The Ethics of Giving Part Four: Elizabeth Ashford on Justice and Effective Altruism
A review and critique of the fourth section of the volume The Ethics of Giving: Philosophers’ Perspectives on Philanthropy, edited by Paul Woodruff, with an emphasis on issues relevant to the decision making of Effective Altruists.
Elizabeth Ashford attempts to resolve the dispute regarding EA’s purportedly flawed attitudes towards global economic and political structures. Following on the heels of critics who have condemned EA for emphasizing charity over the political cause of revising international markets and political institutions along leftist lines, Ashford takes a more constructive approach to the matter, attempting to revise EA and place it in a position of compatibility. Woodruff fawns over the article, calling it a “careful argument”, “a major contribution to the subject” that “should be widely read,” so I decided to take a look.
Ashford’s chapter starts by examining the divide between charity as a matter of beneficence and the alternative conception of justice. In deontological ethics, beneficence is our requirement to be altruistic and generous, placing value in other people’s interests. Justice is our requirement to ensure that people’s rights are not violated, and to make compensation where appropriate. She treats EA’s welfare consequentialism as pushing beneficence, and attempts to show why justice is more appropriate for both conceptual and practical reasons.
The conceptual argument for defining EA as a matter of justice
Ashford describes the manner in which Western governments and companies have done things to deny well-deserved economic rights to the people and states of the developing world, to build global institutions that fail to appropriately take their interests into account, and to outright rob them. She mentions issues such as colonial resource extraction and disparate impact of climate change which are clearly real and clearly unjust. Overall, she succeeds in showing that multiple past and present policies have violated the rights of the global poor. Then she paints a conception of our resulting obligations which dodges the non-identity problem and other moral objections by arguing that the wealth itself comes with obligations to be returned to its rightful owners, rather than appealing to the more simplistic idea that wealthy people themselves are guilty.
This is all assuming that one believes in a rights-first approach, of course. The argument can be reconstructed as follows:
(1) Human rights exist as right- and wrong-making features of the world.
(2) If a practice violates human rights, then the benefits of that practice rightfully belong to those whose rights were violated.
(3) The manner in which global institutions have prolonged severe poverty constitutes a human rights violation.
(4) This human rights violation has contributed to our wealth.
∴ Our wealth comes with obligations to use it to support the rights of those in severe poverty.
If someone accepts a deontological view, then (3) is easy to defend. The strict libertarian view of rights, where we have strong duties to refrain from hurting anyone but no duties to refrain from exploiting their position and leaving them without the means of subsistence, is generally considered flawed these days, as the tension between those respectively strong and lax duties is hard to defend and it violates our general ethical concern for the interests of the poor. It’s hard to give a comprehensive account of rights that doesn’t say that the systematic application of power politics to disproportionately benefit the West is permissible. And several of Ashford’s examples of injustice are simple examples of unequivocal theft.
But most consequentialists will obviously deny (1), in which case the argument fails. A rights-based consequentialism would suffice, but then it would run afoul of (2), because it would have us confer benefits towards wherever they can assure the most rights, not necessarily to whoever was initially cheated of those benefits. A retributivist consequentialist could appeal to moral guilt to establish that we deserve less wealth, but since Ashford’s argument about the causes of poverty does not establish moral guilt for the average person, that does not work here either.
The practical implications of viewing EA as a matter of justice
But in practical terms, does it matter whether we take the justice view or not? According to Ashford, the moral difference between beneficence and justice is that beneficence is a matter of resources that we should give, whereas distributive justice is about resources that are not rightfully ours to give in the first place. But it’s hard to see a substantive difference here: under both views, we ought to give away our resources, and we have no moral right to possess them. What does it mean for something to not be morally ours to give, if it is something other than the standard idea that we are morally required to give it away? Ashford clarifies by saying that if civilization were just, then we would not have all these spare resources to give away, and distinguishes the justice view as follows:
”On this framing of the issue, therefore, it calls for reform of global and domestic economic, political and legal structures, so that those currently suffering severe poverty are no longer deprived of a realistic opportunity to obtain the means of subsistence, to which they are morally entitled.”
