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Session 02

Radical Empathy

“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” —Jeremy Bentham (1789)

“What one generation finds ridiculous, the next accepts; and the third shudders when it looks back on what the first did.” ― Peter Singer

Required materials


Introduction to session 2

During this session, we explore who our moral considerations should include. We focus especially on farmed animals as an important example of this question this week.

Key concepts from this session include:

  • Impartiality: helping those that need it the most (only discounting people according to location, time, and species if those factors are in fact morally relevant).

  • The importance (and difficulty) of considering unusual ideas: Society’s consensus has been wrong about many things over history (e.g. the sun circling the Earth, the morality of slavery). In order to avoid making similar mistakes, we need to be open to considering unusual ideas and moral positions, while still thinking critically about the issues and acting cooperatively with others.


Animal welfare

  1. All animals are equal by Peter Singer (3mins)

  2. What is Sentience? (3 mins.)

  3. *Farm to Fridge* - Mercy to Animals (12 mins., video)

    1. Content Warning: This film can be extremely disturbing and includes graphic footage of factory farming.

    2. OR, you can read Animal Welfare Cause Report | Founders Pledge (25 mins.)


Expected Value Theory - application


Exercise (10mins)

(Please complete this before your session)


This session’s exercise is about doing some personal reflection. There are no right or wrong answers here, instead, this is an opportunity for you to take some time and think about your ethical values and beliefs.

A letter to the past

This exercise asks you to explore what it would take to change your mind about something important.

Imagine someone from the past who held views characteristic of that time. Also imagine, for the sake of the exercise, that this person is not too different from you - perhaps you would have been friends. Unfortunately, many people in the past were complicit in horrible things, such as slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia, which were even more prevalent in the past than they are now. And, sadly, this historical counterpart is also complicit in some moral tragedy common to their time, perhaps not out of malevolence or ill-will, but merely through indifference or ignorance.

This exercise is to write a short letter to this historical friend arguing that they should care about a specific group that your present self values. Imagine that they are complicit in owning slaves, or in the oppression of women, people of other races, or sexual minorities.

For the sake of this exercise, imagine your historical counterpart is not malevolent or selfish, they think they are living a normal moral life, but are unaware of where they are going wrong. What could you say to them to make them realize that they’re doing wrong? What evidence are they overlooking that allows them to hold their discriminatory views? You might want to write a few paragraphs or just bullet points, and spend time reflecting on what you wrote.

Write your letter... and bring it with you to the next session.

More to explore

An expanding moral circle?


The case for caring about animal welfare


Reforming animal agriculture

  • Dominion Dominion uses drones, hidden and handheld cameras to expose the dark side of modern animal agriculture. (Film - 2 hours)

    • Content Warning: Much of the film here can be extremely disturbing and includes graphically violent footage of factory farming. Please make sure to watch this in a moment without e.g. any upcoming deadlines or important meetings the same day. We include it because we think it’s important to really see how broken the world is.

  • Food impacts a tool to explore the moral impact of different dietary choices.

  • A New Agricultural Revolution (~22 mins. and transcript available; Q&A after Friedrich’s talk is optional)


Wild animal welfare


Criticism of EA-related animal welfare work


Criticisms of the use of cost-effectiveness estimates

  1. Evidence, cluelessness, and the long term - Evidence covers only the more immediate effects of any intervention, and it's highly likely the vast majority of the value is thereby omitted from the calculation. (30 mins.)

  2. Charity Cost-Effectiveness in an Uncertain World – Center on Long-Term Risk - Another way to deal with prioritization under uncertainty is to focus on actions that seem likely to have generally positive effects across many scenarios, rather than focusing on clear, quantifiable metrics. (30 mins.)

  3. How not to be a “white in shining armor” - How GiveWell (as of 2012) tries to avoid “developed-world savior” interventions that don’t take into account local context (3 mins.)

  4. Why Charities Usually Don't Differ Astronomically in Expected Cost-Effectiveness - An argument about how those in the effective altruism movement might overestimate the extent to which charities differ in their expected marginal cost-effectiveness. (40 mins.)

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