Deontology and effective altruism
Rob Wiblin: A view that you hear from time to time is people who will hear about 80,000 Hours or effective altruism — all of this research that’s being done, all this thought that’s been given to the question of how would one do as much good as possible from an impartial point of view — and they’ll say, “Well, I personally don’t endorse consequentialism or utilitarianism, so this is of little interest to me.” It sounds like you think that is misguided. Can you unpack why?
Andreas Mogensen: Yeah. I agree that’s misguided. Well, it might not be totally misguided in that there may be some misunderstanding or some ways in which certain expressions that are used to communicate what effective altruism is about might inadvertently build in consequentialist assumptions. So as I said, if you talk about the importance of doing as much good as possible without any qualification, it sounds very much like you are just asserting consequentialism.
Andreas Mogensen: It’s pretty difficult to say exactly what effective altruism is as a kind of position. Like all social movements, it’s pretty hard to pick out some definitive statements that all and only effective altruists accept. But there’s certainly no in-principle reason why one couldn’t reject consequentialism but nonetheless believe that we have very strong obligations of beneficence, very strong obligations to help others and promote the welfare of others, and that there are certain principles for aggregating harms and benefits across people that bear on this question such that we ought to be especially concerned about helping more people as opposed to fewer.
Andreas Mogensen: So there is a sign of what I think of as a kind of extreme nonconsequentialist or deontological view, which says, for example, that if you could save the lives of five people or save the lives of one other person, and these lives are otherwise equivalent — these people will live for roughly as long as one another, they have roughly similar dependents and people who care about them — there is a sort of fully non-aggregative theory of ethics which says that even in such cases, it’s not true that one ought to save the greater number.
Andreas Mogensen: Some people, most famously John Taurek, have argued that in such cases, one ought simply to flip a coin because that gives each person an equal chance of being saved. But I think that’s a minority view amongst nonconsequentialist philosophers and amongst philosophers generally. Most people think that you ought to save the greater number in such cases.
Andreas Mogensen: Where people might have more qualms is in the kind of cases that I described earlier, where you’re not trading off roughly similar harms to different people, but rather very significant harms to a smaller number of people versus relatively insignificant benefits or harms to a much, much greater number of people. Those are the sorts of questions about aggregation where I think many people are going to get off the boat, so to speak. They’re going to be unwilling to follow the principles of utilitarian cost-effectiveness analysis, basically.
Andreas Mogensen: But I think it’s somewhat difficult to come up with real-world practical cases, where that sort of choice is one that would overturn concrete recommendations about where one ought to donate, for example. I didn’t look into this all that closely, but I don’t think amongst the sort of organisations that are recommended by GiveWell, for example, there’s any point where one might worry that a recommendation of a particular organisation derives from giving weight to very, very small benefits and aggregating those according to the number of people who can be benefited. I think all of the people who are benefited by the organisations, or at least the primary beneficiaries, are people who are having their lives transformed quite significantly.
Longtermism without consequentialism
Andreas Mogensen: It’s characteristic of contemporary nonconsequentialist philosophers to think that promoting the good is an important source of moral reasons, but not the only one. If we understand longtermism in the first instance as a claim about value — about what kind of actions best promote the good — this suggests a very natural connection, or a reason why one would be interested in this question, right? If you think that reasons to promote the good are an important class of moral reasons, then it’s important to know in what way those reasons point to what kind of actions they direct us.
Andreas Mogensen: So from that perspective, it would be very natural to be interested in longtermism, if you take seriously that there are stringent obligations of beneficence — even if you deny that that’s the whole of morality. Once you get into longtermism, you get into population ethics, and here a whole new set of controversies arise where there’s additional scope for disagreement about how outcomes that are associated with creating additional happy lives bear on what we morally ought to do.
Andreas Mogensen: Whilst I think longtermism can be supported from within a range of different theories of the good, it perhaps has a most natural home within this kind of totalist utilitarianism that says one outcome is better than another, just in case it contains a greater sum total of welfare. So in particular on this view, you can make the outcome better by creating additional happy lives.
Andreas Mogensen: I think many people are intuitively sceptical of the idea that we have moral reasons to bring additional happy lives into existence. You can resist this from within consequentialism by adopting a particular theory of the good that, say, rules out total utilitarianism. But it is, again, an idea where perhaps nonconsequentialists are especially apt to deny that there could be a moral obligation to create additional happy lives, as opposed to benefiting already existing people, or people who will exist regardless of what action we take.
Andreas Mogensen: I think there’s a sense in which consequentialism perhaps lends itself especially easily to a view on which we could be obligated to create additional happy lives. It says that ultimately what matters morally is to promote the good, and so if we identify the good with welfare, for example, one can very naturally fall into thinking that we should be in favour of having as much welfare as possible — even if that would not be increasing the welfare of any existing person or any person who might exist, regardless of which action we take.
