Dr. David Hooker began his presentation by asking the Fellows to split into groups of about five people. The groups were to come up with a definition of justice. Later in the presentation, Dr. Hooker told a story from his childhood. A neighborhood friend stole his bike. Dr. Hooker, then just David, watched him do it. Some weeks later, the thief rode David’s bike to school. When David complained to the principal, the principal refused to force the thief to return the bike. The thief’s family moved out of the neighborhood a few years later, and they left the bike in the garage. The new inhabitants of the home also had a child David’s age. He began to ride David’s bike. David told his new neighbor—and the neighbor’s father—that the bike was his. When he explained how it ended up in their garage, they did not believe him.
David had wanted the job, but because he could not afford a new bike, he did not get it.
The new neighbor went on to become the neighborhood newspaper boy. A requirement for the job was having a bike. David had wanted the job, but because he could not afford a new bike, he did not get it. The newspaper boy developed relationships with many people in the neighborhood. Some of them went on to write him letters of recommendation for college. David never got his bike back. As Dr. Hooker told his story, I felt the knot in my stomach that wells up when I witness injustice. Throughout, other Fellows hollered, letting Dr. Hooker know they thought he was treated unfairly. Before he began the story, Dr. Hooker had talked us through some ways that all of our definitions of justice failed. Each definition hit on something, but none was perfect. Nonetheless, we trusted our understandings of justice enough to claim it had been violated in Dr. Hooker’s story.
At first, they tried to dissuade the students. When the students were steadfast, the presidents asked them to at least warn the city first, to tell them why they felt the need to act.
In 1960, Dr. Roslyn Pope wrote “An Appeal for Human Rights.” It expressed the frustrations and aims of the burgeoning Atlanta Student Movement. Included are specific demands for improved access to education, jobs, housing, voting, hospitals, movies, concerts, and restaurants, and equal enforcement of and representation in the law, for black people. Dr. Pope wrote the Appeal at the behest of the presidents of the Atlanta University Center. The presidents had caught wind of the students’ plans to march, sit-in, and boycott. At first, they tried to dissuade the students. When the students were steadfast, the presidents asked them to at least warn the city first, to tell them why they felt the need to act.
Our concept of justice is vague. Yet we act based on it.
After reading the Appeal in local newspapers, Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver issued a response. Governor Vandiver insinuated the Appeal was written by foreign communists. He claimed it was published under the names of black American students “to breed dissatisfaction, discontent, discord, and evil.” A Fellow asked Dr. Pope how she and the Atlanta Student Movement persevered despite resistance from people like the presidents and Governor Vandiver. Dr. Pope responded, “If you don’t have any question about the rightness of your cause, then that’s your protection.” Dr. Pope did not doubt the rightness of her cause. And despite our inability to define justice, I do not think any of the Fellows did either.
Our concept of justice is vague. Yet we act based on it. It informs how we vote, buy products, and treat others. Should we act based on such a vague concept? Where does the vagueness come from?
Consider the evolution of homo sapiens. As a species, our formative years—along with most of our history—saw us in small groups, moving from place to place to hunt and gather food. During this time, our ability to reason and instincts developed to make it easier for each human to get enough food to survive and protect themself. While hunter-gatherers, we worked with other humans to defend our groups against other animals and hunt. If any human failed to protect others and share food, then each, at some point, would suffer violence and hunger. So, when others failed to protect us or share, we recognized a violation of humanity. Our instincts informed, reinforced, and facilitated these behaviors.
Very recently, humans developed large-scale societies. Our instincts have not changed much since that shift. The traits we evolved—designed to facilitate life in small-scale societies—are insufficient to identify injustices in the societies we now live in. This is not the only inadequacy we inherited from our ancestors. Our love for sugar, for example, is rooted in a world where sugar was hard to come by. It now gives us sweet teeth and increased risk of heart disease.
To avoid eating too much sugar, I can pay attention to food labels and follow United States federal guidelines. Federal guidelines for sugar result from research into the amount of sugar an optimally-performing human body needs. Food labels list sugar content with the same unit of measurement as the federal guidelines. Scientific methodologies and common units of measurement make it easy for food scientists to discern sugar content and communicate it to the public.
I was first exposed to Effective Altruism after I became an advocate for people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity early in college.
Utilitarians propose a similar approach to justice. A just society would emerge from people acting to maximize the happiness—or pleasure, desire-satisfaction, or some other like unit—of all people. For a couple years, I have been wrestling with Effective Altruism. This is a social movement that applies utilitarianism to our world. Because they distrust moral intuitions, Effective Altruists reason closely, carefully, and broadly. They recommend giving to charities that can scientifically demonstrate their impact on human lives and choosing a career that allows one to either directly advance causes with extremely high impact or earn a lot of money to give to charities that do. Examples of causes they advocate are promoting health in the developing world, minimizing the risks of artificial intelligence, and addressing factory farming.
I resisted Effective Altruism. My intuitions told me to.
I was first exposed to Effective Altruism after I became an advocate for people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity early in college. Hunger and homelessness are not among the causes Effective Altruists recommend. Moreover, Effective Altruists claim that working to improve the lives of those in a community as affluent as Lexington, Kentucky, where I go to college, is likely to have much lower impact than focusing one’s efforts in more cash-strapped regions. I resisted Effective Altruism. My intuitions told me to. But, because I trust my intuitions only as a call to further investigate my moral reasoning, I interrogated the movement.
I buy the starting point: we should maximize happiness. But I am wary of Effective Altruism’s application of this rule. I plan to do research in philosophy of economics to clarify my wariness. But this Fellowship has revealed a gap in Effective Altruism: a recommendation of work explicitly for the change of dominant systems. Fellows here insist on self-determination: society needs to be people-driven; the voice of the abused needs to be centered; the oppressed need to become the powerful. Our world is shaped by a history of certain groups in large-scale societies—for example, white people in the United States—wielding resources as weapons. The weapons are used to exact violence against indigenous people, people of color, and the formerly—and currently—colonized.
This pattern continues today. The failure to recognize and confront it maintains and deepens the everyday suffering of billions of people. Effective Altruism assesses causes along the axes of scope, neglectedness, and tractability. Such an analysis ought to recognize systems change as a high-impact cause. And activism that empowers historically oppressed communities—even in affluent places—contributes to this systems change.
Effective Altruists have missed this. They have missed it for systematic reasons. For example, the units of measurement they use—such as Quality Adjusted Life Years—do not capture things like inherited trauma and challenges to personal identity from societal historical amnesia. I am interested in exploring units of measurement that can capture such subtler indicators of justice. If we find some, perhaps we can clarify our concept of justice. Then we can act more confidently. Maybe then, we can advance toward a society where we have a common language and framework to talk about justice.