Dignity as alternative EA priority - request for feedback

post by tomwein · 2020-06-25T13:50:32.620Z · score: 27 (18 votes) · EA · GW · 10 comments


  Some resources

I run The Dignity Project, a campaign for more respectful development. I also consider myself aligned with EA, and I've been wondering how to integrate those two interests. I'd be interested in the community's feedback on this.

I've tried to make a positive case in favour of dignity, rather than an objective assessment. What holes do you see? What evidence would you value to help resolve what weight an EA should place on dignity?

EA aims to do the greatest good. How to define that good is one of Bostrom’s ‘crucial considerations’. The past few years have seen increasing debate. ‘Lives saved’ has largely been replaced [EA · GW] by QALYs and DALYs. GiveWell and IDinsight have been researching the moral weights people place on different outcomes. There are strong arguments for using WALYs, incorporating life satisfaction [EA · GW]. Dignity deserves its place alongside these measures - because it meets criteria of neglectedness, solvability and scale (Wiblin, 2019).

Dignity as a definition of the good life has historically been neglected. That is starting to change. In 2019, Jeremy Shapiro’s article on cash transfers posited dignity as an important differentiator between cash and in-kind aid. Banerjee & Duflo’s new book 'Good Economics for Hard Times' urges us to study dignity; they write "Restoring human dignity to its central place...sets off a profound rethinking of economic priorities...". Just this week, Gene Sperling launched a book called Economic Dignity, and it has been an important feature in considerations of effective medical care (Jacobson, 2007). Yet I have found no projects that have attempted to evaluate interventions or advocate for them, and very few that define dignity or develop measures - and none of those that do exist are EA-aligned.

As McKaskill and others have argued, epistemic modesty [EA · GW] suggests that when we are in a position of moral uncertainty, we should consider an intervention through multiple measures - to do so is the equivalent of robustness checks in statistical modelling. Dignity is - or should be - an important meeting point between EA’s values, and other value systems. This is doubly the case when EA has taken so little account (Brown, 2016) of the extensive articulation of the good life - underpinned by dignity - put forward by Sen, Nussbaum, Alkire and others.

Addressing dignity potentially has huge scale. Disrespect is extremely common; in 13 Afrobarometer countries more than 50% said public officials do not treat them with respect. My own experiment in Nairobi showed that experiencing disrespect was associated with feeling significantly less happy and less empowered. Since disrespect is most frequently experienced when individuals interact with bureaucracies (Scott, 1999), it is relevant for global development, government, businesses and beyond. A robust theory of dignity in EA would have implications for how we rank causes and interventions, with wellbeing and cash interventions likely to seem more urgent.

Dignity is also highly solvable. The philosophical literature already gives us a framework for generating interventions, and these include potentially highly cost-effective interventions such as listening (Wein et al, in progress). As we uncover effective interventions, they can be spread. My own research has shown that there is a unique consensus in global development: the US public say they would donate 60% more to a more respectful charity, while 79% of US non-profit professionals say they are personally committed to raising dignity with their colleagues. Senior figures in global development such as Winnie Byanyima and Antonio Guterres have called for more focus on dignity.

Some resources

More about the Dignity Project at dignityproject.net. Specific resources that may be of interest are this one page flyer summarising research so far, and this work-in-progress literature review.


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comment by David_Moss · 2020-06-26T17:45:21.317Z · score: 18 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not entirely clear as to whether you are applying the INT/neglectedness, solvability and scale framework to dignity as a fundamental value or to dignity-promotion as a cause area for EA (according to EA values, however we determine them).

The INT framework is usually applied as a heuristic for broad cause area selection and I don't think it works well as a heuristic for determining fundamental values. Things which are valuable are fundamentally valuable even if they are not neglected and estimating their Importance/Scale seems crucially to depend on whether and how far they are fundamentally valuable, even if they affect lots of people. Maybe it would be helpful to think more about which potential values are neglected or likely to be more or less tractable to satisfy, in order to determine whether we should dedicate more resources to trying to satisfy them, but I don't think just quickly running through the INT heuristic will be that informative.[^1]

If it's applied to the idea of dignity-promotion as a cause area (according to EA values), then it seems like we should judge it based on all our values (which for many EAs will largely determined by how well it promotes welfare, with small amounts of weight given to other values, such as dignity itself). It's not so clear that promoting-dignity performs well in those terms.

