In Dialectic Over Telescopic Morality

I’m currently working on another piece about telescopic morality.

Before writing it, I thought it’d be a good idea to review what I’ve written previously and all the responses to them that I’m aware of. It’s been a very lively discussion, with many humbling critiques.

Many of the conceptual problems that people pointed out nearly immediately came, I think, from the fact that I started with a polemic but then stubbornly clung to treating it as though it had been an analytical piece. I also ultimately contradicted myself in a few places over time—most clearly, by saying originally that the near is all that matters, and later conceding that “of course” far concerns matter.

In any case, I thought I’d do a roundup here for my own convenience, but also for anyone interested in the discussion. There’s some good stuff in here, especially from my critics.

First was the Vulgar Morality post My Moral Sphere, written back in 2010. The author—Martin Gurri, my father—referenced “telescopic philanthropy” from Dickens, which I misremembered, years later, as “telescopic morality.”

My moral sphere is a small world, a limited space.  The necessary virtues aren’t complex:  humility with my family, integrity at work, neighborliness in my community – add loyalty to friends, and one has the basic package.

If all this sounds puritanical, then I’ve failed to convey what is at stake.  The small world is what matters:  the only place where you and I can matter.  It’s all potentiality:  all signal.  The great joys and fun of life can only be had by success in this place.

My first piece was Reject the Siren Song of Telescopic Morality, posted in February of 2014.

The crusader on behalf of the greater good who fights their hardest on behalf of policies whose outcomes they cannot hope to actually measure is nothing compared to the everyday citizen who does not hesitate to help pick up the pieces after a disaster. Hell, the activist-crusader is nothing compared to the neighbor who helps clear up the snow after a blizzard.

Our own Sam Hammond responded with Telescopic Morality vs Myopic Morality. This was actually the first interaction I had with him.

The best argument for a balance between virtue and duty, and more “far” concerns comes from Simon Blackburn’s account of quasi-realism, which points out different normative concepts supervene at different levels of conceptual abstraction. In other words, the Vulgar Moralist is only partly right about the dimensions of our moral sphere. Most of our moral language is emotive and deontological, and supervene nicely on our appraisal of individuals and character. Utilitarian calculus could be called ‘far’ because it supervenes on properties that are much more idealistic, rational, static, abstract, namely institutions and policies – talking about “virtuous nations” or the “duty of the government” is an category “error” in the J.L. Mackie sense, as the concepts have no direction of fit. The inverse error is found in the lowly husband caught applying “the greatest good for the greatest number” to justify his polyamorous extra-marital affair.

“Honey, I know that my infidelity generates disutility for you, but we have to consider the aggregate impact!”

My second piece was just as polemical as the first, Your Media Diet is Immoral. This is where I started to flesh out the connection between telescopic morality and news consumption. I was super focused on cognitive biases at the time, and it shows in the piece.

And animals is what we are—biological creatures with physical limits. There are two important and related limits that I would like to focus on: the limits of our truth-seeking capabilities, as best documented in the biases literature, and the limits of what Daniel Kahneman calls our “slow thinking” capabilities. In the first case, I refer to the fact that we are not some ideal Bayesian-updating computer, but in fact rely primarily on a ton of mental shortcuts that are usually useful but can and do often lead us systematically awry. In the second case, I refer to the fact that deliberation and making choices consume energy, just as surely as physical exercise does.

What this adds up to is the simple fact that there’s a finite amount of things we can devote careful thought to on a given day, and the more we burn our energy doing other things the smaller that limit becomes. As Kahneman and Haidt and others point out, even when you’re deliberating carefully there are shortcuts going on in the background. Nevertheless, for something like a math problem, “slow thinking” is much more likely to perform well when we are rested and our blood sugar is high, relative to where we are by the end of a full day of mental or physical activity. Effective deliberation is bounded by these conditions.

The punchline being that consuming news that makes us angry uses up this energy and shrinks our “mental resources” without actually accomplishing anything.

Kristie Eshelman responded to the original piece with How to (Really) Make a Difference.

To an extent, I agree. An individual can make a difference through every single job that he or she does, whether it be teaching, plumbing or business. Those who are doing quality work and who are caring for the people in their lives might be doing just as much as politicians, professors or philanthropists.

