Overview of essay series

This is the first in a collection of three essays exploring and ultimately defending the idea of choosing what feels wholesome as a heuristic for picking actions which are good for the world. I'm including a summary of the series here, before getting to the essay proper.


The two main generators of my thinking about this were:

  • Reflecting on major mistakes that have been made in EA, and wondering how EA might have been different at a deep level in ways that could have averted those mistakes.
  • Reflecting on and trying to name certain core praiseworthy behaviours of people whom I especially admire.


In the first essay, Acting Wholesomely (= the rest of this post), we see that the regular English concept of acting wholesomely can be action-guiding, especially if taken with a flavour of “paying attention to the whole of things”. In practice this involves leveraging our emotional intelligence to help recognise which actions or effects are (un)wholesome. This is a skill which many people already exercise implicitly; it can be practised, and can help us to avoid moral errors. Unwholesomeness can never be completely eliminated, so we must learn to relate to it wholesomely — rather than ignore it or treat it as toxic, we may do best to relate to it as a wise parent towards a child who is hurting others.


In the second essay, Wholesomeness and Effective Altruism, we will see that there are tensions between wholesome action and a simplistic interpretation of EA. But they can be unified in a “wholesome EA” perspective. Serious pursuit of wholesome action will integrate core EA principles, and serious pursuit of EA will (as I argue in the third essay) integrate a desire for wholesomeness. This might have helped to avert major historical mistakes in EA. There remain challenges to be tackled (when to act carefully vs quickly; when to focus on reducing local unwholesomeness vs more global), but these are just normal challenges in seeking to act wholesomely. 


In the third essay, Wholesome Culture, we will ask how much wholesomeness should be an integral part of our culture. We have seen robustness-flavoured benefits in the previous essays. There are also important social effects: it is easier to act wholesomely in wholesome environments, so wholesome action can help to raise the waterline. And a reputation for wholesomeness could be attractive (though care is needed to avoid sounding boring or sanctimonious). While the fetishization of wholesomeness could stifle visionaries, this is a navigable issue. In conclusion, wholesomeness should be an important strand in the foundations of our culture, though it should rarely be the focus of attention.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Adam Bales, Alex Zhu, Jan Kulveit, Nick Beckstead, Rio Popper, and Toby Ord for conversations and/or comments. In memory of Sebastian Lodemann, whose wholesomeness was an inspiration to those around him.

What does it mean to act wholesomely?

The basic idea

I suspect many readers will already have a sense of what it means to act wholesomely, even if they don’t normally think in these terms. It may be most easily pointed at in negatives: Acting wholesomely means avoiding, and sometimes giving a wide berth to, things that are unwholesome. An extremely non-exhaustive list of unwholesome things:

  • Suppressing public discussion of issues with your charity that donors would want to know about (& that don’t create privacy issues)
  • Skirting the law for convenience, and encouraging your employees to do similarly
  • Manufacturing urgency (even if the urgency is then real!) to put pressure on potential hires to accept offers
  • Disregarding rules for personal benefit
  • Insincere flattery, to get someone to think well of you

Some slightly more subtle cases of unwholesomeness:

  • Gaming systems that others have established, in ways that aren’t aligned with the intent of the creators
  • Fastidious rule-enforcement, in ways that don’t track the purpose of the rules and fail to notice times when it would be better to bend the rules
  • Taking many meetings with people at a conference, and abruptly ending them as soon as it’s apparent that the person can’t help you
  • Not apologizing for things you’ve done wrong, for fear that could open you up to lawsuits
  • Unnecessarily hurting someone’s feelings, out of a refusal to shy away from saying harsh things
  • Using an organization as a vehicle of convenience for something quite different from what people generally understand it to do

(Note that it will sometimes be correct to bite the bullet and accept such subtle unwholesomeness. For now, I just want to be able to look at and acknowledge that there is some unwholesomeness in these things.)

I think this is a pretty normal English use of the word. I asked ChatGPT to explain what it meant to act wholesomely, and it said:

To act wholesomely means to behave in a manner that is morally sound, kind, and considerate towards others and oneself. It involves making choices that reflect integrity, honesty, and a sense of responsibility. Wholesome actions are characterized by their positive impact on individuals and the community, fostering trust, respect, and empathy. This behavior often entails selflessness, putting the well-being of others before one's own desires. It's about creating an environment of positivity and support, where actions are guided by a deep sense of ethical values and a commitment to doing what is right, fair, and beneficial for all involved.

So why am I talking about the normal meaning of an English word? First, because I think the concept is a useful one and could bear more attention. Second, because I want to talk about some angles of my understanding of the central concept, having established a baseline so we all know roughly what’s going on.

Exploring the concept

So far I’ve been pointing to the concept of acting wholesomely via examples or general descriptions rather than trying to define it explicitly. If I had to venture an explicit definition, it would be something like:

Acting wholesomely means paying attention to the whole system around us, and contributing well as a part of that whole without introducing unnecessary friction or pain points.

My notion of the “whole system” is inspired in part by Christopher Alexander’s books on architecture[1]. He discusses how buildings will be better if they are made in ways where they are as a whole, and in each part, sympathetic to and supportive of what already exists around them. Based on my understanding of that theory, here’s a cartoon of two ways you might look to add a purple building near an existing black building:


 … or …

Here the version on the top is sympathetic to what’s there, and the buildings — and the spaces between the buildings — support each other. This is not true in the version on the bottom, where the buildings kind of clash unharmoniously, and leave the nearby outdoor spaces more strained (this may be a subtle effect, but I do think that if people spend a while dwelling on the two layouts they will fairly reliably prefer the one on the top). But the shape of the purple building is identical in the two cases; so this information was not accessible by considering just the new building in isolation.

Taking broader actions in the world we won’t have such simple geometric principles guiding us. But I feel that there is often something spiritually similar going on. Acting wholesomely means striving for harmony in relation to other parts of the system. This especially means with respect to other parts of the system one has strong interactions with, but in its deepest form it also means attending to important potential interactions.

Looking again at my examples of acting unwholesomely, they all involve creating some tension or feeling-of-imbalance in part of the system, e.g.

  • “Manufacturing urgency to put pressure on potential hires to accept offers”
    • … means that the people considering offers will be making decisions while stressed, which is generally not conducive to good decision-making.
  • “Suppressing public discussion of issues with your charity that donors would want to know about”
    • … means that there will be a mismatch between what donors know and what they “ought” to know, so:
      • The donors’ decisions may not align with what they’d most endorse
      • Your employees will feel a pressure on their own communications to maintain the narrative
  • “Insincere flattery, to get someone to think well of you”
    • … means that there is a mismatch between what you think, and what they think you think, so:
      • You’re implicitly pressuring yourself to keep up the illusion, in ways that constrain your future actions
      • You’re damaging their world models, and may result in less wise actions from them than absent the flattery

In contrast, the word “wholesome” evokes a sense of things being in balance and straightforwardly good. Parts of the whole are well-adapted to their positions. This is approximately the same as the absence of unwholesomeness.[2] When something is unwholesome there’s some part of the system which is bearing an awkward/incorrect cost or strain.

Linking this back with regular usage, here’s the Cambridge dictionary definition of “wholesome”:

good for you, and likely to improve your life either physically, morally, or emotionally

The sense of “acting wholesomely” I have in mind can be understood as a metaphor: taking actions which are likely to improve the (metaphorical) health of the systems around us. 

What I’m pointing to here is under-specified. I’m indicating the class of things to pay attention to, but I’m not saying exactly how different degrees of unwholesomeness in which places should trade off against each other. In practice, of course, a lot of the substance of making good judgements will depend on those details. A full account of that is much deeper than I can go in these essays, and should be the subject of many conversations and life-long learning. In presenting the idea of “acting wholesomely”, I’m not trying to pin down what that means in every situation, but to offer a high-level frame and orientation that I hope will be helpful for people learning to make robustly good decisions. 