[^1] For example, I think that many minority/peripheral values that we could think up would be highly neglected, affect a lot of people, and be tractable, but this doesn't tell us much about their moral importance.

comment by WolfBullmann · 2020-06-28T14:12:42.805Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think when people invoke the term dignity they sort of circumvent describing the issue in actual detail. Most "indignities" can be described in concrete terms, which can then be addressed, such as the inconvenience of not having toilets available, the aversiveness of having to deal with an unfriendly or incompetent government official, etc.. Some interventions require disregarding a number of preferences of those that they are ultimately aimed to help. Having "dignity" be a requirement would make that difficult or impossible.

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-06-25T17:42:02.003Z · score: 16 (10 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It is very interesting! Glad to see this post.

Do you mind expanding a bit on what you mean by dignity and why you think that's an important measure? Should dignity be valued even at the cost of well-being or should that be used as an indirect measure (like QALY)?

comment by mwcvitkovic · 2020-06-26T02:50:51.052Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Seconded - it's hard to react to your post without a more concrete definition of dignity.

Maybe you could propose some metrics, even incomplete ones, for exactly what you're trying to improve by improving dignity? I looked at the metrics proposed on your website, but I have to admit they seemed vague to me.

comment by tomwein · 2020-06-27T16:01:55.521Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

A quick post to thank everyone for this thoughtful feedback. Personal life has kept me from responding as fully as I'd like so far, but I'll be back soon to do so properly.

comment by HStencil · 2020-06-27T03:26:22.904Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the right kind of feedback here depends mainly on whether you mean to propose that EA underestimates the extent to which treating people with dignity improves their welfare or you mean to propose that EA fails to consider the importance of dignity as an intrinsically and independently valuable element of a life lived well. If dignity is only important on account of its instrumental role in improving welfare, I very much doubt that a thorough evaluation of that role would lead many EAs to conclude that they should redirect their charitable giving. Even if treating someone with dignity were associated with a truly striking increase in their welfare, it seems unlikely to me that, for instance, global health interventions with such an emphasis would outperform distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets or deworming pills. Among other things, I imagine that most parents of young children would agree to an arbitrarily large amount of undignified treatment in exchange for preventing their child from dying of malaria (revealed preferences suggest this is true). This suggests that the AMF would outperform a hypothetical charity with a dignity focus even without accounting for the positive impact of saving children’s lives unless promoting dignity were extraordinarily cheap per person affected. Similarly, I doubt that integrating concern for the role dignity may play in determining welfare into longtermist perspectives would do much to shift people’s ideas about the best giving opportunities to safeguard the long-term future of humanity.

If on the other hand you take dignity to be valuable in itself (apart from any role it might have in bringing about another good, like improving welfare), I wonder whether the philosophical foundation for your view is really fully compatible with EA. From what I’ve read, it seems as if most of the philosophers who take treating people with respect to be a good in itself view dignity as the sort of thing that each of us has a reason to accord to others when we interact with them. They do not, however, by and large view dignity as the sort of thing that we have a reason to impartially maximize (i.e. while it’s very important for me to treat you with dignity, it’s nowhere near as important—and may not even be valuable at all—for me to counterfactually enable you to treat someone else with dignity). In their view, the obligation to treat others with dignity “spring[s] from an agent’s special relationship to his own actions” and “the claims of those with whom we interact to be treated by us in certain ways” (Korsgaard 1993, emphasis mine), not from the objective value of the world having more dignity in it (or anything like that). As a result, some (see, for example, Taurek 1977) go so far as to argue that it is not necessarily any better for more people to be treated well than for fewer. Following Korsgaard, we might think of the value of treating people with dignity as similar to the value of keeping promises — while I have reason to keep my own promises, I likely do not have reason to promote a world in which more promises are kept. Doing so would suggest that I misunderstood the way in which keeping promises is valuable. If dignity is the kind of moral good that most clearly has a place in non-consequentialist moral views that oppose interpersonal aggregation wholesale, I suspect that at least our present philosophical concept of it may be unsuited to sit among what we might conventionally refer to as “EA values.”

That said, I should note: Like surprisingly many EAs, I am not a utilitarian. I am, however, some kind of consequentialist, and I would love for EA folks to invest more effort in developing a thorough conception of human flourishing, of what it means for a person’s life to go well for them. Without such a theory, we cannot ensure that we are actually improving others’ lives to the greatest extent possible (because we lack a robust understanding of what it means for a life to be improved). For that reason, I personally welcome posts like this that seek to draw attention in those kinds of directions and propose some less conventional ideas about what flourishing might involve.

comment by Sanjay · 2020-06-25T19:50:31.473Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for raising this topic.

I'm not sure yet whether I'm on board, and in order to know the answers I would need more information.