Andreas Mogensen: Whereas nonconsequentialists are more likely to take this line of thought — which is developed especially well, I think, in some recent papers by Johann Frick — that morality is ultimately rooted in concern for people, so our overriding concern should be to ensure that if a person comes into existence, then their life goes well for them. And welfare is not otherwise a source of moral demands; its moral significance can’t be detached from our concern for individuals.
Andreas Mogensen: I think consequentialism — especially in this totalist utilitarian form — has sometimes seemed to open itself up to an objection that it treats people as if they were vessels, or a receptacle for something valuable. That concern is especially likely to arise when we contemplate this idea that we should be in the business of creating more people so that there can be more welfare in total. It seems as if we’re sort of valuing people as means to the production of utility.
Hostility towards impartial beneficence
Rob Wiblin: It seems like some moral philosophers have had a degree of hostility to the mentality that many effective altruists would have, and possibly this hostility could extend all the way to feeling odd about someone taking a pledge to give 10% of their income to the best charities, even if they’re quite comfortable. Although maybe they’d feel that that’s OK because it’s not such an extreme action.
Rob Wiblin: But some of it seems to come from this sense that one ought not to treat oneself as a means to an end, or that there’s something good about being authentic, I guess, or pursuing one’s own interests and not just trying to help others. A famous deontological thinker who reasoned this way was Ayn Rand. She almost actively thought that charity was bad, unless one was most passionate about it. She almost advocated an aesthetic of selfishness, or certainly self-focusedness. There’s also Bernard Williams, who has kind of run this line that there’s something wrong with the disposition of just thinking about your life as a way to aid others.
Andreas Mogensen: Yes, you’re right. It’s difficult to conceptualise this naturally as a claim that it’s morally wrong, for example, to engage in impartial beneficence. But yes, there might be a belief that in a wider sense, when we think about how we ought to live, morality is one consideration that determines how we ought to live. But there are other considerations — that might be thought not to be specifically moral considerations — that bear on how we ought to live our lives, and what sort of careers we ought to choose, and perhaps even where we ought to choose to donate.
Andreas Mogensen: So for example, you mentioned authenticity. You might think a lot of people believe that people, in some sense, ought to be authentic. I think it’s less clear that they believe one morally ought to be authentic. But one is, nonetheless, in some sense criticisable if one isn’t authentic — if one doesn’t live in accordance with one’s deepest principles, aims and ambitions, beliefs, and so on and so forth.
Andreas Mogensen: You might well believe — and I think, in a rough sense, this is what Bernard Williams believed — that utilitarianism, by virtue of asking a person to be willing to subordinate their own interests to achieving any marginally greater benefit for others, asks a person to give up their [authenticity]. Usually Williams puts it in terms of “losing their integrity,” but I think it’s very natural to understand what Williams means by integrity is very closely connected with an ideal of personal authenticity.
Andreas Mogensen: And more generally, there’s also a very famous paper by Susan Wolf called “Moral saints,” where Wolf argues, very roughly, that a life that is overwhelmingly governed by concern to do what is morally best, or even overwhelmingly governed by concern to do what is morally right, is not a very attractive kind of life. I think she says something along the lines of, “It’s not the kind of person that we want our children to turn out to be.” There are certain distinctive goods that might be lost if we were in some sense overly moral, overly scrupulous, overly concerned, or exclusively concerned with doing whatever was morally best in any given situation.
Andreas Mogensen: One of the examples she gives is something like no one could have a wry or cynical sense of humour if we were always trying to be as morally good as possible. We would be these kind of meek, insipid characters, or something along those lines.
Andreas Mogensen: So, yes, I definitely think one could have concerns about that. But I think they’re somewhat difficult to bring to bear, except on something like a full-blown utilitarianism, which says one ought always to bring about the outcome that is best, considered impartially. If we’re just talking about the idea that one should donate 10% of one’s income if one is already quite well off, living in a developed country, middle class, et cetera, I think it’s very hard to make the case — unless one is in quite unusual circumstances — that this would violate one’s integrity or authenticity to such an extent that one ought not to do this.
Virtue ethics and effective altruism
Andreas Mogensen: I think it’s important to distinguish different varieties of virtue ethics. The thing that perhaps unites all virtue ethicists at the broadest or most abstract level is some kind of belief that the most important questions in moral inquiry or in ethical inquiry relate to the nature and development of the virtues. And then you can take this thought in different directions.