Virtue ethics

Acting wholesomely overlaps with virtue ethics, in that many unwholesome actions will feel unvirtuous — and that some virtues (e.g. honesty) are specifically about avoiding certain kinds of unwholesomeness. Compared with virtue ethics, acting wholesomely puts more emphasis on understanding the impacts of one’s actions on others. It also doesn’t centre the virtues — with some hope that this could avoid cases where people focus single-mindedly on excelling at one virtue while ignoring other issues.


Consequentialist perspectives provide axiologies — accounts of which states of the world is good. The idea of acting wholesomely does not provide such an axiology, but just heuristics for good actions. Like consequentialism, it is significantly concerned with the impacts of our actions. But it is sceptical of our ability to explicitly reason about what those impacts will be, and therefore recommends trusting one’s holistic feeling about what is wholesome (while still often being in favour of attempts to explicitly reason about impacts).

Pre-theoretic deontology

Wholesomeness overlaps with deontology — especially an intuitive, pre-theoretical deontology — in focusing on avoiding certain things that are felt to be bad. But whereas deontological intuitions often have a flavour of “nothing could justify this wrong”, and flinching away from toxic bads, acting wholesomely more treats them as major costs to be weighed, but sometimes wholeheartedly accepted (and grieved for) without feeling that one is thereby doing wrong. Wholesomeness also has an element of caring about doing an excellent job of contributing to the system around, rather than just dictating certain things to be avoided.

Clean / traditional living

Working a normal respectable job, going to church on Sundays, staying sober and off drugs, avoiding sexual promiscuity or strange counterculture — these are all kinds of “clean” living that might sometimes be called “wholesome”.

Often they will also be somewhat wholesome on my concept. Over-indulgence in general, and addiction in particular, are unwholesome as they ground in an imbalanced sense of priorities. And, all else equal, there is something wholesome about comporting with the culture around us. However, all else is not always equal. There’s something wholesome about letting people do the things they’re drawn to, and unwholesome about puritanically suppressing that. Moreover, there’s something important and wholesome about people experimenting — both for their own learning, and ultimately to find better ways for things to be.


Carlsmith’s notion of ‘sincerity’ (or Habryka’s notion of ‘integrity’) captures an important dimension of what could be thought of as “internal wholesomeness” or “being true to yourself”. My concept of wholesomeness could be understood as sincerity combined with something like the opposite of sociopathy — a true tracking of, and caring about, the impacts your actions have on people and structures around you. In some cases this could mean not leaning all the way into sincerity (e.g. it can be wholesome to decline to bring up political views you know will cause friction at a family dinner, even if asked). 

The internal motions of wholesome action

For now I’m going to set aside the question of whether one should try to act wholesomely (I think it’s a good idea, but I’ll go deeper into this in the subsequent essays), and instead ask how one can act wholesomely. What kind of mental motions can be involved, and which are most effective? What are the pitfalls, where one is most likely to slip away from unwholesome action?

If you come in with an optimising mindset, a natural approach might be to say “OK, this is about making the systems around us healthy? Well then let’s think explicitly about the health of the systems and take moves which will optimise for that.”. 

I think this is usually the wrong approach. This isn’t to say that it isn’t worth thinking about the health of the systems (indeed I think it can be quite important to do so), but that it is an error for the final step in decision-making to be an attempt to optimise. 

Instead I think that the core motion for wholesome action is:

Think about things from various angles, and then take the action that feels to you to be wholesome.

Why am I putting feeling at the heart of this?

Leveraging emotional intelligence to track downsides

If something doesn’t feel altogether wholesome to me, this usually means there’s some issue somewhere. I may not know exactly what it is — my feeling could be sparked by a sense of things not lining up correctly in a way that is indicative of a problem rather than seeing the problem directly — and even if I know where the issue is I may not yet know how to articulate it.

This is a strength of paying attention to my feeling[3] about whether something is wholesome. It can let me notice issues before they’re part of my explicit models. (And can also therefore, in conjunction with something like focusing, be used to articulate issues and add them to my explicit models.)

I think what’s going on here is just that feelings are relatively good at tuning in to things holistically — they don’t require frames or comprehension to let us know whether things seem good, or if there are niggling issues. There’s an analogy here with noticing confusion (in the sense of Yudkowsky). Noticing confusion helps with identifying concrete epistemic errors. Noticing unwholesomeness helps with identifying concrete moral errors.

Identifying wholesomeness as a skill

As I’m describing it here, noticing whether something feels wholesome or unwholesome is a skill. It’s one that I think most people (almost everyone?) has to some degree, and in many cases I think it can beat our explicit reasoning (we may feel that something is wrong without having a story about why). But I think it’s something one can be better or worse at.

Believing there’s a skill here doesn’t require buying into some abstract notion of wholesomeness. The skill could just be thought of as “having your intuitive feeling about something do a good job of tracking the endorsed judgement you’d reach if you had a lot more information, and spent a long time thinking it through”.

As a skill, it can be practiced, and I strongly suspect it can be trained. I don’t really know how to train it. I’m giving some pointers here to how I think about the skill; I can offer my thoughts about what’s wholesome in specific situations; and I can generate generic advice like “practice deliberately, and then reflect on how you did”. But I wonder if one can go deeper than this, and I think it might be very valuable if someone worked out how to do an excellent job of training the skill.

Making space for good judgements

If we haven’t thought about something very much, it can be easy to not appreciate important facets of the whole. If we make decisions at this point, they’re more likely to be incorrect, and perhaps in some way unwholesome. That isn’t to say that this isn’t sometimes the correct move — we have limited time and attention to spend, and we can’t afford to give enough to reach excellent judgements on everything. But it’s a factor which can get in the way of wholesome action.

Similarly when we are stressed or otherwise emotionally distracted, I think that we can lose touch with our sense of the whole of things. I think there’s a lot to the metaphor of strong emotions acting like a cloud, in which we are no longer able to perceive our subtler emotional reactions to things.

When we care about making good judgements, therefore, especially if we’re concerned about accidentally choosing unwholesomely, I think it can be best to try to give ourselves space. Sometimes I find it effective to sit in the bath or go on a walk, turning things over. Sometimes I realise there’s a facet of things it would be good to talk over with someone. At the end of this process I can, sometimes, reach a sense of confidence in my decisions, grounded in a sense of the whole around them. 

Wholesome vs virtuous vs right?

OK, but even if we’re making use of our feelings to track things, why is “what is wholesome” a contender for how we should make decisions, rather than “what is virtuous” or “what is right”?

Getting deeply into what is the correct choice will be a subject for a subsequent essay, but for now I want to note that it’s easier to justify actions with large costs with a frame of “what is virtuous” or “what is right”, because the costs may be overwhelmed by projected benefits. Of course sometimes it will be correct to bite the bullet and incur costs (discussed in the next section, as well as subsequent essays), but unwholesomeness is uncomfortable and there’s often a significant temptation to look away from it. If there is a justification for it as “virtuous” it can become easier to stop giving it attention altogether. [4]

That stopping-giving-it-attention is a looking-away-from-the-whole-of-things. It cuts one off from the ability to recognise what is wholesome. Perhaps a bullet was worth biting in one case, but if it’s learned just as “that was the right thing to do”, we may come to forget that there was a bullet to be bitten there at all, and start biting it at times when it’s decidedly wrong to do so.

I think if we keep on asking ourselves “what is wholesome?” rather than “what is right?”, we are less likely to fall into this trap of not looking at big swathes of issues. Another question that might work is “what is good and right and comfortable?”. We may feel that something unwholesome is right, but it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable about that. When we truly feel ourselves to be acting wholesomely, we are aligned — both internally, and with the whole we are a part of.

