Blog

Phoebe Woodruff

Trade-offs are a critical consideration for effective altruists. However, from what I have seen, EA literature generally focuses on trade-offs between methods (research vs. advocacy vs. earning to give etc) rather than trade-offs within a technique. In my experience, as an animal rights advocate and activist, I have experienced unexpected conflict between the different ways to approach advocacy itself. In particular, I feel torn between the seemingly more effective approach of “meeting people where they are” to have an impact on others’ immediate actions and firmly upholding my own values at the risk of alienating those I wish to convince. In the following, I will explain this conflict I feel further. In no way do I intend to present a prescriptive claim about how we should act. Rather, I want to simply encourage deeper considerations of the trade-offs involved in something as seemingly straightforward as advocacy.

First and foremost, I hold that, to some degree, no one can ever be fully convinced to change their world view. Perhaps an ideal, perfectly rational person would be receptive to all new perspectives and would always employ unbiased reasoning to judge them. However, this ideal person does not exist. We are all stubborn and stuck fixed in some understanding of the world. Given this, we are more easily convinced of something that confirms our preexisting understandings. This phenomena is commonly known as confirmation bias.

Secondly, to state the obvious, we are obligated to do the most good possible.

From these two claims, it follows that we must “meet people where they are” to achieve the most good and the most effective outreach. In this case, “doing the most good” means changing other’s immediate actions. To use my own case as an example, “doing the most good” might mean convincing people to give up meat on the spot.

The reasoning is frequently regurgitated advice for advocates in all domains and may seem obvious. I believe there is far more to consider, though. First of all, I believe “meeting people where they are” generally involves intentionally setting aside our own values in favor of those understandings and values of the person with whom we are engaging. In my own experience, this means emphasizing environmentalist or health-focussed arguments against animal agriculture rather than animal welfare. Is it right that we should sacrifice our own ideals and consistency with our values to affect the better actions of others? What does it mean for the movement of effective altruism as a whole if we do not build up from the foundational philosophy and give people the skills to apply it independently? If we “meet people where they are” (and therefore focus on influencing their values and their immediate impact on the world) rather than teach a philosophy, are we sacrificing the long run goals for short-term benefits? For instance, by emphasizing environmentalism over animal welfare, am I setting the people I engage with up for behavior that is not in line with the essential values I want to spread? Furthermore, what does this mean for the authenticity of EA or animal rights as movements? Are we acting inauthentically by using arguments other than our own to achieve our goals?

I do not have the answers to any of these questions presently. However, I think this is an interesting and potentially valuable topic to pursue further. A deeper examination of what we mean by effective advocacy and how flexible we are willing to be with our values has the potential to greatly impact how we approach others.