Protesters crash effective altruism debate

Protesters wait by the stage after demonstrating at an UVic Effective Altruism, featuring ethicist Peter Singer. Photo by Myles Sauer, Editor-in-Chief

Protesters wait by the stage after demonstrating at an UVic Effective Altruism club event featuring ethicist Peter Singer. Photo by Myles Sauer, Editor-in-Chief

Members of the campus community were put at odds with one another after raucous protest interrupted an UVic Effective Altruism club event at Cinecenta on Wednesday, March 1.

The event, which featured a screening of a TED Talk on effective altruism by Princeton professor and ethicist Peter Singer followed by a Skype Q&A, was met with protest on the grounds of Singer’s past defense of the right of parents to euthanize severely disabled infants.

Protesters argued that giving Singer a platform was implicitly supporting the murder of disabled people, and that his views supported eugenics. Those in support of the event, meanwhile, argued protesters were infringing on people’s right to free speech.

Singer criticized for past writings

The UVic Effective Altruism club first formed in the fall of 2016. Effective altruism, as defined by club co-president Wray McOuat, is “the idea that charitable giving should be directed toward the most worthy, most cost-effective causes, as determined through rigorous evaluation.”

Singer, a key figure within the effective altruism movement, is widely known for his utilitarian perspective on ethics, animal rights, and euthanasia. It’s the latter of which that sparked outrage from disability advocates on campus — advocates such as Luka Garvin, who opposed Singer on the grounds that his views are seen as ableist.

Although Garvin reached out to the members of UVic Effective Altruism prior to the event to voice concerns, McOuat and Luke Frymire, co-president, ultimately decided to proceed as scheduled.

“It is a difficult decision [to proceed]. We’re not taking this lightly,” Frymire said prior to the event in an interview with the Martlet. “We totally respect what [protesters] have to say.”

McOuat said the event was intended to discuss “practical ways we can end global poverty, promote animal welfare, and reduce existential risks like climate change.”

“For me, it just goes back to the fact that we’re not promoting his views on [euthanasia] at all,” McOuat said. “It’s just all about solving climate change and all the stuff that we can all agree on.”

To Frymire, providing a platform for Singer was a matter of hearing all sides. “I mean, [McOuat and I are] trying to do good things here, everyone wants the best for everyone here, so just silencing one side of the argument is not a good way to find the best solution to all of these things.”

But Garvin said whether or not Singer’s views on euthanasia came up was irrelevant. “If it was, let’s say, [former Breitbart News executive chair] Steve Bannon, talking about the merits of recycling, would you let him onto UVic? I don’t think so,” they said. “Because Steve Bannon practices hate speech, and ableist speech is hate speech, no matter what you believe.”

Meg Tronson, Garvin’s support worker, said Effective Altruism should have done more to reach out to the disability community and work out alternative solutions.

“When you create an idea without including the people [involved], there’s a problem around that,” she explained. “I think these people [in Effective Altruism] . . . they’re probably just unaware, and they’re not part of the disability community, so when people from the disability community communicate, there’s an obligation to listen.

“It’s just ironic that Peter Singer and the altruists community show a real lack of listening or meeting together to see what could be done differently.”

Protestors take over

Prior to the event, a candlelight vigil was set up in the main SUB hallway in honour of the the Disability Community Day of Mourning, which was coincidentally on the same day. A chalkboard with the names of disabled victims of filicide — murder by one’s caregiver or family member — stood on display for passersby to see.

As people slowly entered the auditorium, a small group of students stood on stage with a microphone and read out a list of names of disabled people killed throughout 2016 and 2017.

“People who were their caregivers, who were meant to provide stability and care and love, decided these people weren’t worthy of life,” said Tareem Sangha, one of the students on stage.

Effective Altruism attempted to begin the TED Talk at 3:30 p.m., but were temporarily deterred by the resounding vocal response from the protesters. After a few minutes, they proceeded anyway, with the video’s captions on and sound amplified to compensate.

What began as two conflicting defenses of free speech soon hindered discussion of any kind, as the Effective Altruists and protesters battled with the volume to deafening proportions. Protesters used a megaphone to read prepared text to the audience, and numerous audience members shouted back at them to leave.

One protester even temporarily unplugged the adapter connecting Effective Altruism’s computer to the projector before fleeing out the side door of Cinecenta. The club was able to quickly start the video back up with a replacement adapter.

