Why isn’t palm oil vegan?

I made a video version of this article here.

Today I discovered that many people don’t consider palm oil to be vegan. The short version of this story is that palm oil production is generally associated with a lot of rainforest deforestation, and therefore destruction of orangutan habitats, often resulting in the death of orangutans.

Fair enough.

But the average vegan still contributes to 0.3 animal deaths per year (not including insects!) as the result of food production (based on a simplified calculation by Matheny). Obviously, there are some foods that are worse than others. I’m going out on a limb here, but I daresay something like wheat is going to result in more deforestation, land use and animal death than something like apples (I could of course be very wrong, but the point is that some vegan foods are going to kill more animals than others).

However, I typically don’t see/hear vegans avoiding certain foods like wheat because of the animals killed. In fact, most vegans seem to blissfully ignore the fact that they contribute to animal death. Obviously, it’s impossible to eliminate your impact because you’re bound to accidentally step on an ant at some point in your life, but reducing your bread intake seems like a reasonably easy thing to do.

But why avoid palm oil and not wheat? One anonymous comment on Facebook seemed to sum it up.

Yeah I think it’s because of the immediate danger of extinction the species faces.

Interesting. Why is risk of extinction a key factor, but pain and death isn’t? Unless it plays a crucial role in the ecosystem, it seems like extinction wouldn’t really be that bad beyond the individual deaths. Why does a species as a whole get consideration?

I would argue that, if you’re going to avoid palm oil because it hurts orangutans, you should probably consider optimising your entire diet, not just avoiding one thing (beyond not eating animals, that is). If what you value is the wellbeing of animals, there are many ways to do that, and probably more efficient ways than just avoiding palm oil.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact most animals in the wild have lives full of suffering. Do orangutans have natural lives in the wild that are not worth living? I don’t know, but I’m open to the idea. If that’s true, we would have to face the frustrating reality that maybe keeping orangutans alive is bad.

Morality is more complicated than you want it to be.

The need for convergence on an ethical theory

For this post, I’m going to use the scenario outlined in the science fiction book Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. It’s a far-fetched scenario (and I leave out a lot of detail), but it sets up my point nicely, so bear with me. Full credit for the intro, of course, to Stephenson.

This is cross-posted to the Effective Altruism Forum. Please post your comments there to keep them all in one place.


Humanity is in a near future state. Technology is slightly more advanced than it is today, and the International Space Station (ISS) is somewhat larger and more sophisticated. Long story short, the Moon blows up, and scientists determine humanity has two years before the surface of the Earth becomes uninhabitable for 5,000 years due to rubble bombardment.

Immediately, humanity works together to increase the size and sustainability of the ISS to ensure that humanity and its heritage (e.g. history, culture, animals and plants stored in a genetic format) can survive for 5,000 years to eventually repopulate the Earth. That this is a good thing to do is not once questioned. Humanity simply accepts as its duty that the diversity of life that exists today will continue at some point in the future. This is done with the acceptance that the inhabitants and descendants of the ISS will not have any easy life by any stretch of the imagination. But it is apparently their ‘duty’ to persevere.

The problem

It is taken as a given that stopping humanity from going extinct is a good thing, and I tend to agree, though not as strongly as some (I hold uncertainty about the expected value of the future assuming humanity/life in general survive). However, if we consider different ethical theories, we find that many come up with different answers to the question of what we ought to do in this case. Below I outline some of these possible differences. I say ‘might’ instead of ‘will’ because I’ve oversimplified things and if you tweak the specifics you might come up wit ha different answer. Take this as illustrative only.

Classical hedonistic utilitarian

If you think the chances of there being more wellbeing in the future are greater than there being more suffering (or put another way, you think the expected value of the future is positive), you might want to support the ISS.

Negative utilitarian

If you think all life on Earth and therefore suffering will cease to exist if the ISS plan fails, you might want to actively disrupt the project to increase the probability that happens. At the very least, you probably won’t want to support it.


