Compulsory Suffrage

It’s voting season in America and it’s voting season at Sweet Talk. Paul Crider has inveighed against libertarians who dismiss the value of the vote, and Samuel Hammond has declaimed the way libertarians deal with collective action problems like voting. By way of counterpoint, Nathaneal Snow chooses to let others speak, having lost faith in reform.

All speak from a libertarian tradition of one kind or another, which I suspect makes my own proposal anathema to them. I think we should force Americans to the polls.

First the proposal: the form of compulsory voting that I advocate is neither truly compulsory nor truly voting. Under the Australian model, the compulsion is in the form of a nominal fine (AUD 20 or about US$15.50) or the requirement to present a “valid and sufficient” reason for not voting. Likewise, the requirement to “vote”, while presented as such, only really extends to making it to the ballot box; from there you may spoil your ballot to your heart’s content. There are other models (some 26 around the world) but the Australian model is nearest and dearest to my heart.

Why might anyone advocate this approach? There’s a range of reasons, but my preferred ones are largely pragmatic. Voluntary voting is a sort of two-factor voting: (i) can you convince someone to show up and (ii) can you convince them to vote for you? The first roughly maps to intensity of political feeling, the second to your political inclinations. Speed and direction, if you will, which together create velocity at the polls.

The first of these–the willingness to show up–tends to be corrosive. Intensity of political feeling goes hand in hand with more radical political beliefs, and therefore voluntary voting has a structural bias towards polarization. The accompanying rhetoric, ginned up to “motivate the base”, tends to have the same effect.

For the same reasons, single issue voters in a voluntary voting system will have outsize influence in an election. Where policies result in concentrated benefits and diffuse harms (or vice versa), voluntary voting will tend to over-represent the concentrated interests, who will make the extra effort to vote. One might think of the National Rifle Association as exemplary of this tendency, given the relative concentration of gun ownership in the United States, but there are examples on the other side of politics. These effects are especially magnified in off-cycle or smaller-scale US elections (mid terms, municipal elections, school boards, etc.).

The move to compulsory voting would also inoculate the American political system against one particularly anti-democratic tendency: voter suppression. Of course, it’s still possible to argue about voter ID and ballot box fraud in a compulsory voting system, but the stakes are lower (fraud is mathematically less significant) and it cannot be a proxy for voter suppression. Sadly, it doesn’t fix gerrymandering.

It’s also more representative. In one sense that’s completely obvious, given the total expected turnout, but it’s worth remembering that the groups least likely to vote tend to be clustered, for example, among the young or poor. For this reason the move to a compulsory voting appears to result in a broader distribution of government spending (though this is, of course, legitimately contested). An incidental benefit of greater participation also appears to be a more politically informed population, in net terms. We should be cautious about such incidental conclusions–there’s no such thing as a randomized controlled trial for voting systems–but not lose sight of the core benefit: more people cast their votes.

For those who dwell on the (ir)rationality of voting, it also breaks one troubling calculus over the value of a vote. Given any meaningful practical hurdle to voting, the most disadvantaged are least likely to make it to the ballots. Since that depresses turnout among that group, it reduces the likelihood that a bloc of similarly situated voters will be decisive. In turn, the likelihood that any individual will be decisive drops further. The incentive to “defect” rises, and rises again. While in general, I am doubtful that the expected return on voting is what motivates most voters, there seems little reason to diminish it further for particular groups.

Not to mention all the practical hurdles to voting tend to fade when the entire populace is expected–and required–to vote. In Australia voting occurs on a Saturday, voting places are nearby and plentiful, and voters usually enjoy a sausage sandwich straight off the barbie (it’s called a “sausage sizzle”).

Sausages or not, many Americans are unwilling to countenance this kind of governmental compulsion. In some senses, this isn’t altogether surprising – being required to attend a certain place at a certain time (or risk a fine) in service of political goals has a whiff of autocracy about it for those who have never lived the experience. I have, and perhaps it’s correspondingly normal to me. Either way, I can’t see how it can be conceptually distinguished from even run-of-the-mill government interventions in the United States: jury duty, taxes (which, as certain libertarians are keen to remind us, is functionally the same as compelled labor), or even a visit to the DMV. Especially not when conscientious objectors would be taxed less than a parking ticket for their refusal. Australians don’t hate it (in fact, some 70% or so are in favor of continuing compulsory voting) and I see little reason to believe that Americans would ultimately feel any differently.