All the while, Singer’s TED Talk and Q&A continued, and the room grew cacophonous. Shouts of support for Singer’s free speech were met with chants of “eugenics is hate” and “disabled lives matter,” and neither side showed any signs of backing down.

“It’s a trainwreck,” said one student in the audience. “I wanna leave, but if I leave now, [the protesters] get their way.”

At one point, campus security entered the auditorium and spoke with protesters about taking away their megaphone, though they left shortly after without doing so. Saanich police had also been called, but were quickly called off.

Keith Cascon, manager of campus security, said there was “a brief second” where it looked like protests would escalate, but when they didn’t, police intervention was deemed unnecessary.

Cascon said that Effective Altruism had reached out ahead of time to let CSEC know there would be a protest during the event.

“We told them that if there are any issues . . . to give us a call,” Cascon said. He also explained that campus security respects everyone’s rights to free speech, including protesters.

Video of the protest is available at our Facebook page; a recording of a later portion is available here.

Despite the stated focus on the effective altruism movement, Singer was in fact asked to address his views on euthanasia, but his answer was inaudible over the din of the auditorium. Though the club did record a portion of the event, the recording of Singer’s answer has not been made publicly available as of yet.

The Q&A wrapped up just before 4:30 p.m., about half an hour before the event was originally scheduled to finish. Cascon said campus security had suggested that Effective Altruism find a way to wrap the event up early rather than continue for the full length of time.

Even after Q&A had ended and the audience had largely dispersed, Garvin and their fellow protesters lingered at the front of the stage. “That was emotionally draining,” Garvin said as other protesters calmly discussed plans for the evening.

On the other side of the room, Effective Altruism members were in a similar bubble of post-hysteria high.

“I’m kinda disappointed that we couldn’t do the event the way we wanted, but I’m still doing well,” said McOuat. “The turnout was wonderful, absolutely, I’m very happy with it.”

As for future events, club member Alec Faris said that they’re “hoping to keep future discussion centered around effective altruism.”

CORRECTION March 7: We mistakenly quoted Wray McOuat as saying “most worthy, most cause-effective causes.” It should have read “most cost-effective causes.” We regret the error. 


Avatar cuvested

I remember when Universities promulgated an environment that promoted free speech and free expression. Now they are breeding grounds for hyper-sensitive groups to foreclose the expression of any idea they don’t like.

Avatar Me

What about all of the audience members right to listen to, learn from, and disagree with the speaker. I believe the fundamental purpose of the first amendment isn’t to protect one’s right to express themselves with speech, as some argue, but to protect everyone’s right to listen to whom they want to and form their own opinions. If the speaker has horrible ideas how would anyone know? Does everyone have to take the protesters word for it? How come the protesters were allowed unmolested access to the speakers work but the audience members were not? No human will ever be capable of being a perfect censor, as a species we are not up to the task.

Avatar Me

Well I hope you guys figure this out. We have something similar happening here although the speakers are usually less benign than Peter Singer.

Avatar Jason Loxton

This is incredibly disappointing. I am a former UVic student, who now teaches at Cape Breton University. I took a lot of philosophy during my undergrad (including several courses in bioethics), and read a fair bit of Singer. The protesters’ characterization is ill-informed, lazy, and inaccurate. But even if it weren’t, if Singer really did advocate what the students claim, but did so based on rational first principals, the correct response at a university would be to engage and counter those ideas using reason, not volume.

I am a life long Liberal, but I don’t know what has happened to progressive youth these days. The sense of moral absolutism, the unwillingness to charitably characterize the positions of others, or to tolerate speech that they find uncomfortable is truly astounding, and is exactly what i would expect thugs on the right. It’s genuinely saddening.

Avatar ufo42

Eugenics as it evolved in the 1930s, and as promoted by Hitler is hate, but so is accusing Singer of that kind of hatred. Read his books before you repeat slanders based on quote mining! Any University student who not only displays this kind of abysmal ignorance, but tries to shout down a professor whose job is precisely to dispel that ignorance should be
expelled from the University! IMHO, the police should have been asked to arrest the protestors for disturbing the peace. If they wanted to demonstrate their ignorance outside the venue, I would have had no problem with the protestors doing that, but when they prevent a discussion, they are guilty of a crime and should suffer the consequences.

Avatar Kdo

“so when people from the disability community communicate, there’s an obligation to listen.”

But when Singer communicates? No such obligation.