However, it’s easy to see how a framing of beneficence or consequentialism could also tell us that we would not possess all these spare resources to give away if civilization were properly structured. The argument would be simple:
(1) Restructuring global and domestic economic, political and legal structures to redistribute wealth and power for the sake of the severe poor would help them gain the means of subsistence.
(2) This would increase the welfare of those in poverty to a degree that is sufficient to outweigh the potentially negative sum of other effects of such a reform in the long run.
∴ Therefore, we ought to restructure global and domestic economic, political and legal structures so that we do not have these spare resources to give away.
Where, then, might the proponent of beneficence or consequentialism reach different ethical conclusions than the judicial activist? You might suggest that we imagine that we reject (1), but if so, then it is obvious that proponents of the justice view should not support reform either, because it would be actively counterproductive to the goal of granting economic justice to the poor. Only a rejection of (2) might lead to a difference in views, because a judicial activist may be obliged to sacrifice the greater good for most of the world as long as it lets them rescue the minority who are in extreme poverty. Even then, this will not work if the sacrifice of the greater good is an injustice of its own, for such a thing would not be acceptable to the deontologist. It would have to be a case where the consequences are severe in aggregate, but not an infringement upon people’s rights. In that case only, the proponent of beneficence or consequentialism would oppose reform, whereas the judicial activist would support it.
This is a notable divergence, but still a narrower one than Ashford seems to think. Her chapter glides over the potential consequentialist demand for global reform as if it were not relevant. She does grant that EAs would support structural reform if the evidence and impact for such efforts seemed strong enough, but does not connect this tacit understanding of our moral framework with her claims for the difference in implications for beneficence and justice. Instead, she moves past this clear moral question to look at the soft framing of EA language and ideas. The core charge of the chapter is that, since we use words like ‘altruism’ and ‘charity’ with a generally simple cost-effectiveness framework, we might be encouraging people to ignore or reject deep arguments in favor of global reforms. We could be allocating more airtime to ideas and phrasing that emphasize other values, like “rectifying injustice” and “repaying our moral debt”, and that is liable to change people’s behavior to care more about global reforms.
This is perfectly plausible, of course; framing and priming matter. But framing and priming are pragmatic issues that matter to welfare consequentialists too. We equally ought to reframe our language if that improves people’s behavior to reduce poverty. So why don’t we? First, we lack the sort of empirical data that is required to draw robust conclusions on this issue, and Ashford doesn’t provide it. Moreover, there is a host of countervailing possibilities that Ashford does not address. If we send messages about injustice rather than altruistic impact, then it might prompt people to deflect blame and responsibility to governments, corporations and the very wealthy without them doing anything on their own except for the occasional throwaway vote to a third party. It might prompt them to donate to charities that appeal to their sentiments without actually being effective. It might prompt them to unthinkingly support bad economic and political policies that do more harm than good. It also might prompt them to ignore important causes that don’t directly address the global poor, like x-risk. So neither side here has a monopoly on arguments about the negative effects of framing, and the advocate of justice should conversely be open to adopting the benevolent framing since it might better succeed in restoring the economic rights of the poor. Moreover, we have clearly seen that many people do use justice concerns as a tool to condemn EA, to weasel their way out of demands to donate to charity, or to motivate idealistic support for dubious economic views.
So the question of framing is largely pragmatic, unsolved, and independent of whether we really believe that charity should be a matter of beneficence or justice—much like the question of international reform. How, then, might the justice view carry practical ramifications? Certainly, the justice view does not absolve one of the requirement to donate to charities that directly alleviate poverty. Ashford takes great pains to establish that we still have judicial obligations to donate to effective charities. She casts EA efforts as a duty of last resort; while it is the least preferable way to grant rights to a person, it is also the most urgent, for no reform will come quick enough to save the people who are currently in a crisis of subsistence. Ashford’s designation for this type of obligation—a “backup duty”—belies her view that it constitutes a robust and heavy burden upon us to extensively donate our money, one that coexists with our obligations to reform global economic and political systems.