I’m not really sure what a deontologist would think of this, but I suspect that they would at least be motivated to a different extent than a classical utilitarian.

Person affecting view

Depending on how you see the specifics of the scenario, the ‘ISS survives’ case is roughly as good as the ‘ISS fails’ case.

Each of these ethical frameworks have significantly different answers to the question of ‘what ought we do in this one specific case?’ They also have very different answers to many current and future ethical dilemmas that are much more likely. This is worrying.

And yet, to my knowledge, there does not seem to be a concerted push towards convergence on a single ethical theory (and I’m not just talking about compromise). Perhaps if you’re not a moral realist, this isn’t so important to you. But I would argue that getting society at large to converge on a single ethical theory is very important, and not just for thinking about the great questions, like what to do about existential risk and the far future. It also possibly results in a lot of zero-sum games and a lot of wasted effort. Even Effective Altruists disagree on certain aspects of ethics, or hold entirely different ethical codes. At some point, this is going to result in a major misalignment of objectives, if it hasn’t already.

I’d like to propose that simply seeking convergence on ethics is a highly neglected and important cause. To date, most of this seems to involve advocates for each ethical theory promoting their view, resulting in another zero-sum game. Perhaps we need to agree on another way to do this.

If ethics were a game of soccer, we’d all be kicking the ball in different directions. Sometimes, we happen to kick in the same direction, sometimes in opposite directions. What could be more important than agreeing on what direction to kick the ball and kicking it to the best possible world.

Is it selfish to not give to existential risk or far future organisations for reasons of risk aversion?

Cross-posted from the Effective Altruism forum. If you have comments or feedback I’d prefer you post them there for continuity.

I have this idea which I haven’t fully fleshed out yet, but I’m looking to get some feedback. To simplify this, I’ll embody the idea in a single, hypothetical Effective Altruist called Alex. I’ll assume silly things like no inflation for simplicity. I also use ‘lives saved’ as a proxy for ‘good done’; although this is grossly oversimplified it doesn’t affect the argument.

Alex is earning to give, and estimates that they will be able to give $1 million over their lifetime. They have thought a lot about existential risk, and agree that reducing existential risk would be a good thing, and also agree that the problem is at least partially tractable. Alex also accepts things like the notion that future lives are equally as valuable as lives today. However, Alex is somewhat risk averse.

After careful modelling, Alex estimates that they could save a life for $4,000, and thus could save 250 lives over their own lifetime. Alex also thinks that their $1 million might slightly reduce the risk of some catastrophic event, but it probably won’t. On expected value terms, they estimate that donating to an X-risk organisation is about ten times as good as donating to a poverty charity (they estimate ‘saving’ 2,500 lives on average).

However, all things considered, Alex still decides to donate to the poverty organisation, because they are risk averse, and the chances of them making a difference by donating to the X-risk organisation are very low indeed.

This seems to embody the attitude of many EAs I know. However, the question I’d like to pose is: is this selfish?

It seems like some kind of moral narcissism to say that one would prefer to increase their chances of their personal actions making a difference at the expense of overall wellbeing in expectation. If a world where everyone gave to X-risk meant a meaningful reduction in the probability of a catastrophe, shouldn’t we all be working towards that instead of trying to maximise the chances that our personal dollars make a difference?

As I said, I’m still thinking this through, and don’t mean to imply that anyone donating to a poverty charity instead of an X-risk organisation is selfish. I’m very keen on criticism and feedback here.

Things that would imply I’m wrong include existential risk reduction not being tractable or not being good, some argument for risk aversion that I’m overlooking, an argument for discounting future life, or something that doesn’t assume a hardline classical hedonistic utilitarian take on ethics (or anything else I’ve overlooked).

For what it’s worth, my donations to date have been overwhelmingly to poverty charities, so to date at least, I am Alex.

Most people don’t support all minority groups

I’ve now made a video version of this, which is available here.