But to call the efforts of someone who is working to alleviate poverty overseas “nothing” compared to actions of the local philanthropist seems a bit extreme as well. As unique individuals, we should celebrate and leverage our different strengths, interests and callings. It is true that many people can make an incredible difference as local heroes, but those called to help people on the macro-level can do work that is just as necessary and important.

The harshest critique came from Eli Horowitz in Problem identification, pt. 3: powerlessness and nihilism. We also had a lengthy discussion in the comments.

But, honestly, are we even supposed to take this seriously? “The small world is what matters”? So genocides, famines, torture – these just plain don’t matter whenever they happen to people we don’t know? Bullshit. Awful, inhumane, flamboyantly irrational bullshit. Again, this makes no moral or even empirical sense. We have tons of easily identifiable real-world examples of people who acted (and/or reasoned) morally about situations outside of their “small world.” Without these people, there would be no such thing as feminism. There would be no such thing as the civil rights movement. Contrary to Gurri’s pessimism, many of us can and indeed must matter outside of our respective “small worlds.”

Funny enough, Horowitz had previously critiqued a Front Porch Republic post, a place I’ve ended up writing a few pieces for myself.

My next piece was The Morality of Futility, essentially a response to my critics.

Our moral sphere should not be stretched beyond the scale appropriate for an individual human life. That does not mean that we are indifferent to suffering outside that scale, nor that there’s something wrong with giving to charity or volunteering. Telescopic as an adjective is meant more pejoratively than categorically; to reject telescopic morality is not to say that our concern for far matters should be reduced to zero, just as rejecting gluttony does not mean that we should stop eating entirely.

The comments on this piece are better than the piece itself, and a few are worth calling out here.

First, our own David:

Have we done anything with regard to the individual telescoping his morality through (by means of) societal institutions? For example, individuals volunteered for the parachute infantry in WWII, in part to avoid entering into battle with conscripted fellows who might contribute more to their own deaths than to the deaths of the enemy army, but also in part to “do their part.” They understood they were participating in a large, historically significant event–with limits–and they also understood that they were, individually speaking, one small part in a giant play, so-to-speak.

The army, being a sort-of primal societal institution, then, under the power of humble, morally-driven individuals, puts an end to a very great evil thing (I’m really hammering the moral issue here).

And therein, as a tangential point, is found courage. Courage is like porn: we all know what it is when we see it, but no one can really define it.

Ryan Travis’ comment is a good followup to this:

The primary point I want to make is that you’ve set up a sort of false dichotomy (at least some of the time) as the answer to a possibly misguided question (the proper sphere for morality); that of either concerning ourselves with the far (telescopic morality) or the near (to give it a name, local morality). The argument effectively being that we have a finite amount of time and resources to devote, and so must choose to allocate accordingly. And, moreover, that our actions as directed in resolving the issues of the far are negligible and inconsequential. Certainly, some moral dilemmas take the form of near vs far. Choosing between supporting a cause you believe in and helping a friend in need, for instance. And, of course, our actions often are ineffective or even counterproductive.

However, what you’re neglecting are the many ways in which
telescopic morality (large moral projects, ideal ends) and local morality (attending to the needs and interests of those around us) enrich each other. Far from always being in competition, telescopic morality often serves as the glue that brings communities together, directs moral deliberation, and generates new and extends old practices. It is one of the things that has allowed us to find common cause with others beyond our kin.

The brief comment I made on twitter about moral imagination had more to do with how we, as individuals, form our projects. At least some of what we do derives from our ability to imagine a better future and a faith that, if there be a final reckoning, what we did in trying to bring it about will have counted for something. I think it fits nicely with your comment about contributing to a larger whole. That is, it’s through this type of imaginative projection that we give meaning to at least some of our practices or

Both of these comments get at something very important, which is the way in which bigger, far concerns can form the basis of a community and even a polity. Something I hadn’t given much thought to at the time.

Our own Paul shared Sam’s concern that actually we tend more towards moral myopia than telescopic morality. I’m less sure in this instance, but I think this was my first interaction with him.

Speaking of Sam, the next response comes from him, in the great How to Conceptualize Morality: Near vs Far. He actually called out that I was implicitly relying on the Aristotelian mean, something I would explicitly call attention to in my next piece.

Thus the way I frame the problem is in terms of mental states supervening to natural properties: Mind => Property. Monetary policy has “far” properties, and thus fits with a “far” conceptual mode (Far => Far), whereas an individual’s character is granular and personal, fitting to a “near” conceptual mode (Near => Near).