But Ashford takes a disappointing shortcut in ignoring the conflict between these two subsets of the duty to achieve justice. The inability to adjudicate among conflicting duties has long been considered a major flaw of deontological ethics, and in the context of Effective Altruism this problem is easy to see. I have only one career, and a limited amount of money. Should I use all of it to reform the world? Or all of it to support aid? Or some of each? Whereas consequentialism has a simple answer to this question and reduces it to an empirical matter, Ashford offers no alternative. She generally seems to think that one must do both, but that is a non sequitur: just because I have pro tanto reasons to do two competing things doesn’t mean that I must divide my efforts between both of them; perhaps one pro tanto reason is generally stronger than the other and so it warrants all my efforts, even though I nominally support both causes. In the realm of careers and volunteering, we are usually more effective in changing the world when we focus on one issue, due to the nature of career specialization and comparative advantage. And only one charity will make the most effective use of my donations. This problem could also constitute a retort from the critics that Ashford is attempting to bring into the fold: aid money is money that we could be using to buy political influence, so it’s not obviously the best thing to spend on.
Whether we seek to alleviate poverty directly or indirectly, we might suppose that such efforts will get a privileged status over very different cause areas if we endorse the justice view. But our other cause priorities deal with injustices too; factory farming is an unjust emergency, and an existential catastrophe would clearly be a massive injustice that might only be prevented if we act now. And just like poverty, both of these problems have been furthered by selfish and corrupt international institutions which have also contributed to our wealth. So it’s not really clear if the justice view might change much in our approach to cause prioritization.
Whatever demands are implied by the justice view, it’s not a foregone conclusion that all of our donations must be made in accordance with them. Ashford does not clarify or defend the extent of the restitution demanded by a concern for justice. There are good reasons to think that it is far from the totality of our disposable income. First, one might point out that a variety of Western wealth-making practices have helped the developing world as well. This includes mutually beneficial international trade, the transfer of technology and knowledge, extensive infrastructure construction, access to global capital markets which provide ready funding for their business ventures as well as opportunities for them to invest their wealth, norms of sovereignty and institutions for the resolution of international disputes, mutually beneficial laws and institutions regulating worldwide travel and communication, pressure on governments to better recognize the rights of their people, military missions to stop insurgency and piracy, and training local governments to empower them to stop such threats on their own. The list of ways by which the institutions and policies associated with Western hegemony have benefited the global poor is very long, and the results can be seen by looking at overall changes in quality of life and poverty rates for the developing world since the time of their contact with the West.
Moreover, much of our wealth does not come from relations with the developing world at all. Western economic development has been supported by a variety of internal factors in social organization, governance, technology, labor productivity, and domestic resource extraction, and it’s not clear how this wealth comes with any strings attached to give it away. One might argue that it is associated with injustice towards people *within* the West, but since poverty in the West is not a human rights violation, Ashford’s argument does not apply.
To be clear, Ashford’s moral argument is resilient to these two claims. On a rights view, good events typically don’t “count for” bad ones. If I benefit someone 2-3 times and then harm them 2-3 times, I have still dealt them an injustice, and I am still responsible for compensating them. The people of the global South did not consent to accepting this complex package of rights establishment and denial. That being said, just because harms have not been repaid doesn’t mean that the harms generate a moral claim to all of our wealth. It seems that the most appropriate choice is to look at the proportion of our wealth that is attributable to relations with the developing world, and then take the proportion of the resulting quantity which corresponds to the proportion of our relations that have been unjust. How much is the resulting figure? 2%? 20%? I don’t know. Regardless, any remaining disposable money presumably belongs to the demands of beneficence rather than justice.
