This is the third of a collection of three essays, ‘On Wholesomeness’.


What culture, if adopted, leads to the best consequences? This "culture-consequentialist" lens[1], applied to the idea of how cultures relate to wholesomeness, is the focus of this essay. The previous essays gave some reasons to like wholesomeness, and projected a vibe that it was good. But they didn't really consider tradeoffs.

This essay turns to that question. It is interested in whether it’s good at the individual level, and especially in whether it's good for communities to adopt a culture of acting wholesomely. Of course I can't think I'm offering the final word on this; instead I'll just give the cases I see on each side, and offer some concluding thoughts.


So far, the main benefits of trying to act wholesomely that we’ve discussed relate to a kind of robustness. This is very stark in contrast with an all-in shut-up-and-multiply attitude. The problem there is that calculations are fragile. If you’re doing a lot of calculations, it’s pretty easy to accidentally lose or gain an order-of-magnitude in one of them — in the calculation itself, or in a bad parameter estimate, or in a confused assumption about the setup. And this can completely change your sense of what’s good or bad. 

I think that that kind of fragility should be alarming when we’re just considering our own actions. If we consider choosing a culture for an entire community, it seems even more concerning. A community where everyone does their own calculations and acts on them is going to include some people haring off in wildly wrong directions — and some of these will probably be destructive.

By not relying on the calculations but on a more holistic sense of what’s good, we can keep things more robust. (This is blurring into a purely epistemic virtue; in doing any kind of calculation we may be more likely to catch errors if we keep in touch with a holistic sense of what the calculation is for and roughly how it should come out.)

The point about fragility is particularly stark for shut-up-and-multiply attitudes, but I think it applies much more broadly. People make mistakes, and then not-infrequently justify these mistakes to themselves — and to others. I’m sure that a culture focusing on wholesomeness wouldn’t be completely immune to this issue, but I do think that by construction it would be more resistant than most. This is because such a culture would encourage people to keep looking at the uncomfortable things, where issues are arising, and it would be a bit less tolerant of moves of the shape “well that’s OK because it’s in the service of the greater good”.

Social impacts of wholesomeness

Wholesomeness begets wholesomeness

I think that the large majority of people would, in their hearts, like things to be wholesome. But it’s much easier to take actions towards wholesomeness when things around you are generally wholesome. Because if there’s a lot of existing unwholesomeness then it’s harder to notice further issues — they fade into the background, and our emotional tracking of them isn’t so capable. This applies to both the external environment (it’s easier to act wholesomely in environments which don’t contain a lot of unwholesomeness), but also our individual actions (it’s easier for each new action to be wholesome if our actions are generally wholesome, so we can be appropriately sensitive and responsive to subtle feelings of unwholesomeness).

The flip side of this is that unwholesomeness can spread — both because it gets normalized, but also at times in a pretty direct manner. If you have something (significantly) unwholesome which others observe, part of them may feel that they should do something about it. If they don’t, they take some (lesser) unwholesomeness into themselves. This reduces their capacity to notice further unwholesomeness.

For both of these reasons, if you think that wholesomeness generally leads to good things, you should be a bit more positive on it after accounting for its second-order effects than when you just consider the first-order effects.

Wholesomeness waterlines

We’ve just seen that existing wholesomeness can make it easier for ourselves and others to further wholesome action, because it makes it easier to notice individual components of unwholesomeness. But there are further social effects. If things are generally wholesome, others are much more likely to notice new unwholesomeness — and react negatively towards it. So the “waterline” of wholesomeness in an environment shapes the social incentives present in that environment, determining what types and degrees of unwholesomeness are socially acceptable. And while acting wholesomely can have good direct effects, being seen to act wholesomely can have a different set of effects, via its social impacts.

The social impacts of personally adopting different levels of tolerance for unwholesomeness depend on the existing waterline in that environment:

  • Being much less tolerant of unwholesomeness than the waterline can look like — and in substance be — making a fuss over nothing, and is not necessarily productive;
  • Acting more wholesomely than typical, and being a bit less tolerant of unwholesomeness than the waterline can help to pull the waterline up;
  • Acting a little less wholesomely than typical, and being more tolerant of unwholesomeness than the waterline can pull the waterline down;
  • Acting much less wholesomely than the waterline is likely to get socially sanctioned.

So it will generally be correct to behave somewhere in the vicinity of the existing waterlines. The dimensions of how we act and how tolerant we are of other unwholesomeness come apart a bit — but not altogether, since e.g. ignoring unwholesomeness can itself be unwholesome. To a first approximation I think you can treat the question as “should one push the waterline a bit higher, or a bit lower?”. Systems where people act with greater degrees of wholesomeness usually function better — e.g. I think unusually low waterlines of wholesomeness correspond pretty precisely with the notion of systemic corruption. I therefore think the typical answer will be “it’s good to nudge the waterline higher”.   

The main potential exception I can think of relates to it being unproductive to push for wholesomeness levels much higher than the waterline. Suppose you are part of a small group, which has various interfaces with broader society. Suppose further that your small group has a much higher waterline than society as a whole. Then it may be that in its interactions with broader society, the small group is in the position of unhelpfully rocking the boat or being perceived as sanctimonious, and if it moderated its impulses towards wholesomeness just a bit, it might more effectively be a force for wholesomeness in the world at large. In this scenario, it’s plausibly better to nudge your small group to have a lower wholesomeness waterline than at present.

Sanctimony and tolerance

Striving too hard to make things wholesome can veer into sanctimony, and sanctimony is generally unwholesome — and especially in circumstances where people may freely choose to disassociate with the group.

