27 December, 2020

Social Justice and Moral Uncertainty

[Note: This entry spoils portions of the most recent season of The Mandalorian, as well as the excellent rational story Metropolitan Man. Please only read this entry if you don't mind casual discussion of spoilers. I also spoil a few other pieces of fiction, but as most are over 100 years old, it's honestly your fault if you haven't read them by now.]

Well worth the read.
As I work through my understanding of representativeness, equity, and inclusiveness and how they should apply to my work, I find myself thinking back to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, & Wales’ Metropolitan Man. Lopsided power differentials make for poor relationships, even with full good intent. Satan’s argument that God is tyrannical despite his benevolence, purely because he has the final say is paralleled by Nora’s unease with Torvald and Luthor’s fear of Superman.

The power and fear you feel from Anakin in Rogue One is one-upped by Luke in The Mandalorian. It does not matter that Luke is a Light side user; his power is so overwhelming in that scene that his intent does not matter. No one should wield that level of power. Lex’s argument applies: he is just too dangerous to live in our world.

An unequal power dynamic.
These are all fiction, but it reminds me strongly of the power dynamics that exist within our culture of white supremacy. (I'm using the new definitions here, not the old ones that required a higher standard for deeming something white supremacist.) Social justice demands corrective action — the question, for me, is not to question its need, but to what extent should corrective action be prioritized. Satan abandoned paradise; Nora left her children; Lex committed murder. How far is it appropriate for us to go?

It is too easy to say that free open discussion norms trump the outright ban of certain topics. It is too convenient to claim that the needs of tortured animals are so immediate that they take priority over making the animal advocacy community a safe space for disadvantaged members. We can accomplish our goals of doing good without trampling on the needs of other communities. There is no need to take the position that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did when they opposed the fifteenth amendment. Frederick Douglass stood with them from the beginning, but was abandoned when the right to vote was being proposed for black men. I look back upon such decisions in disgust; why did the leaders of these causes break ranks so readily? Why could they not stand together? And then I think of the work that Animal Charity Evaluators is doing and wonder: to what degree are we justified in trampling over others' rights and needs?

ACE holds the position that corporate campaigns to help animal advocacy are good. They may or may not be effective at reducing the total amount of suffering undergone by farmed animals in industrial agriculture, but regardless they are considered as accomplishing good. Yet by working with a company like Burger King, praising it for introducing the Impossible Burger, for example (in 2001 PETA's campaign caused BK to release a veggie burger; then PETA targeted them again in 2006, showing that working with orgs like PETA to reduce bad publicity is a waste of time), we are trampling over the needs of the animals that Burger King kills. Is this justified? I want to say yes. I think that it is still good to endorse corporate campaigns because they reduce real suffering in expectation, even if other animals are tremendously harmed by the organization that we are working with and effectively praising.

Similarly, I recognize that there are black, indigenous, and people of the global majority (bipgm) that are actively harmed by some of the organizations that are doing effective animal advocacy work. They are not harmed nearly as much as the animals are in the previous example, but they are definitely harmed significantly. Is it justified to trample over their needs in order to effectively help the massive number of animals being tortured? I argued for 'yes' in the previous paragraph. Shouldn't I also argue for 'yes' in this one? The harms being incurred in the former paragraph are certainly higher than those being incurred in this one. And yet I find myself leaning toward 'no' instead. It doesn't feel justified to me, but I'm having trouble identifying why this is.

PCRM's reprehensible campaign.
When the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ran a campaign aimed at convincing people to be vegan in 2012, they used fat shaming images in their videos and images. I was horrified. It bothered me that the PCRM was okay with using PETA-level tactics that actively hurt another disadvantaged group. When I learned that Ginny Messina, a member of their board, had spoken against it in their board meetings and been ignored, I lost all respect for the organization. (Messina resigned from their board over their insistence on (and lack of regret for) running this campaign.) I thought to myself: we can do animal advocacy work without actively harming other communities. We should aim to do good in all its forms, even if it sometimes reduces the effectiveness by which we can work on our core mission. This is especially true when our beliefs on which are the most effective interventions have low resilience. I remain convinced that running such ads is not only a bad idea, but that doing so is wrong, regardless of if the inclusion of fat shaming results in convincing more people to go vegan in the short term. I think this not just because I believe that in the long term we must be truthful for marketing and trust reasons, but also because I very, very, very strongly do not want to trample on the rights of fat people while doing the work of saving farmed animals.

Similarly, I want social justice for BIPGM while we work toward effective animal advocacy. I do not feel that it is justified to trample over fellow humans' rights while we do our work. So why am I seemingly okay with trampling over the other animals' rights while endorsing corporate campaigns? Am I being speciesist? Am I undervaluing the needs of the animals being harmed in the former paragraph? Or am I overvaluing the needs of the humans being harmed in the latter paragraph?

Moral Uncertainty
These are very difficult issues that I'm still working through. I'm not sure what is best. I find myself resorting to a Ord/Bostrom-style parliamentary vote of my inner credences and continually wishing that I had a better familiarity with updating on new evidence repeatedly. At subsequent moments, I keep thinking that each side's vote is getting more than its fair share through what seem to be rather one-sided deals — only to then think the same for the other side.

Currently, I just don't know what to think, other than to emphasize that figuring this out is a relatively high priority path for me to be on. And so I will continue to discuss these issues with others until we can come to an appropriate and justified solution.

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