Wholehearted choices and “morality as taxes”

by Joe Carlsmith3 min read23rd Dec 20206 comments

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(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities)

In Peter Singer’s classic thought experiment, you can save a drowning child, but only by ruining your clothes. Singer’s argument is that (a) you’re obligated to save the child, and that (b) many modern humans are in a morally analogous relationship to the world’s needy. (Note that on GiveWell’s numbers, the clothes in question need to cost thousands of dollars; but the numbers aren’t my point at present).

I was first exposed to arguments like this in high school, and they left a lasting impression on me, as they do on many. But I also think they tend to leave some people with a reluctant, defensive, and quasi-adversarial relationship to the omnipresence of Singerian decisions of this kind, once this omnipresence is made clear. See, for example, the large literature on moral “demandingness,” which focuses heavily on the question of what costs you “have” to pay to help others, and what you are “allowed” not to pay.

Morality, in this conception, is sort of like taxes; it invades your personal domain — the place where you make choices based on what you want and care about — and then takes some amount of stuff for its own ends. One hopes it isn’t too much; one wonders how little one can get away with paying, without breaking “the rules.”

I’m not going to evaluate this conception directly here. But here’s a version of Singer’s thought experiment that I sometimes imagine, which lands in a different register in my mind (your mileage may vary).

Suppose that I am setting off to walk in the forest on a crisp fall afternoon — something I’ve been looking forward to all week. As I near the forest, I notice, far away, what looks like some sort of commotion down by the river, off of my walking route, though I can’t see very clearly. I consider going to see what’s going on, but the light is fading, so I decide to continue on my way.

I learn later that while I was walking, a man in his early forties drowned in that river. He was pinned under some sort of machinery. Five other people were there, including his wife and son, but they weren’t strong enough to lift the machinery by themselves. One extra person might have made the difference.

(Here I try to imagine vividly what it was like trying to save him — his wife desperate, weeping, pulling at him, his own eyes frantic, the fear and chaos, the eventual despair– and the pain of his absence afterwards; and the counterfactual world in which instead, another person arrived in time to help, and he lives.)

The intuition this pumps for me is: I wish I’d gone to the river. Importantly, though, at least for me, the case leaves the focus of attention on the drowned man himself, and the clear sense in which a beautiful walk would be worth trading, cancelling, disappearing, to grant him multiple decades of life, and his family multiple decades of time together. The question of whether my choice to continue walking was wrong, though not entirely absent, is less salient. That is, for me (at least as a thought experiment — who knows how I’d feel if something like this really happened), the case touches most centrally into a feeling of regret, rather than guilt. I wish I could go back, and create a world where I had one fewer beautiful walk, and he lived.

Really, the cases here aren’t very different. But I like the way this one feels less oriented towards, as it were, calling someone an asshole (which isn’t to say that it’s not possible to be an asshole), even though it still makes a specific choice and trade-off salient. I think this avoids triggering some defenses around fearing reproach and wrongdoing, and hones in on the values that animate regret, sadness, and a desire to make things better. As a result, the emotional reaction feels to me somehow more wholehearted and internal. In weighing the walk vs. his life, I’m not asking whether or not I “have” to give up the walk, or whether I am allowed” to keep it. I want to give it up; I wish I could; the choice feels clear, and continuous with other choices I make in weighing what matters to me most.

(I also like this version because it’s clearer and more immediate to me how I value long walks on fall afternoons than it is how I value e.g. money. Indeed, the fact that walks are a substantively meaningful good in my life — as opposed to something with stronger connotations of shallowness and frivolity, like an expensive suit — also makes me feel more like I’m in connection with the fact that giving it up is a genuine loss — albeit, a clearly worthwhile one.)

Notice the possibility, on a “morality as taxes” approach, of being glad that e.g. you weren’t able to see more clearly what was happening at the river. For perhaps, if it was clear to you that a man was drowning, then this would’ve triggered an obligation to give up your walk, and you would’ve “had” to do it, on pain of having been bad, wrong, worthy of reproach, etc. That is, on this view, what you care about is the walk; but sometimes, unfortunately for you, morality demands that you give up what you care about. You may well obey dutifully in such situations; but from the perspective of what you care about, you’re glad to avoid encounters with morality. And indeed, since morality is partly a matter of how you act in response to what you believe is happening, or to what is salient to you, you’re incentivized, subtly or not-so-subtly, to avoid forming certain kinds of beliefs, or making certain kinds of things salient. Thus a pull towards self-deception (though of course, self-deception in these respects will be condemned by morality as well).

None of this is particularly new (see, for example, Nate Soares on harmful uses of “should”; and comments from various effective altruists who prefer to avoid Singerian “obligation” framings of altruism). And there’s much more to say. In particular, I’m not here claiming that a conception of morality as something in some sense external to or constraining of what you care about is without basis, or that more wholehearted approaches resolve all questions about demandingness. But the difference between wholehearted approaches to Singerian decision-making and “morality as taxes” approaches is an important one in my world, and I try, where possible, to stay rooted in the former.

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Unfortunately this intuition pump pumps the wrong way for me, or at least it does the moment I look away from the specific example and towards the general type of thing that it's trying to encourage.

If you're going on a walk just once and come across someone who needs help, you should help them. The experience you describe of having regret and sadness over not getting to help them is perfectly accurate. But Singer wants to generalise this kind of obligation to such a large class of problem that it's as if you never get to have a nice walk in the woods again. You will spend your entire life pulling people out from underneath machinery, and every time you do so there will be another person right next to them who needs the same kind of help, and it goes on and on forever, because the scope of the problem, at least relative to your contribution, is infinite. You will beg for a day in which you go outside and don't find another idiot stuck under his fucking car, you will glance longingly at the woods and wish for the day when you can enjoy the swish of leaves around your ankles again---but you know that if you do that, somebody else is going to die, you monster. So eventually you either give up, or you put earplugs in your ears and go enjoy some time in the woods, completely unable to hear the people yelling for help.

