Recently I’ve become somewhat jaded with typical advocacy groups, which are usually in the form of non-profit organisations. These organisations are very often single issue groups – they pick a side in a debate (sometimes for great reasons, sometimes not), and stick to it. In fact, they are bound to stick to it – a point I’ll return to shortly.
Take an extreme example like the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia. They are clearly committed to being against nuclear. Without actually taking sides here and completely ignoring the science (because for this thought experiment it’s irrelevant), let’s say that we know for a fact that nuclear use is unsound – the ANAWA would therefore have very good reasons to be against nuclear in (Western) Australia. But let’s now say that the state of science has changed. We realised we were wrong, and now we’re very certain that nuclear usage is not only safe, but beneficial and necessary to tackle climate change (these scientific flips really aren’t that uncommon, even today). In this hypothetical world, we’re now more sure that nuclear is safe and beneficial than we are that smoking causes lung cancer. What happens to the Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia?
In all honestly, I dare say they would most likely stick to their policy line. Their organisational mission, strategy and vision all dictate that they fight against nuclear in Australia. They owe it to their stakeholders, the donors who are giving money to them to fight nuclear, to continue their path. I see this as a fundamental flaw of such an organisation.
I often joke about a charity called the ‘Do The Right Thing Society’, or the ‘Best Possible World Organisation’, whose mission is simply to make the world as good a place as possible. Such an organisation might not be as appealing to the majority of the public as something more punchier, even if they happen to have the same mission at the time because the science aligns with public sentiment that way. The advantage with DTRTS though is that they are committed to updating their mission and actions with new evidence. If we expect individuals to do this, why can’t we demand the same of charities, or political parties for that matter?
In essence, I do believe that Effective Altruism seeks to plug this gap. At its core, it’s a movement of people seeking to find the most effective ways to maximise well being while being neutral to individual causes.
There are some things that we can be quite confident will not change, like the fact that non-human animals, women and other groups persecuted in the past and present should not be exploited. However, society did once believe that it was right to keep slaves, right for women to not vote, and many still believe that it is right to exploit animals. People should be open to changing their minds, even on their most closely held beliefs.
I have a nightmare that historians a mere 200 years in the future will look at my actions with horror, or kindly explain to each other that my actions were a product of the time and there’s nothing I could have done about it. What do we do today that will be abhorrent in the future? I think the only thing we can do is stay open minded about morality, whilst accepting that there is a right answer out there somewhere, and we are always striving towards it.