When it comes to persecuted and minority groups, the vast majority of the population only supports a subset of these groups, and this bothers me. Here’s why.

Take for example a historically persecuted group, such as LGBTs, people of colour, and women (not an exhaustive list to be sure). Thankfully, many today are happy to accept that people should not be discriminated against for no reason other than simply having other sexual preferences or skin colour or gender.

But for the overwhelming majority, this concern seems to stop at the edge of the human species. Non-human animals are, today, significantly more persecuted than any human group. This is not to try to diminish other persecuted groups, but it’s a simple numbers game. Around 70 billion land animals are killed for their flesh each year.

And yet, if you tell someone that they should care about non-human animals because they care about LGBTs, people of colour and women, they so often laugh and say that animals are ‘just different’. This is the exact same excuse some humans make for not caring about LGBTs, people of colour and women. They’re ‘just different’. Since when is that an excuse to not care about a sentient being?

It’s not a case of intelligence either. Animals may be less intelligent than humans on average, but some humans are less intelligent than others. And yet those interested in equality claim that intelligence should not matter in the way we treat humans. So it’s not a case of animals being less intelligent than humans. It’s really just a case of ‘they’re different’. Using that in any other context in today’s world would be insane. How is it ok to use this excuse for animals? Can you imagine someone saying ‘I just like the way they taste’ about any other minority group?

If you’re vegan and are nodding sagely along to this, I’m sorry to say that (statistically speaking at least), you’re not off the hook. Most vegans I know who are rightly upset by the shocking cruelty inflicted upon animals don’t seem to think it’s a problem that animals in the wild also experience unimaginable pain. Consider for a moment what it would feel like to have fallen down a ravine and nearly die of starvation only to be slowly eaten by insects before you die. Wild animals suffer and we need to think seriously about this.

Even insects are ignored by many vegans. I once asked a vegan I knew whether she cared about insects, and I paraphrase, ‘Ew, no. They’re insects. They’re disgusting.’

If you’ve still agreed with everything I’ve said so far, I’m afraid you’re still not there yet. While I don’t understand all of the science behind it, there is a possibility that computers may one day be sentient, or even that programs today are already weakly sentient. I am not so overconfident as to say with 100% certainty that all computers today are able to feel pain on some rudimentary level, even though I think it is highly unlikely.

We’re not done. Even fundamental physics itself might be capable of experiencing something like suffering.

Who knows what next level there might be to this chain of unconsidered groups. In 200 years, what things that even the most ethical of our society do will be considered abhorrent?

It seems like the only logical way to think about this then, is to think about life in terms of sentience and capability of experiencing pain and pleasure, whether it’s biological or digital. A speck of dust doesn’t matter because it’s not sentient. Insects matter because they are likely sentient. A rock doesn’t matter. A computer program might.

If you accept that LGBTs, people of colour, women and all the other human minority groups shouldn’t be persecuted simply because ‘they’re different’, I invite you to expand your circle of moral consideration all the way.

These kinds of posts oblige me to write a certain disclaimer. I am in no way seeking to undermine the plight of other persecuted groups when I talk about animals or anything else capable of experience suffering, although I don’t think this does that anyway.

All suffering is bad. Let’s minimise suffering no matter what form it takes.

Donation pledge update

As of the 31st of August, 2016, I have pledged to donate all of my income each year over $45,000 Australian for the rest of my life to what I believe is the most effective charity/cause. That’s the short version, but I’d like to say a few more things.

Why are you making this public?

I recently heard a quote (and sadly I can’t remember where so I can’t give due credit – edit: found it) that it’s more selfish to donate and not tell anyone than to donate and tell everyone. By telling people you donate, you encourage giving norms, which encourages other people to donate. Imagine if, over the course of my life, I encourage just 1 other person to do the same. I’ll have doubled my impact.

Also, there is the very real possibility that, if I kept this as a pledge internally, or didn’t pledge at all, my values will drift over my life, and eventually I’ll stop caring to donate.

