The life you could save but shouldn’t have to: ineffective altruism


Paraguayan children from the Cateura garbage dump play instruments made of trash

Rhys Southan wrote a piece for Aeon Magazine entitled “Is it OK to make art?” in which he explores (incompletely) the effective altruism movement and the ramifications of its philosophy. Effective altruism at its most basic says that those who have are morally obligated to do what they can to help those who have not (if you’re reading this on your own computer or mobile device, you probably find yourself squarely in the have category). It seems to me that EA (as it is abbreviated) is simply an extension of Utilitarianism in that its adherents seek to bring about the greatest positive impact in whatever they do in their lives.

The specific manifestation of EA that Southan introduces us to is an organization called The Life You Can Save. The organization takes its name from a book by Peter Singer in which he expands upon arguments he introduced earlier in his career in a paper entitled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality;” the larger EA movement itself also owes its existence to Singer’s philosophy. Singer’s argument is supported by his “shallow pond” thought experiment, which (along with some of its context) follows:

[I]f it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance.
It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.

Convincing, isn’t it? One can almost see how a person could turn their life around in service to this principle and join the ranks of the EAs. Almost.

Southan’s article centers around the dilemma that arises as a consequence of Singer’s principle with respect to the arts. And the sciences. And, really, it seems, anything that isn’t directly and immediately pouring cash into war-torn refugee hell-holes the world over. Basically, in the face of the mandate to do the most good possible, one must ask oneself if what one is currently spending one’s time on is helping to alleviate any of the unimaginable suffering that is taking place all over the world. No? Then forget about it.

With this reasoning, by Kant’s categorical imperative, we lose the arts, the sciences, (presumably) leisure, and pretty much anything not charity-directed. Ignoring the obvious problem of how exactly an effectively altruistic world would function practically, I’d like to go back to the root of what I see to be the misconception involved here.

My intuition, and I presume most people’s, is to perhaps suggest moderation. To save the arts from the maw of Utilitarianism. Thomas Nagel’s response is to make the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative reasons. But it seems to me that, in the face of Singer’s heartstring-tugging principle, trying to wriggle our way around the mandate to supererogatory actions seems a little beside the point. The child is still in the pond after all.

But there isn’t any child remember? It’s only a thought experiment, a model. And a model is only useful so long as it accurately describes the real world. So does the shallow pond represent the situation faithfully?

I think not. For a couple of reasons. For one, it is an easy task to pull a child from a shallow pond. Muddy clothes notwithstanding, relative to the ends, the means take no effort at all. But the Singer and the EAs urge people to give to charities. Does that save a life? How do you know? Did you research your charity, read their financial reports? And granting that a bit of homework is no reason to refrain from altruism, this nevertheless reveals that perhaps the illustration isn’t so useful as it seems to be at first blush.

Now imagine that there isn’t just one child in the pond. Imagine it’s not even a pond, it’s a great wading pool and it’s full to bursting with drowning children. And why children? There are adults and elderly people drowning too. All of them packed so tightly you could walk across the water on their heaving backs. Thousands and thousands of people drowning in a metaphorical pool of poverty. Suppose there are so many people that even with 24 hours a day spent pulling them from the water, you could never save them all. Now what? Do you sleep when you’re too exhausted to go on? Eat when the hunger becomes too great? When is it justified for you to stop playing lifeguard?

When, for instance, is there time to stop and think: why are all these people drowning in this water? Where are they coming from? Suppose there’s a giant machine, huffing smoke, hurling people into the pool like a steampunk trebuchet. Do you continue saving individuals or try to dismantle the machine? Suppose you don’t know how to disassemble it. Do you give in to despair? Drop to your knees weeping on the bank? Or do you perhaps walk away? To a far remove where you no longer hear the splashing of the drowning or the clanking of the machine.

Is this too gruesome an illustration? Or does it more accurately represent the world we live in? A world where every day 22,000 children die of poverty related causes and where 80% of people get by on less than 10 dollars a day (x). The same world where one of the most powerful governments spends over $600 billion per year to kill people better (x). Too often the same people who are mired in poverty. These conditions are created by an economic system which no one alive created and which very few “normal” people consciously and directly perpetuate. Certainly I’m not at the wheel. And neither, presumably, are you. Tithing a percentage of our income to charity will never dismantle it.