Ashford’s Responses to Objections Against EA
In any case, I don’t think Ashford intends for her framework to require much in the way of radical revision to EA practices. Her main thesis is that her framework enables her to recast Effective Altruism in a new light that will more successfully rebuff its critics on various issues. But her following sequence of responses to objections against EA is somewhat farcical for the way that the exact same ideas that Effective Altruists affirm through a thin welfare consequentialist framework are repainted with her injustice framework, combined with contentious empirical assumptions and presented as novel solutions to the issue. Ashford’s main strategy for responding to criticisms about potential adverse macro-level impacts of charity on the global system is to nod, voice openness to considering the potential mechanisms by which they might be validated, point to the empirical facts about how EA charities often demonstrably refrain from contributing to such problems, suggest that using language that evokes a concern for justice can dodge them otherwise, and then say that aid efforts are morally crucial in their own right. But all of this basic logic works fine with welfare consequentialism and beneficence as our moral principles. On one hand, this technically a strong facet of Ashford’s argument, since it makes it independent of disagreement with her moral arguments. You can be a committed consequentialist, but you will still have to think about the possibility that different language and framing will have better results. But on the other hand, Ashford misconstrues EA and carries a pernicious implication that her responses are made compelling by the assumption of a particular political stance rather than the fundamental logic of tradeoffs, rigorous methodology, and welfare maximization which was established by EA years ago.
For instance, she responds to the idea that EA has an inappropriate normative framing by saying that, if it frames things as a matter of justice, “it need not be thereby committed to the view that the money rightfully belongs to us. Rather it can be framed as simply asking the question of what we ought to do with the money that is currently, de facto, in our possession.” But committal to the view that the money rightfully belongs to us is not a part of EA, which is perfectly understood as being a pragmatic philosophy about what we ought to do with the money that is de facto in our possession. There are some who espouse moral demandingness, like Singer, and some who often avoid making moral demands in order to make more positive appeals, like MacAskill; the latter still does not say that it is merely supererogatory to donate (indeed, he calls it obligatory in his chapter of this book!). Neither figure argues that the proper political and economic system is the one that leaves us with lots of money to use however we wish. Ashford acknowledges their views, as well as the fact that we have specific pragmatic rationale for talking positively and supportively about giving, as it better encourages people to donate. Her only rejoinder is to again defer the argument to be a matter of speculation about the psychological effects of framing upon people’s moral beliefs, with the assumption that her pragmatic concern is more important than this other one. Yet a welfare consequentialist should just as easily affirm that the distortionary effects of positive framing have a negative impact on the world. If she is right in her empirical claims that the language of beneficence prompts people to accept existing power structures without changing them, and that changing these power structures would make the world better, then it uncontroversially counts as a reason for the welfare consequentialist to similarly oppose positive framing. So Ashford’s moral disagreements with proponents of beneficence do no work here, and her answer to this criticism is no stronger than our own.
When Ashford thinks that critics are right in charging that “we should not limit our moral goal to that of managing and alleviating the terrible effects of global injustice and inordinate economic inequality,” she is agreeing with a criticism that rejects a viewpoint that is nowhere to be found in EA literature, as well as being outright contradicted by welfare consequentialism. On the power of NGOs to shape discourse and norms, Ashford says that beneficence framing could promote false perceptions about global poverty which inhibit the changes in norms that are necessary to eradicate poverty; on the possibility that NGOs will undermine local institutions, she states that the presence of a duty for aid requires us to cautiously support NGOs which do not significantly exhibit this effect; in both cases she is simply stating the conclusions of consequentialism with some more fashionable language. When Ashford argues that the demand for justice enables us to recognize that aid-only solutions leave people with a good deal of dependency and vulnerability, she belies the fact that welfare consequentialism adequately acknowledges the problem of such relations in virtue of the unhappiness that they cause, whereas ideal consequentialism can recognize them explicitly. Ashford suggests that the alternative to her view is to take aid as an “adequate substitute for legal reforms” that would “exhaust the moral demands that severe poverty imposes upon us”, as “an adequate substitute for recognition of legally binding duties of justice owed by affluent countries”, but nowhere are such views implied by beneficence, by welfare consequentialism, or by the main body of EA ideas.