I keep a very transparent list of my donations here, and encourage others to do the same.

That’s a lot of money! Aren’t you worried?

Not really. As I’ll discuss below I think this would make me much happier than spending the money on myself. Plus $45,000 probably gets you further than you think once you take out excessive holidays, fancy houses, cars, clothes, restaurants, movies etc. And on an income of $45,000, I’d still be in the richest 1.3% of the planet.

Anyway, about $4,000 saves a life at the Against Malaria Foundation, 60 cents reduces one year of animal suffering if donated to an Animal Charity Evaluators recommended charity, and a donation to an existential risk organisation like the Future of Humanity Institute has a meaningful chance at reducing the risk of human extinction. It’s pretty hard to spend too much money on myself once I realised that.

Where do you think that money will go?

I think the answer to this question will change very often, so I won’t answer it in full here. At least in the near future it will probably just go to whichever charity I think is the most effective at reducing the suffering and maximising the pleasure experienced by conscious minds (including non-human animals, insects, and even AI if it turns out to be sentient). In the future I might decide that, say, political lobbying is more effective, so I remain open-minded.

What’s the catch?

Well, if the cost of living dramatically increases, I probably won’t make large sacrifices to maintain the pledge. There are practical and selfish reasons for doing this. The practical reasons are that, sometimes you have to spend money to make (and donate) money. If I were going for a job interview and thought I’d need a suit to land the job but I was about to go over, I’d probably buy the suit.

Also, there’s the risk of burnout. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger of burning out because I’m so motivated to make a difference, but a lot of smart people have told me that living a certain way is difficult to maintain. Donating a medium amount over a life is certainly better than donating everything for 3 years then giving up.

My current living costs are about $20,000 per year, so I really don’t see this happening any time soon. Plus I’m going to allow the cap to grow with inflation.

Wait, $20,000 a year? So you plan to blow $25,000 on yourself each year?

Not quite. I still donate as much as I can, the $25,000 is just to allow for changing circumstances.

Should I do the same?

Maybe. I guess you should ask yourself what you want in life. If it’s to make a positive difference, this is probably one of the best ways of doing so. If it’s for yourself to be happy, I’d actually argue you should still make a pledge. Anecdotally, I am much more happy after I first made a smaller pledge last year, and I feel no regret or worry about doing this today. I feel like I’m making a real difference, and that feels good.

Also, someone earning $100,000 a year is only marginally more satisfied than someone earning $50,000 a year. An individual earning $100,000 but giving half would arguably be quite a bit happier than someone who just earned $50,000 a year too. At about $40,000, other factors, such as health, relationships and a sense of purpose contribute more to happiness than income.

Have you ever felt like you have to work harder so you can buy more ‘stuff’? This is a concept called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. You can keep buying stuff and not really increase your happiness.

As I say, it did take me 18 months between hearing about such pledges and making this one. I would definitely encourage making a smaller pledge (Giving What We Can have suggested 1% for the first year), and increasing that if (or when) you’re convinced it’s manageable/makes you happier.

Any tips for saving money?

Totally. Toast sandwiches are delicious and are one of the cheapest meals per calorie (don’t use dairy butter though folks).

But seriously, Mr. Money Mustache is a great blog on reducing your spending in creative ways and investing wisely.

Budget yourself, and just don’t spend money on crap you don’t need.

I still think you’re kind of weird

Perhaps, but I think it’s a good weird. Plus, more and more people are doing this!

On funerals and death

“Imagine at the next funeral you go to, you hear in the eulogy that they died because people at a previous funeral didn’t donate their time or money instead.”

I just returned from a funeral where I thought some long thoughts. This essay is them, and also serves as an informal will, seeing as I don’t have one.

As I sat in the pew of that church, I couldn’t help but wonder at how many people were present; it must have been at least 200. My thoughts quickly turned to what I would want if it were my funeral. And I realised that I don’t want a funeral at all, and not just because I’m not religious.