  • IMPACT: not only how widespread is the experience of not being treated with dignity, but also how bad is it? I feel that my bank treats me with indignity as a matter of course, so we need some way to factor in severity of indignity, and we shouldn't accidentally take the prevalence of all cases of indignity (severe or otherwise) and then multiply them by the most severe severity and end up with an overestimate
  • TRACTABILITY: "Dignity is also highly solvable <...> include potentially highly cost-effective interventions such as listening" I think the tractability claim needs more substantiation. Me choosing to listen more is cheap. However if I pay you to get corrupt officials in the developing world to be better active listeners, I would predict poor cost-effectiveness because it probably wouldn't work, I would guess.
  • NEGLECTEDNESS: Defining the interventions better will help us better assess neglectedness. However at first glance it seems that it's probably not neglected. If we survey lots of aid professionals and asked them "Do you want your colleagues and the aid sector as a whole to treat beneficiaries with respect" I predict that a very high proportion will say yes. However if I had a clearer picture of your action plan, I might conclude that your particular approach may well be neglected

Of these, I think the first (impact) is the most important. Any concerted effort on the topic of dignity will inevitably have opportunity costs, so we need to understand why it's more important than some other factors.

Thank you again for raising a fresh idea. The questions I'm raising are intended to be positive and encouraging.

comment by ishaan · 2020-06-26T14:00:48.236Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
What evidence would you value to help resolve what weight an EA should place on dignity?

Many EAs tend to think that most interventions fail, so if you can't measure how well something works, chances are high that it doesn't work at all. To convince people who think that way, it helps to have a strong justification to incorporate a metric which is harder to measure over a well established and easier to measure metrics such as mortality and morbidity.

In the post on happiness [EA · GW] you linked by Michael, you'll notice that he has a section on comparing subjective well being to traditional health metrics. A case is made that improving health does not necessarily improve happiness. This is important, because death and disability is easier to measure than things like happiness and dignity, so if it's a good proxy it should be used. If it turned out the that the best way to improve dignity is e.g. prevent disability, then in light of how much easier to measure disability prevention is, it would not be productive to switch focus. (Well, maybe. You might also take a close association between metrics as a positive sign that you're measuring something real. )

To get the EA community excited about a new metric, if it seems realistically possible then i'd recommend following Michael's example in this respect. After establishing a metric for dignity, try to determine how well existing top givewell interventions do on it, see what the relationship is with other metrics, and then see if there are any interventions that plausibly do better.

I think this could plausibly be done. I think there's a lot of people who favor donations to GiveDirectly because of the dignity/autonomy angle (cash performs well on quite a few metrics and perspectives, of course) - I wouldn't be surprised if there are donors who would be interested in whether you can do better than cash from that perspective.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2020-06-25T22:52:02.154Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think there could be a case that QALY/DALY/etc. calculations should factor in dignity in some way, and view mismatches between, say, QALY calculations and what feels "right" in terms of dignity as sign that the calculations may be leaving something important out. For example, if intervention X produces 10 QALY and makes someone feel 10% less dignified, then either we want to be sure the 10 QALY figure already incorporates that cost to dignity or it is adjusted to consider it. Seems like there is a strong case to be made for possibly more nuanced calculation of metrics, especially so we don't miss cases where ignoring something like dignity would cause us to think an intervention was good but in fact it is overall bad once dignity is factored in. That this has come up and seems an issue suggests some calculations people are doing today fail to factor it in.

comment by timunderwood · 2020-06-26T13:18:19.594Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Again asking for more clarification on what dignity means.

I do think though things that intuitively seem to me to be similar what you are probably talking about with dignity could be important considerations, though I suspect they are unlikely to be cost competitive with mosquito nets and vaccines if you are making direct benefit calculations.

Perhaps we mean something like: Being respected by your community, and treated with respect by the system as a whole, having direct control over your life and what you do day to day, ie being able to meaningfully choose are important components of the good life that an intervention ideally should support rather than oppose.

At the same time, if I was an individual who both was disrespected by the people around him, and dying of malaria, I'd probably strongly prefer to get anti malarial drugs than respect, so unless the respect is much cheaper to provide than DALY, focusing on DALY probably makes more sense.

I suspect a large part of the value of large direct cash transfers is that it makes the person who receives it, because they have more resources, automatically become more respected in their community, and feel more in control of their own choices. So in that sense we might already be pushing interventions that support dignity.

The dignity of the poor being better protected on a large scale is the sort of thing which would require actual systemic change (possibly opposed to systemic change just being a synonym for 'boo capitalism'), and we don't know about robust ways to achieve most types of systemic change which don't have a high chance of backfiring and causing more problems than they fix.

I do think this is an important thing to think about, and that it is at least plausible if you could improve access to and respect for dignity it could lead to a large improvement in well being, comparable possibly to a large increase in income (though probably not comparable to a substantial increase in life expectancy).