Instead of worrying about extrema, this implies that there are two types of specific moral category error: Using your near mode on far properties (Near => Far); And using your far mode on near properties (Far => Near). Because we are animals outside of our adaptive environments, we should expect our mind to frequently misfire; to apply a near heuristic to a far problem, and vice versa.


Ian Pollock wrote the thoughtful Critiquing “Vulgar Morality”.

Objection #1: “Vulgar morality” is just another weapon to whack political opponents over the head with. (Compare “confirmation bias”, of which about 8/10 tokens are garden-variety hackery.) Thus the usual special pleading formula: he is a ridiculous telescopic moralist; you should focus on local issues; I have a special connection with Ukraine. If you are to avoid this charge, I had better not catch you opining on the same global, distant, abstract issues you chide others for talking about.

Objection #2: There aren’t really any significant attention tradeoffs here. Reading Paul Krugman’s blog doesn’t prevent me from learning about index funds or budgeting. I do the former out of sheer interest, and it’s perfectly fine for people to have interests that are “far mode” (anyway, could anything possibly be *more* far-mode than theorizing about far mode and near mode?). Those who don’t have any such interests are sometimes called “parochial” or “ignorant”, and in my experience they are rather boring.

Objection #3: In practice, this idea counsels defection in various important social coordination games. For example, the surveillance state creeps into our lives more and more because few have a concentrated, salient interest in opposing it. But given the small impact of surveillance on you, and the expected small impact at the margin of making your voice heard, inaction is rational by the lights of “vulgar morality”. This is just another name for disengagement with important issues, in favour of unapologetic selfishness and short-run orientation (all this talk of “family, friends and community” sounds like a whitewash).

Objection #4: So-called telescopic morality is actually underrated. Part of the reason for this is that the local problems of rich, educated westerners are really expensive to improve (despite better local knowledge etc.) as compared with many “telescopic” causes. For example, GiveWell gave the expected cost per death averted for the Against Malaria Foundation in 2012 as approximately $2300. The same sum spent in the developed world would probably not buy so much low-hanging fruit (I invite you to consider how much money it would take to accomplish something really significant in your life or that of a relative or friend). Telescopic morality is leveraged by differences in marginal utility into something that can be quite powerful.

The comments here were again very valuable, so I’ll call some out again.

From Strevddrev:

I’m pretty convinced that public health projects are an excellent example of telescoping morality accomplishing (enormous) net positives. I think there are mathematical and heuristic reasons why we should expect that to be true. I suspect the success of public health projects in the late 1800s through about 1950 drove a lot of the development of the modern bureaucratic state. It’s plausible to me that most non-public-health projects, and the general drive to telescoping morality in the progressive frame, have been net harmful.

A fairly hostile one from someone named Patrick:

How about this objection- this argument is rarely offered in good faith. It is instead an effort at shutting people up. When was the last time you heard someone make a telescopic morality critique of someone, and then retract it when the target turned out to have engaged in the activity in question?

“What the Middle East needs is…”
“You probably shouldn’t try to solve the Middle East Crisis until you’ve figured out how to patch up your marriage.”
“What? My marriage is fine! You’re thinking of my brother, he’s getting a divorce.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, carry on then. You’re precisely the kind of person we need working on this.”

Never. Happens. Telescopic morality is a way of manipulating people via the ethical norms of humility. The implicit message isn’t the explicit one- it’s something more like, “How dare YOU think you can have something to contribute on these big and important issues! Look at you! You’re so much less than you should be.”

To which Ian responds:

That’s basically what I meant by my objection #1. You could make a similar charge against the use of “signalling” as a critique of certain rhetoric.

Any argument type can be used for epistemically bad purposes though, and “telescopic morality” is certainly pointing at very real phenomena (I think immediately of the endless depths of passion you see about Israel & Palestine from people with absolutely no connection to or expertise about them).

I am also inclined to say that, like knowledge about cognitive biases and heuristics, it’s usually best directed inward. In my circles it is Not Done to call anyone but oneself biased, at least not without pretty good evidence. In any event, part of the reason the “telescopic morality” framework resonates with me is because I recognize something of my former self in it.

