The New Bondage

Adam has been mighty preachy lately. Now we are all to blame, as he puts it, “Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.” Thus the malady. Later, the means: “Above all, [acceptance] is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both.” Here endeth the lesson.


But we’re left without an end. Why would I want to do this? After all, we’ve been subject to several homilies whose rhetoric is designed to discourage me from doing much of anything of this nature. For example, in The Morality of Futility, Adam writes, “Our moral sphere should not be stretched beyond the scale appropriate for an individual human life.” This is early Adam Gurri, of course. What about something more recent? Here he is less than a year removed from this recent spate of moralizing: “The bigger your ambitions, the worse the consequences for your flaws.”

Ah. So we see the connecting principles, revealing that we do not have a contradiction, but an exchange, and not necessarily an exchange of one ideal for another, but an exchange of emphasis. Telescopic Morality, as a pejorative, emphasizes vocation, i.e., doing the tasks at hand, inasmuch as one is able; Culpabilitarianism, on the other hand, emphasizes accepting responsibility for the condition of the cosmic order, with the moral impulsion to do something about it. “We must,” Adam pleads. “Thou shalt.”

So Adam would bind us.

One of my best friends in the whole world informed me that he does not buy anything made in China, and, in attempt to bind me in his moral world, he implied that neither should I. He made it clear that he was not making a Buy American argument; he was making a moral argument: child slave labor is morally wrong, and any moral person would not support child slave labor. “Well, actually…” I began, followed by an explanation of world markets, noting that his slightly more expensive hecho in Mexico shoes would be exponentially more expensive were child slavery abolished, seeing as how demand for non-slave labor would drive the price of cheaply made shoes to the point where the poor could not afford shoes, just like it was before Chinese child slave labor.

Indeed, we participate in evil.

Now what? Do we close world markets? Do we shut down food factories? Do we go to war against China? And on what basis? On our moral purity? What a fanciful idea! What fantasy!

Thus we are doubly bound, both with the moral imperative to decry immorality, paired with the added moral imperative to accept culpability. And then what? What shall we do then? How do we bear in mind the rhetoric of culpability when we have no moral norm beyond solipsistic striving? How do I actually accomplish culpability? Do I work it off?

This is the impulse behind leftist ideology, and it has been for a century and a half, in its modern incarnation, namely that civilization is deeply flawed, and benefits materially from obvious evil (a term which, in a post-religious context, has been termed materialistically, but still carries the same moral freight): government policy has become primarily social policy, progressives, liberals, anarcho-fascists, leftists, Marxists, and whatever nomenclature whichever sect of the Left you can derive–policy is about forcibly righting moral wrongs; freedom is anathema because free people are culpable in evildoing. They are at fault. They must work harder at love. We will see to it.

It is no wonder that civilization developed a hankering for an all-powerful, all-seeing, personal God who could hold us accountable, ultimately. Our ancestors even developed the notion of an eschaton, at which point this personal God would judge us, each individually, those who did good going to heaven, those who did evil going to hell. Alas! What if God has caught you committing evil? Not to worry: you can buy him off, either with money, a tithe of your firstfruits, or with the blood of a common beast or the most-evolved animal.

But now we have acceptance as a choice. I accept that I am culpable. For we are convinced that neither witness nor the outcry of the human heart, nor all the evidence of good and evil, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, armies, wars, bureaucracy, legislation, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all the cold happenstance of existence, will be able to separate us from the discoverable truths. We shall identify and overcome, expunging evils one by one.

Who will accuse me? I may accept culpability, but there is now no condemnation.

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.

Continue reading “In Dialectic Over Telescopic Morality”

Happy Birthday, Thomas, From Nicaragua

It’s my son’s 12th birthday today. I was in Nicaragua for his 9th birthday, doing some leadership training. “Do you have any children?” they asked. “Yes,” I said. “Two boys. Thomas is turning 9 tomorrow.” And then I heard a lot of chattering about “sus hijos,” and I was pleased that they thought so much about it, but I had work to do, so I returned to the task at hand.

The next day: Que sorpresa! They sang a happy birthday song to him, knowing that I could get it uploaded to him by that evening. At first I thought they were going to sing “Feliz Cumpleaños,” which is what all good Grade 9 Spanish language students learn, but they didn’t. Well, they did, but it’s nothing like you can imagine until you’ve heard it. There was a moment when I wasn’t sure what paradise I had come into. It was a kind of ecstasy of love that electrified and healed. For those of you who have an ear for a proper Spanish accent, I do not, and for my own pronunciation I offer you mis más sinceras disculpas. Take a listen:

Some notes:

  • I was there at their request.
  • It was not a mission trip.
  • They paid me to be there. I watched them do it, each individual, with cash, every day, for two sessions per day for ten days.
  • Suyapa Beach is a magnificent place to rest and relax during that all-important free weekend.
  • They apply what I teach them, for better and for worse, all around. That is, I learn, and they learn. My learning is far easier than theirs. Describing it requires a lengthy post, mostly involving family relationships.
  • I got sick. Look: I get sick when I visit Michigan, so it was a given that I was going to get sick visiting the tropics. At one point I convinced myself that I was going to perish of a tropical fever, but they took care of me, and I had the distinct impression they liked that they could take care of me.
  • A little bragging: after my first time down there they have requested me by name, that I come to them to teach them, cycling through new students once every three or four years. We have a mutual respect–love–for each other.

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

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.