Andreas Mogensen: So some people within the virtue ethical school believe that this line of inquiry or this way of thinking provides us with the materials for a distinctively virtue ethical criterion of right action — in that you could sort of believe the first thing and, nonetheless, believe utilitarianism, for example. You might think if we really want to achieve good outcomes, the thing that we should really focus on is cultivating the right character traits in people. So in that sense, one could have a virtue-theoretic or a virtue-focused consequentialism.
Andreas Mogensen: You might think that the things we should really be focusing on if we want to make the world a better place is developing the right character traits in people, as opposed to developing the right algorithmic decision procedures, or developing the right social institutions. But you could also believe in a distinctively virtue ethical criterion of right action. Perhaps the best-known example of this is due to Rosalind Hursthouse, and it says that an act is right if and only if and because it is what a virtuous person would characteristically do. That isn’t especially informative unless you can provide a self-standing theory of what the virtues are.
Andreas Mogensen: This then provides another point where we go deeper and look at deeper varieties of virtue ethics. Perhaps the most prominent theory of the virtues amongst contemporary virtue ethicists is still a neo-Aristotelian account of the virtues — where, roughly, we understand the virtues as those character traits that are necessary in order to lead a flourishing human life. Unfortunately, since I’m to some extent uncertain about what character traits are necessary in order to lead a flourishing, characteristically human life, I’m somewhat unsure how this school of thinking about right action would bear on the sort of questions that we’re addressing.
Andreas Mogensen: I did once toy with the idea of making some kind of argument that effective altruism is best conceived of as a form of virtue ethics, in that, as I said earlier, I think it’s very hard to pick out some kind of claim about what makes an act right or wrong that would be agreed upon by all people who are part of the effective altruist movement. Similarly, it might be very hard to pick out a theory of the good that all members of this community would agree on.
Andreas Mogensen:I think I had the hunch that maybe it was easier to find common ground amongst effective altruists in terms of what kind of broad dispositions or broad traits it’s desirable for a person to have than about these more fine-grained questions about right action or good outcomes — over which there is indeed a lot of disagreement.
Andreas Mogensen: I’m not sure if this really works out. I liked the title more because it’s very provocative and sounds very counterintuitive. I think then once you spell out the argument it’s perhaps not so counterintuitive. But yes, that would be sort of virtue ethical only in the very broad sense of thinking that questions about what kind of character traits we ought to recognise as virtues and develop in ourselves and in others and in our children, insofar as those are prioritised as central ethical questions. This wouldn’t be presupposing any distinctively virtue ethical criterion of right action.
Is Andreas really a deontologist?
Rob Wiblin: You mentioned before we started recording that you were slightly nervous about this section because you identify as a deontologist, but some of your colleagues within philosophy question whether you truly, deeply are, at least on their conception. Why is that? Why would they not think of you as a fellow traveller?
Andreas Mogensen: I suspect largely because, very roughly, my view is that promoting the good matters a lot and there are many other sources of moral reasons that can in principle bind us and constrain us and direct us to perform various actions. But, as we discussed, certainly those constraints on harming or killing others in ways that might promote the overall good are not really practically significant in my life. For this reason, I think perhaps a large part of the answer for how we ought to live can be derived by thinking about what we can do to promote the good.
Andreas Mogensen: So in that sense, you might think I’m very much being drawn in the direction of a consequentialist moral view. As you mentioned, the practical conclusions to which I’m attracted, the concrete conclusions about how we, in practice, ought to live our life, will tend often to coincide with those that are favoured by consequentialists.
Andreas Mogensen: As you also mentioned, I think consequentialists often have various theories that can be proposed about why in practice the dictates of consequentialism coincide significantly with those of common-sense morality. I might believe that even in principle one shouldn’t kill one person in order to save the lives of five others. You might think that in the thought experiments set up in the transplant case — where I stipulate that there are no other adverse consequences from my choice — in that case, yes, I ought to kill the one and save the five. But you probably think that any real-world case that might resemble this is actually one in which there would be significant indirect adverse consequences, such that one ought to do the thing that I would claim is what one ought in principle to do.
Andreas Mogensen: So there is certainly a school of thought within moral philosophy that sees these different moral theories as — at least in the kind of circumstances in which we find ourselves now — to a large extent, converging on the practical conclusions that we ought to draw.
Andreas Mogensen: There are some nonconsequentialists I should mention who are sceptical of the very idea of promoting the good as a source of moral reasons. So they would deny that that something would promote the good — at least in the distinctive specialised sense that they would think of consequentialists as invoking, they would deny that that is, in fact, a morally significant consideration.