Meta-level wholesomeness

Nothing is fully wholesome

Try to imagine a system where people have managed to get rid of all of the unwholesomeness — everything is always done for the right reasons, nobody is ever meaningfully under-informed, etc. Maybe just for a moment close your eyes and try to conjure it up; not (of course) all of the details, but just a holistic sense of what a system might be like, and what you would feel about it.

When I try to picture this, I get a feeling of unease — although locally wholesome, it feels like the system as a whole must somehow be sickly. It’s too perfect. I think I’m implicitly realizing that a tremendous amount of effort would be required to eradicate every last trace of unwholesomeness … which is either the wrong call as a question of resource allocation, or more likely a sign that the unwholesomeness is being hidden rather than removed (which would be pretty unwholesome).

Perhaps this is simply a failure of my imagination. But at least relative to our current society, and things in its near vicinity, it is not. We already saw that making good wholesome decisions takes time and space, and sometimes the tradeoffs won’t make spending that time the right decision. Moreover any system which is trying to do anything in the world will create vortices of friction and unwholesomeness as it goes. e.g. some people will operate on partially misguided assumptions; some decision processes won’t have access to all the information they should, and make suboptimal choices as a result. Proper management will reduce these frictions, and avoid ones above a certain magnitude, but it will not eradicate them.

I mention this not as apologetica for EA. I don’t think the importance of our work gives us licence to be less wholesome than other parts of society — in fact, I think we should strive to be more wholesome, as I’ll explain in later essays. Rather, I mention this because I think there will as a matter of fact be some degree of unwholesomeness in every system we create or interact with, and we can relate to that in more or less healthy ways.

Failure modes in relating to unwholesomeness

Before looking at what I think healthy ways to relate to unwholesomeness are, I’ll discuss what I see as frequent but ultimately unhealthy approaches. These apply to unwholesomeness which is in ourselves or in systems that we regard ourselves as part of.

Pretending it isn’t there

Unwholesomeness is uncomfortable, and we often don’t like looking at uncomfortable things. If we can just … not see the issue, or pretend to ourselves that it’s fine, that’s a simple way to not engage with the uncomfortableness. This can be quite subtle; since we don’t like conceiving of ourselves as people who would look away from issues, we won’t turn away very directly, we’ll just subtly downplay it, and not get around to investigations that might turn something up.

This is not a strategy that is conducive to resolving the unwholesomeness. On the contrary it compounds the issue: there’s something unhealthy (in ourselves) about refusing to admit problems, and it’s worse if gets socially projected (so that other people feel pressure to believe it’s not an issue).

Treating it as toxic

When we regard something as toxic we want it changed or gone, but we don’t want to engage with the details. This is another way of not engaging with the uncomfortableness. 

Treating unwholesomeness as toxic can be effective at removing the unwholesomeness, but it’s not a very wholesome way of doing it. Because it doesn’t engage with the details, it can miss more effective or proper ways to address the issue. Worse, it can function as a screen to enable us to pretend that unwholesomeness in our response isn’t there. At times this can lead to a response that’s more unwholesome than the original issue.

Wholesomely relating to unwholesomeness?

The model which feels most salient to me as good handling of unwholesomeness is a wise parent dealing with a child who is hurting others. The parent doesn’t look away from the harm that is being caused; nor do they freak out. They are firm, and seek to understand the issue and address the root cause.

If the unwholesomeness is in something which is under our control, I think that the appropriate attitude is similar. Look openly and honestly at what’s going on. Try to name the unwholesomeness. Then try to think honestly through what to do about it. If it should be addressed, address it soberly. Don’t hide it, or the way you’ve addressed it, from others.

In some cases unwholesomeness shouldn’t be addressed. It should be accepted as a necessary cost. But it’s still worth looking straight at it, and grieving for not having found a better way, which avoids it. Bearing a cost without grieving for it is unwholesome for having a missing mood.

Moreover I think people should be somewhat slow to move to acceptance. Sometimes there is no immediate apparent fix for unwholesomeness; or rather the fixes seem more costly than accepting it to stay. But if people keep attention on the ways in which it’s unsatisfactory, they will devote some energy to working out how to do the things they valued in other ways. It will often be that this process uncovers a solution which is better than the original, even if that possibility wasn’t apparent at the start.

In other cases when noticing unwholesomeness it may not be properly in our gift to address it. The unwholesomeness lives in some system we are engaging with, but not in control of. I still think that something of the parent’s stance is, if we can access it, usually a good idea. Don’t look away from the unwholesomeness. When the time is right, draw others’ attention to it, patiently but firmly. If the unwholesomeness has spread into the social domain, such that people are socially punished for drawing attention to it, then gently but firmly, draw attention to that. Don’t imply that the whole system is bad, and don’t necessarily make a big deal out of the badness that’s there (it can be graceful to turn the other cheek), but don’t submit to a narrative where the badness isn’t bad.

Note that this isn’t supposed to mean that you make everything about rooting out unwholesomeness. You could think some things were somewhat unwholesome — and speak openly about that when it comes up — while still not wanting to make that your priority.

In some cases we may not feel we have the power to safely do this. I grieve for that, while not wanting to put the responsibility on the powerless. If you personally have more of a safety net (this could mean financial or social, depending on the consequences you are concerned about), I believe you have extra responsibility to try to recognise and name unwholesomeness.

More posture than goal?

Carlsmith has a nice articulation of a distinction between yin — being receptive to the will of others, and yang — projecting your will into the world. Acting wholesomely is about marrying the yin and yang correctly. Not so yang that you ignore the wills and desires of others, but not so yin that you accept things as they are without seeking to improve them[5].

In seeking to act wholesomely, I think we can let either of these steer, and if they’re properly integrated it shouldn’t ultimately matter which is on top. We soften our yang, letting it be receptive to what we perceive — but not losing touch with its heart. Then when we act from the yang, it already contains the yin. Or we can steer with yin, trying to be receptive to the wholeness we perceive — but this includes the yang-within, our sense of how things should be. So acting from the yin encapsulates the yang.

In this way, I feel that acting wholesomely may be best understood as a posture. It can give rise to goals, but it isn’t fundamentally goal-oriented. And wholesome action for different actors often looks a little different as they perceive different facets of things. Nor is it in any way necessary for wholesome action to conceive of itself as such. A lot of what I’m doing in this essay is just trying to pull out and articulate things I have at some level known for many years.

Is it a good posture to adopt? I believe it is, but I’ll leave the principal discussion of that question for the third essay.

  1. ^

    Especially volumes 1 and 2 of The Nature of Order. He sketches some mathematics underlying his concept of ‘wholeness’, but it’s only realistic to calculate in very simple cases; in realistic cases it will rely on people making assessments.

  2. ^

    I think there’s a bit more to wholesomeness than just the absence of unwholesomeness; I’ll revisit this in the third essay.

  3. ^

    I don’t mean “strong emotion”, but something more like “felt sense”; as opposed to “explicit model”.

  4. ^

    This justification can also create norms that valourize unwholesomeness, e.g. coming to think there's something courageous/impressively agentic in trying to sneakily manipulate one's way around laws.

  5. ^

    I haven’t read enough Eastern philosophy to know how much the things I’m saying here are just recapitulating standard advice, but I wouldn’t be shocked.

New Comment
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I think it would be better not to use the word "wholesome".  Using it is cheating, by letting us pretend at the same time that (A) we're explaining a new kind of ethics, which we name "wholesome", and (B) that we already know what "wholesome" means.  This is a common and severe epistemological failure mode which traces back to the writings of Plato.

If you replace every instance of "wholesome" with the word "frobby", does the essay clearly define "frobby"?

