Maxim Vandaele

170 karmaJoined


Fellow traveller and student of the effective altruism movement.

I have some background in (moral and political) philosophy and sociology


Criticism of effective altruism collects critical discussion of effective altruism ideas (as opposed to criticism of effective altruist organizations, causes, or culture).

This distinction seems rather artificial to me. I don't think you can criticize effective altruist philosophy without at once criticizing efforts to enact that philosophy in practice (or vice versa). In theory, it's possible, but in practice, it's very difficult. It's a bit like trying to make a distinction, say, between criticizing the idea of socialism versus criticism of actually existing socialist movements: you can make this distinction, sure, but it's really difficult to criticize socialism without at once criticizing actually existing attempts to enact socialism (or vice versa).

Of course, in practice, some criticisms of effective altruism are more focused on the movement and others are more focused on the philosophy. But to sharply separate the two seems to me rather misguided.

What a wonderful project! I really think any attempts to expand effective altruism beyond its current four main cause areas (global health, animal welfare, global catastrophic risk and EA meta) should be strongly encouraged.

I would be careful to compare cats and humans so directly. Yes, it sounds intuitively right that much like how people don't like being confined to a home, neither do cats. But remember how the typical housecat will probably not roam away much further than 200 meters from their home. I don't think most people would enjoy being confined to a radius of roughly 200 meters around their home, but for most cats, this seems perfectly fine. So I don't know how directly cats and people can be compared in that respect. Cats are in any case far more territorial than humans.

If it is still truly impossible to have happy indoor cats, then I think the case for exploring the option of making cats go vegan (and further focusing on spaying and neutering cats) becomes all the stronger from an animal advocacy point of view. Yes, it is true that the prey killed by cats don't suffer for that much longer compared to farmed animals who are killed (although I still feel like cat prey suffer more badly because of the killing method), but let's not forget that cats may catch up to ten mice per day, so the amount of animals being killed is huge, I think that also matters. Also, I really doubt that cats eat less of their store-bought meat when they are allowed to go outside and hunt. Have you not seen how often cats leave their prey behind without eating it, presumably because they have already eaten enough of their store-bought food, which they may find more enjoyable to eat?

I agree with most of what you wrote here, thank you for taking the time to reply. I agree that an option to display a comment or post's karma score based on different scoring systems (the old system, an egaliterian one, ...) would already be a great improvement.

The only point that I find questionable is the idea that it's OK that a forum ran by effective altruists gives more voting power to effective altruists. To me, this seems at odds with the ideals of cause neutrality and means neutrality: how can effective altruists claim that any means of doing good is in principle open to their consideration, when their most important online discussion forum gives some users, compared to others, so much more ability to downvote or upvote (new) ideas, questions and proposals?

It is true that vote brigading may be worse than the forum's unequal karma system, because, as you point out, at least popularity on this forum is more likely to be related to have more justified opinions on posts and comments on this forum.

However, unequal voting still falsely equates popularity - specifically, popularity on this forum - with expertise. There are several reasons why this is problematic. First, it excludes expertise from outside of the effective altruism movement: people with truly valuable perspectives and relevant expertise who are not affiliated with effective altruism have less voting power and may be less likely to get upvoted by the more popular users, who may fail to appreciate valuable new perspectives they are not used to. Second, it overgeneralizes expertise: for example, someone who might have earned a lot of karma by writing on x-risks can now also cast more votes on posts completely unrelated to that (such as posts on global health and animal advocacy), which makes no sense. Third, it privileges the most active commenters: since karma from votes on posts and karma from votes on comments both count towards the same overall karma score, someone who has written a small number of excellent, well-researched posts may have far less karma (and thus far less voting power) than someone who has written dozens of mediocre (but not bad) comments, especially if these comments are under recent or popular posts (where comments are most likely to be upvoted). Fourth, it privileges individuals who were already quite influential in the effective altruism movement when they created their forum account: they will find it far, far easier to collect karma than those who are both new and unknown in the effective altruism movement. Perhaps all these problems explain why almost no website ever uses the same unequal voting system found on this forum.