Would it materially favor a particular party? I am not certain. The conventional wisdom is that higher turnout favors left wing parties, and if you believe voter ID laws are stealth voter suppression by the GOP, that would seem to be vindicated by practice. However, those that have studied the application of compulsory voting to the US seem to believe that only the outcome of very close elections (2000, 2004) would be changed in one direction or the other. It’s certainly possible to change some of the compositional elements of politics (polarization, concentrated interests, etc.) without necessarily changing party-based outcomes. I’m hard-pressed to think it matters either way. In even the most basic democracy, the preferences of the populace at large should be logically prior to the benefits or costs to a given party.

Last and least, there’s the symbolism and the theory. On the governmental side, greater participation is suggestive of a more comprehensive mandate. I offer this argument a little tepidly because I am no absolutist about democracy (I favor, for example, the Westminster system), nor do I think a “mandate”–already a wispy concept–is the missing link for political authority. I do, however, think there is some expressive value to voting, even when compelled, and believe that civic engagement is a muscle that needs to be exercised to grow stronger. The most that really needs to be said in this respect is that compulsory voting is certainly no worse than voluntary voting from the standpoint of political theory.

I am skeptical that a change of this sort will happen in the United States in my lifetime, no matter how many offhand presidential comments it attracts. That said, before something become possible, you first have to believe in it, so in the spirit of reciprocity, perhaps compulsory voting should be Australia’s little light on the hill.

The Greatest Country on Earth

At some point in, I think, 2003 or 2004, I was sitting on the rooftop of a quite pleasant and dirt cheap hotel in Marrakesh, as a morning of medina chaos unfurled around us. I was meeting some new American friends–North Eastern educated types (you know, the “good” kind of American)–and the hospitable Moroccans were cooking us breakfast.

“Over easy” was the request. It was met with polite, faltering confusion from our local server. “Over easy?” asked the American again, with a confused, rising inflection. While I winced, my new friend tried again. I can’t recall if they compromised on scrambled or fried, but there was ultimately a mild, but clearly palpable American irritation at the state of the eggs.

My fellow Sweet Talker, John David Duke Jr, musters a poetic defense of Americans (or, perhaps, indictment of anti-Americanism) in these pages. While I’m less poetic, I do like America. I am actually rather happy to defend it, and will on occasion do so. In fact, I like it and its denizens so much that I have spent the past seven years in the fine metropolis of New York City and, for so long as the capricious immigration bureaucracy continues to smile upon me, I will stay. It is partly for this reason I feel obliged to share with my American friends the reasons why you are disliked. Spoiler: it is not because of your freedoms.

It is because of your unshakeable belief in your exceptionalism. It is because you cannot believe you have anything to learn from other nations. On healthcare: “Single payer health care may work in those other countries, but it won’t work in America.” “Well, yes, we pay too much for healthcare, but we do have the best in the world!” On gun control: “Well, it may have worked in Australia but America is different.” Don’t even get me started on the controversy over the mere citation (citation!) of foreign legal opinions in the Supreme Court. Much like teenagers convinced that they are the first to feel heartbreak, you think you are the first to encounter issues of civic policy.

It is because of your foreign policy. The “milquetoast” George W. Bush [see correction] presided over an unjust war, built on a lie, and yet the manner in which impolitic foreigners mentioned his “evil” nature chafes on you. Sure – those foreigners are guilty of rudeness, and unfairly demand of of you penance for the actions of your government. Sure – it’s shitty synecdoche, with you standing in for your nation. But you are surprised that they have a problem they want to talk to you about? That they burn to tell an American–any American–that it’s evil?

It is because of your obliviousness. It is because, to be petty for a moment, I cannot say “fortnight” and expect to be understood. It is because Ivy-league educated lawyers have never seen the word “whilst”. It is because you cannot name foreign capitals or find other nations on a map. It is because you cannot understand people with even mildly distinct accents in English

It is because, on the rooftop of a Marrakesh hotel, you are unaware that “over easy” is a uniquely American request.