There are a few other problems. In responding to the objection that our evidence-based methodology downgrades fuzzy issues like structural reform, she hypothesizes that act consequentialism cannot properly address it because it looks at individual choices whereas structural harms are a matter of interrelated patterns of behavior that must be solved in groups. But this represents a limited imagination of the way that consequentialism evaluates the world and issues moral judgements. First, consequentialism evaluates the state of the world in pure welfare terms, with no judgements on future actions being contingent upon whether one or many people caused an existing problem, so the fact that poverty was caused by a structural mechanism is irrelevant. Second, consequentialism can easily demand that we take part in the construction of a collective action if our participation has a real probability of actually achieving or strengthening that collective action. Even though our actions are considered one at a time, these actions encompass effects such as the possibility of bringing people together in making the collective action work, or the possibility of helping the collective action go further in a messy and uncertain world. Any scenario where there is no such possibility is a scenario where demanding action would be absurd. Moreover, the fact that EAs have engaged in numerous collective projects such as establishing nonprofit organizations and running conferences just as successfully as anyone else, and our readiness to chip away at other enormous collective problems such as AI existential risk and famine prevention, proves that we have no problem with the basic logic of collective action. So her prescription to look at our duty as shared is an attempt to solve a nonexistent problem.
If above I have described the good and the bad regarding Ashford’s chapter, her response to MacAskill’s view that sweatshop goods should not be banned or boycotted is the ugly. It is probably the most torturous section of Woodruff’s entire volume. She offers a pained acknowledgement that MacAskill’s argument is correct—“Against that background the answer is yes, given that the alternative may be no job at all and complete destitution”—but uses it as a segue to talk about the desirability of structural reform to the international system, despite the fact that it’s clearly not the same question as the one that MacAskill was answering. She argues that MacAskill’s argument answers the wrong question because it holds the international system constant, as if there is even such thing as a wrong question, and argues that he’s not giving enough spotlight to the value of structural reform. But she doesn’t consider the equal and opposite possibility that she or critics might not be giving enough spotlight to the value of not banning sweatshop labor instead. She argues that sweatshop labor is harmful rather than beneficial because it doesn’t help workers enough to get them up to a morally acceptable standard of living, while acknowledging MacAskill’s point that it helps them relative to the counterfactual, a bizarre emotive word game that will frustrate any reader who believes that morality ought to be structured with comparative preference relations rather than with absolutist value signals.
I feel divided on Ashford’s chapter. If you take a rights-based morality framework, then severe poverty really is an ongoing human rights emergency, and it does require that some of our money be donated on the basis of justice, which may entail different cause priorities than those which we would normally arrive at. She is right that beneficence framing can have negative outcomes on the world. She successfully distills the morass of leftist political indignation about charity into a coherent viewpoint that is reasonably rigorous, is backed by empirical evidence, and is straightforward to discuss. She does a good job of arguing that it is crucial that we donate to aid agencies even if we accept such a framework, meaning that the overall impact of the chapter on EA’s popularity will probably be positive. Ashford shows that her framework is conceptually resilient to many of the objections that have been leveled at EA, albeit only because of arguments which would serve equally well in defense of a beneficence model of EA.
But for us, the actual implications are fairly slim. Ashford’s moral argument doesn’t work for someone who is already committed to consequentialism. Even if you are not a consequentialist, her arguments may not demand much difference in your behavior, though we can’t say for sure because Ashford’s discussion of the implications of her moral principles is inadequate. It is her pragmatic arguments about framing that constitute the real core of her thesis, but she doesn’t address observed and hypothesized countervailing problems that are associated with her choice of framing, nor does she address the way that framing might impact our attempts to solve other moral issues besides poverty. Her argument is also heavily dependent on psychological speculation, lacking in empirical data to support her claims about how people act or form values and beliefs in response to various framings. Therefore, she raises far more questions than she answers. Now we could speculate and argue from the armchair all day about what framing might have the best results all-things-considered, but surely the best place to start would be solid empirical surveys prompting people to respond to statements that use various types of framing, and surely the primary metric for judging this issue would be the simple question of whether or not a particular choice of framing motivates people to devote their time and money to doing good at all.