Tolerance, Oppression and Effective Altruism

I recently took part in a speech competition at the European Forum Alpbach (a conference, by the way, which I highly recommend; if you're interested, several hundred scholarships are available for students and recent graduates). The topic of the competition was "Tolerance and Conflict"; my argument, inspired by ideas in Effective Altruism, was that a societal focus on the "passive" virtue of tolerance has made modern Westerners associate moral goodness with "doing no harm", which leaves many important global issues - global warming, extreme poverty, disease pandemics - under-addressed (video here). In hindsight, though, that isn't quite the right way to frame this point. Even if creating an ideally tolerant society would only require each individual to avoid discriminating against each other, in practice the fight against discrimination is an active one which has given birth to great leaders like Mandela, Gandhi and King. The admiration we feel for these activists also helps foster modern activism in social justice movements; these movements have undeniably changed the actions and experiences of billions of people.

Instead, it may be more useful to divide moral issues into those in which some people are harmed by oppression or direct action of others, as opposed to issues which are not (directly) anyone's fault. It's pretty clear that the former category generates far more attention; a current example is the crackdown on Rohingyas in Myanmar, compared with the devastating floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. An order of magnitude more people are being affected by the latter, and yet the situation in Myanmar has aroused much more emotion and news coverage. According to a 2007 study, this lack of news coverage makes it less likely that the US (and probably other countries too) will pledge aid; the same study also concluded that other issues are even more under-reported: droughts, cold waves and food shortages need to kill 3.5, 4.5 and 57 times as many people, respectively, to get equivalent news coverage as floods.

I suspect that the chart above fails to fully control for the fact that food shortages happen disproportionately in countries which aren't reported on anyway. But in any case, this disparity is incredibly sad, and I hope there will be more pushback against it (for example here in the Guardian). For now, I want to focus on a slightly different issue: regardless of media coverage, are harms actually worse when they are caused by oppression?

Philosophically, this question is interesting because it explores the same central idea - the act-omission distinction - as many thought experiments, but with a twist I haven't seen before. A typical trolley problem is about your own actions, or lack thereof; but now we want to consider how to evaluate the actions of others. Imagine that there are two children drowning in a pond, who will die without your intervention - one had been knocked in by a falling branch, and the other had been pushed by an attacker. Which would you rescue, if you could only rescue one? Think about the original scenario first, then consider: what if the attacker were still there, holding the second child underwater (assuming you were confident you could chase them off)? Or else, what if it was already known that the branch was unsafe, but the park manager had pocketed the money assigned for its removal? Lastly, what if it were a choice between saving two children who had been knocked in by a branch, or one who was being held underwater?

Personally, I'm fairly neutral about the original scenario, but I have a strong intuition that if the attacker were still there, fending them off should be the priority. Of course, it's difficult to disentangle the principles from other considerations (should you be scared of the assailant? Is the other child more likely to save themself?), but I would expect that most people have reasonably similar reactions, for a few reasons. Jonathan Haidt's research on moral foundations categorises the three ethical dimensions that liberals generally care about the most as care/harm, liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating. My thought experiment pits the first one against a combination of all three (although the fairness aspect is a little tenuous). Further, one of the most consistent results from trolley problems is that the more direct and hands-on a situation is, the stronger the non- or anti-utilitarian intuitions. In this case, the influence of the park manager is about as indirect as you can get, and to me it seems irrelevant to the immediate question of who to save, whereas physically drowning someone is about as direct as a harmful action can get.

Perhaps we can resuscitate the importance of the park manager, though. Suppose that this scenario takes place on the land of an indigenous group (say, Native Americans) to which both children and the attacker belong, but that the park manager is one of many white bureaucrats who ignore safety standards because they don't care about Native Americans. Does this change anything? Perhaps this example has become too convoluted to evoke strong intuitions, but generally people have even stronger opposition to oppression when it is one well-defined group targeting another well-defined group. Take for instance the Rwandan genocide, compared with the Congo War - far more civilians died in the latter, but it's much further from public consciousness, probably because the narrative of who was doing what to whom was very tangled and couldn't be summed up under the heading of "genocide".

This is not particularly surprising. The human brain is literally hardwired to recognise tribal conflicts and distinguish between allies and enemies (indeed, this ability is a major cause of our success as a species). And unfortunately, while sympathy for "allies" can be a strong unifying force, it is undeniable that, in the abstract, hatred for enemies is much stronger. For utilitarians, though, I think there's no choice but to reject the normative force of these lines of reasoning, however ingrained or compelling they may be. Fundamentally the core tenet of utilitarianism is concern for the lives of the victims themselves, regardless of cause. While hatred of oppression is important in bringing people to act, I think the most consistent and moral position is to prioritise reducing suffering. On the other hand, the strength of the international norm against violating the rights of others helps keep other potential oppressors in check, and so it's important to commit disproportionately many resources against anyone who does so.

However, in practice the main problem is not weighing up severe issues against each other, but rather getting people to take action against them at all. So a few tentative suggestions on how to highlight problems which aren't primarily driven by oppression, in order to make them more emotionally compelling:
  1. Identify a specific group who suffers from each problem.
  2. Anthropomorphise diseases and other "natural disasters" as enemies.
  3. Emphasise that systematic neglect by elites (whether local or Western) is a form of oppression.
  4. Where possible, frame problems as specific events rather than lengthy occurrences.

Unfortunately, Effective Altruism, as a movement, has been doing almost the direct opposite of all of these. "The global poor" is a very broad and diffuse group to which it's difficult to relate in a "tribal" way or assign a sense of urgency. We often emphasise how arbitrary and senseless their suffering is, instead of presenting malaria, for example, as the work of a malicious species-agent. And we don't tend to use the language of oppression or assign blame to specific powerful groups of people, instead assigning global responsibility. I think there are epistemic merits to ways we currently choose which arguments to focus on, but the outcome is that they are usually driven by only one of Haidt's moral foundations and therefore miss out on harnessing an important source of motivation: the deeply human urge to band together against a common enemy.


  1. I have two criticisms of this post:
    1. It has a split focus.
    2. The graph on news coverage of a particular disaster vs.casualties.

    1. This post splits focus between justifying effective altruism (how we deviated from it) and the apparent passivity of Westerners. I can appreciate that the two topics as I've stated them have some overlap, but the criticism that we define "good" as not doing bad has nothing (which seemed like the topic you wanted to go into) has nothing to do with how people are more interested in suffering from oppression than natural disasters, or how they would react to such situations differently than effective altruism recommends.
    I would recommend that you just cut out everything related to passivity because there is so little of it in the post, and just make this post about why people should be effective altruists when deciding between intended acts vs. nature.
    2. The chart you put up has a good deal more problems involved that would make this a disingenuous use of arguing that people are irrational in responding to natural disasters. Among them are:
    1. Most of these disasters do not happen in the US with any frequency (particularly food shortage), and we have far more interest in what happens near us than in other less developed countries.
    2. A rule for "news" is that dog bites man is not, but man bites dog is (I actually think it still isn't, but the relevant point still gets made). Countries with food shortages tend to be places we would reasonably expect they happened, I assure you that if the UK had a food shortage everyone would be talking about it.
    3. When I first saw a chart, I expected that the big tall bars would be all about natural disasters, while the short stubby ones would be stuff that resulted from intention. Instead you only have natural disasters, and this just goes to show the huge variation in how we react to some natural disasters as opposed to others, making this largely irrelevant to the point you tried to make. This could be somewhat rectified (though I'd still recommend just removing the chart and all mention of it) if you used another source to say how many deaths were required to show up in the news from a murder, and then your point would be somewhat made.


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