A quite long one from Daniel Speyer I’ll excerpt:

As for the scale, there are plenty of cases of the world being changed by individuals. Let us assume that our generation has a Borlaug and a Ghandi. The odds that either of them is you is 1 in 7 billion. Could be worse. That’s 33 bits. Now aim a little lower. Be part of the team that invents the cure to a not particularly famous disease that still effects millions. Write a database frontend that humanitarian response teams can coordinate with. Provide the encouragement that prevents burnout from claiming a particularly skilled diplomat who will go on to prevent the next genocide. These are still pretty big contributions. How many people act on that scale? Thousands? Maybe 20 bits needed. Take 3 free bits for living in the first world with the resources that entails and some more for being the sort of person who reads moral philosophy in the first place (i.e. intelligent, agenty, trying to be good — probably at least 2 stdevs of each). The claim that I can succeed is no longer extraordinary, and no longer requires extraordinary evidence.

There’s a rationalist proverb: before you call anything impossible spend five minutes by an actual clock thinking of ways to do it.

Which elicited a long response from Ian:

My personal reaction to your comment, which Gurri may or may not agree with, is that there is a fair bit of low-hanging fruit for far-mode altruism (e.g., malaria) but we shouldn’t exaggerate it.

I am also skeptical about (a) the marginal impact of far mode pursuits (I suspect it’s very hard for one person to make a difference), (b) the epistemic justification of such pursuits (how sure are we that they are doing significant amounts of good, or that they aren’t actually harmful?).

That last point is quite relevant. Consider Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring”, which made a case for banning DDT because of its impact on wildlife. It largely succeeded in doing so, but others have argued that the cost was unavailability of a cheap defense against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Another excerpt from that comment:

Gurri also likes to bring up, and I agree, the great internet outrage machine we see blundering around these days, set in motion by a fiery moral narrative rather impoverished in facts. Frankly, the outrage machine is Bad even when it chooses a good cause. Its members really need to think about their marginal impact and about their state of knowledge.

OK, that’s it for comments.

My next piece was a response to Ian, Between Callousness and Telescopic Morality.

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.

After that I wrote Free Yourself from the Telescopic Morality Machine, my first piece at Front Porch Republic. I originally intended to make this a much more sweeping piece than it was; instead I ended up focusing on our relationship to information and how that fits within a good life. I went that way in part due to feedback from the editors at FPR—and I’m grateful for it. The piece was much better for it.

Like actual chemically-induced pleasures, in excess this anger is a sickness. It consumes your waking thoughts, and takes your vitality with you when it leaves. When the dose is administered, an extreme form of tunnel vision sets in. You get sucked into a monomaniacal focus on the object of some injustice, far away from you or anyone you know, and are temporarily unable to see anything that is actually a part of your life. You lose sight of vulgar morality, the stuff that really matters, and succumb to the siren song of telescopic morality. You rage at things you cannot control at the expense of time you could be investing improving the state of affairs around you, for your family, your community. The long term effect of mainlining telescopic morality is utter hollowness; ethical triviality. A life spent desperately grasping at fractured and filtered pieces of other people’s stories, a life hardly lived.

The problem of overcoming telescopic morality involves one of the central questions of our times: how to develop a healthy relationship with information. Given the sheer magnitude of the fresh information generated every hour of every day, this is no small challenge.

The answer comes from looking at your life as a whole, and asking yourself what it means to live well, to live meaningfully. Does it really mean raging impotently about far away matters you are utterly powerless to impact? What kind of life are you striving for, exactly? No one arrives at the exact same answer, but posing the question is a big step for most people. And for most people, the general formula is in the same ballpark — making a living, being surrounded by loved ones who treat you well, being the kind of person worthy of admiration. Devoting the time and resources to pursuing projects and aspirations that are meaningful and that you would be proud to speak of on your deathbed.

A confession: after going back and rereading all my pieces and the critiques of them, this was the first one (chronologically) that I still actually like. I don’t regret writing any of the others; they were part of a process of working out ideas and soliciting feedback I otherwise would not have received. But they all could have been thought through much better. This one, though, I still think looks pretty good in retrospect.

My next critique was Patrick’s (not the commenter above) first piece here at Sweet Talk, Looking the wrong way down the telescope. I think this is still my favorite among the critiques I received, if just for the sheer tightness of its defense of charitable giving against the implications of a critique of telescopic morality.

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.[4] 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.

My response, Incalculable Good, focused on this matter of math and haggling over the price.