But, honestly, you are not really to blame for these things. You enjoy one of the great blessings of hegemony–blissful ignorance–while the rest of the world cannot afford to be so foolish. And, yes, that hegemony is a burden you carry too

My suspicion is that any nation, rendered into an island by the sheer gulf of power from the next nearest, wrested further into factions by its own historical struggles, and drowning in the sheer volume of its own cultural output, would bear these same features. We’re all just trying to get by, and though the European left may imagine themselves more virtuous, history does not bear out the thesis that they are uncorrupted by power.

And so, by the power vested in me by no one at all, I absolve you of any sins, and forgive your confusion. But you should no longer be surprised.

Correction: The “milquetoast” Bush to which JDD Jr referred was Bush the elder, not W (and quite clearly so, on review), which does indeed make his story all the weirder. I really do regret the error.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Democracy


There are a lot of ways to tell people to shut up. A good one, in the wake of a large vote is to say “democracy” loudly and repeated, and to accuse your opponents of anti-democratic tendencies. This is a shitty rhetorical trick.

Democracy is not a process designed to arrive at the “right” decision. Like any political process, it’s both far more and far less than that. Mostly, it’s a mechanism for delivering legitimacy to the instruments of state that wield power over our lives. (And notwithstanding the totalizing power of “democracy” in our discourse, it’s hardly the only one.[1]) Democracy seeks to deliver, in both the classic and modern senses, authority. To assume that it is some kind of mathematical formula by which we arrive at a correct solution is to miss the point so completely, so thoroughly, and so obviously, that it smacks of sophistry.

If you need a reductio to help drive this point home, just imagine racist or sexist measures—say, the internment of Japanese Americans—passed by referendum. Such measures do not by dint of majority support suddenly become right.

So, if democratic decisions aren’t simply “right”, what then?

What about “respecting the decision”? There’s a thin sense in which this is legitimate. Refusing to act on the will of the people is both a practical and political problem. While this is neither legal nor ethical advice, you should not start forming a militia in the woods of Wimbledon Common.

However, it’s something else entirely to suggest that young, educated, metropolitan voters should calmly nod while their futures are set ablaze. Respecting the decision is allowing it to proceed; it is not disengaging your mental faculties. Democracy is not a pact of silence for the minority, as the Leave campaign well knew.

What then, about “respecting the voters”? Calls for civility have a long and checkered history. (The American left—particularly the feminist left—likes to call it “tone policing”.) Surrounding the Brexit vote, there’s been much hand-wringing about the tendency of the “elites” to talk down to the working classes. In Britain, there’s an overlay of class consciousness that is worth keeping in mind, but there’s still something perverse about this.

First, Leave voters are not children to be coddled. The assumption that one must play nice with them is a symptom of the very phenomenon that’s the subject of criticism. The public can handle some cut and thrust, and they do plenty of it on their own. There’s just as much punching up going on as punching down. In fact, as you may have noticed, the elites are losing.

Second, sometimes people are wrong. Voters are entitled to their own opinions (and hence their own vote), but they are not entitled to their own facts. Pointing out factual errors is entirely legitimate. In fact, it’s probably a core function of a healthy democracy. This is true even if some of those people are offended by the suggestion they have their facts wrong.

Third, sometimes people are awful. People often make choices for the wrong reasons, and some of those reasons—like racism—are genuinely reprehensible. There’s as little reason to assume the best of people as to assume the worst. Sure, some people may be responding to the concentrated losses and diffuse benefits of globalization. Others may just be racists.[2] Assuming either without evidence is no way to proceed. Asking others to temper their arguments based on your assumptions is a layer cake of wrong.[3]

If you wish to kvetch on Facebook about Brexit—or any other democratic decision for that matter—have at it. Despite what others might tell you, you have not transformed into a totalitarian.

This much is fairly straightforward, so let’s ask one more question about democracy: is the rise of anti-elite sentiment a democratic triumph or a democratic failure? There’s been some interesting, almost prophetic, analyses of recent events – the Twilight of the Elites and the The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium both come to mind.[4] Sometimes, there’s an almost triumphal, sticking-it-to-the-man quality when discussing this phenomenon. Finally, we hear, the zombie elites will get their comeuppance for failure to provide any vision of the future.

