Does EA need an underpinning philosophy? Could sentientism be that philosophy?

post by JamieWoodhouse · 2019-03-27T15:34:05.300Z · EA · GW · 6 comments

Humanism commits to evidence and reason and grants moral consideration to all humans.

Sentientism goes a step further and explicitly grants degrees of moral consideration to all sentient beings (most animals and potentially sentient AGIs / aliens).

As such - Sentientism seems to have much in common with Effective Altruism: evidence, reason and broad moral compassion.

I'm very interested in feedback on this philosophy and whether promoting it might be a useful EA initiative.

I've written a short essay on sentientism here: . Versions have also been published in Free Inquiry and Areo magazines.

We're building an online, global community on the topic here . All are welcome, whether or not the term fits personally. We have people from 30+ countries there so far. EAs, philosophers, activists, policy people, writers, but mostly interested lay-people like me.


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comment by Aidan O'Gara · 2019-03-28T02:00:45.597Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't say I'm opposed to the idea of sentientism, I agree with basically all of its claims and conclusions. But I don't think it'd be a good to strongly associate EA with sentientism, and I don't think it adds much to discussions of ethics.

On the first, I agree pretty strongly of the framing that effective altruism is a question [EA · GW], not an ideology, so I don't want to prescribe the ethics that someone must agree with in order to care about effective altruism.

Second, as I currently understand it (which is not super well), sentientism seems to only to take one ethical stance: conscious experience is the source of all moral value. This is definitely different from a stance that gods or humans or carbon-based life are the only sources of moral value, so kudos for having a position. But it takes no stance on most of the most important ethical questions: deontology vs consequentialism vs others, realism vs non-realism, internalism vs externalism, moral uncertainty. Even assuming a utilitarian starting point, it takes no stance on person affecting views, time discounting, preference vs hedonic utilitarianism, etc. Sentientism is my favorite answer to the question it's trying to answer, but it's hardly a comprehensive moral system.

[Meta: I'm still glad you posted this. We need people to think about about new ideas, even though we're not going to agree with most of them.]

Replies from: JamieWoodhouse
comment by JamieWoodhouse · 2019-04-01T12:26:46.753Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Aidan - really appreciate the feedback.

Sentientism isn't a comprehensive moral system as you say - it leaves open all of the questions you list and others. It's similar to secular humanism in that way. My intention in promoting Sentientism is for it to be a simple, unifying baseline philosophy - rather than something comprehensive. For many in the EA community the philosophy will be unremarkable or even obvious, but billions of people around the world are very happy believing and acting without evidence, reason or broad moral compassion. To my mind that exacerbates many of the problems EA is trying to address.

I find the intricacies of traditional philosophy fascinating, but I am wondering if there is more value in bringing large numbers of people up towards a simple, common baseline.

I'm open minded about how closely linked EA could or should be to Sentientism. It feels like a strong fit in some ways, but religiously motivated EAs are likely to disagree, as are those who think only humans warrant moral consideration.

comment by toonalfrink · 2019-03-27T18:42:00.383Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Meta: I'm concerned about the amount of downvotes I see that aren't accompanied with any justification. Consider that there is a lot of information value in a negative judgment. I imagine that the author would be very happy to hear about this, and more generally, I imagine that EA as a whole would skill up a *lot* faster if downvotes came with instructions.

Replies from: BenMillwood, AlasdairGives
comment by BenMillwood · 2019-03-30T18:24:19.746Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Downvotes aren't primarily to help the person being downvoted. They help other readers, which after all there are many more of than writers. Creating an expectation that they should all be explained increases the burden on the downvoter significantly, making them less likely to be used and therefore less useful.

comment by AlasdairGives · 2019-03-27T21:46:34.344Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The title of this post is “Does EA need an underlying philosophy? Could Sentientism be that philosophy?” I would consider both of those points to betray a lack of basic understanding of effective altruism. There are lots of good resources elsewhere- perhaps it would be good to have a basic faq article / wiki that could be Linked in such cases?

Replies from: JamieWoodhouse
comment by JamieWoodhouse · 2019-04-01T12:33:55.917Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks all. I'd love to hear thoughts from anyone who has downvoted. No obligation of course.

Alasdair - I think I'm reasonably familiar with EA but I could have been clearer. I was trying to explore two points:

1) Given both sentientism and EA focus on using evidence and reason and having broad moral compassion - I thought the term and the philosophy might be of interest to EA people generally.

2) Many (all?) of the problems EA looks to address are exacerbated by the fact that billions of people believe and act without a basis in evidence, reason or broad moral compassion. I'm interested in whether people think there is value in trying to bring large numbers of people up towards a simple, common philosophical baseline like Sentientism.