It’s clear to me, having gone over all of this again in an afternoon, that by this point I’d come a great distance from my original polemic, but didn’t really acknowledge it. So I’m acknowledging it here. In the original piece, I claimed that the far didn’t matter for the good life. In this piece, I say:

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.

It is true that it was “never really about whether big picture stuff mattered,” but that’s not really what I said at the time, and I here acknowledge this as a concession to my critics.

But really, this piece is a testament to the intelligent criticisms I received, documented here, which did not allow me to continue to be polemical and forced me to address their concerns, and in several instances revise my stance.

I intend my next piece not to be a defense of my original argument, but the next step in fleshing out a better framework.

I want to talk about a few more posts that I’ll be drawing on for my next piece, but not in chronological order.

First, my post Acceptance, on how to cope with the tragic nature of the world.

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

The politics and the ideology of rejection are always the enterprise of a heart at war with the world. He whose heart is at war sees the cracks in our fallible human arrangements, and the ugliness that spills out of them, and thinks that ugliness must be all there is, underneath it all.

He makes demands of the world, and rejects the world even when these demands are met. For no demand that can be met can ever purify the world of all ugliness and fill in every gap and crack—or even most of them.

She whose heart is at peace extends an unconditional love and understanding to a world full of hurt and hurting. She makes demands, but her love is never predicated on having those demands met. She understands that the pursuit of justice almost always itself entails acts of injustice, but still believes that justice is what we should strive for. She understands that the compromises and trade-offs that go into maintaining order are often stained in ugliness themselves, and yet she still desires that order be maintained, even if she hopes for an order with as little ugliness as we can manage.

Also an earlier, clumsier, more cranky attempt at the same, The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Meh.

Can this be resolved by grandma’s conciliatory comment that “everyone is right,” is some sense? Well, I’m in a pessimistic mood, so I’m going to say that everyone is wrong, in the big view.

Progress and decline can be useful lenses, but that’s what they are. They can shed light on certain aspects of the world we live in, but they can never encompass it. The optimist feeling the march of progress will point out how precipitously crime has dropped in this country since the early 90s. The liberal is quick to point out that this is mirrored by an explosion in incarceration.

And then there’s boatfloating’s wonderfully esoteric piece, Even MLK Cheated On His Wife.

Within the current framework and rules of American professional football, certain traits are selected for. Just having the desire to hit, the tolerance to be hit, and the willingness to drop your factory job for a couple of weeks a year was no longer enough. You had to win the genetic lottery and be a physical and mental specimen of such rarity that one might scarcely believe you share the same genus as some your lesser fellow humans.

This also means that other, non-essential-to-football traits are disregarded. Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is also a supertaster? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent enjoys foreign films? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is a conscientious father or husband? Fuck no. But, of course, they are still of such rare quality, their relative weaknesses in other non-essential-to-football traits are hardly detriments to their career prospects.

Further, a recent post at Vulgar Morality, The locus of morality.

This blog is predicated on the notion that freedom requires self-discipline:  a moral framework by means of which we restrain the force of our desires.  Otherwise, political power, in the form of the police, will compel restraint.  Either we rule ourselves or government will regulate our behavior – ultimately, at the point of a gun.

All this seems trivially true to me.

Yet it rubs against the intellectual grain of the times.  Power has swallowed morality.  That is taken for granted in our everyday talk and in our great public decisions.  Virtue descends from above – it’s a question of budgets and policies, wholly divorced from behavior.  Personal responsibility has become social responsibility.  Conscience, now also socialized, is no longer focused on my private failings:  it’s all about yours.

Even justice has been depersonalized.  People speak of social justice and economic justice – foggy abstractions that can only be realized, if ever, with massive applications of power.

So we have two possible loci of morality.  One is the individual, judged on his behavior.  The other is government, judged politically.  The two are not commensurate.  If morality pertains to the individual, I can still judge the individuals in government by the morality of their actions.  Metaphorically, I can even treat the government as an individual, and pass moral judgement on its actions.

And finally, a discussion on Twitter.


  • The new piece: “It is this feeling that the only accomplishments that matter are the ones on a world-historic scale, and that the day to day concerns of an ordinary life are utterly trivial, that I have called telescopic morality.”
  • James Oswald responds, though it feels like a more appropriate response to the previous pieces than the new one.

2 thoughts on “In Dialectic Over Telescopic Morality

  1. Pingback: An Ordinary Life and the Pitfalls of Greatness - Front Porch Republic

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