It seems to me to be a way to try to smuggle virtue ethics into the consequentialist rationality community by disguising it with a different word.  If you replace every instance of "wholesome" with the word "virtuous", does the essay's meaning change?

I think that for most of what I'm saying, the meaning wouldn't change too much if you replaced the word "wholesome" with "virtuous" (though the section contrasting it with virtue ethics would become more confusing to read). 

As practical guidance, however, I'm deliberately piggybacking off what people already know about the words. I think the advice to make sure that you pay attention to ways in which things feel unwholesome is importantly different from (and, I hypothesize, more useful than) advice to make sure you pay attention to ways in which things feel unvirtuous. And the advice to make sure you pay attention to things which feel frobby would obviously not be very helpful, since readers will not have much of a sense of what feels frobby.

Pretty good essay. On first pass, I don’t feel like this post manages to communicate the concept of wholesomeness well enough to pin it down for someone who didn’t already know what this post was trying to communicate. I shall give it a quick go.

When I am choosing an action and justifying it as wholesome, what it often feels like is that I am trying to track all the obvious considerations, but some (be it internal or external) force is pushing me to ignore one of them. Not merely to trade off against it, but to look away from it in my mind. And agains that force I’m trying to defend a particular action as the best one call all things considered - the “wholesome” action.

I am having a hard time thinking of examples, in part because I think I’ve been doing better on this axis in recent years, but I think one of the most tempting versions of this to me has been to ignore people’s feelings and my impacts on them when I have a mission that is very important. For instance, I might think someone has done terribly at some work that they’re doing on a project I’m leading. Now, I think it’s good to be straight with people and it’s good communication to give feedback early and clearly. So I want to let them know that the work has been worse than useless and I regret handing it off to them. This will likely cause them some fear and feel destabilizing to their social status and that will cause them stress and who knows how they deal with that. It is tempting here for me to choose not to pay attention to that when I decide to give them feedback, and as I do so, and after. And I have a great justification - because the work is exceedingly important! And if they say “Ben I feel like you’re being hurtful and not caring about my feelings” I can say “But this is what I have to do for the mission! It’s important! We all agree on that!” And nobody around will disagree because it’s often been the core conceit of my social groups that the only reason we’re here, the only reason we do what we do, is because we think it’s important. And your feelings don’t weigh on the scales of making the project hurt.

(That all may be true, but it doesn’t justify me avoiding seeing the direct impacts of my actions. When I notice this, sometimes I have impulses to do other things too - like reassure them in other ways, or show that I still respect them for other things they’ve done, or pick a time and place that is less likely to be embarrassing, or a dozen other things depending on the context. Admitting what's happening to myself and acting on the subsequent impulses feels more “wholesome” to me.)

Anyway, I used to be much more willing to stop caring about the impact of my behavior directly on people if I felt that it would distract from getting the important things done. Now I aim to be fully aware, even though it’s actually hard and often quite painful to still go ahead with it while doing that.

Writing this out now I even notice a way I’ve not been very wholesome in my interactions with some individuals I’ve interacted with of late. Noticing why, is not sufficient to solve it, alas, because I am quite allergic to some aspects of the relationship and I think it would be counterproductive to just have it naively be present in our interactions, I might easily act poorly and just make things worse. (I want to think on this more.)

Once you look at the whole of your impact on someone, then you can decide for yourself whether or not to do it. Of course, often you will choose to hurt someone. Reporting a violent crime or theft to the police is often the better decision even though it hurts the individual who broke a law. Even if you look directly at the costs it imposes on them (and the benefits it imposes on their future victims as well as the benefits of maintaining a shared rule of law) I typically do not change my mind about whether I will choose to do something that hurts them.

Overall I would ask yourself “What parts of life and the world do I instinctively turn my attention away from when it comes up?”, and then try to expand the things you can look directly at when making decisions. But I think this is probably assuming already a high level of self-awareness that has some other pre-requisites[1].

Perhaps an easier question is “What decisions have I made that really hurt me to a surprising degree and what did information I turn my attention away from when I made those decisions that could have guided me better and why did I ignore it?” And then use that to notice when you’re susceptible from making less wholesome decisions in your life.

(…having now finished reading the post I see you do talk about this aspect of wholesomeness later on, in the section “Wholesome vs virtuous vs right?”)

  1. ^

    Added: A pre-requisite being that, when I ask what parts of the world you instinctively turn your attention away from when it comes up, you go "Oh yes, I can think of examples of this I've noticed in myself" rather than going "I dunno, I don't think I do?" or "How could I know that in-principle, surely I'm avoiding thinking about it?". This requires skills I have not pointed to in this comment.

I really appreciate the example that you spelled out. I think this is solidly pointing at the same concept.

On this paragraph:

When I am choosing an action and justifying it as wholesome, what it often feels like is that I am trying to track all the obvious considerations, but some (be it internal or external) force is pushing me to ignore one of them. Not merely to trade off against it, but to look away from it in my mind. And agains that force I’m trying to defend a particular action as the best one call all things considered - the “wholesome” action.

... I am inclined to try not to use the word "wholesome" to mean "right" (= the thing you should do, all things considered). I'm trying to use "wholesome" to mean "not looking away from any of the considerations". This then allows "choosing what feels wholesome is a good heuristic for choosing what is right" to be a substantive claim.

I'd agree with that.

Because of this post, I've been thinking a little today about people who I consider wholesome, who often seem wiser than those who don't (I guess due to tracking things that others have pressures to not think about). I think the main thing I find upsetting about these people is that they tend to less often be holy madmen who commit their life to a cause or do something great, and instead they often do more typical human things like tradeoff against their career and impact on the world in order to get married and have kids.

I think the world will probably end soon and most value will be lost to us and I am kind of upset when people choose not to fight against that but instead to live a simpler and smaller life. Especially so when I thought we were fighting it together and then they just... stop. Then I feel kind of betrayed.

I think something that can go poorly when trying to be more wholesome is that, on finding yourself aware of a cost that you've been paying, you can also find that you do not have the strength now to choose to continue paying that cost. Now that you see how you've been hurting yourself, even though you've been getting great results, you cannot continue to inflict that upon yourself, and so you will instead give up on this course of action and do something less personally difficult.

I think this is a fair complaint! I think it's quite unwholesome, if you think we're in a crisis, to turn away and not look at that, or not work towards helping. It seems important to think about safety rails against that. It's less obviously unwholesome to keep devoting some effort towards typical human things while also devoting some effort towards fighting. (And I think there are a lot of stories I could tell where such paths end up doing better for the world than monomania about the things which seem most important.)

BTW one agenda here is thinking about what kinds of properties we might want societies of AI systems to have. I think there's some slice of worlds where things go better if we teach our AI systems to be something-in-the-vicinity-of-wholesome than if we don't.

I’m curious if you have any ideas for what to say to someone who isn’t being wholesome in some context - who is avoiding looking at some part of reality. For instance, in the above example, what could someone say to me when I’m ignoring my impacts upon them?

A standard line people say is “you don’t care about hurting my feelings” and that’s not quite the right response, because I would then argue that your feelings are less important than serving the mission.

I’m looking for something like “You don’t seem to be aware of the impacts you’re having on me”. Or maybe “You don’t seem to understand what he impact of your speech”. But I’m not sure either of these would successfully communicate with the self-blinded Ben I describe, and I’d appreciate hearing another’s thoughts on how to communicate here.

Often the effect of being blinded is that you take suboptimal actions. As you pointed out in your example, if you see the problem then all sorts of cheap ways to reduce the harmful impact occur to you. So perhaps one way of getting to the issue could be to point at that: "I know you care about my feelings, and it wouldn't have made this meeting any less effective to have had it more privately, so I'm surprised that you didn't"?

I'd be tempted to make it a question, and ask something like "what do you think the impacts of this on [me/person] are?".