Andreas Mogensen: Or a very closely related view — perhaps, ultimately, the same view — is one which sort of denies that the good is a kind of independent foundational source of moral reasons, that stands apart from and can in principle counterbalance other sources of moral reasons that might derive from, say, respect for the rights of others, or a desire to be able to justify one’s actions in terms that no reasonable person could reject.
Andreas Mogensen: So I think I’m more inclined to believe this view on which the good may be conceived as a self-standing source of moral reasons. This might be a sense in which I am a half-hearted nonconsequentialist. Certainly there are flavours of deontology that are much more hostile to the kind of moral considerations that primarily animate consequentialists than the view I accept. So it’s perhaps not surprising that I place closer to the consequentialist camp than many other philosophers who otherwise reject consequentialism would place themselves.
The World Cup final thought experiment
Andreas Mogensen: So this is a thought experiment that originally derives from the book What We Owe to Each Other by T. M. Scanlon. He asked us to imagine: There’s a World Cup game in progress, and we are at a television station that’s broadcasting this game. And then we discover that there’s been an accident. A man called Jones has fallen. There’s some equipment that’s collapsed on top of him. His arm is crushed and he’s currently receiving extremely painful electrical shocks. And we can, of course, alleviate his pain. We can rescue him from under this equipment that’s fallen on top of him, but unfortunately the only way to do so will require us to shut off the broadcast. And so we’ll have to deprive a large number of people who are watching the match of the pleasure — of the enjoyment of watching this football match.
Andreas Mogensen: So the question is: “Ought we to rescue Jones, or ought we allow the broadcast to go on?” I think many people have the intuition that we ought to rescue Jones, no matter how many people are watching this broadcast. So again, this is a thought that no number of such relatively insignificant benefits should be allowed to outweigh this single terrible harm that otherwise befalls this poor man who’s been trapped under this equipment in our television station.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose if there’s a small number of viewers, then we won’t feel very much tension about this. We won’t find it necessarily to be a difficult question at all. But the reason we chose the World Cup final is that potentially you can say this has happened at the central broadcasting place at the stadium, and there might be 500 million people watching the game — I guess they claim that a billion people watch the World Cup final, but I think that includes delayed transmission, so maybe only the 500 million watching live would actually be affected if they cut it off.
Rob Wiblin: But yeah, there’s a whole lot of different thought experiments that kind of have this flavour, where you’ve got a bunch of modest benefits to a very large number of people and then a very large cost to a single identifiable individual. And then people have this intuition that there’s just no number of people who can get the smaller benefit that is sufficient to offset the other case.
Rob Wiblin: I’d be curious to know what a survey would actually find about what a wide selection of randomly chosen people from the public make of cases like this. Because at least for myself, as I mentioned, I actually don’t share this intuition at all, that there’s no number of people who could watch the World Cup where it would be justified to allow someone to die by electrocution. And in fact, I think that intuition that there’s no number is actually crazy and ridiculous and completely inconsistent with other actions that we take all the time.
Rob Wiblin: If you think about the World Cup final, about 500 million people watching live and all of the amount of effort that has gone into allowing this event to go ahead: many people have died in order to cause this event to go ahead in the construction of the stadiums. It’s very common for people to die. I mean, famously in Qatar, tonnes of people have died in the construction of all of these stadiums. But even just in a normal case, when you’re doing big construction works, people die. Having people come in to the stadium, probably some people died in car crashes. At least one person might have died in a car crash so that everyone could get there. Or at least if that happened, we wouldn’t think that was a decisive argument against holding the World Cup final, that someone might well die in a car crash as a result of all of the traffic and all the travel that’s involved in it going ahead.
Rob Wiblin: Let alone the number of lifetimes that are spent effectively watching the game. I think if it goes for two hours and there’s half a billion people watching, then roughly 1,437 lifetimes are spent just watching the game. Many multiples in one person’s lifetime. And then on top of that, just think about the opportunity cost of hosting the World Cup, or even just the final: we’re talking about tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars that go into allowing this event. Amounts that could have saved thousands of people’s lives.
Rob Wiblin: Now, we’re apparently comfortable with that, or at least every time the World Cup happens, there’s not a flurry of people saying that it’s moral outrage, that this was allowed to happen rather than lives were saved. It’s an outrage that things happen in general because sometimes people die as a result. Sometimes there’s industrial accidents. And so we just have to shut the whole thing down. Indeed, shut down all entertainment as far as I can tell, because it’s just like the death of one individual is given absolute priority over the entertainment of an unlimited number.
Rob Wiblin: So anyway, that’s my rant about this case, where I’m saying people who think that you should definitely, no matter what, always shut things off in order to save the person from electrocution, I think need to think about what implications that would have for society as a whole and how basically it would necessitate the ending of basically everything that makes life worth living.