So I guess in the end, after all the dramatic illustration-making, I really just object to the first assumption of Singer’s argument. It is not, in fact, in our power to prevent this bad from happening. At least not without a concerted, conscious effort that amounts to a whole lot more than some soggy shoes.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that the EAs are doing so much to give back. I do think it’s bad to encourage people to give up their passions. For one thing, it’s perpetuating the ‘machine.’ In the words of Southan:

Effective Altruism is part subversive, part conformist: subversive in its radical egalitarianism and its critique of complacent privilege; conformist in that it’s another force channeling us towards the traditional success model.

And so, arguably, by its own logic EA is having a net-negative impact by perpetuating the conditions it seeks to alleviate.

And also, Southan, in ringing the death knell of the arts, says: “It would be great if the arts and humanities were hugely beneficial to the world, because they tend to be personally satisfying.” Is not something that is personally satisfying, when undertaken by scores of people worldwide, having a positive impact in aggregate?

I think Southan was too rash in ignoring Steven Soderbergh’s words at the beginning of the article: “I think this world would be unlivable without art.” Without art, without science, without passion, without some hope for fulfillment, who wants to be saved in the first place?


Seinfeld and Sisyphus: some thoughts


So, FOX Sports has a bracket going for the best Seinfeld episode, and aside from undoubtedly being less of a waste of your time than actual March Madness (final two paragraphs), it got me thinking about some things.

First off, no, for the record, I don’t see the irony in implying that Seinfeld is not a waste of your time. Seinfeld was genre-defining, the original. But I’ll save the soapbox sermon for another time.

Seinfeld is often billed as “the show about nothing.” Jerry Seinfeld recently did a Reddit AMA in which he had this to say about the show’s subject matter:

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it’s the opposite of that.

Now, any good critic knows that authorial intent is suspect at best, but what’s important about the above statement is not the positive assertion of what the show is about, it’s the negative assertion that makes us question the cliché that Seinfeld is about nothing.

One of my college writing professors often made the distinction between what a text is “about” and what it is “About.” What it’s about is the element of story we call plot. What it’s About is something more akin to its themes. So, Moby Dick is about a bunch of guys killing whales, and more specifically about one guy trying to avenge himself on one whale, but it’s not About that. What it’s About requires more than a cursory reading, and can be a subjective analysis.

I think it’s significant that “the show about nothing” caught on so quickly, and was accepted by so many people. It’s notable that most people’s first encounter with the phrase was in its spoken form on the show. The distinction between “about” and “About” is only possible in writing, not in speech. So, if we reject that Seinfeld is about nothing, is it possible that it might actually be About nothing? (Or perhaps About Nothing?)

The show is about things — obviously, otherwise there is no plot — but their ultimate significance is nil: it’s About nothing (which is distinct from it not being About anything). I can’t remember which actor said it, but I think in the DVD commentaries for the show someone pointed out that the characters in Seinfeld are not people to admire. They’re the worst sorts of people. But their lives are recognizable, and so their Nothing, their lack of direction and meaning and significance, is ours. “Show about nothing,” then, is less of a statement about the show as it is the show’s statement.

This isn’t really a fully developed argument, just some thoughts that occurred to me from synthesizing ideas from a few disparate sources. As regards the title, it’s a reference to Albert Camus’s treatise against nihilism, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Can a show About nothing also be a comedy? Apparently so. After all, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Today in better writing than mine: Ralph Waldo Emerson on originality of expression


A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not: a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God. The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation. It is the working of the Original Cause through the instruments he has already made.

from “Nature

Sin raíces: a rambling post that doesn’t quite know what it’s about


Keillor on location

Words, words, words

My favorite word in Spanish is enraizado (followed closely by ojalá). I like words; I guess it comes with liking to read and write. Somewhere (I lost it) there is a long (and ever-growing) list of my favorite English words. In Russian, my favorite word is actually a phrase: Я с удовольствием (ya s udovol’stviyem), which means something like, “my pleasure.” In Mandarin I’m still searching for a favorite, but in the meantime I like the way 週末 (zhōumò — weekend) sounds.

Enraizado means rooted. I learned it by reading a commentary on Pablo Neruda’s poetry in Spanish. (I found the commentary in Capitol Books in D.C., in the bathroom, which is their foreign language section).  Looking it up, it appears that arraigado is the more common way to say rooted, and so I already like enraizado for being a less common word. I like also that raíz, the Spanish word for root, shares the same root (see what I did there?) as the English word radicle, which reminds me of organismal biology, one of my favorite classes in college. And, less esoterically, mainly I just like the way it sounds, the way it feels to say it (if only I could describe how it feels to say a word so evocatively as Nabokov does).

