review of the essay collection The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does

Easily my favorite thing in here is the tale of Fred the goat, the hero America needs. Fred escaped from an auction house (where animals are sold, primarily, to be slaughtered), came back a year later to force open the gate so other animals could escape, and—when they were recaptured—came back the next day to try to free them again. Now, is this story true? I have no idea. But I'm definitely ready to buy a Fred the Goat t-shirt and/or plushie, in case any animal rights orgs are looking for merch ideas.

Anyway. For the most part, this book is poorly argued. Three patterns that I have problems with:

1) It uses emotionally compelling anecdotes to highlight what would be lost if the charities that Effective Altruists tend to deem relatively "ineffective" were defunded. I feel like the authors want to contrast an empathy-driven approach with a cold-blooded (faux-)rational EA approach. But you can and should tell emotionally compelling anecdotes about EA-aligned charities too; such stories reflect a crucial part of the motivation for giving to any charity: you have empathy for the beings the charity would help. But unless you're going to be arbitrarily selective with your empathy, you're going to have to acknowledge that the number of worthy beneficiaries exceeds the resources you have to spare, and you're going to have to prioritize. Someone who empathizes with both Esther (a pet pig discussed in the book, whose life cost more than half a million dollars to save), and the more-than-a-hundred-million pigs that are raised in miserable conditions and slaughtered each year in the US, needs a way to decide which tragedy is more urgent.

2) Some essays use guilt-by-ideological-association arguments. There's a chapter that essentially says trying to count animals (by which I mean e.g. determining that there are 5.3 million deer in Texas) reflects an insidious animals-as-property mindset. EA uses statistics about animals; statistics about animals have often been collected for horrible purposes; so, it's implied, EA is misguided. But you can make practically any human concept sound problematic with an argument like this: written language has been a tool of colonization; empathy has been applied selectively in order to justify atrocities (think of Nazi propaganda that accused Jews of cruelty to animals, or mobs that lynched Black men for alleged crimes against white women); etc. The solution is not to get rid of writing or empathy or math, but to identify and protect against the ways they are misused.

3) Some authors are fixated on the capitalist system as the root of all evil and think EA reinforces that system. I have two objections to this. One is that it is a classic example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The other is that it puts way too much faith in the notion that reorganizing the entire world on the basis of some vaguely-specified and unproven set of principles will solve all our problems. Lots of things sound like they would work perfectly until you actually try them, and only then do the problems materialize. We see all the evils of capitalism because we have lots of experience living under capitalism. It's easy to imagine that one's idealized form of anarchism/communism/whatever would have fewer problems, but all the actual attempts to put these ideologies into practice on a large scale seem to have turned out either worse or not unambiguously better than capitalism. (I'm not saying there's no better system, just that it's reckless to pin all one's hopes on any particular revolutionary change.)

The final chapter does a decent job of addressing my third point above. It argues there is a "third way" beyond "revolution and reform" called "non-reformist reforms" that "make more immediate gains without compromising the larger goals of social movements for radical change."

Providing caring multispecies communities for formerly farmed animals at sanctuaries is perhaps the most striking example of non-reformist reforms in the animal advocacy movement. These sanctuaries not only provide meaningful, safe spaces for the nonhuman residents in their care, but also help us reframe and reimagine our relationships with animals, which have traditionally been relations characterized by power and control.

That seems like a good thing. I just don't think all efforts need to take this form; it is reasonable to hedge our bets between purely reformist endeavors and ones with more radical aims.

Which brings me to my main point of sympathy with the book. Some of the authors point out how charities that don't get much EA funding, like animal sanctuaries, can have benefits that are hard to predict or quantify. The chapter on Esther the pig does a particularly good job of this, noting how many people their fundraiser reached and that it likely "spawned countless discussions about the compassion for all life", among other things. It also points out:

EA, predicated on the principle of utility, which includes being reasonably certain of the consequences of our actions for the greatest number of those effected, would mean that the film Blackfish should not have been made, as it was produced to highlight the horrendous conditions of one killer orca whale, Tilikum. Yet this work, inspired by the desire to help one animal, had the sweeping effect of almost eradicating SeaWorld and the other similar aquatic circuses.

I think the right way to respond to this kind of uncertainty is not to give up "the principle of utility"; rather, it's to recognize that maximizing utility requires devoting some resources to things that look non-optimal, to protect against the inevitability that some of your utility estimates will be wrong. In other words, diversify.

And if everyone made their charitable giving decisions based on the recommendations of a few EA organizations, I think there would be a huge risk of insufficient diversification. Monocultures are dangerous; they magnify the impact of any mistaken belief (and there will always be mistaken beliefs when humans are involved). Defunding all animal shelters because a spreadsheet determined they have lower expected value than funneling all the money into a plant-based meat corporation, for example, would probably be unwise.

I think that sort of monoculture is something to be vigilant against as any movement grows. But is it really a big issue for EA right now? I don't know, but this book didn't convince me it is. Some essays have a particular grievance with the prominent EA organization Animal Charity Evaluators, and one notes "ACE estimates that it has influenced donations of over $10 million to its ranked charities in 2020 (and over $24 million from 2014 to 2019)". Not to detract from the importance of ACE's work, but, that sounds like a drop in the bucket of all charitable giving—$10 million is less than 1/1000th of the $16.14 billion that GivingUSA estimates Americans gave to "Environment/Animals" charities in 2021.