Avatar PlanetoftheAtheists

These self righteous, attention seeking frauds are the bestTrump supporters ever. He could hire a public relations firm fo $1 million and they would not be as effective in promoting him as these idiots are .
‘We don’t agree with what you’re about to say so we don’t think anybody should get to listen to it (foot stamp)!
Where have I heard that kind of fascism before?

Avatar ufo42

True, the main issue here is the violation of the rights of the people organizing and attending the meeting to be able to have their meeting in peace, but the other issue is that the protestors/disrupters were operating on the basis of a blatant lie based on quote mining Singer. Far from advocating murder, Singer wants us to consider the welfare of food animals and basically any self-aware animals in addition to treating each other better.

Avatar Lindum

Another ism is invented “ableism”. The left are running out of repressed minority groups to defend. It. Annoy be Ling before they start to suggest that pardophiles are a repressed minority as they did in the 1970s.

As for free speech – that went when the left went for the Muslim vote instead of supporting Salman Rushdie.

Avatar ufo42

Not the Muslim vote, the Islamic, Saudi Arabia financed, fascist vote. Lots of Muslims fled Islam controlled pestilential hell-holes to get away from the Imams trying to control every breath they take. Now they find that self-proclaimed “social Justice” activists are siding with the Imams against those Muslims who just want to be left alone.

Avatar Lindum

That was true in previous generations but not now. Look at the Pew research for the numbers who support the killers of Charlie Hebdo or attitudes towards democracy. Moreover, you have to wonder if you were polled on the question “is killing innocent people who draw cartoons acceptable”, many people who supported it would lie.

Avatar Anonymoose

I think discrimination towards people with disabilities is a pretty real and serious one. Do you think the crap that people who have Down Syndrome put up with is funny?

Avatar Lindum

At what point did I say that Downs Syndrome is funny? I didn’t. Am I right therefore to think that it is your close friends and family who think it funny. In fact I don’t know if anyone whothink that Downs Sydrime is funny.

You have conflated this in the discussion either intentionally to confuse and undermine my legitimate argument or through a lack of intellectual clarity on your part.
Firstly there are laws in place to protect the disabled. If you feel these laws are not enough you should agitate through the normal political methods to get the laws you think appropriate.

The whole point here though is the very basis of our open and free society – freedom of speech is being undermined. What these arrogant half educated little tykes are saying is “only our opinions should be heard.” You no doubt are one of them. By the time you finish your education you may realise how dangerous undermining freedom of speech is.

Avatar Anonymoose

So you understand that disabled people have to deal with discrimination and some horrible treatment for things that they can’t change but think ableism is made up?

I didn’t say anything about free speech.

Avatar Lindum

Have you read the article?

Secondly by your constant invention of more isms, more victims of “white people” and even worse “men”, you are destroying the Left. It is the reason Trump and his ilk will be in power for a generation.

Avatar Anonymoose

Yes. It doesn’t seem to disprove ableism in any manner.
So since white people and men can have to deal with ableism then it’s made up and not legitimate?

Reminds me of when those homosexuals invented homophobia.

Avatar Lindum

No. it reminds me of when the Islamic Brotherhood invented “Islamophobia.”

In my whole life I have never met anyone who was against deaf, blind or disabled people.

But the subject is about free speech. By destroying it you are leading the way to a) the collapse of the Left
b) the end of free speech from which we all benefit.

Avatar Lindum

“Homophobia definition, unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality. ”

So let’s use your silly idea “disablaphobia definition, unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward the disabled and disability. ”

God knows which uncivilized corner of the universe you are from that such people exist. Or maybe people like you have invented it, just to add one more phobia for you to feel self righteous about.

Avatar Endo Alley

Curious. I wonder if any of these people protesting “the right of parents to euthanize severely disabled infants” would also oppose a woman’s right to euthanize the same infant prior to its birth?

Avatar ouruvccs

Aborting a fetus because it is disabled is not the same as abortion in general. But yes, they would oppose a woman’s right to an abortion. Or even talking about a woman’s right to choice.

Avatar johnbigboutay

This would be consistent, if true, although still a disheartening disregard for the value of free expression. Somehow I doubt they are that consistent, however.

Avatar Eric Wold

Whenever free speach is limited or stopped for whatever reason, it ALWAYS ends up being counterproductive to the cause. Your self pity will not help. Hopefully you will learn that later in life.

Avatar Emily Paige Ballou

I value free speech highly. Protest is also free speech. I also don’t think that valuing my life enough to say so is “self pity.”

Holy wow on your assumption that the protestors couldn’t possibly BE disabled, though.