It might be that question would already do work by getting them to think about the thing they haven't been thinking about. But it could also elicit a defence like "it doesn't matter because the mission is more important" in which case I'd follow up with an argument that it's likely worth at least understanding the impacts because it might help to find actions which are better on those grounds while being comparably good -- or even better -- for the mission. Or it might elicit a mistaken model of the impacts, in which case I'd follow up by saying that I thought it was mistaken and explaining how.

Promoted to curated: I think this post feels like it's in some important respects failing at the kind of standard that I normally hold LessWrong posts to. My guess is this is partially the result of the territory and partially something that I think can just be done better and this post didn't succeed at. More concretely, I feel like this post keeps trying to poetically point at a concept, by using it and making statements about it, without really acknowledging the degree to which the post fails to give a clear and mechanistic definition of what it is talking about. 

This makes it likely that readers walk away think with an inflated sense of understanding, and I think also gives rise to a bunch of "conflationary alliances" where people build a shared identity around a definition of "wholesomeness" that is framed in a way that avoid falsification (since falsification would threaten the alliance).

Despite that, I have found the concept handle of "wholesomeness" quite useful and have used it a bunch, though I've so far only felt comfortable using it with a bunch of disclaimers about the concept feeling kind of trap-like. Ben's restated definition of the concept gets the closest to how I use it internally: 

When I am choosing an action and justifying it as wholesome, what it often feels like is that I am trying to track all the obvious considerations, but some (be it internal or external) force is pushing me to ignore one of them. Not merely to trade off against it, but to look away from it in my mind.

I associate "unwholesemeness" with a specific mental motion where in order to either get some kind of social buy in, or to stop feeling overwhelmed with a decision, or want to avoid blameability for the consequence of a decision of mine by not thinking about it (ala Copenhagen Interpretation of ethics), where I rewrite my map to not include some part of reality, or assert that that part of reality is "unimportant" so that the resulting decision is "obvious". And "wholesomeness" with a kind of courage of instead confronting and owning the difficulty of getting buy-in, or the ambiguity of the decision. I like having a pointer to it, which I didn't have before this post, though I already had a concept for this, so I might be projecting what this post is about too much into my preconceptions. 

This overall does make me want to curate this, though I do think a rewrite that tackles this concept from a more reductionistic angle (of course recognizing the limits of such an approach), or just another post, is something that seems likely worth it to me.  

FWIW I quite like your way of pointing at things here, though maybe I'm more inclined towards letting things hang out for a while in the (conflationary?) alliance space to see which seem to be the deepest angles of what's going on in this vicinity, and doing more of the conceptual analysis a little later.

That said, if someone wanted to suggest a rewrite I'd seriously consider adopting it (or using it as a jumping-off point); I just don't think that I'm yet at the place where a rewrite will flow naturally for me.

The curation failed? the email is empty for me

Yeah, it's a bug related to EA Forum crossposts :( 

Sadly the email was already out to everyone by the time we noticed, so not much we can do now.

This post feels to me in some ways like the first chapter of a religious teaching. The post keeps talking about wholesomeness in a way where I have a (perhaps unjustified) sense the post is pretending or expecting me to know what it means, and talking like it has successfully explained it, but I’m not sure it succeeds (e.g. the circular definition for how to make wholesome decisions), and that feels common for religious texts about how to live a good life.

This is partly a feature: since I feel happier that I'm pointing to a coherent concept than I feel happy with any of my short articulations of it, one of the ways to continue to point is to use it in various ways, and let the way it's being used implicitly convey some information about the boundaries or subtleties of the concept.

Of course it seems great to continue to try to find better short articulations, to explore more examples, or otherwise to explicitly specify the boundaries/subtleties of the concept. If some of that happens in the comments it seems great to me. (Or if it gets poked at and turns out to be less of coherent concept than I think, I'd very much like to know that!)

Interesting observation that this comes up in religious texts about how to live a good life. I guess the reason is similar: there's a lot of complexity and nuance about how to live a good life, and it's helpful to be able to talk about some general directions and features of the landscape, even if one can't give a precise articulation of those features.

I don't think it has to be hard to say what wholesomeness is. I don't know what you mean by the word, but to me it's simply acting in a way that has compassion and respect to everything, leaving nothing out. Very hard to do, but easy enough to state.

I like this articulation. Would you object if I were to borrow it into the main text?

At the same time I'm not certain, if you just gave someone this definition, if they'd properly grasp the idea (if they didn't kind of understand it already). There are lots of different possible interpretations. Some are obviously impossible and so not action-guiding ("have individual compassion and respect for each electron, leaving none out"). More realistically, I think someone might hear it as automatically satisfied by an EA-style impartiality (and I think there's more to it than that, and also guess you think there's more to it than that).

Sure, feel free to use it, or riff on it to create something better.

This is a fully general problem with using words: the categories they point to are always a bit off, especially if the reader doesn't share a lot of our context. I find it best to state things as directly as I can, and let others sort out their own confusion.

Your definition reads like a sazen to me. A good pointer once you know the concept, but won't get it across to someone who really hasn't gotten it yet.

I don't think there's any other option. Wholesomeness is something you have to learn by doing. If you try to imitate what you think is wholesome after reading about it, you'll likely end up in some uncanny valley of weirdly unwholesome behavior even though it has all the trappings of wholesomeness.

I am more optimistic about the power of clear explanations. That's something I got from reading SlateStarCodex.

Wouldn’t that imply the existence of this essay, available for anyone passing by to read, is a net negative?

Yes. I think that any attempt to explain wholesomeness in written words will be inadequate at best and misleading at worst.

Seems like a valid choice you can make when blogging, it's a high standard to meet. I'll just say that concept-shaped holes can be very hard to notice and that posts that can successfully show them to those who are missing them are very valuable.

Thanks, Owen. What a nourishing post. The evocative images help.

"what is good and right and comfortable?" - mh, I would switch 'comfortable' for 'at ease' (to include consciously preferred discomfort, which is ok). 

It could appear a sazen, to some. Also, a bit cordially funny-sad, how the explanation has underperformed in seducing some of those who may benefit from it. Would need to refine the teaching. 

I'll try to add my very subjective take, since I have not noticed this understanding in the comments yet:

'Wholesomeness' is used as a an evocative label (and as such the label is more assotiative art than definition - which is good in case of trying to tap into mental blockages one might be in denial about). It points to a certain, subjectively interpreted inner state. It marks a moral epistemic (!) quality - how I go about believing to have gained assurance that my considered course of action or option is the one to go forward with.

It's akin to an integral check-in, where you connect to not only your cognition, but in turn also your feelings, your body sensations, and your imagined relation to personal spirituality. (here, I guess, focus is on the feelings).

The key to getting it is to not do it (mostly) cognitively. The choice of verbs of 'feel' vs. 'think' is not arbitrary. As long as attention is focused on explaining, understanding, and other mental activities, the mind is leaning forward to examine a certain piece of information, or doing a meticulous systematic inventory, bit by bit, very focused. But all the while the tapped emotions are those associated with those pieces and/or the general inquiry mode, e.g., could be anxious, curious.

By contrast, checking in with one's feeling in a way of unwinding calmness and observing and seeing if there is any remaining discomfort to be sensed and where that discomfort might take me to (potentially unwholesome bits, subconsciously registered caveats) - is a way to bring up challenges that the consciousness had ignored or even pushed away. 

So it's like a sort of intuition, or unfixation. If we think of a metaphor from eyesight, it's not looking at any one specific object, but resting the eye in a semi-unfocus, as the room perception settles into one picture of everything in its place.

Emotionally, it also has a quality of accepting things as they are (appreciating unwholesomeness).