Edit: to be clear, I agree with the original choice as presented: I would be glad to give up my walk in the woods to save someone's life in the manner described. My argument is against the generalisation of this intuition to the wide variety of situations that Singer wants to apply it to, and my paragraph above intends to show that even the original example becomes oppressive if you expand it to the appropriate scale.

It occurred to me while reading your comment that I could respond entirely with excerpts from Minding our way. Here's a go (it's just fun, if you also find it useful, great!):

You will spend your entire life pulling people out from underneath machinery, and every time you do so there will be another person right next to them who needs the same kind of help, and it goes on and on forever

This is a grave error, in a world where the work is never finished, where the tasks are neverending.

Rest isn't something you do when everything else is finished. Everything else doesn't get finished. Rather, there are lots of activities that you do, some which are more fun than others, and rest is an important one to do in appropriate proportions. 

Rest isn't a reward for good behavior! It's not something you get to do when all the work is finished! That's finite task thinking. Rather, rest and health are just two of the unending streams that you move through. [...]

the scope of the problem, at least relative to your contribution, is infinite

This behavior won't do, for someone living in a dark world. If you're going to live in a dark world, then it's very important to learn how to choose the best action available to you without any concern for how good it is in an absolute sense. [...]

You will beg for a day in which you go outside and don't find another idiot stuck under his fucking car

I surely don't lack the capacity to feel frustration with fools, but I also have a quiet sense of aesthetics and fairness which does not approve of this frustration. There is a tension there.

I choose to resolve the tension in favor of the people rather than the feelings. [...]

somebody else is going to die, you monster

We aren't yet gods. We're still fragile. If you have something urgent to do, then work as hard as you can — but work as hard as you can over a long period of time, not in the moment. [...]

You can look at the bad things in this world, and let cold resolve fill you — and then go on a picnic, and have a very pleasant afternoon. That would be a little weird, but you could do it! [...]

So eventually you either give up, or you put earplugs in your ears and go enjoy some time in the woods, completely unable to hear the people yelling for help.

many people seem to think that there is a privileged "don't do anything" action, that consists of something like curling up into a ball, staying in bed, and refusing to answer emails. It's much easier to adopt the "buckle down" demeanor when, instead, curling up in a ball and staying in bed feels like just another action. It's just another way to respond to the situation, which has some merits and some flaws.

(That's not to say that it's bad to curl up in a ball on your bed and ignore the world for a while. Sometimes this is exactly what you need to recover. Sometimes it's what the monkey is going to do regardless of what you decide. [...])

So see the dark world. See everything intolerable. Let the urge to tolerify it build, but don't relent. Just live there in the intolerable world, refusing to tolerate it. See whether you feel that growing, burning desire to make the world be different. Let parts of yourself harden. Let your resolve grow. It is here, in the face of the intolerable, that you will be able to tap into intrinsic motivation. [...]

Returning to this very belatedly. I actually agree with most of what you say here, and the points of disagreement are not especially important. However, my point WRT the original analogy is that it doesn't seem to me to be compatible with these insights. If the general state of the world is equivalent to an emergency in which a man is drowning in a river, then the correct course of action is  heroic, immediate intervention. But this, as some of your quotes, is totally unsustainable as a permanent state of mind. The outcome, if we take that seriously, is either crippling scrupulosity or total indifference.

The correct move is just to reject the original equivalence. The state of the world is NOT equivalent to an emergency in which a man is drowning in a river, and intuitions drawn from the prior scenario are NOT applicable to everyday existence.

I like this as a way to clarify my intuition. But I think (as some other commenters here and on the EA forum pointed out) it would help to extend it to a more realistic example.

So let's say instead of hearing a commotion by the river as I start my walk, I'm driving somewhere, and I come across a random stranger who was walking next to the road, and a car swerves over into the shoulder and is about to hit him. There's a fence so the pedestrian has no way to dodge. The only thing I can do is swerve my car into the other car to make it hit the fence and stop; this won't be dangerous to me or the other driver, but it will wreck both cars. And I'm pretty sure it will work. But my car will cost $5,000 to replace (let's leave insurance out of this hypothetical). Of course, I'll do it--the poor guy's life is at stake.

Then the next time I'm driving somewhere, I see this happen again. Would I do it the second time? I mean, yeah, probably. I technically can replace the car again, though it'll strain things a bit. But I'm definitely going to start thinking about the other factors involved. Why do so many pedestrians feel like they have to walk on this shoulder? Could nobody build a goddamn sidewalk? And why do the other drivers have such poor steering? They're obviously not trying to kill pedestrians but something has gone very, very wrong. The third time it happens, I think I'll keep driving, and start looking for more systematic solutions. Throwing money at the problem is clearly better than nothing, up to a point, but it doesn't seem like the best possible move.

Since it's not mentioned in the post, this was also posted to EA Forum a few days ago where there is some additional discussion.

I am glad you put the quotation marks around "morality as taxes" since what my mind jumped to upon verbalising the title was what you described in the last part of your post: something you'd be glad to evade where possible. In retrospect, its clear that the quotation marks were meant to point to another approach and not the one your thought experiment is meant to represent. Still, I think "Wholehearted choices vs morality as taxes" would be a little clearer as a title.