Incalculable Good

Patrick’s post is probably my favorite defense of telescopic morality in the ongoing conversation on the subject. Like most of those defenses, he focused almost entirely on charitable giving. I think most people would be surprised to learn that charitable giving was not really what I had in mind when I wrote the first piece on this. Nevertheless, the argument undeniably applies. And I have a bone to pick with Patrick’s argument that admitting “that distant persons have some non-trivial value” means that mathematically we can demonstrate we should be doing a certain amount of charitable giving.

Charitable Giving

Let’s get this out of the way first. I do not have a problem with charitable giving. I do think that people overestimate the good that it will do. William Easterly’s many books on the subject are my main source material here; a great deal of energy and resources have been poured into aid over the decades with very little impact. Sometimes, with largely bad results, such as simply lining the pockets of corrupt and tyrannical regimes.

Since the first post on telescopic morality, people have been telling me about GiveWell, and their whole mission to get better at measuring the effectiveness of different charitable organizations. It seems like a very admirable thing they are doing. To the extent that they both help givers do more good than they could have, and help charitable organizations learn from one another’s mistakes, their measurement entrepreneurship has contributed real value.

But it’s unclear to me how well it does actually work. I’ve heard a lot of claims, but we’re talking about an organization that has been around for less than ten years, and been prominent for even less than that. Consider that while there is now plenty of conversation over how wasteful organizations like the Red Cross can be, for many decades it was considered a given that they were a great place to donate to. At the end of the day, these are people I have never met aggregating and analyzing metrics that imperfectly capture what they attempt to measure. The source of the data is often the organizations themselves, or some third party whose trustworthiness (in terms of reliability, but perhaps ethics as well) is also not exactly something I can simply know at a glance.

But I don’t want to overplay my hand here. Even Easterly believes there are several fairly reliable ways to help specific people in poor countries. Patrick actually alludes to this in his post:

I regard each choice as a kind of ethical unit—an object of discrete analysis—and one which may have its own merits or demerits. That choice should not be thought of as just another block on a progress bar, its value determined by how many percentage points it has brought you closer to 100. (By analogy, if asked whether you would rather have paid down 1% of your mortgage or 5% of your credit card, looking only at the percentages would be silly.)

I’m reminded of an old story about a man who was throwing starfish back into the sea. Someone comes along and points out that there is no way that the man will be able to save all or even most of the starfish. The man throws another in and then says “I helped that starfish.”

Easterly says that the aid projects that work tend to have fairly specific and unambitious goals. Like getting a particular village mosquito nets, or distributing vaccines during an outbreak. These don’t move the needle in aggregate statistics; they don’t lower overall malaria rates or anything like that. But they help that village and those people.

Patrick thinks that I don’t accept that logic, but actually I think it’s wonderful. That is not at all the sort of thinking I want to criticize. I might be skeptical about the effectiveness of particular organizations, but in as much as there’s good reason to believe it’s actually at work, the starfish story logic is very appealing to me.


Here’s one point where I strongly depart from Patrick:

One could also make strong claims about the importance of distant persons based on fundamental rights, or working off some Kantian imperative of universalizability, or perhaps even through the virtue of compassion. Yet I don’t think we need to go all the way to the fundamental equality of man to embrace “telescopic morality.”

No, all we need to do is demonstrate that distant persons have some non-trivial value and then let math do the rest of the work. Getting over this hurdle is fairly easy. Whatever you think about the methodological foundation of ethics, our collective ethical instincts have some pulling power. And you will be hard pressed to find allies if your starting position is that distant persons have zero value. If you accept that distant persons have some ethical value then, as the old joke goes, you’re just haggling over the price.

Math can only come in if moral worth is measurable on some commensurable scale. And even if it is (it isn’t), wellbeing is clearly not. That is the spirit of some of Easterly’s feedback to GiveWell.

I think that a lot of the “what works in aid” debate is phrasing the question wrong. You really want to know what works for whom, which will then lead to the question at the heart of economics and politics: who gets to decide what happens? This isn’t necessarily answered by randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that show that an intervention improves some quantitative measure of well-being. Markets and democracy are better feedback mechanisms than RCTs, and they provide resolution on “who gets to decide?” Seeing what people buy and asking them what they want gives better indicators of what works for them than quantitative indicators coming from RCTs.

