Between Callousness and Telescopic Morality

Tonight I encountered another critique of my formulation of telescopic morality. The original piece I wrote at the Umlaut resonated with a surprising number of people, as did the subsequent followups.  They also have drawn a fair amount of criticism.

I want to start by making sure I’ve given credit where it’s due—the formulation began with this piece by my father, back when he was writing regularly at his first blog Vulgar Morality. The newest criticism of my position equates “vulgar morality” with simply being the opposite of telescopic morality, which isn’t completely wrong, but isn’t right either:

Now, let us turn to the piece in question, by one Ian Pollock. Pollock begins with a few examples of something I might say, which frankly I couldn’t have put better myself:

  • Study basic personal finance before debating macroeconomics.
  • Join your condo board and change their pet policy before weighing in on geopolitics.
  • Help out a relative with their leaky toilet before trying to solve The Middle East.
  • Get out of the habit of snapping at your spouse before pontificating about optimal gender relations.
  • Make something someone is actually willing to pay you for, before saving the world for free.

He then advances four objections, which I will paraphrase:

  1. Saying someone is engaging in “telescopic morality” is just a tool for smearing opponents, the same way that “confirmation bias” is a thing but usually just applied to people you disagree with.
  2. There’s no trade-off between telescopic morality and local concerns.
  3. Abandoning telescopic morality means becoming a freerider on public goods.
  4. Telescopic morality is actually a great, valuable thing that not enough people engage in. We could save a life for just $200 a month but basically no one does.

Before responding to specific points, I’m going to clarify something that I tried to clarify in this piece.

I believe that the only healthy relationship one can have with the far is to consider oneself a small part of the whole, and to contemplate your contributions accordingly. The vainglorious writer in me does hope for fame and lasting influence, but writers who have such desires are in high supply and low demand. I write primarily because I value the activity in itself, and because I believe that I am making a small contribution to a much larger whole; participating in a conversation that extends back millenia and will continue for an unknowable duration into the future.

There is nothing wrong with contributing to charity, volunteering, or making arguments about far matters in public or private. But we should do so in the right way, in the right amount, and with the right attitude; all of which obviously varies with particular circumstances and roles. Expecting to change the world is delusional and taken too far it can be self-destructive. In some circumstances, such as the Internet outrage example, it can be destructive to others as well. Far concerns need to be carefully managed, to take account of our basic human limitations and to make sure we don’t poison the well of our near obligations.

Basically I think there is, as in everything, an Aristotelian mean. Just as courage does not have one opposite, but instead is the appropriate disposition standing at an intermediate between recklessness and cowardice, so too is a healthy relationship between far and near situated between telescopic morality and utter callous disregard of others. Now, Aristotle’s mean has often been misunderstood because the word has come to be synonymous with “average”; people think he meant that courage is evenly in the middle between recklessness and cowardice. The mean is contingent on circumstances; sometimes (say in the middle of a battle) it can end up being quite close to one extreme and quite far from the other.

It’s my belief that what you might call the Internet outrage machine—which also existed before the net in the form of panic and outrage news stories—has enticed too many of us out to the edges of telescopic morality.

And contra Pollock, there are trade-offs and they do matter. That is what I was getting at with this piece on media consumption—careful deliberation burns glucose; this is a well-studied fact. What you choose to carefully deliberate on, then, has opportunity costs like anything else. This isn’t static—this is a great book on how you can manage these limits and get the most out of them, but at the end of the day there are limits, and they are not going to go away. People who heavily emotionally invest themselves in far away matters are using up resources for dealing with life right here, right now which they can actually have an impact on.

And it is here that they can have an impact. Between complete callousness and telescopic morality there is investing in your community, lending a helping hand to people whose hands you can actually grasp. Pollock mentions GiveWell, and he isn’t the first critic to do so, but GiveWell is only as good as your trust in them. And perhaps they’re the ones, who will really give us the tools to do international giving right. Maybe. But the track record isn’t good. And GiveWell gives me statistics, not direct observation of the lives of the people my money impacts.

Again, I’m not against charity and I’m not even criticizing GiveWell. What I am against is a morality that skews our priorities towards that which we have the least feedback from. I happen to think that we pay too little attention to the middle space between our immediate daily surroundings and distant, telescopic matters. Far closer is the immediate community that we are a part of. Investing in that, working to improve it and the lives of the people you share it with, deserves a better shake than public intellectuals are likely to give it.

In short (too late): it’s not a pejorative term but a position within an Aristotelian mean, there are trade-offs, the true “social defection” is more likely to occur at the level of community, and I’m skeptical of organizations like GiveWell—though I do think one can give productively, if you focus your finite deliberative resources on becoming knowledgeable in a specific area of giving over time.

7 thoughts on “Between Callousness and Telescopic Morality

    1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more! (I don’t actually think the objections I brought up are decisive.)

      Still, it’s clear that the tradeoffs argument can go too far (most any argument can). I don’t think writing this comment, for example, is really the prudentially *optimal* course of action for me, but philosophy is interesting and so here I am. And I’m sure there are plenty of people who write letters for Amnesty International or whatever, but are a long way from Mrs Jellybee. Arguably, this is better than Farmville (if only marginally).

      I loved your original post, by the way.

      1. Thanks! I definitely think it’s possible to go too far, and I could also tell from your post and subsequent comment on biases that this was a sort of Socratic exercise against something you saw the appeal of.

        For which I am grateful!

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