EA as offsetting

Scott made a good post about vegetarianism.

But the overall line of reasoning sounds to me like:

“There’s a pretty good case that one is morally compelled to pay for people in the developing world to have shoes, because it looks pretty clear now that people in the developing world have feet that can benefit a lot from shoes.

However, there is this interesting argument that it is ok to not buy shoes, and offset the failing through donating a small amount to effective charities.”

— which I think many Effective Altruists would consider at least strange and inefficient way of approaching the question of what one should do, though it does arrive at the correct answer. In particular, why take the detour through an obligation to do something that is apparently not as cost-effective as the offsetting activity? (If it were as cost effective, we would not prefer to do the offsetting activity). That it would be better to replace the first activity with the second seems like it should cast doubt on the reasoning that originally suggested the first activity. Assuming cost-effectively doing good is the goal.

That is, perhaps shoes are cost-effective. Perhaps AMF is. One thing is for sure though: it can’t be that shoes are one of the most cost-effective interventions and can also be cost-effectively offset by donating to AMF instead. If you believe that shoes can be offset, this demonstrates that shoes are less cost-effective than the offset, and so of little relevance to Effective Altruists. We should just do the ‘offset’ activity to begin with.

Does the above line of reasoning make more sense in the case of vegetarianism? If so, what is the difference? I have some answers, but I’m curious about which ones matter to others.


4 responses to “EA as offsetting

  1. If we’re looking at money on A vs money on B, we can simply ask which does the most good per dollar. If we’re looking at X amount of inconvenience on A vs money on B, then we need an extra step where we convert between inconvenience and money. Is there more to what Scott does than that?

  2. Surely the intuitive rationale for these kinds of obligations is in a do-no-harm principle. Relative to your not existing, eating meat contributes to the suffering of animals, but failing to buy shoes for people in the third world does not make their poverty worse. Hence no non-speciesist deontologist – except for certain left-wing global justice theorists – would think we have a duty to buy shoes in anything like the way we have a duty to avoid meat. The confusion comes when you try to make sense of this within a utilitarian perspective.

    A closer analogy would be “There is a person in the third world – call her Mabel – and I destroyed Mabel’s shoes, hence I have an obligation to buy her a new pair.” Then, I don’t think many people would be sympathetic to the idea that rather than replacing Mabel’s shoes, you should buy bed nets for a completely different set of people.

  3. See the http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/09/23/vegetarianism-for-meat-eaters/#comment-239528 for why some people don’t understand the offsets as well.

  4. I think it makes sense in a… not exactly “universalizable” sense, since that’s when we’d have to actually just stop eating animal products rather than donating money to these charities (assuming I understand how the most effective animal suffering-related charities work), but “locally universalizable” maybe.

    “This is a standard of behavior that should be easy to convince many EA-adjacent people of, including a lot of people who probably wouldn’t donate to these charities at all in the first place and who like eating meat. So, pointing out that this is something people can do will probably result in these charities getting a lot more money than they would otherwise.”

    It’s also probably good for relations between the animal-focused EAs and the others, which I suspect might be Scott’s main goal. I, for one, would probably find EA as social identifier more interesting if I thought that staying involved in the trendiest new topics wouldn’t occasionally require listening to people argue about lunch for weeks on end.


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