Toby Ord’s The Scourge, Reviewed

Cross-posted from Cold Button Issues.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I was having lunch with a friend and mentioned that some of my friends donated money to buy bed nets to prevent malaria. “Waste of time,” my friend said.

“Do bed nets not work?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s not it. Rather, people in developing countries just don’t have moral standing. People say that all lives are of equal worth, but they’d rather go on a nice vacation than donate enough to save a life through an effective charity, which I’ve heard costs $5,000.”

She then showed me her new emerald brooch (market value: $5,001). “And even if we thought people were just dumb about charity, we would still expect politics to revolve around global poverty if all lives were of equal worth, and it doesn’t. Deep down, we all know foreigners don’t matter.”

Then I ate my veal entrée. People have told me that animal suffering is wrong, but since they seemed to rarely act on that claim, I had concluded that animal suffering was no big deal.

Anyways, this is a review of Toby Ord’s The Scourge.

Ord’s Argument

Moral indifference justifies itself. Or at least that is Ord’s argument when it comes to embryos.

Some argue that human embryos have just as much moral worth as the normal, walking around type humans. Some religious people use the phrase “womb to tomb,” indicating that a human life is a human life, from conception to death.

Some argue against embryos having equal value to walking around type humans, by appeals to intuition or incredulity- it’s a clump of cells! Others point out that embryos lack some features that might make people morally valuable- desires, consciousness, self-identity, friendships with others.

Ord instead poses a thought experiment: if a new disease emerged that caused the vast majority of human deaths and targeted the young, would responding to such a nightmarish pandemic be the instant priority of all humanity? Yet if human embryos matter just as much as normal humans and we now know that the majority of embryos suffer spontaneous abortions, why is there no outcry? Why do people claim that life expectancy in the United States is near 80 years of age, instead of acknowledging that life expectancy from conception is remarkably low? Ord produces this helpful life expectancy chart from conception.

If embryos really mattered, people would care about the vast number of embryos that die naturally. Ord argues that the “marked lack of curiosity about what is claimed to be of immense importance suggests that even now, few people really believe that full moral status begins at conception.”

People barely care about this, so embryos matter little or none. Therefore, Ord argues, appeals to the value of human embryos to argue against abortion or IVF fail.


An obvious extension of Ord’s claim is the field of global poverty. Many people say that your moral worth doesn’t depend on where you live or that your obligation to others doesn’t depend on a shared race, nationality, regional proximity, or language. However, almost everyone acts like lives are not of equal value, ergo, they are not.

The number of animals suffering in factory farms is immense. Only a small number of people are vegans and only a trivial number of people are full-time animal welfare activists or factory farm saboteurs. Ergo, animal suffering is no big deal.

Now and then, some people will say we should care about future generations. While people do appear willing to make some sacrifices for their children and grandchildren it doesn’t normally extend much further than that. As I rested in my mansion’s east wing (paid for by mortgaging my great-grandchildren’s future!), I read a book another friend had recommended, coincidentally also by Toby Ord, called The Precipice.

Now he was saying we should care about people who wouldn’t even exist for millions of years!

Revealed vs Stated Moral Preferences

It isn’t a new observation that what we say matters morally, and how we act are often very different.

Generally, we treat the stated moral preference as the real expression of moral truth and when people fail to live up to their stated moral code, we call them hypocrites. When we fail to live up to our own, we experience guilt.

Ord wants us to interpret people’s departure from their stated moral beliefs, not as moral failure or selfishness or myopia or sin, but as an argument against people’s stated moral claims.

I don’t think this idea is completely crazy. We often treat our moral intuitions as meaningful, but perhaps we should weight our moral intuitions by their strength, and stronger moral intuitions should guide our actions more. If everybody claims X, but nobody does X isn’t that an argument against that claim?

In a sea of bad and repeated arguments against effective altruism, Ord came up with a novel argument against effective altruism before the movement even existed. Much of effective altruism revolves around finding large populations that nobody currently seems to care about (farmed octopi, future generations, digital consciousnesses) and claiming we should divert huge amounts of resources to them to live up to our stated moral beliefs.

“Lol, no” my emerald-brooched friend would say. If I didn’t know that in the real world, Toby Ord thought the global poor and future generations mattered, I would say the author of the Scourge would be right alongside her. Afterall, Ord wrote that:

“Those who ‘bite the bullet’ and accept the Conclusion will have a very difficult time. They will have to accept a very strange ethical belief, and they cannot leave it as a purely theoretical view-for if they really believe that the Scourge is with us, then they will be compelled to fervent action. It is also a belief that will alienate them from much of the public.”

This sounds like the position that longtermists and animal welfarists are in every day! Is caring about the future or wild animal welfare a bad idea?

I have a pretty conventional view on morality- I view my moral ideals as true and departures from acting on my ideals as a challenge to my own moral character rather than to my ideals themselves.

The Scourge’s argument, that moral indifference justifies itself is interesting, but it’s hard (more like impossible) to see why it would be okay to apply to embryos but not animals or future people or people in other countries.

If you’re looking for a reason to leave effective altruism, I give the Scourge five out of five revealed preferences