of 40 was considered healthy in the past, but with further advances in modern medicine and gerontology, living to 150 could be a modest goal for many people alive today. It just amounts to admitting that once we declare our goals honestly, there are also many ways not to achieve them, and we don’t have to be afraid to admit this. What’s healthier, eating a cucumber or a stick of celery? The answer to this question, if there is one, is probably trivial. That doesn’t undermine the objectivity of dietetics and nutrition. The inability to decide which of the two vegetables to eat for breakfast doesn’t make the distinction between food and poison any less real or consequential though. That is, tough questions we can’t answer yet don’t relegate the easy answers to merely being ‘low hanging fruit’ in an otherwise incomplete or problematic theory. Depending on what they specifically eat, a meat eater may be just as healthy as a vegetarian (think vegetarians who only eat potato chips), but that doesn’t mean we have to elevate breatharianism to the same plane. Having many ways to eat healthily is pluralism, claiming every way of eating is healthy is relativism.
The same goes for morality. There could be many ways to restructure our societies to better promote well-being, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that there will also be many ways to do the reverse. Indeed, we already know that there are many ways to do the reverse; for example, humanity frequently engaged in the slave trade. Pluralism is not the same thing as relativism, nor is being objective the same as being absolute, or unchanging.
The Promise of EA
We don’t suffer any illusions of relativism in most domains of our lives because we value evidence. We update our confidence in particular beliefs to correspond with the weight of the evidence in favour of them. It is this incursion by the scientific method into the realm of morality that makes EA what it is, and allows it to speak from an objective viewpoint, despite its philosophical assumptions. We value subjective well-being as the basis of morality in the same way we value physical health or good plumbing, and the science of well-being can’t begin until we’re similarly honest about that fact. EA is honest about this, and the measurements have already begun.
The separation of science and measurement from the realm of values and morality is a language game we don’t often play. It will be to the detriment of the entire global population if we continue to play it with perhaps the most important question we can ever ask: how can we grow and flourish together, for the well-being of all conscious creatures and the planet that sustains them? There may be multiple right answers, but we have to unapologetically admit that there will be wrong ones too. EA is in a position to lead the way on an empirical project of well-being, it just needs to embrace it.
By Robert Farquharson and Michael Dello-Iacovo