And even if is true that users with more karma deserve to have more voting power, then the current voting system is still unreasonably disproportional. The difference in voting power between less and more popular users should at the very least be considerably reduced. Maybe it is acceptable to have something where users who have 1,000 or more karma should have a strong upvote of 3 and a regular upvote of 1, and not, as it is currently the case, overall voting power that is about twice as strong as that of users with less than 250 karma. You said you think the karma system should be reformed, so I hope you are in favor of changes like these.

Vote brigading is bad because it 'turns karma into a popularity contest' as you rightly point out. However, the Effective Altruism Forum currently allows users with more karma to cast more votes on any post or comment. How is this not just as much, if not more, a popularity contest? After all, you are letting some users have more votes, simply because they are popular users (they have more karma).

Thank you, Matthew, for writing this fantastic comment. The arguments from your essay seem a lot stronger to me now that I take your comment into consideration. It is true that higher education can be a great force for positive social change. As far as I know, many of those involved in emancipatory social movements were educated at university, and this can be no coincidence. And I wholeheartedly agree that getting people to go vegan is not a matter of telling them the arguments in favor of veganism, even if they are not aware of these arguments yet. We may indeed be far more successful if we can first get people to experience how vegan food can be just as delicious and healthy (if not more) than non-vegan food, and then get them to go vegan themselves. This is, in any case, how it worked for me: I was already a vegetarian, so I knew that you could eat great food without eating meat, and after recently discovering tofu, vegan mayonaise, coconut-based dairy yoghurt replacement and vegan chocolate desserts (all of which I had almost never eaten before), it became clear to me that I could eat great food without dairy and eggs too, and so I became a vegan too. Of course, I had already been (vaguely) aware of the arguments in favor of veganism for quite some time, but back then, I just couldn't picture myself enjoying vegan food. Indeed, we need to get people to experience how great vegan food is, and the proposals you discuss in your comment can definitely contribute to that.

I think it is great that you, one of the authors of The Good it Promises, the Harm it Does, have taken the time to engage in constructive discussion with effective altruists.

Here are a few thoughts I had after reading your essay. The advantage of focusing on students in higher education might be that they are more likely to sympathize with veganism and thus more likely to actually become vegan than people from other groups are. On the other hand, the impact of additional resources in this area might be lower because students are probably more likely to already be aware of the arguments in favor of veganism, and might already have more knowledge about healthy, tasty plant-based food, and thus a lot of students might have become vegan anyway, even without reaching out to them. Conversely, getting people from religious and/or Black communities to go vegan might be more challenging, but the impact might be very high because, as you rightly point out in your essay, financial support for animal advocacy outreach to religious and/or Black communities is neglected.

Overall I think your essay raises great questions and I really hope that effective altruists will engage with them.

It sounds intuitively right that cats are happier when they can hunt outside, but it would be interesting to see research on whether, and how, a cat that is kept indoors permanently, can still be happy.

I don't agree that the prey killed by cats go through 'quick suffering'. From what I have personally seen, they can "play" with their prey while it is still half-alive and twitching for quite some time. Maybe it is because of directors' editing choices, but usually when I see a lion or bear or fox kill an animal in a nature documentary, it looks like they don't torture that prey for nearly as long as the typical cat does.

But even if it is true that compared to farm animals raised for meat, mice and birds at least have happier lives before they are mauled by a cat, then it remains true that pet cats who are allowed to go outside eat both store-bought food and prey, and that reducing the demand for pet food meat by making your cat survive solely on prey is probably not that good for the cat's own wellbeing, as it may then occasionally go hungry, stressed or aggressive due to lack of food. Maybe it might even run away permanently because it no longer finds an easy source of food in your home. In any case, a cat that does not get fed by its owners probably catches more prey than a cat that does receive store-bought food. At least that's what I would expect, maybe this is not what happens in practice?

From what I have heard, keeping cats indoors is far more common in the United States than it is in Europe. American cat owners will keep their pets permanently indoors far more, even if they have a backyard and live in a place where it is unlikely the cat will be hit by a car.

So, if an animal advocacy charity would organize a campaign to promote keeping your cats indoors for the sake of animal welfare, it seems like this could be more effective in Europe than in America. In my own country, I have sometimes seen campaigns to promote spaying or neutering cats (which is also good for animal welfare), but I have never, ever seen one that suggests you keep your cat indoors to prevent it from mauling poor little mice and butterflies.

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