Ok, so this is how to do the inquiry. The end state I am checking for is not so much calmness, but more of a deep joy. This comes when I have not just accepted, but indeed appreciated the options - from my intuitively best known stance, unrelated to the current case. I.e., I might come up with a completely different option, based on a much more fulfilling experience I've had before, that I therefore knew was possible (although I only remembered it as a feeling), and which got remembered as a personal standard of how awesome things can be in terms of relational quality. So, it's a subconscious check against one's experienced optimal solution or at least slightly above acceptable or good solutions from the past (the feeling one had). 

The advantage is that, likely, different kinds of information, i.e., 'relational', are encoded in the emotion, and a feeling overlap check allows for more efficient processing than bit by bit. Maybe similar to the experience of tasting a dish to see if it is fully satisfying or needs anything else.

The difference with virtues or rightness, may be that we encode different emotions with these (based on our experiences with the terms in their experienced contexts), and that both of these appear to strive only for the good side and to discriminate the bad side, whereas wholesomeness has an acceptance of the imperfect, as well (albeit appropriately deprioritized under the more comprehensive view). 'Unwholesomeness' might accordingly be a misleading terms, as it's not an opposite, but a sensed subpar option. I'd opt for something like 'not-yet-wholesomeness'. Hence, wholesomeness might be the name for a heuristic check of completeness and optimality.

It sounds similar to holistic or ideal - though includes a bit less striving and more sensing for ease. It's not meant to evoke complacency, if I can tell.

The content of the judgment is not objectively informative, but a guidepost for an internal inquiry or check-in against one's individual experience base. If a lack is sensed, this can be investigated to find it, explicate it, and then share. If an OK option is sensed, one might still proceed to try and make it a great option. Someone sensing unease in the other, might invite them to share what would be a more wholesome option.

Still, as a generalizable rule, it seems to call for a relaxation before sharing one's judgment or course of action, and might lead to more balanced, less edgy choices.


Trying to cautiously apply this to my interpretation of the case of Ben's example. He chose to prioritize the mission over others' feelings. Now this seems perfectly fine, in terms of priorities. Still it seems to contain a regret about having been unable to optimize for both. The question here is, is it possible to do both? For Ben, it sounds it was mentally demanding to do both at the time, or maybe to cushion the rejection (which is a kind of practice, once I have mastered one, then to layer the other on top). So, here, applying wholesomeness can point to the wish to communicate a necessary rejection in a more caring way (to also preserve the relationship or strengthen the colleague after a blow - in a sincere way), but without significantly more effort (which supposes a bit of tryout). This legitimate wish seems easily confoundable in this example with the agreed upon irrelevance of bringing up feelings altogether as an uninformative complaint (which may or may not be the case). Feelings shouldn't be interpreted as being possible to be hurt under a mission or growth mindset at all, but expectations might be disappointed, trust eroded, and in essence some real issue might be hiding there, but most likely insecurity around exposure of perceived incompetence and fear or stress around workplace consequences, (resentment not yet overcome as a mode of meaning making) which may be addressed with a policy of emotional safety climate or constructive error culture. In turn, Ben might wonder, besides venting frustration, if he could, what positive effect would he like to have as an outcome of the communication (e.g., invite a learning, better coordination, better focus on the project) - and then try and explicitly boost this main purpose in the explanation, just as a bonus. With leisure and for extended collaboration, one might decide to explore expectations, failures to meet them, and optimal signaling. Or not, if it's too much effort. It's not a must, if one optimizes for mission only, one can, e.g., awkwardly ignore or rely on the local version of 'I know it appears harsh at first, now deal with it' or 'kids, will grow out of it'. If one also optimizes for swifter recovery and extended functioning of the 'missionaries', it might be worth a try. To me it seems, both choices are fine from an observer's perspective, but for Ben's individual preference set likely only one of them or an altogether different one might align best. Wholesomeness is then the check of being satisfied and/or holding oneself to highest desired standard.

Here, experienced lack of wholesomeness might point to either ignoring one's highest priority, or if it is met, a longing to meet the lower priorities, as well.

I wish I had a good way of teaching this... maybe the practice of breathing and putting down current surface emotions to settle and note any tensions underneath. what they might tel us. and then any wishes for improvement. Together with having good reasons for doing it in the first place, i.e., not ignoring the problem, but to uncover subconsciously stored information, optimal choice with less effort, invite creativity and wellbeing, have richness of experience in interaction, touch base with moral values when deciding. 

For a seasoned or even 'compulsive' rationality user, it might seem irritating, 1) as the unfocus is like taking a break at the wrong time or giving up altogether, but it actually helps synthesizing. 2) one has to admit that actually one has overlooked a whole strand of available information, 3) it reminds of arrogance (but isn't actually), rather lack of practice in remembering to come from a place of compassion, gratitude, generosity. 4) The resulting higher-level symmetry or alignment can be annoying.

Given the subjectivity, I don't see how to adopt it for AI.

@owencb : I'm curious if this overlaps with your experience. Again, big respect for the post. The examples and connections shown are possibly outcomes of applying an idea of wholesomeness, and as a result not going against one's moral compass, in terms of relations to others and self, and examples are key to recognizing sources of tension. I'm trying to think of a good-to-wholesome example.

Thanks, yes, I think that you're looking at things essentially the same way that I am. I particularly like your exploration of what the inner motions feel like; I think "unfixation" is a really good word.

If it's 1950, is having gay sex unwholesome?

If you personally believe it to be wrong, it's unwholesome. But generically no. See the section on revolutionary action in the third essay.

Sorry, I’ll be doing multiple unwholesome things in this comment.

For one, I’m commenting without reading the whole post. I was expecting it to be about something else and was disappointed. The conception of wholesomeness as “considering a wider perspective for your actions” is not very interesting. Everyone considers a wider perspective to be valuable, and nobody takes that more seriously already than EAs.

The conception of wholesomeness I was hoping you’d write about (let’s call it wholesomeness2 for distinction from your wholesomeness) is a type of prestige. Prestige is high status freely conferred by the beneficiaries of the prestigious. Contrast with dominance, which is demanded with force.

It’s hard to pin down, but I think I’d say that Wholesomeness2 is a reputation for not being evil. Clearly, it would be good for EA’s ability to do good if they had wholesomeness2. On top of that, if actions that are not wholesome2 tend to be bad and actions that are wholesome2 tend to be good, then wholesome2 is a good heuristic. (Although the tails come apart, as they always do. https://slatestarcodex.com/2018/09/25/the-tails-coming-apart-as-metaphor-for-life/ ).

If someone has wholesomeness2, then people will assume mistakes rather than malice, will defend the wholesome2 person from attack, and help the wholesome2 when they are in need.

I was hoping your post would be about how to be wholesome2. Here are my thoughts:

Incapable of plotting: dogs and children are wholesome because they don’t have the capacity to be evil.

Wholesomeness2 chains, so since candy is associated with children who are wholesome2, associating yourself with candy can increase your wholesomeness2.

Generating warm-fuzzies: the Make a Wish Foundation is extremely wholesome2, while deworming is not. When someone (like an EA) “attacks” Make a Wish by saying it doesn’t spend its funds in a way that helps many people much compared to alternatives, everyone will come to Make a Wish‘s defense.

Vibes: “wholesome2 goths” feels like an oxymoron. The goth aesthetic is contrary to the idea of being not evil, even though the goths themselves are usually nice people. If you call one “wholesome”, they might even get upset at you.

Actually being not evil: It doesn’t matter how wholesome2 he was before; Bill Cosby lost all his wholesome2 when the world found out he was evil. Don’t be Bill Cosby.

I’d appreciate comments elaborating and adding to this list.


By analyzing the concept like this, I lost some wholesomeness2, because I have shown that I have the capacity and willingness to gain wholesomeness2 independent of whether I’m really plotting something evil. I’d argue that I’m just not very willing to self-censor, so you should trust me more instead of less… but that is exactly what an unwholesome2 individual would do.