This is all well and good, but it’s only half a story. The failings of the status quo are not an argument for radical change, in whatever form it might present itself. To imagine that things can’t get worse is the most self-indulgent of political failings. Things can absolutely get worse. And when spiting the elites means little more than the public harming itself, there are no winners. That is no triumph.

[1] At the risk of triggering flashbacks to Political Science 101, I’d remind readers that most Western democracies are actually fusions of liberalism and democracy, which are in tension. Constitutionalism, which has a particular grip on the American imagination, is also far from democratic.

[2] The motivations of Trump voters, for example, seem to be far more than just economic malaise.

[3] Caveat: this is not intended a license to be an asshole. Do not be an asshole.

[4] I have only read about these books, not actually read them, so have your salt shaker on hand.

A Seven-Part Guide to Clear Thinking about Someone Else’s Charitable Donation

1) Begin by asking yourself whether it would be better for the person to have kept the money/assets. Be explicit about this. Do not engage in motte and bailey-style arguments in which this is implicit but denied.

2) Avoid suggesting alternatives not available to the individual. It may be preferable to have higher taxes and, consequently, fewer private charitable contributions. This argument is important, but orthogonal to any specific charitable contribution. If you believe there is mutual exclusivity between a given charitable contribution and some broader goal, be explicit. If you wish to engage in ideal world theorizing, be explicit.

3) If there are incidental benefits to the person, such as a tax deduction or public relations benefits, ask seriously whether those benefits are really a motivating cause. (For example, you might note that for every dollar you donate to charity, you cannot get more than a dollar in tax deductions, and that the direct cost is much greater than the tax benefit. You might note what substantial wealth could buy in PR if applied directly, rather than donated away.)

4) Ask serious questions about where the money will flow. Charitable Alternative B may be better than Charitable Alternative C, but try to remember Alternative A is keeping the money (see 1 above). If you are advocating for charitable donations, but of a particular kind, be explicit. Do not confuse such arguments with arguments against charitable contributions in toto.

5) Ask serious questions about how the money was made, but try to avoid “fruit of a poisoned tree” arguments. The eradication of polio is not an outcome that is tainted by Microsoft’s breach of EU competition law. If you want to criticize someone for being rich, do so directly rather than by criticizing them for giving away their riches.

6) Do not get hung up on legal structures. LLCs and 501(c)s have distinct costs and benefits, but neither structure completely determines how money will be applied. Nor are such structures immutable. At best, entity types may be tentative clues as to future plans.

7) It is possible to find psychological or philosophical reasons to believe that all altruism is self-interested. If you are a thoroughgoing skeptic of this kind, be explicit and do not selectively apply those arguments.

TL;DR – do not do what this author did.

Four Paragraphs on Vegetarianism

There is a wonderful conceit in one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker novels, where a spaceship is rendered invisible by a “not my problem” field. Much of our moral life operates under similar principles. We allow certain obvious horrors to continue through an active practice of forgetting.

For 15 years, I have been a (sometimes wavering, sometimes faltering) vegetarian. I am mostly reluctant to talk about it, and have grown more so over time. There have been too many unwelcome browbeatings after unwelcome questions over unwelcome dinners. At some point, though, we all bear an obligation to say something.

We are all farmers by proxy. The food we choose to eat is raised in our name. Right now, those animals we eat are raised in pain, live through torture, and are brutally slaughtered. These are facts, and they are unavoidable. You already know them on some level, even if you may participate in the constant and communal process of forgetting.

I can’t just ask you to adopt the same conclusions as me. I’m not that immodest. I think we all must choose for ourselves. But I can ask you to actively decide how you cast your proxy. I can ask you to remember. The lives of the animals you eat are your problem. Factory farming is your problem. You, just like all of us, need to make a choice.

The wisdom of the Ancients

Paul’s post on social change and its effects touches on an old conservative idea: that we should not abandon the accumulated wisdom of generations, the “wisdom of the Ancients”. The fact that social change can have deleterious and unequal effects seems evident. Certainly change should be assessed on its merits. But the idea that society might be the repository of any wisdom at all has always been the kind of idea that made me cock my head to the side and squint warily at my interlocutor.

