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?


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.