Effective Altruistism and ethical consumerism

In chapter 8 of Doing Good Better, William MacAskill argues that we should not make a great effort to reduce our carbon emissions, to buy Fairtrade coffee, or to boycott sweatshops. The reason is that these actions have at best a small impact on improving other people's lives and so the cost and effort is better spent elsewhere.

From a strictly utilitarian perspective, there is nothing to complain about this. But strict utilitarianism is a highly counterintuitive position. In fact, MacAskill himself rejects it when he says that it would not be OK to consume meat from factory farms and "offset" by donating to animal welfare organisations, even if the net result would be less animal suffering. I agree. Whether a course of action is right or wrong is not just a matter of the net difference it makes to the amount of suffering in the world. But then we also have to reconsider MacAskill's conclusions about carbon offsetting, fairtrade, and sweatshops.

Why is it wrong to buy meat from factory farms even if one donates to animal welfare? Arguably, the reason has something to do with the fact by giving money to factory farms, one is actively engaged in the large-scale torturing of animals. And being actively engaged in something that causes great harm is worse than failing to interfere with activities of other people that cause great harm. That's why it is worse to pay somebody to torture animals than to not pay somebody to stop torturing animals.

The same kind of reasoning can be applied to the case of carbon emissions. By causing excessive carbon emissions I am actively engaged in something that causes great (expected) harm. That's wrong, and the wrong can't be offset by (say) donating to the Anti-Malaria Foundation, thereby causing a comparable reduction of harm. The harm I'm causing arguably also can't be offset by donating to projects that cause a comparable reduction specifically of carbon emissions, although this case is harder. For if my net carbon impact is zero, then the sum of my activities causes no harm at all through climate change. But if my activities involve short-distance flights and heating my house at night, I'm still actively engaged in something that causes great harm. I'm inclined to say that's still wrong.

The case of sweatshops is tricky for similar reasons. Here it is often argued that buying from sweatshops is actually good because those who work in sweatshops are generally better off than they would have been otherwise. Nevertheless, sweatshop conditions are terrible, and it is plausibly wrong to employ people under such conditions. The fact that those people would otherwise have been even worse off doesn't make it right. If I rescue an animal from a factory farm and torture it a little less in my back yard (a little less than it was tortured before), I shouldn't expect moral praise. I'm still doing something wrong. So it is wrong to employ people under sweatshop conditions. And so it is also wrong to pay people to do that. On the other hand, raising the living standards of the poorest is good, even if the new standards are still deplorable. So by purchasing products from sweatshops, I am simultaneously doing something good and something bad, and I'm doing it to the very same people. (That's the analogy to carbon offsetting: I'm not causing harm to some people and doing good to others.) It is not at all obvious to me that the good outweighs the bad.

It is also not obvious to me that it doesn't. I'm not saying we should buy locally produced shirts and shoes rather than ones produced in sweatshops in Inida. (Clearly, not buying and donating would be the best option, but let's say we need these things.) But I think the question is hard.

What would be really nice is if we could buy shirts and shoes from Indian factories where workers are treated humanely. That would do considerable good and no harm, so the choice would be easy.

MacAskill briefly discusses this option, but focusses only on one example, which then turns out not to be an example at all: buying coffee with the Fairtrade certificate. MacAskill argues that this is really a waste of money, in part because virtually none of the extra cost reaches the poorest workers. If he is right, then obviously there is little reason to buy Fairtrade. But that only shows that the Fairtrade standards and their enforcement don't work: they don't ensure that the production of Fairtrade goods causes significantly less harm than the production of non-Fairtrade goods.

A similar problem arises for "organic" standards. It would be great if there was a label for agricultural products whose production does not involve destroying prime forests, displacing people, depleting soil, poisoning ground water, reducing biodiversity, exposing workers to toxic fumes, causing gratuitous suffering to animals, and so on. I'd happily pay extra for such products. Sadly, the major certificates for "organic" food, while advertised to have precisely this function, fail to enforce many of these criteria.

The popularity of organic and Fairtrade products suggests that a lot of people have value judgements similar to mine: they care about not being complicit in activities that cause great harm. Instead of alienating people with such values, the Effective Altruism movement could take them seriously and push for changes to the standards for Fairtrade and organic products, perhaps by supporting the establishment of new labels or by lobbying for changes to government-set standards, etc.

In fact, that would be worthwhile even on strictly utilitarian grounds: since many people care about consuming ethically (even at higher costs), giving them truly ethical options could have a significant net effect. And since the current standards are so obviously broken, improving them should not be intractable.


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