But its meaning doesn’t gain much traction in my life. And that’s something I often think about.

Impersonal geographies

Feb. ’14 (the brain article is worthy of a lengthy discussion of its own)

Garrison Keillor wrote an article for last month’s issue of National Geographic that he dubbed, “a personal geography.” If I didn’t have so much I wanted to say regarding the article, I would post it without comment as “Better writing than mine.” It’s very easily one of my favorite pieces of short non-fiction.

More memoir than reportage, the piece tells about a place — Mineappolis-St. Paul — by telling about one person’s experience of that place. Keillor was born in the Twin Cities. He’s lived, loved, and lost there. And, now that he’s growing old there, he honored the place with a wonderful essay. His, and the city’s, is a story with roots.

Geography, according to Apple’s pre-installed dictionary, is:

the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources, land use, and industries.

As an delineation of the province of National Geographic, that definition goes a long way.

National Geographic writers and photographers are reporters essentially. Adventurers, if you want to speak romantically. They go places and give overviews of the goings-on there. Their articles are full of snippets of interviews, summaries of research, brief histories of locations and peoples. They are tourists: in places, in controversies, in conflicts, in lives; so that we can learn something of the “physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of. . .” etc.

Science and philosophy

Dorion Sagan (yeah, his son) writes:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

National Geographic’s typical approach is, by this tongue-in-cheek definition, a scientific one.

You can’t learn all there is to know about a place or a subject from a National Geographic article. That’s not the way it works. You can get the basics. You can learn enough to investigate on your own. But you won’t be an expert. And with such wide-ranging, ambitious subject matter, it’s no wonder that the coverage only just breaks the surface. Even then it only breaks a small area of the surface.*

Keillor’s article hits home closer to the philosophy end of Sagan’s satirical spectrum; we learn a whole lot about not a whole lot. If I hadn’t read the article, I wouldn’t believe that Minneapolis-St. Paul could be an interesting place, a place worthy of National Geographic’s pages. From my perspective, from the outside, I would have thought that it is everything that’s worst in America, especially the Midwest. But I was proven wrong by a writer who has both the ability and the wherewithal to communicate the quintessence and import of an otherwise unexceptional place.

What any of this has to do with me (as you are, of course, dying to know)

I’ve moved a few times in my life, not a lot, but a few, and the trend seems to be that the rate of my peregrinations is increasing — that I can expect to call any new place “home” for less time than I did the last. And every time I leave somewhere that has become home, I am always confronted with the question: why?

When a place is your home, as you spend time there, you integrate yourself into the networks of its reality, its commerce, its society, not unlike Conan Doyle’s image of a man as a spider in the center of a web of which he feels every vibration. You forge an identity relative to the place and its people, as you have come into contact with them. These connections grow stronger with time, and deeper. You put down roots. You gain nourishment from them.

Uprootings are traumatic. Things are lost, irrevocably. Small pieces that may not be vital, but even so formed a part of the whole. A hole is left behind, but it fills. You won’t fit back into it again, not exactly. The deeper the roots, the stronger the organism, but also the more delicate the transplant.

When I leave one home for a new one, I am forced to ask if perhaps I wouldn’t be happier growing deeper into one place, if maybe I couldn’t gain more fulfillment that way. And I am torn. My life goes one way, but sometimes my heart another.

Thoreau, in defending his decidedly sessile stint at Walden pond, calls into question the idea that seeing the world is a good thing in itself. “It is not worth the while,” he says, with characteristic wile, “to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” If you’re incapable of self-improvement at home, I take him to be saying, then you’re going to be incapable of self-improvement abroad.

I’m addicted to reinventing myself, I think — to learning to live in a new place, as a slightly new person. I cherish the freedoms these errantries provide me. But I also sometimes lament the costs I pay, especially in relationships with friends and family.

Is a life made fuller by growing deeper, or more broad? Is the scientist or the philosopher the better person? Would I rather have the life of a typical NatGeo writer, or that of a Keillor or a Thoreau? Is it pretentious for me to title this post in Spanish? Whenever questions like these keep me up at night, count on me to write about them until I end up more unsure than when I started.