The irrational meat-sacks that comprise humanity have a tendency to find patterns, even in random data. That’s called apophenia. (Every day on the internet is applied apophenia day.) We also have a tendency to privilege causative explanations. That’s the tendency that causes us to make post hoc ergo propter hoc errors (and to dribble platitudes about everything happening for a reason). We’re simply very bad at recognizing–and accepting–that certain things happen by chance. Because of that, we’re very bad at accepting that a certain state of affairs may exist as a result of chance.

This criticism doesn’t apply across the board. Biological evolution, or more specifically the survival of the fittest, is compelling partly because it provides causative explanations that aren’t random. For example, we can look at a turtle with a long neck, and make inferences about the evolutionary process that caused it. Because of evolution, we can look at a biological feature and say “feature X exists because of reason Y” instead of having to say “feature X exists because of a reason, maybe, but potentially by chance and for no particular reason at all”. We can’t say that in most other domains.

Let me call survival of the fittest a “causative explanatory mechanism” (CEM). (That is an ugly phrase, and a terrible abbreviation, but it’s better than imposing a neologism on you.) CEMs can come in a couple of flavors – they can be “complete” or they can be “incomplete”. Complete CEMs allow you to derive all of the features of a present state of affairs, non-randomly, from antecedent causes. So, for example, if evolution is a “complete” mechanism in this fashion, we could explain all of the features of a long-necked turtle through evolution. If, in contrast, evolution was an “incomplete” CEM, we might say that we can determine most features of a long-necked turtle through evolution, but there might still be some randomness. I’m not an expert in evolutionary theory, but I suspect survival of the fittest is incomplete, because evolution relies on a degree of randomness to generate variations (in the form of natural mutations). I suspect most CEMs are incomplete to a greater or lesser extent.

Things are already bad in terms of causative explanations, but they are about to get worse. Even in the case of a complete CEM, you may not be able to reason directly from the most recent event or state of affairs directly back to a much earlier event or state of affairs. This is because of path dependence. At time 1, event A may lead through a complete CEM to event B. However this has foreclosed event C. At time 2, event B leads through a complete CEM to event D, but this forecloses event E. And so on. Each of the foreclosed events blocks off a path of future options. From the standpoint of time 50, the attempt to reason from event X (through a complete CEM) directly to event A will be faulty, because it will fail to identify the effects of each step in foreclosing future options.

That is painfully abstract, so let me try another example, sticking with evolution. Imagine our hypothetical long-necked turtle in an ecosystem with no predators. We ask, “why does it have a shell?”, seeking an explanation from its immediate environment. We try to come up with explanations – perhaps the shell is to prevent accidental harm? But more likely there was some explanation in the past that caused the shell to develop, such as the existence of now dead predators, which set the path. Perhaps the shell is vestigial, like the human appendix.

These examples are far from perfect.  Evolution would, over time, pull you back towards the the CEM and away from the dependent path. (For example, without predators, a smaller shell might be an evolutionary advantage, and it would be gradually shed. Likewise, perhaps enough appendicitis would have bred out the appendix.) But you get the gist. The idea is not that the steps are impervious to reason, more that they are concealed. Accordingly, you can’t jump from the present to the past in one reasoned leap.

Are you still with me? You are a generous reader.

Let us apply this theoretical framework to society. There are purported CEMs for societal development. The most well known, and universally despised, is social Darwinism. The CEM in social Darwinism is, once again, survival of the fittest. Societal structures compete, and the superior structure prevails. Aside from the damage done in the name of social Darwinism, there’s something incoherent about it. Social conventions accrete, and change, in ways it would be difficult to attribute meaning to. What is the functional purpose of a convention against wearing hats in church? Why was big hair such a hit in the 80s? These are trivial examples, but the trivial examples are the best starting place, because they are so obviously arbitrary. And if they are obviously arbitrary, why would bigger conventions–like marriage–be any less arbitrary?