Further down:

There are a lot of thing that people think will benefit poor people (such as improved cookstoves to reduce indoor smoke, deworming drugs, bed nets and water purification tablets) that poor people are unwilling to buy for even a few pennies. The philanthropy community’s answer to this is “we have to give them away for free because otherwise the take-up rates will drop.” The philosophy behind this is that poor people are irrational. That could be the right answer, but I think that we should do more research on the topic. Another explanation is that the people do know what they’re doing and that they rationally do not want what aid givers are offering. This is a message that people in the aid world are not getting. The rational choice paradigm has never been fully accepted in the development community. We should try harder to figure out why people don’t buy health goods, instead of jumping to the conclusion that they are irrational.

GiveWell has a very reasonable response:

We agree that, all else equal, “Markets and democracy are better feedback mechanisms than RCTs [randomized controlled trials].” We believe there are cases where markets and democracy fail and aid can provide help that they can’t, and would guess that Prof. Easterly agrees on this as well.


Prof. Easterly observes, “a lot of things that people think will benefit poor people… {are things} that poor people are unwilling to buy for even a few pennies … The philosophy behind this is that poor people are irrational. That could be the right answer, but I think that we should do more research on the topic.” We have some sympathy with this view and agree that more evidence would be welcome, but we are probably less hesitant than Prof. Easterly is to conclude that people simply undervalue things like insecticide-treated nets.

I’m basically on board with the Christian and Stoic doctrine that moral worth is universal across humanity and around the globe, so commensurability isn’t really so big an issue there. But wellbeing is definitely incommensurable. It has many facets and most of them are controversial when it comes time to make choices about the most effective use of resources. Easterly leans hard on the dimension of choice, because as an economist he comes from the school that leans heavily on revealed preferences as a gauge for welfare.

I think there are problems with making preferences too central, but it does have the great strength of forcing the technocratically inclined to respect the people they’re supposed to be helping. In other words, it’s often better than the alternatives. But it seems hard to deny that having fewer instances of malaria constitutes an improvement in wellbeing, so malaria nets would improve someone’s wellbeing even if that person didn’t think they worked. Giving straight cash seems to be the most respectful, but if people have cash and die of malaria, the respect seems rather hollow. A starfish that is respected but not thrown back in the water is not really helped, is it?

Again, I am not making this argument to discredit charitable giving. I’m specifically targeting Patrick’s claim that it is “just math”. Math is a useful tool but cannot replace unquantifiable judgments when the matter in question involves incommensurability.

Cosmic Moral Quests

But as I said, charitable giving was never really my main target.

I have known many, many people who let stories (the general representativeness of which are questionable at best) of faraway things they cannot control dominate their attention and emotional state. Lately I’ve taken to framing this in terms of our relationship with media and information, and that is definitely a big part of it. The people I have known have sucked up every story on a given subject—often politics—and taken the bad stuff very hard and very personally. I had a few years there myself; first in college, and then later, around the 2008 crash when I was feeling my most ideologically libertarian.

But it’s more than just the news cycle or the online outrage machine. It’s about wanting to be able to have a global or cosmic level impact as an individual. If you want that, you will be disappointed. If you want that badly enough, you will be crushed under the weight of it.

I still believe that my dad, whose posts at Vulgar Morality years ago were a big part of what inspired my critiques of telescopic morality, has it right. We should give most of our focus to the small sphere in which our lives are lived. It’s where we have the biggest chance to make an impact with the least amount of uncertainty around whether we actually did or if we did more harm than good. And I want to stress the importance of that uncertainty. When we pursue cosmic moral quests that take place far away from where we can actually see them, we don’t always end up subsidizing the mass eviction of some of the poorest people on Earth—but we certainly do some of the time.

Giving our focus to the smaller sphere is an important part of really being committed to the relationships we have with the people actually in our lives. And most of the really big advances over the last two centuries have come from people tinkering with problems that were right in front of them.

Participation and Renegotiation

The funny thing about the timing of Patrick’s piece was that I had only just made another stab at talking about our responsibilities to the larger whole, beyond just our small sphere. Here’s the relevant passage:

We are responsible for both the extent and the details of our participation in group processes. The extent to which Obama can be held personally responsible for what the NSA has done and continues to do is a murky question that is hard to answer while observing the system as an outsider. But he can certainly be held responsible for not doing his part to end it, and for publicly defending it. Indeed it is made worse by the visible abandonment of the principles he promised to adhere to as a candidate.