EA will have some trouble gaining wholesomeness2 because it tends to seek power and has the intelligence and agency needed to be evil.

I think that there's something interesting here. One of the people I talked about this with asked me why children seem exceptionally wholesome (it's certainly not because they're unusually good at tracking the whole of things), and I thought the answer was about them being a part of the world where it may be especially important to avoid doing accidental harm, so our feelings of harms-to-children have an increased sense of unwholesomeness. But I'm now thinking that something like "robustly not evil" may be an important part of it.

Now we can trace out some of the links between wholesomeness1 and wholesomeness2. If evil is something like "consciously disregarding the impacts of your actions on (certain) others", then wholesomeness1 should robustly avoid it. And failures of wholesomeness1 which aren't evil might still be failures of wholesomeness2 -- because they involve a failure to attend to some impacts of actions, while observers may not be able to tell whether that failure to attend was accidental or deliberate.

A couple more notes:

  • I don't think that wholesomeness2 is a crisp thing -- it's dependent on the audience, and how much they get to observe. Someone could have wholesomeness2 in a strong way with respect to one audience, and really not with respect to another audience.
  • I think in expectation / in the long run / as your audiences get smarter (or something), pursuing wholesomeness1 may be a good proxy for wholesomeness2. Basically for the kind of reasons discussed in Integrity for consequentialists

I don't think it's coherent to define this idea of wholesomeness as paying attention to the whole system.

"Paying attention to the whole system" isn't a thing that can be done. There aren't a finite number of things to consider. And even as you consider each marginal thing, the effort spent considering trades off against actually getting anything done. (Getting things done is also a thing to consider.)

All of these examples of "unwholesomeness" are just examples of someone making a tradeoff; disregarding one thing to benefit another thing. You could call any of these tradeoff decisions bad, but "bad" is only coherent relative to a set of values. 

So it sounds to me like this concept of wholesomeness is reasonably summarized as "consciously optimized for a vague set of traditional values." 

I think it's reasonable to advocate for shared values. If 95% of people in a town like neat square buildings, then should probably plan their construction accordingly. 

But putting a set of values behind the vague curtain of "wholesomeness" implies that these values are somehow objective and universal. Which of course they aren't, as evidenced by the way they change across cultures and over time.

I agree that "paying attention to the whole system" isn't literally a thing that can be done, and I should have been clearer about what I actually meant. It's more like "making an earnest attempt to pay attention to the whole system (while truncating attention at a reasonable point)". It's not that you literally get to attend to everything, it's that you haven't excluded some important domain from things you care about. I think habryka (quoting and expanding on Ben Pace's thoughts) has a reasonable description of this in a comment

I definitely don't think this is just making an arbitrary choice of what things to value, or that it's especially anchored in traditional values (though I do think it's correlated with traditional values).

I discuss a bit about making the tradeoffs of when to stop giving things attention in the section "wholesomeness vs expedience" in the second essay.

I interpreted this concept of wholesomeness to be a least somewhat objective, but perhaps that's not the intention.

Could you clarify how much wholesomeness is a subjective property relative to one's values, vs being a more objective property that would hold constant under different values?

For example, say I lay out a business plan use X natural resources to build Y buildings, that will be used for Z purpose. Would you expect to be able to rate my wholesomeness without knowing how much I value things like nature, humanity, industrial progress, rural/urban lifestyle, etc?
(assuming this business plan only covers some of these things, because considering all things isn't possible)

Good question, my answer on this is nuanced (and I'm kind of thinking it through in response to your question).

I think that what feels to you to be wholesome will depend on your values. And I'm generally in favour of people acting according to their own feeling of what is wholesome.

On the other hand I also think there would be some choices of values that I would describe as "not wholesome". These are the ones which ignore something of what's important about some dimension (perhaps justifying ignoring it by saying "I just don't value this"), at least as felt-to-be-important by a good number of other people in society.

But although "avoiding unwholesomeness" provides some constraints on values, it's not specifying exactly what values or tradeoffs are good to have. And then for any among the range of possible wholesome values, when you come to make decisions acting wholesomely will depend on your personal values. (Or, depending on the situation, perhaps not; in the case of the business plan, if it's supposed to be for the sake of the local community then what is wholesome could depend a lot more on the community's values than on your own.)

So there is an element of "paying at least some attention to traditional values" (at least while fair numbers of people care about them), but it's definitely not trying to say "optimize for them".

So I've been trying to get a clearer picture of what you mean by wholesomeness. So far I have:
* Make an attempt to pay attention to the whole system, but stop at whatever point feels reasonable.
* Don't exclude any important domains from things you care about.
* Make these judgements based on your own values, and also the values that are felt-to-be-important by a good number of other people.
* Wholesomeness is subjective to individual interpretation, so there aren't definitive right answers.
* Certain tradeoffs of values are objectively unwholesome. There are definitive wrong answers.

I don't think this is a useful model. The devil of all of this is in the interpretations of "reasonable" and "important" and "good."

You say it's unwholesome when someone ignores what you think is important by saying "I don't value this". But this is exactly what your model is encouraging: consider everything, but stop whenever you personally feel like you've considered everything you value. The only safeguard against this is just biasing the status quo by labeling things unwholesome if enough people disagree.

I definitely agree that this fails as a complete formula for assessing what's good or bad. My feeling is that it offers an orientation that can be helpful for people aggregating stuff they think into all-things-considered judgements (and e.g. I would in retrospect have preferred to have had more of this orientation in the past).

If someone were using this framework to stop thinking about things that I thought they ought to consider, I couldn't be confident that they weren't making a good faith effort to act wholesomely, but I at least would think that their actions weren't wholesome by my lights.

I have the same reaction as Ben Pace's shorter comment. Especially given the section entitled "Wholesome vs virtuous vs right". These three words could be permuted throughout without changing any of the meaning, including in that section. For example:

That stopping-giving-it-attention is a looking-away-from-the-whole-of-things. It cuts one off from the ability to recognise what is virtuous. Perhaps a bullet was worth biting in one case, but if it’s learned just as “that was the wholesome thing to do”, we may come to forget that there was a bullet to be bitten there at all, and start biting it at times when it’s decidedly wrong to do so.

I think if we keep on asking ourselves “what is virtuous?” rather than “what is wholesome?”, we are less likely to fall into this trap of not looking at big swathes of issues. Another question that might work is “what is good and wholesome and comfortable?”. We may feel that something unvirtuous is right, but it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable about that. When we truly feel ourselves to be acting virtuously, we are aligned — both internally, and with the whole we are a part of.


That stopping-giving-it-attention is a looking-away-from-the-whole-of-things. It cuts one off from the ability to recognise what is right. Perhaps a bullet was worth biting in one case, but if it’s learned just as “that was the virtuous thing to do”, we may come to forget that there was a bullet to be bitten there at all, and start biting it at times when it’s decidedly wrong to do so.

I think if we keep on asking ourselves “what is right?” rather than “what is virtuous?”, we are less likely to fall into this trap of not looking at big swathes of issues. Another question that might work is “what is good and virtuous and comfortable?”. We may feel that something wrong is wholesome, but it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable about that. When we truly feel ourselves to be acting rightly, we are aligned — both internally, and with the whole we are a part of.

I think that there's something fair about your complaint in that I don't think I've fully specified the concept, and am gesturing rather than defining.

At the same time I feel like your rewrites with substituted words are less coherent than the original. I think this is true both with respect to the everyday English senses of the words (they're not completely incoherent, and of course we could imagine a world where the words were used in ways which made them comparably coherent -- I just think on actual usage they make a bit less sense), and also with respect to what I have outlined about my sense of "wholesome" in the essay prior to that, where it's important that "wholesome" is about paying attention to the whole of things.