Like most people, I care a lot about others, and I want to reduce the amount of suffering and loss in the world. One of my earliest motivations for this was when a friend’s mum passed away from cancer. When I offered my sincere condolences, they told me that there was nothing I could have done. That stopped me. Why? Perhaps there was something I could have done. I started to think about ways to stop cancer, but I quickly realised that suffering can come in many forms, and it is the suffering that I want to end, not necessarily just cancer.

So eventually I realised that I could donate $4,000 AUD to the Against Malaria Foundation and save a life. One whole life for the cost of a holiday. It suddenly seemed hard to justify ever going on a holiday again. If my reaction to death is wanting to stop it, and I have the opportunity to easily stop it, how could I possibly turn that down for some leisure?

Back to the funeral – 200 people in a room for 90 minutes. Assuming that many people would come to my funeral, that’s a lot of person hours (300 to be precise). In my funeral, they are offering my family their condolences and remembering my life, sure, but what if they could use that 300 hours to save another life. Let’s say those people are able to earn $20 an hour on average. If they each spent 90 minutes working instead of being at my funeral, they could make $6,000, enough to save 1.5 lives.

Of course, people can’t always just work at moment’s notice, so this is meant to be illustrative only. But now we’re getting at something – death is awful, but what if you could prevent a death in the time you spent mourning a life? I foresee getting some criticism at this point, so let’s try a thought experiment.

Imagine you’re on your way to a funeral and you see a person lying on the side of the road bleeding out. You stop your car and spend the next 90 minutes performing CPR until the ambulance arrives. You miss the funeral, but the paramedic tells you that you quite literally saved a life. Do you think you were justified in missing the funeral? Do you think the person who died, or their family, would forgive you?

Ah, you say, but I can’t make $4,000 in 90 minutes, so this is an unfair analogy. Ok, well let’s now ask whether you would do the same for a cat you had just driven past. Same situation, CPR until the vet rocks up, and you’re told that you saved the cats life. This is probably a trickier choice, but I imagine a number of people would still pick the cat over the funeral. As readers of this blog would know, a donation to one of the animal charities recommended as being highly effective by Animal Charity Evaluators can reduce one year of animal suffering for just 60 cents (USD). And so if you make $20 an hour, in 90 minutes you could spare 33 animals from a year of suffering.* Even if you would drive past a single cat, you probably wouldn’t drive past a truck full of 33 cats bleeding out.

Of course we can go 1 step further to organisations working to reduce the chance of existential risk where estimates of the impact of a dollar donated range from saving 1 to 1,000,000 lives at some point in the future (albeit with significantly more uncertainty – but on expected value this may check out).

So while people can’t necessarily spend 90 minutes working extra for money at will, they could do a range of other things, like doing some high impact volunteering (I don’t mean working at a local soup kitchen or handing out blankets, which wouldn’t have anywhere near the kind of impact I’m talking about). Add onto that the $5,000 that I estimate a funeral of that size to cost, and it seems quite perverse for me to ask people to come and honour my life for 90 minutes.

So in lieu of having an actual will, I formally request here that, in the event of my death, if you would have come to my funeral, please instead donate 90 minutes of your salary to [insert whatever I think is the most effective charity at the time here – at the moment I suspect it’s one of Machine Intelligence Research Institute, ACE, Foundational Research Institute or Raising for Effective Giving**] and ensure that the $5,000 that would have otherwise been spent on the funeral goes there too.

Of course, I fully accept that we don’t keep promises or go to funerals for the dead, we do it for the living (and I don’t think that not going to a funeral to make $4,000 would be anywhere near as socially acceptable as saving a life on the road, even if you donated it to AMF, and even though I think it should be***). And yet, I can’t imagine that spending 90 minutes mourning in a group is really a better thing to do than to arrange to save so many lives.

Imagine at the next funeral you go to, you hear in the eulogy that they died because people at a previous funeral didn’t donate their time or money instead.

