Dignity as alternative EA priority—request for feedback

I run The Dig­nity Pro­ject, a cam­paign for more re­spect­ful de­vel­op­ment. I also con­sider my­self al­igned with EA, and I’ve been won­der­ing how to in­te­grate those two in­ter­ests. I’d be in­ter­ested in the com­mu­nity’s feed­back on this.

I’ve tried to make a pos­i­tive case in favour of dig­nity, rather than an ob­jec­tive as­sess­ment. What holes do you see? What ev­i­dence would you value to help re­solve what weight an EA should place on dig­nity?

EA aims to do the great­est good. How to define that good is one of Bostrom’s ‘cru­cial con­sid­er­a­tions’. The past few years have seen in­creas­ing de­bate. ‘Lives saved’ has largely been re­placed by QALYs and DALYs. GiveWell and IDin­sight have been re­search­ing the moral weights peo­ple place on differ­ent out­comes. There are strong ar­gu­ments for us­ing WALYs, in­cor­po­rat­ing life satis­fac­tion. Dig­nity de­serves its place alongside these mea­sures—be­cause it meets crite­ria of ne­glect­ed­ness, solv­abil­ity and scale (Wiblin, 2019).

Dig­nity as a defi­ni­tion of the good life has his­tor­i­cally been ne­glected. That is start­ing to change. In 2019, Jeremy Shapiro’s ar­ti­cle on cash trans­fers posited dig­nity as an im­por­tant differ­en­tia­tor be­tween cash and in-kind aid. Ban­er­jee & Du­flo’s new book ‘Good Eco­nomics for Hard Times’ urges us to study dig­nity; they write “Restor­ing hu­man dig­nity to its cen­tral place...sets off a profound re­think­ing of eco­nomic pri­ori­ties...”. Just this week, Gene Sper­ling launched a book called Eco­nomic Dig­nity, and it has been an im­por­tant fea­ture in con­sid­er­a­tions of effec­tive med­i­cal care (Ja­cob­son, 2007). Yet I have found no pro­jects that have at­tempted to eval­u­ate in­ter­ven­tions or ad­vo­cate for them, and very few that define dig­nity or de­velop mea­sures—and none of those that do ex­ist are EA-al­igned.

As McKaskill and oth­ers have ar­gued, epistemic mod­esty sug­gests that when we are in a po­si­tion of moral un­cer­tainty, we should con­sider an in­ter­ven­tion through mul­ti­ple mea­sures—to do so is the equiv­a­lent of ro­bust­ness checks in statis­ti­cal mod­el­ling. Dig­nity is—or should be—an im­por­tant meet­ing point be­tween EA’s val­ues, and other value sys­tems. This is dou­bly the case when EA has taken so lit­tle ac­count (Brown, 2016) of the ex­ten­sive ar­tic­u­la­tion of the good life—un­der­pinned by dig­nity—put for­ward by Sen, Nuss­baum, Alk­ire and oth­ers.

Ad­dress­ing dig­nity po­ten­tially has huge scale. Dis­re­spect is ex­tremely com­mon; in 13 Afro­barom­e­ter coun­tries more than 50% said pub­lic offi­cials do not treat them with re­spect. My own ex­per­i­ment in Nairobi showed that ex­pe­rienc­ing dis­re­spect was as­so­ci­ated with feel­ing sig­nifi­cantly less happy and less em­pow­ered. Since dis­re­spect is most fre­quently ex­pe­rienced when in­di­vi­d­u­als in­ter­act with bu­reau­cra­cies (Scott, 1999), it is rele­vant for global de­vel­op­ment, gov­ern­ment, busi­nesses and be­yond. A ro­bust the­ory of dig­nity in EA would have im­pli­ca­tions for how we rank causes and in­ter­ven­tions, with wellbe­ing and cash in­ter­ven­tions likely to seem more ur­gent.

Dig­nity is also highly solv­able. The philo­soph­i­cal liter­a­ture already gives us a frame­work for gen­er­at­ing in­ter­ven­tions, and these in­clude po­ten­tially highly cost-effec­tive in­ter­ven­tions such as listen­ing (Wein et al, in progress). As we un­cover effec­tive in­ter­ven­tions, they can be spread. My own re­search has shown that there is a unique con­sen­sus in global de­vel­op­ment: the US pub­lic say they would donate 60% more to a more re­spect­ful char­ity, while 79% of US non-profit pro­fes­sion­als say they are per­son­ally com­mit­ted to rais­ing dig­nity with their col­leagues. Se­nior figures in global de­vel­op­ment such as Win­nie Byany­ima and An­to­nio Guter­res have called for more fo­cus on dig­nity.

Some resources

More about the Dig­nity Pro­ject at dig­ni­typro­ject.net. Spe­cific re­sources that may be of in­ter­est are this one page flyer sum­maris­ing re­search so far, and this work-in-progress liter­a­ture re­view.