Here is Wiktionary on "wholesome"

  1. Promoting good physical health and well-being.
  2. Promoting moral and mental well-being.
  3. Favourable to morals, religion or prosperity; sensible; conducive to good; salutary; promoting virtue or being virtuous.
  4. Marked by wholeness; sound and healthy.
  5. Decent; innocuous; sweet.

I quote this not as an authority on what the word "really means", but as a record of how the word is generally used. Notice the words "morals", "good", and "virtuous" in the third.

All of these words name things, but none of them anything precise. Each is likely to appear in a definition of any other. They point to clouds that overlap more than they differ. To a large extent they are interchangeable. No precise distinction can be communicated by the words alone, only by talking in concrete terms of what sorts of things exemplify the intended concepts.

But I will be interested to see the subsequent essays.

I read the rewrites before I read the corresponding section of the post and, without knowing the context, I find Richard's first rewrite to be the most intuitive permutation of the three. I fully expect that this will stop once I read the post, but I thought that my particular perspective of having read the rewrites first might be relevant.

Just looking at the list of "subtle cases of unwholesomeness" makes me not want to adopt the model of wholesomeness in my behaviour. All of these things, except the second one, seem reasonable to me. Not "sometimes", but as a concept of available actions. Model of wholesomeness feels very restrictive and ineffective. I'm not sure I understand why wholesomeness should be implemented when we have other common ideologies of morality that would condemn all of the things on the first list (list of extreme cases) as "bad" (and I think those should be considered bad) without restricting us in a way this system would. The text mentions that sometimes unwholesomeness should be accepted as a "necessary cost", but I'm not sure I even see some of these things as negatives in first place, depending on the context. I think its OK to be harsh and its OK to hurt feelings when situations call for it. It may not only be necessary, but beneficial. As well as gaming a poorly designed system to get ahead of everyone else - it all depends on what the system is, what you do with the gains, and what the public reaction will be.

I understand I may sound a bit cynical here, but this is something I have accepted as part and parcel of society. There are some specific cases of unwholesomeness that I think need to be addressed and removed, and there are other cases where I would personally keep them in place or even add them in where they are missing.

The central problem with the ethical system that you have outlined here is that it does not allow for challenge to the prevailing cultural norms.

Acting wholesomely means paying attention to the whole system around us, and contributing well as a part of that whole without introducing unnecessary friction or pain points

is fine in a system which is working well, but entirely inappropriate in a system which needs radical reform, which your ethical framework does not allow for.

Allow me to adopt some of your examples to demonstrate when "unwholesome" activity is, I would argue, morally appropriate or indeed praiseworthy.

You write that

Skirting the law for convenience


Disregarding rules for personal benefit

are both unwholesome and therefore not permitted under this ethical system. Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the right seat on the bus was doing both of these things. Was she acting unwholesomely?

If you define wholesomeness as conformity with the whole system around her then she was indeed being unwholesome. But was she acting unethically? I would argue no, because the system around her was broken and in need of radical reform, and therefore acting "wholesomely" within that system is not morally required.

There are many other problematic examples I could give:

  • "Disregarding rules for personal benefit" describes everyone who had a homosexual relationship before they were legal.
  • Slaves who escaped from their captors were "disregarding rules for personal benefit".
  • "Gaming systems that others have established, in ways that aren’t aligned with the intent of the creators" does indeed sound problematic, unless the "creators" of the system are, for instance, the German Nazi government. In that case I would argue the French resistance should feel entirely morally able to game the Nazi systems if that's the best way to smuggle Jewish refugees out of occupied France.
  • "Insincere flattery, to get someone to think well of you" does feel kind of yuck, but what if the ends outweigh the means? Is my theoretical French resistance fighter really not allowed to charm a Nazi border guard because it's not wholesome?


Aligning morality with "wholesomeness" works, I think, if you are happy with the outline of the world in which one lives[1]. But a central tenet of meta-ethics is that ethical systems should be universalisable. They have to work as well in 2023 (or another world in which you approve of the prevailing systems) as they would in 1950s Alabama or 1930s Nazi Germany.

Conformity with the system around us fails this test.

  1. ^

    Although I would note that it becomes unworkable when you consider that being "happy with the world" is an entirely subjective perspective. It really just becomes an appeal to "follow the status quo".

I think that there is some important unwholesomeness in these things, but that isn't supposed to mean that they're never permitted. (Sorry, I see how it could give that impression; but in the cases you're discussing there would often be greater unwholesomeness in not doing something.)

I discuss how I think my notion of wholesomeness intersects with these kind of examples in the section on visionary thought and revolutionary action in the third essay.

I don’t agree with “wholesomeness” as a moral guide but I did at least understand it if you were defining it as conformity with the existing system.

If I’ve understood you correctly now the maxim is “act wholesomely (conforming with prevailing rules and expectations) unless that wouldn’t in fact be wholesome (which in this context is defined differently, as meaning ‘having consideration for what is good for the whole’).”

(Or to use your architectural analogy, build your building in line with the others unless there’s a good reason not to)

That’s fine, as far as it goes, although we are asking “wholesome” to do a lot of work there with two meanings and ultimately it still ends up as being a synonym for “good” (or perhaps “good for the whole”).

Ultimately if what you’re saying is that acting in line with established expectations is a good rule of thumb unless there’s a good reason not to, and that we should have ethical consideration for the whole (all entities deserving of moral consideration) then that’s hard to argue with. But it doesn’t move us much further on ethics because “good” is still undefined and the scope of those deserving ethical consideration is still undefined.

I doubt this is very helpful for our carefully-considered ethical notions of what's good.

I think it may be helpful as a heuristic for helping people to more consistently track what's good, and avoid making what they'd later regard as mistakes.

Am I understanding correctly that this idea of wholesomeness is purely definitory/axiomatic (like mathematics) containing no (extraordinary) claims at all, so it doesn't make sense to ask "Is this true?" but rather "Is it useful?", and whether "to act wholesomely is good" is just hypothesis you are even actually testing?

Because then I see its great advantage over religious moral systems, that do contain such claims that actually might be false, but people are demanded to believe them.

I think this is essentially correct. The essays (especially the later ones) do contain some claims about ways in which it might or might not be useful; of course I'm very interested to hear counter-arguments or further considerations.

Could someone, please, confirm or disprove my impression that this idea might be not falsifiable at all? And if it is not, could someone, please, explain to me what reasons to apply this idea are still there (I am skeptical and curious, not completely denying)? 

However, I appreciate this attempt to offer such an interesting moral idea/hypothesis/theory like this.

I would certainly update in the direction of "this is wrong" if I heard a bunch of people had tried to apply this style of thinking over an extended period, I got to audit it a bit by chatting to them and it seemed like they were doing a fair job, and the outcome was they made just as many/serious mistakes as before (or worse!).

(That's not super practically testable, but it's something. In fact I'll probably end up updating some from smaller anecdata than that.)

Wow, thanks for your willingness to test/falsify your statements, and I apologize for my rash judgment. Your idea just sounded to me to be too good to be true, so I wanted to be cautious.

And I would be glad to say I am completely satisfied with your answer. However, that is not the case yet, maybe just because the "mistakes" of the people trying to apply wholesomeness might still need a definition - a criterion according to which something is or is not a mistake. 

However, if you provided such a definition, I might be another tester of this style of thinking.

The most straightforward criterion would probably be "things they themselves feel to be mistakes a year or two later". That risks people just failing to own their mistakes so would only work with people I felt enough trust in to be honest with themselves. Alternatively you could have an impartial judge. (I'd rather defer to "someone reasonable making judgements" than try to define exactly what a mistake is, because the latter would cover a lot of ground and I don't think I'd do a good job of it; also my claims don't feel super sensitive to how mistakes are defined.)