Words, though amusing to curate and hear and speak and write, can sometimes seem insignificant — full, as it were, of sound and fury; here’s to hoping this tale’s teller isn’t quite a complete idiot.**


* Richard Feynman once said that there is “an expanding frontier of ignorance.” I can’t for the life of me remember where I read or heard it, but I’m aware of someone explaining the acquisition of knowledge in terms that go something like this: think of the knowledge you have as a circle. The circumference of the circle is where your knowledge meets all the knowledge that exists, everything you don’t know; the circumference is the “frontier of ignorance.” As you learn more, the radius of your knowledge circle grows, but as the radius increases, so too, proportionally, does the circumference. The circle is bigger, but it also comes into contact with more of the unknown — the more you know, the more you know you don’t know (read it again; it makes sense). Your awareness of your own ignorance grows as your knowledge grows. Sagan’s scientist then, would have a lopsided “circle” that spikes out extremely far in one direction, but wanes in other areas; the philosopher would have an even circle, but one that doesn’t reach as far in any particular direction. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything, but I’ve always found that illustration wonderfully instructive. I wish I could remember where I first came across it.

** Yes, I’m well aware that if foreign language titles are pretentious, then unattributed Shakespeare references are the absolute height of arrogance.

Wondering about wanderlust



The other day, watching the outpouring of tourists from the tiny airport here on Corn Island, I began to wonder about what it is that makes people want to travel. To here. To any place.

Impetus to errantry

Every day there are two flights from Managua to the island, and every day those flights are over half full (optimistically speaking) with tourists and travelers (if you believe in that distinction). Many of them, at least in this season, are from the United States and Canada (an astonishing number of them, in fact, are Canadians — it’s as if it’s cold and miserable there in winter). In other seasons, Europeans comprise the bulk of the bunch. But no matter where you come from, getting to Corn Island is no hassle free expedition. It’s a logistical tangle of medications, vaccinations, flights, layovers, and the bureaucracy of international travel.

Before we moved here, when we were talking with some friends about what we wanted to do here, one of them asked us what exactly people come here for, if they’re not coming for diving or the like. What do they do here, he wanted to know? I thought for a moment, then I told him I didn’t know.

His question is interesting, not just for this tiny Caribbean island, but for any destination that people spend their hard earned money and time to get to.

What makes us want to fill our free hours with trips across the state, across the country, around the world?* If, in every free moment, we desire to be somewhere else, why make not make our home in some place we might want to spend time?

Home is where the bills are

Someone once told me that no matter where you make your home — whether on the beach, in the backwoods, in the city, in the suburbs — no matter what the place is, it still becomes the place where you take out the trash, do your laundry, and pay the bills. Home becomes mundane. I think we all hear the irony in the cliché, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” We know that no matter where we go, it will always be basically the same.

So why do we try? Why travel at all? People come here, to Corn Island, they drink, they eat, they sit, they talk, they walk, they look. They could do all of those things at home. And sure, there are beaches here, the weather is nice, the scenery is a bit more pleasant to look at than, say, Southern Illinois. But still, we spend the bulk of our time in other places doing things that we could easily do at home. (Yet we don’t do many of these things at home. When was the last time you took a walking tour of your home town and learned about its history? When was the last time you sat down anywhere near your house and just relaxed for an afternoon? For a day? For a weekend?)

But these questions don’t get to the root of the issue, I don’t think. Because when we travel and do these things that are, at home, mundane, we don’t feel as though they’re mundane. Walking the Champs-Élysées, I would assume, feels somehow more meaningful than walking down University Drive in Auburn, Alabama.

In New York, Paris, São Paulo, Marrakech, Taipei, (assuming you don’t live in any of those places) we find something more than we find at home. And even people who live in places the rest of us envy feel the urge to get away and see other places. There is something driving us on to these journeys.

Pico Iyer (him again), in The Lady and the Monk, calls it “whatever curious affinit[y] propel[s] us towards people or places we have never met.”

Curious affinities

As I see it, there are two main motivations for travel: initially there is the urge to see what’s different; later there’s the urge to see what’s the same. We want to see the exotic or we want to see the familiar in the exotic. The second is a more acute way to appreciate the world, and more rewarding.

I think that seeing differences is the initial mode of observation. These are the third-person plural observations. We go somewhere and we say look how they cook this, look what they wear, look how they live. We see everything about the place that is new and therefore intriguing to us. We fill Facebook with pictures of these things. We are visitors to the zoo of other people’s real lives. We ogle. We are “tourists.”