* I use ‘year of suffering’ instead of ‘lives saved’ here because the charities tend to either reduce the amount of suffering experienced by farm animals or reduce animal product demand/create vegans to remove animals from being brought into a life of suffering. But this is still valid, and since many farm animals live for less than a year, I feel justified in using this example.

** The best cause/organisation to give to will almost certainly change over time. In case I don’t update this (or get around to making an actual will), I would be comfortable with giving either Michael Dickens or Brian Tomasik the right to decide where these donations (and any leftover assets I have) end up going. I don’t know them very well, but they are two of the few people I trust to make a mostly rational decision, and to care sufficiently about both non-human animals and the far future.

*** At this point, one might reasonably ask why I go to funerals. I don’t have a great answer. I personally think that my going to funerals is more selfish than staying home and working on some problem, because by not going people would think less of me.

On veganism and morality

I believe that exploiting animals for their flesh is fundamentally wrong.

If you know me, that shouldn’t be a surprise; I’m a vegan for ethical reasons, so it logically follows that I think eating meat is wrong, and therefore that anyone who does eat meat is doing something wrong. I’m occasionally told that this view makes people feel uncomfortable, and that I should be more respective of the personal choice of others. Let’s look at what a personal choice is.

A personal choice is choosing not to exercise, or choosing to watch one movie instead of another. Physically harming and exploiting a human for pleasure is not a personal choice. If you believe, as I do, that non-human animals can feel and suffer almost as much as humans can (science believes this too – even for fish and (maybe) insects), then you should also hold the view that paying someone to physically harm and exploit animals is not actually a personal choice.

Now let’s think about discomfort. If you lived in a society of people who harm humans for pleasure, you would, presumably, feel justified in making people feel uncomfortable and telling them they are doing something wrong, and making it clear that you do not condone their actions, even if they only have slaves several days a week. Again, as animals can suffer just like humans, there should be no qualms with making it clear that harming animals for pleasure is wrong in an assertive manner. There is probably nothing to be gained by being overly aggressive, but there is also probably nothing to be gained by being overly passive (a view shared by Dr Casey Taft, who wrote Motivational methods for effective vegan advocacy: A clinical psychology perspective).

There are those who choose to remain passive for the sake of their own immediate wellbeing, and that of those around them, but I don’t believe this to be the right choice. For the same reasons we tell loved ones that they can’t sing to save them happiness in the future, despite the short term discomfort, we should be comfortable telling those close to us that their actions are not ethical. Imagine a friend or family member reaching the end of the life and realising they did something wrong for the last 80 years, despite multiple opportunities to change. Would you not prefer that you had helped them realise that earlier? Not to mention it places a very low weighting on the wellbeing of the 7,000 animals that the average human eats in their lifetime.

As recently as 150 years ago the majority of the world believed that it was acceptable to use and abuse humans who were sufficiently different to them. Presumably we are quite happy there were those who stood up and made the slave traders uncomfortable. However, today we still use and abuse other beings simply because they are different. Very little has changed – we are just a little kinder to 1 species amongst millions.

For an anecdote, I recently attended a strategy meeting with an environmental organisation in Australia. The focus was on effective means of advocating for climate action in the lead up to the Federal election in July. I mentioned that I was seriously concerned that so many individuals and organisations claimed to care about the environment, and would actually harass people who don’t (they spent 10 minutes insulting the personal character of a local politician who was not present), and yet still don’t make the one lifestyle change which makes the biggest difference of all; going vegan. Further, the same organisations and people refuse to make vegan advocacy a priority for mitigating climate change. Everyone in the room averted their eyes. I don’t feel bad for making them uncomfortable. If I was in a room of climate change deniers I would happily tell them they are wrong about that. This exchange was different in topic, but not in theme.

This is mostly a piece on what I believe. The most effective means of advocacy, and therefore what I should do in practice, is another question entirely. To that end, I’m currently writing a review paper on the effectiveness of different actions that individuals and organisations can take to reduce and hopefully eliminate the suffering and exploitation of human and non-human animals. However, in conclusion, I don’t believe there is anything to be gained by being passive in the face of atrocities.

