Week 3: Expanding Our Compassion

“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” 

– Jeremy Bentham (1789)

This week focuses on your own values and the practical implications that these views have. During Week 3 we explore who our moral consideration should expand to, with a particular focus on farmed animals as a case example.

Organisation Spotlight 

Animal Charity Evaluators 

Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) aims to identify the best ways to help animals as effectively as possible. They strive to identify ways to alleviate suffering and improve the lives of animals on a wide scale, while continuously updating their recommendations based on new evidence. 

Based on their current findings, they believe advocating for farmed animals seems to be the most effective way to help animals and prevent the largest amount of suffering. 

Their recommended charities use a range of strategies to help animals including corporate outreach, legal work, and developing alternative proteins. Interventions in this area can be surprisingly cost-effective, for example it seems that, even under conservative estimates, tens or hundreds of chickens can be spared from cage confinement per dollar spent (Source). As of January 2020, ACE has influenced over $26 million in donations. 

Required Materials

Recommended reading 

More to explore

  • Dominion – Dominion uses drones, hidden and handheld cameras to expose the dark side of modern animal agriculture. (Film – 2 hours)
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature –  Illustrates why we live in the most peaceful time ever in history, by looking at what motivates us to behave violently, how these motivators are outweighed by our tendencies towards a peaceful life and which major shifts in history caused this global reduction in violence. (Book)
  • Ethical.dietA tool that explains which diet changes have the biggest effects on animal welfare.

Exercise (45 mins.)

This week’s exercises are about doing some personal reflection. There are no right or wrong answers here, instead this is an opportunity for you to take some time and think about your ethical values and beliefs.

Part 1 – A letter to the past (10 mins.)

“Imagine effective altruism had existed at a different point in history. Would the movement have been able to do any good, or would it have been too stuck in the assumptions of the time period? 

Would an effective altruist movement in the 1840s U.S. have been abolitionist? If you think such a movement would have failed to stand up against slavery, what do we need to change, now, as a movement, to make sure we’re not getting similarly big things wrong? 

Would an effective altruist movement in the 1920s U.S. have been eugenicist? If you think the movement would have embraced a pseudoscientific and deeply harmful movement like the sterilization campaigns of the Progressive era, what habits of mind and thought would have prevented us from doing that, and are we actively employing them?

Imagine someone walked into that 1840s EA group and said, “I think black people are exactly as valuable as white people and it should be illegal to discriminate against them at all,” or someone walked into the 1920s EA group and said, “I think gay rights are really important.” I want us to be a community that wouldn’t have kicked them out.”

On “fringe” ideas – Kelsey Piper, edited


Imagine someone from the past who lived at a different time and held views characteristic of that time. Also imagine, for the sake of the exercise, that this person is not too different from you – perhaps you would’ve been friends. Unfortunately, most people in the past were complicit in horrible things, such as slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia, which were even more prevalent in the past than they are now. And, sadly, this historical counterpart is also complicit in some moral tragedy common to their time, perhaps not out of malevolence or ill-will, but merely through indifference or ignorance. 

This exercise is to write a letter to this historical friend arguing that they should expand their moral circle to include a specific group that your present self values. Imagine that they are complicit in owning slaves, or in the oppression of women, people of other races, or sexual minorities.

For the sake of this exercise, imagine your historical counterpart is not malevolent or selfish, they think they are living a normal moral life, but are unaware of where they are going wrong. What could you say to them to make them realise that they’re doing wrong? What evidence are they overlooking that allows them to hold their discriminatory views? You might want to write a few paragraphs or just bullet points, and spend time reflecting on what you write. 

Part 2 – A letter from your future self  (15 mins.)

Now imagine one day you get a strange letter; it’s a letter from your future counterpart, hundreds of years in the future. In the letter they argue that, just like your past counterpart, you currently are unknowingly and unwittingly committing some moral wrong. 

What do you think the letter might say? What issue might be of great moral importance that you are unaware of today?

Again, you might want to write a few paragraphs, and spend some time reflecting on what you write. 


Week 4: Longtermism

In Weeks 1 and 2 we discussed attempting to quantify the impact of altruistic interventions. However, most cost-effectiveness analyses can only take into account the short-run effects of the interventions, and struggle to take into account long-run knock-on effects and side effects. This criticism has been made forcefully against early effective altruist attempts to evaluate interventions based on cost-effectiveness. 

This week we’ll explore a different approach to finding high-impact interventions – ‘longtermism’ – which attempts to find interventions that beneficially influence the long-run course of humanity. 

Organisation Spotlight

All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations 

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Future Generations is a UK parliamentary group working to create cross-party dialogue on combating short-termism and identifying ways to internalise concern for future generations into today’s policy making.

They believe that political short-termism can cause topics with widespread consequences – like climate change, public health trends and catastrophic and existential risks – to be neglected from the political agenda in favour of urgent matters.

You can see their research aimed at informing Parliamentarians on catastrophic risks and potential policy options here. You can see their events bringing together policy, academic, and industry communities here

Required Materials

Recommended reading 

More to explore

Exercise (10 mins.)

A commonly held view within the EA community is that it’s incredibly important to start from thinking about what it really means to make a difference, before thinking about specific ways of doing so. It’s hard to do the most good if we haven’t tried to get a clearer picture of what doing good means, and as we saw in week 3, clarifying our views here can be quite a complex task.

One of the core commitments of Effective Altruism is to the ethical ideal of impartiality. Although in normal life we may reasonably have special obligations (eg. to friends and family), in their altruistic efforts aspiring effective altruists strive to avoid privileging the interests of others based on arbitrary factors such as their race, gender, or nationality. 

Longtermism posits that we should also avoid privileging the interests of individuals based on when they might live.

In this week’s exercise we’ll be reflecting on some prompts to help you start considering what you think about this question, i.e. “Do the interests of people who are not alive yet matter as much as the interests of people living today?”

Spend a couple minutes thinking through each prompt, and note down your thoughts – feel free to jot down uncertainties, or open questions you have that seem relevant. We encourage you to note down your thought process, but feel free to simply report your intuitions and gut feelings.

  1. Imagine you could save 100 people today by burying toxic waste that will, in 200 years, leak out and kill thousands (for the purposes of the question, assume you know with an unrealistic level of certainty that thousands will die). Would you choose to save the 100 now and kill the thousands later? Does it make a difference whether the toxic waste leaks out 200 years from now or 2000?

  1. Imagine you’re a wealthy philanthropist, considering how to spend your money. Your first option is to pay for surgeries for blind people in the US. With your donations, you will restore the sight of ten people. You also wanted to consider some nonstandard approaches to philanthropy however, and so your second option is to pay certain couples to have children (who otherwise would not have done so). As a result, ten children with good lives will be born. Which option would you choose?

  1. Imagine you donate enough money to the Against Malaria Foundation to save a life. Unfortunately, there’s an administrative error with the currency transfer service you used, and AMF aren’t able to use your money until 5 years after you donated. Public health experts expect malaria rates to remain high over the next 5 years, so AMF expects your donation will be just as impactful in 5 years time. Many of the lives that the Against Malaria Foundation saves are of children under 5, and so the life your money saves is of someone who hadn’t been born yet when you donated.

    If you had known this at the time, would you have been any less excited about the donation?