Avatar Eric Wold

I’m sorry about my assumption that all the protesters were not disabled. As you said, protests are definitely a form of free speech, but using protests to LIMIT free speech is nonsense. There are other ways to protest without violating this right..

Avatar Emily Paige Ballou

“As you said, protests are definitely a form of free speech, but using protests to LIMIT free speech is nonsense. There are other ways to protest without violating this right..”

And there are ways that the group that invited Singer could have secured his speech, but they did not do so. They invited a person to express abhorrent things in a public forum.

Now, I’m vociferously in support of even views that I find abhorrent being allowed to be expressed. But in certain kinds of forums, you’re taking an inherent risk that you’re going to be vocally opposed. That is also free speech.

The tightrope is not an easy one to walk and I don’t pretend to have all the answers here. But people secure venues in which to say horrific things without potential disruption all the time. They didn’t!

Avatar Jason Loxton

“They invited a person to express abhorrent things in a public forum.”

He wasn’t even talking about his positions on the rights of infants!!! (Which you guys have mischaracterized anyway.) He was there to talk about charity.

Avatar FiniusFigglebottom

How horrible he is, this is his main work.

“Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.

it’s no use answering the question unless you act on it. Effective
altruism is about following through. It’s about being generous with your
time and your money to do the most good you can.”

Avatar Lindum

Protest outside. There is a difference between protest and stopping others expressing their views. All except the intellectually disabled can understand that. You obviously can’t.

Avatar Emily Paige Ballou

“All except the intellectually disabled can understand that. You obviously can’t.”

Ableism. Original.

Avatar D Rock

Holy wow that you say you value speech when the group was actively preventing free speech.

Avatar Emily Paige Ballou

Once again, protest is also speech. The 1st Amendment guarantees that the government can’t persecute you for political speech, not that your speech can’t be opposed by other speech.

Avatar Lindum

And you are destroying the basis of a free society. You are also destroying the Left all over the western world. You are responsible for the likes of Trump, and the death of the European Left. But you ultra lefties have never been happier than when out of power.

Avatar D Rock

First, this is Canada. We don’t have the first amendment, we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Besides that, you aren’t valuing free speech when you shout over another. I never said you can’t protest. I am showing that you do not value others freedoms when you shout so loud they may not speak. That is oppression.

Avatar alex

I don’t really care what kids are doing on campus because I’m not a moron. Let them protest, not hurting anyone.

Avatar FiniusFigglebottom

At the very least the crybullies were soundly wiped out in the election. I bet those well meaning but completely ignorant bullies have never even read Singer. Anyone who actually has is scratching their heads as the fellow is about a dangerous as a hamster.

Avatar TheSwamp

IKR. Crybully behaviour actively hurts their own causes because they are so annoying. Whatever their cause is, I hope they lose.

Avatar TheSwamp

Why? The truth hurts.

Anyway, I don’t know much about Singer’s work, but I’m willing to bet these protestors are misrepresenting it. These types tend to be ill informed virtue signalers.

Avatar Brandon Bosch

Sorry, if you think Singer is a eugenicist you are just an imbecile. Parents should be able to do that UNDER SPECIFIC CIRCUMSTANCES, and if you do not understand why any reasonable person should grant that you do not understand nuance and/or compassion.

Avatar Endo Alley

Planned parenthood kills millions of disabled (underdeveloped) infants annually. They don’t talk about it. They do it. Where is the protest?

Avatar Anonymoose

There are lots of pro-life groups that protest against Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics.
UVic’s group, Youth Protecting Youth, was originally banned and they had to sue the university. They are not allowed to protest on campus, because some women are too sensitive to see the dead baby pictures.

Avatar Lindum

It s called freedom of speech – the basis of a democratic society. The good news is you can have your say. The bad news is you have to hear views you don’t like. Most of us get over this disadvantage by the time we are 8 or 9. The snowflake generation didn’t.

Avatar FiniusFigglebottom

You obviously know nothing whatsoever about utilitarian or moral philosophy. The whole point is to address tough issues and DO THE BEST FOR PEOPLE. The man is about as close to a saint as it gets. Sadly idiots who are not able to understand his work call him the devil. His main work ATM is to effectively help as many people as possible.

Avatar Justin D. Whitehead

What a joke. Singer has never advocated murder. These protesters show a profound lack of information with regard to what Singer’s positions are, and to block students from having a discussion on campus based on such a willful misrepresentation of what Singer said is ridiculous.


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