But beyond that initial phase, if we spend the time or make the effort, we begin to see the similarities between the “normal” and the “exotic.” We see shared humanity. My uncle goes to South Africa and comes back to tell us how people there eat grits, just like people in Alabama, they just call it something different. We use the first-person plural. We say, look how we all live the same way, share the same needs and desires, the same struggles. We begin to share in cultures and traditions. We are welcomed to some degree. We travel, and we learn.

The first mode of observation, the distancing mode, is often the drive behind going somewhere new. But to experience the world in this way is superficial. We don’t need to be estranged from our fellow humans anymore than we already are. The value of travel comes after we have left home, when we are able to begin to see ourselves as part of the whole. Good travel photography (e.g.), unlike our haphazard “look where I went” albums on Facebook, functions the same way: it captures the familiar in the exotic, and presents us with a shared vision of humanity. (Even when it shows conflict — “Look! They get mad the same way we do, and about the same things!”)

Terence famously wrote, “Nothing human is alien to me.” To travel well is to be daily reminded of this. And whether this is the actual motivation for much of the traveling we do (and I think it isn’t), it’s at least the ideal — it’s what travel can be and can do. And it puts my mind at ease for now.


* I know that I’m speaking from a position of privilege here. Not everyone can afford to travel out of their hometown. But even those who can’t travel recognize their sessile lifestyle as a peculiarity, whether they do so with pride or with regret.

Today in quotations I love: Pico Iyer on the things that matter most


I had often thought that the mind was, quite literally, a devil’s advocate, an agent of diabolical sophistry that could argue any point and its opposite with equal conviction; an imp that delighted in self-contradiction, and yet, though full of sound and fury, ultimately signified nothing. None of the truest things in life — like love or faith — was arrived at by thinking; indeed, one could almost define the things that mattered as the ones that came as suddenly as thunder. Too often, I thought, the rational faculty tended only to rationalize, and the intellect served only to put one in two minds, torn apart by second thoughts. In that sense, God could be said to be nothing but the act of faith itself. Religion lay in the leap and not the destination.

from The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

I used to be scared of lizards


One of the many new roomies

The first night on Corn Island, I was cold after my shower, so I turned my fan off before going to bed. I hadn’t been lying down long before I heard a telltale whine in my ear. Realizing that moving air can serve as more than just climate control, I decided my comfort was secondary to my not having malaria, and turned on the fan.

The fan stays on. (Except of course when the power goes out, which happens often. Then I’m comforted by the fact that the last death in Nicaragua from malaria was in 2006.)

Living here is a lesson in relative luxury and an exercise in shifting perspectives. Were the house we are renting here — with its water-stained ceilings, its non-potable tap water, its drafty doors, its low water pressure, its broken air conditioner — were it magically disapparated to Anytown, U.S.A., it would, to put it delicately, not be considered a “nice house.”

But we’re not in Illinois anymore (and we were never in Kansas). Having seen what I take to be standard middle-class living in Managua, and having seen the houses in which many people native to this island live, this house becomes uncomfortably luxurious, unnecessary in its sheer size and embarrassing in its bounty of amenities. We have hot water, a refrigerator, stonework showers, a washing machine, three air conditioning units, and more square footage than we can possibly utilize.

Remember that day in high school physics when you learned about how frame of reference can affect calculations? It’s like that, minus the mustachioed teacher.

Take, for instance, our itinerant roommates, the flies and mosquitos, the lizards, the spiders. We share this house with them much of the time. The flies get free reign because the upstairs air conditioner is broken and we have to open the screen-less windows to keep from broiling to death, and at night they are attracted to the lights. A spider has webbed itself into an upper corner of my shower, and another one I’m pretty sure lives in my drain; whenever I shower it comes out and waits on the wall for me to finish. There is at least one gecko who likes our kitchen walls (and occasionally the large window over the stairwell where he poses for nice silhouettes).


This one lives at the top of the stairs

Back home, I would have freaked out about almost any one of these things (OK, not the flies, but they would’ve been very annoying). Critters and creepy-crawlies belong outside, not in our sanitized homes.

Here, though, I don’t care so much. If there are flies, fine, the spiders and lizards probably eat them; just keep them off my food. The lizards don’t bother anything, they just watch me cook from time to time.

Boundaries here seem blurred, relaxed: the house is ours but also theirs, and that’s fine. Things are more indeterminate, less fixed. And I no longer jump every time I see a lizard (sorry, Jill).