The consequences of individual actions are necessarily small compared to the whole, especially the average individual and the average action. Within a life, a family, and a small community, however, those consequences are relatively large. That is one good reason among many to give this sphere special attention. But this does not imply that we lack responsibilities outside of this sphere.

Libertarians like to claim that voting is pointless because a single vote never sways national elections. I myself have made a version of that argument many times. But it is wrongheaded; it assumes the point of voting is to have your one vote determine the outcome. I think the point of voting, in our system, is to have a feedback mechanism that draws from a broad base of the population. The more people there are that participate in that process, the broader the input into that feedback mechanism.

And yesterday:

Thus, democracy is imperfect, and does not really aggregate preferences, but is that grounds for abandoning the enterprise? I say not. I say the American project is still worthy of our commitment. Making such a commitment just is to take responsibility for your role as citizen, member of your community, neighbor. It is to take ownership of your own influence, however small, on our conjective reality. And in practice it involves the exact sort of shouldering of burdens and public mindedness that Nathan calls for. But it also involves participation in politics—as voters as well as in other roles, which require individuals to fill them.

Here’s the thing: telescopic morality for me was never really about whether big picture stuff mattered. Of course it matters. For me it’s mostly about prudence in managing our affairs, not letting the ineradicable imperfection of the world be a barrier to living an emotionally healthy life, and having reasonable expectations.

And I have most of the same heroes as everyone else who largely break this mold: the civil rights activists being, in my mind, canonical. But they also got their hands dirty; they went right to the source of the problem and stared it in the face. They did not gaze at the various small town thugs occupying the Sheriff’s offices of the country from a distance; they met them in person.

There’s also a sense in which extreme examples don’t make very good guides for living life, or at least for living most of your life most of the time. Some people make a lot of money and end up accomplishing a lot of good with highly risky business ventures, but I don’t think anyone would suggest that’s what everyone should do. I’m fairly certain there’s a valid analogy here with moral entrepreneurs; most would-be MLKs do not actually end up being MLK, and often for good reason.

One of the ironies of writing about telescopic morality has been the much greater success of the more polemical posts. Turns out ranting about ranting is popular for the exact same reason that any ranting is popular! But I hope this post has made my position seem a bit more reasonable.

The Conversation

3 thoughts on “Incalculable Good

  1. boatfloating

    ” But it seems hard to deny that have fewer instances of malaria constitutes an improvement in wellbeing, so malaria nets would improve someone’s wellbeing even if that person didn’t think they worked. Giving straight cash seems to be the most respectful, but if people have cash and die of malaria, the respect seems rather hollow.”

    The people have chosen.

  2. paulcrider

    Some disconnected thoughts:

    One of the reasons I was hostile to the telescopic morality concept back when Adam first started going on about it was because I think that most people actually err in the opposite direction. That is, most folks care a lot about what is close to them and pay too little regard to the moral claims of those distant in kind or space. I still think this is true to some extent, but I’ve been convinced there is value in Adam’s critique now that I understand it better.

    GiveWell and GiveDirectly are two of the small number of charities I’ve committed myself too. One way I rationalize this is that I’m a cosmopolitan by nature. It’s simply easier for me to see the value of giving money to foreigners than it is for most other people, even without suggesting that other people are ethically derelict for not caring enough about the welfare of foreigners. It’s a like charitable comparative advantage.

    I have the impression that many people in the Effective Altruism community could really benefit from the telescopic morality critique. I have seen some of these people wrack themselves to despair over whether their chosen career path is Effective enough Altruistically. This, I think, is just nuts, because …

    If we look to the ancients for just a little bit of guidance, we’ll recall that morality is actually about the *happiness of the moral actor*, where of course happiness is understood in a broad way. How does the agent live well? Well, part of it is living in harmony with others and taking their welfare as important, even that of the furthest Mysian. Christ also died for E.T. But if you take the hardcore utilitarian (or Effective Altruist) stance, your own every little pleasure (that venti frappuccino habit or bouquet of flowers for your romantic partner) becomes morally suspect. And what is society left with in the limit that every citizen of the rich world follows the EA principles? A much poorer rich world where everyone has forgotten what a flourishing civilization of arts and science and letters even looks like.

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