The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.” Lieutenant General David Morrison

If you are reading this and thinking that you are too old to change because of habit, I’d like to dissuade you of that notion. There are more and more examples of people of all ages making the change. But even if you believe that change gets harder as you get older, that should be reason to make the change now, not to wait.

The problem with so many advocacy groups

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.

Causality in altruism

You might hear stories of someone who influenced someone else to be vegan or to donate 100 dollars and then claimed to have caused X animal lives to be saved or $100 to be donated, which are very good things indeed. But the person who donated that $100 can also claim responsibility for donating that money, because they were an integral step in the outcome, without which the money wouldn’t have been donated.

But if both parties are claiming full responsibility for causing $100 to be donated, shouldn’t that imply that $200 was donated? So who can claim responsibility here? Are they both equally responsible? Is it reasonable to say that they were both fully responsible after all? Or is it, as many things are in the real world, much more complicated than that? This is important if we, as individuals and organisations interested in maximising impact, are going to be rigorous about measuring the impact of individuals.

A friend once told me a story that poses an ethical riddle. It goes like this:

A married woman had been growing bored. Her husband wasn’t paying her attention anymore, and had stopped treating her well. She started sneaking away at night to go and sleep with other men across the river from her house. There was a bridge but she took the ferry to reduce the risk of being seen. One night, she went across the river but the man whom she had arranged to sleep with didn’t show. She went back to the ferry, but the boat master had heard of what the woman was doing from a friend and didn’t want to ferry her anymore. The woman, desperate, went across the bridge, where a drunken man killed her in a fit of rage. Whose fault was it that the woman died?

Another, more complicated riddle is presented:

There were four men in a military camp in the middle of the desert. Three of them hated the fourth, John, and wanted to kill him, but they wanted it to look like an accident. One day, when it was John’s turn to go on patrol, one of the others took his chance and put poison in John’s water flask. A second soldier, not knowing what the first had done, poured out John’s water and replaced it with sand. The third then came and poked small holes in the bottle so its contents would slowly leak out. When John was halfway through his patrol and looked for a drink, he realised his flask was empty, and he died of thirst. Who killed John?

In safety, there is a concept known as the ‘root cause’. For example, take the Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 which involved a Concorde plane outside Charles de Gaulle International Airport in France. The plane crashed, killing all crew and passengers, and some bystanders on the ground. Was it the crew’s fault? No, because the plane’s engine had caught fire shortly before take-off. So was it the fault of the engine manufacturers?

No, as it was revealed that a tyre had ruptured during take-off which hit the fuel tank, which resulted in the flame. This in turn was caused by a piece of metal found on the runway, which had fallen off of another airplane that day. This led back to the operator who had replaced that particular piece of metal, who had incorrectly installed the piece. This was interpreted as the root and primary cause of the accident.

But even so we can go back further. Someone must have trained this operator – did they do a bad job? Is it the fault of the management of that company for not putting the correct practices in place to eliminate the occurrence of such events? Maybe someone had just upset the operator and he wasn’t thinking straight.

If we go back to our first example and apply the root cause logic, that suggests that the woman died because of her husband. But this is an uncomfortable result, as the one who is most at fault is surely the man who actually killed her. Some might argue that the root cause is really just the drunken man, but it has to be said that all individuals in that story played an integral part in the woman’s death.

It might even be argued that the man was not thinking straight. What if he was drugged through no fault of his own? To be clear here, I don’t mean to imply that each player in this chain of events should be held responsible, or indeed be ‘guilty’, but they did play an unknowing role.

Bringing this all back to the original question, I confess I don’t have an answer. But I’m convinced that the answer isn’t as simple as we think, and if we want to be rigorous about measuring the impact that individuals have through an action or over their life, we should consider this further. At the very least, we should define very clearly what we mean when we say “I/we caused $100 to be donated.”