Even if we’re generous for a moment and say there is some CEM (be it social Darwinism or otherwise) that applies to social arrangements, why assume it is “complete” in the way described above? If, in any given set of social structures, there is some randomness–some noise–how do we know which parts are random? Is marriage part of the noise, or a result of the CEM, whatever that may be? Which social conventions are the wisdom of the Ancients, and which are pure, meaningless, random outcomes?

As a result of all this, I am a hearty skeptic of tradition. I think it has no independent value and no explanatory power. I find certain traditions–the confinement of women to familial roles, widespread racism, homophobia–outright repugnant. I find other traditions–good manners, respect for others, friendship–to be valuable. The category “tradition” seems to do none of the heavy moral lifting; it seems to contain no wisdom, ancient or otherwise.

Looking the wrong way down the telescope

Via William A. Clark (Flickr)
Via William A. Clark (Flickr)

This is my first post here, so let me begin in the manner in which I hope to continue: with some backhanded praise. Adam Gurri’s concept and critique of “telescopic morality” is a fantastic rhetorical flourish. It evokes the idea of a moral trompe l’oeil, a trick in which we erroneously transmute distant moral concerns into near ones. It’s also a great entry point into some excellent analysis of our relationship to information, and our general irascibility on social media. If you haven’t read the article that lays out the idea, you should. So far, so good.

It is also what a certain kind of academic might describe, archly, as “problematic”. It rests on twin foundations: first, that there are relevant moral distinctions based on proximity (literal or metaphorical); and, second, that telescopic morality tends towards the Sisyphean, since it encourages ineffectual or irrelevant moral actions. I disagree with both of those propositions.

But there’s more to this discussion than those two propositions alone. The rip tide is a suspicion about consequentialist ethical systems (or perhaps just utilitarianism). That’s a much larger battle, but I would like to try to set down what I regard as a limiting principle, no matter what your ethical proclivities – numbers cannot be ignored in in any ethical construct, particularly as applied to charity.

Near, far, wherever you are…

Though it’s not explicit, Adam’s critique of “telescopic morality” is really a critique of Peter Singer’s “expanding circle”. For the unfamiliar, Singer is a utilitarian in the bullet-biting mold. He is famous for many things, but the most relevant for current purposes is his admonition to give generously to charity, particularly in the developing world. “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle” is a quick and easy introduction.[1]

The “expanding circle” refers to the expanding scope of ethical concern – beginning traditionally with the individual, then the family, class, nation, and so on to humanity at large.[2] Interestingly, one of Singer’s first arguments in favor of expanding the circle is made on a pragmatic basis: that it is now possible to effect change on a global basis in a way that was impossible in the past.[3] This is the inverse of Adam’s view—that it’s essentially impossible to make a difference—so I’ll revisit it in a moment.

The second argument is that the interconnection of human interests (think global trade; think global warming) leads ineluctably to the development of a global ethic. There is something to this idea. Though we may not meet the Bangladeshi that has sewn our t-shirt in the way we could once have known a village tailor, do we owe them any less an obligation of community? This is the kernel of the much maligned, over-used, but not entirely inaccurate metaphor of the “global village”.

From these precepts one could build a fairly strong set of claims about the ethical value of distant persons. 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.

Sisyphus pushes the rock downhill

And when you’re haggling about the price, you’ll want to think about the exchange rate. There’s a reason I say “prices” and “exchange rates.” The language of finance is a neat little heuristic in the debate about charitable interventions. It’s probably the easiest entry point to effective altruism because it provides a ready-made language in which to talk about the relative merits of two charitable options.

Try this comparison about the relative merits of Make a Wish and VillageReach, for example, stolen shamelessly from a brilliant post by Jason Kuznicki:

“One wish [from Make a Wish] for one relatively privileged (albeit distinctly unlucky) first-world kid. Or fifteen hundred years of life [from VillageReach] — for children who will otherwise die.”

Or, two examples from Giving What We Can:

“[T]he UK’s National Health Service considers it cost-effective to spend up to £20,000 (over $30,000) for a single year of healthy life saved. […] Against Malaria Foundation distributes mosquito nets at a cost of only $2,300 per life saved.”

“For the same amount of money as training one guide dog, we could instead completely cure over 2,000 people of blindness.”

These kinds of results should be obvious in the developed world. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked in first world countries, and you can leverage the enormous purchasing power differential when spending dollars (or euros, or pounds) in the third world.

So, the question to ask yourself is how much more do you care about your neighbors than those in foreign countries? This is what I like to call your “personal ethical exchange rate”. Take a moment, if you’re willing, to set an exchange rate between the interests of hypothetical neighbor A and hypothetical distant person B.

Do you care thousands of times more about A than B? Tens of thousands of times more? Because when it comes to the relative efficiency of local versus foreign interventions, that’s the order of magnitude we’re talking about. There are few, if any, who are prepared to discount distant lives quite so heavily. There may be such people, but I think they are forced to defend a far more difficult proposition than merely “one should favor one’s neighbors.”

We can’t be heroes

When Adam argues that telescopic morality is ineffectual, he is (on my reading at least) arguing that the scale of certain problems is so great that individual interventions are immaterial. A key quote:

“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.”

Adam is tallying efforts like those of VillageReach and Against Malaria against the totality of problems such as child health and malaria infection in the developing world. Those problems seem to be insurmountable or, at least, of a scale much larger than, say, building local community networks.

However, there seems to me to be no clear reason why one would measure each intervention only in terms of progress (with respect to some arbitrarily defined “problem”), rather than on a standalone basis. 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.[5] 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.)

But even so, there’s plenty of evidence that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome. Smallpox has been eradicated, and nearly 1 billion people have risen out of extreme poverty.[6] Our actions in distant places have a distinct, measurable outcome. Those results are no less distinct or measurable because they are not directly observed by us. None of this is to say that there aren’t important debates around the effectiveness of aid. But those debates are founded on a shared assumption that helping distant persons is a worthwhile goal if it can, in fact, be achieved.

The consequences of virtue

All that I have said above is intensely focused on outcomes. It’s the tallying of results. If that sticks in your craw, as I imagine it might in Adam’s, it may be because your system of ethics is based on who people are rather than what they do. You might be more interested in virtue than in results. And you might think a person’s place in their community is a better measure of their ethics than some arid accounting of global benefits.

I am not a virtue ethicist in any traditional sense, so I can’t honestly say I find that point of view persuasive. But I am not hostile to it. It falls, for me, into the “reasonable minds may disagree” mental category. However, I am not prepared to extend that generosity to a critique of “telescopic morality.” And that is because, at its most basic, I do not think that virtue ethics is a license to be innumerate. As Joseph Raz rather neatly puts it “numbers matter.” And once you begin to look at the numbers, the case for helping the distant over your local community is, in my view, overwhelming. Indeed, I think the virtues of wisdom and compassion demand it.

[1] In my more whimsical moments, I like to think of Singer as the Ghost of Cognitive Dissonance, haunting undergraduate ethicists in well-to-do universities worldwide. “Don’t you agree you are morally obliged to give to the very poor?” “Then why don’t you?”

[2] I’m going to leave to one side for a moment the animal world, notwithstanding that it is mentioned by Singer and seems to me to be obviously in-scope. This is mainly because the case for vegetarianism tends to be so obvious, so right, and so utterly inconsistent with most people’s choices, that it produces violent objections. Accordingly, it has a tendency to derail conversations.

[3] Singer also makes an evolutionary argument for the expanding circle, which I fully intend to ignore right now.

[4] At this point I will mention Experimental Philosophy (aka “x-phi”), a line of inquiry in which empirical results from, for example, surveys, can be used for various philosophical purposes. It’s particularly interesting when applied to classic ethical problems, like the Trolley Problem. I only mention it, though, rather than really weigh in, because I live in suppressed fear of being assassinated by trolley in some sleepy university town.

[5] I admit this is a more controversial, and complex, question than I have really indicated here. One set of people who don’t much like thinking in pieces in this way are rule consequentialists (although, in my defense, there’s just as many problems with thinking in recursive act-rule loops). There’s also just the more prosaic point that thinking about ethics in tiny little pieces is some version of mental transaction costs hell. That said, I think my point about arbitrary “progress” measures stands.

[6] My personal favorite example of unnoticed progress is that usage of the word “moist” is at historical lows.