At an individual level the biggest problem with pushing too hard to eliminate visible unwholesomeness is that it can instead create invisible unwholesomeness, as the person suppresses parts of the whole of themself which are not seen to be wholesome. On a collective level, the two major mechanisms of harm are (1) inducing this issue on the individual level, and (2) if someone perceives that they are (likely to be) judged to be insufficiently wholesome, they won’t feel comfortable, and may disengage.

Tolerance is typically a wholesome virtue. It helps people to feel welcome, and it also helps people to be open, and so to avoid voluntary suppression of information (which could lead to further unwholesomeness, as important information might not get tracked by other parts of the system). 

I think we should typically be less tolerant of unwholesomeness in our culture and our institutions than in individuals contributing to things. It’s important to create space for people to be themselves and for that to have elements of unwholesomeness (which is certainly not to say that arbitrary behaviour should be tolerated). It’s less important (but still matters) to have space for organizations with a variety of cultures, some less wholesome than others. It’s less important again for central institutions to tolerate unwholesomeness in their composition (but remains important to tolerate nonzero amounts in their employees).

Memetic impacts

Building a good reputation

Around things that are wholesome, things work well. People have more good experiences, and more good-feeling toward the system. There are important benefits to these in any cases where we’re building institutions, or culture, or social groups (and a lot of the value of a lot of what I consider to be the most important work factors through these). Therefore there are reasons, if doing such work, to strive to be wholesome, so as to have your wholesomeness shine forth as a kind of deeply true advert for the things you’re doing.

This speaks in favour of promoting something like “wholesome EA”, as described in the last essay. This is a generalization of the central point explored in considering considerateness; I think that wholesomeness is a broader category than considerateness, and more the proper one to pay attention to. This has to be balanced with not developing a reputation for sanctimony.

Avoiding seeming sanctimonious

In order not to put people off or make people disengage, it may be important to avoid creating an impression of sanctimony.[2] An impression of sanctimony could drive away people who are worried about being judged; and also people who simply dislike sanctimony.

Avoiding this impression creates constraints on both substance and messaging. On substance: the standards for welcoming people should likely be “these people will be clearly positive to have in the community”, not “these people excel at visible wholesomeness”. On messaging: I’m far from certain, but guess wholesomeness at the individual level should not be too celebrated, lest it create an impression of sanctimony. There is a delicate balancing act here.

In principle we might be concerned not just about wholesomeness being boring, or risking seeming sanctimonious, but the very idea of wholesomeness being an active turn-off for some audiences. I want to acknowledge this as a possibility — and also to express my main reaction to it, which is something like “Oh, come on!”. I think that if people don’t feel there’s at least something good about trying to act wholesomely, are they really the people that we want to fill our communities with?

The need to bring something new

If effective altruism had from the start presented itself as “we just advise that people act wholesomely”, it wouldn’t have gotten very far. Recommendations that people who want to do good should act wholesomely aren’t really new, and aren’t likely to give much value to the audience. Contrast this with many of the more surprising claims of effective altruism, which I think were more memetically fit for a set of ideas to spread.

This speaks against emphasizing wholesomeness too strongly in introducing people to the ideas of effective altruism. But I don’t think it speaks against discussing it when people start asking how EA ideas should be integrated with all of the other things we care about in our lives.

Wholesomeness and visionaries

Acting wholesomely involves attending to the whole that is.

Acting as a visionary involves attending to a whole that isn’t.

This is a real tension, and is the point that gives me the most hesitance about recommending that cultures should encourage wholesomeness, as I think poor implementations could stifle visionaries. I think that visionaries can be crucial for some important kinds of progress, but that acting as a visionary is importantly different from — and in tension with — a focus on acting wholesomely with respect to the existing system.

Visionary thought

The first tension here is about attention. Leaning into acting wholesomely means spending attention on the things that are around, and making sure that things aren’t out of balance there. But being a good visionary often means throwing this out entirely, and not being fettered by a need to comport with what already exists. I think it may be important that cultures don’t stifle visionaries.

I do think that this tension is likely navigable. In fact despite the tension, knowing how to act wholesomely may be a very useful skill for visionaries. For in producing a vision it’s not enough to imagine how some things are different — but to trace through the implications, work out what wouldn’t work as a result, and then envision a way to fix that. So the mental motions of identifying unwholesomeness and addressing it are critical for the visionary; it’s just that the places they need to look for unwholesomeness, and the ways of addressing it, differ.

My best guess, then, is that the right approach is to encourage wholesomeness — and also to encourage (some) people to explicitly carve out space to do the visionary thing. Perhaps if they’re spending time on that they should be less pushed than normal towards regular wholesomeness. I’m not sure there’s really a tradeoff there (but I’m also not sure there isn’t).

Revolutionary action

There is a related tension which can come up at the point where people are taking actions to make the world different, aiming at a vision. The actions which comport with the wholeness of what presently exist may differ from the actions which comport with the envisioned wholeness. For example, if you live in a system you believe to be completely unjust you may support revolution and take actions which bolster envisioned power-structures rather than reinforcing existing ones. Or if you thought it would be good if people used certificates of impact you might try to act as an early piece in an envisioned ecosystem with well-functioning impact markets, in the hope that by establishing that piece of things you make it easier for others to integrate with the envisioned wholeness (a part of which you have now made real).

This may look trickier to resolve. It’s not just about attention, but about fundamental differences in what to do. But let’s step back. Don’t look at it as a contest between the wholeness of what presently exists and the wholeness that’s envisioned; look instead at once at the whole of things, which includes both what is and what could be. 

From this perspective I think this is just another case of finding the wholesome action when that action will generate some unwholesomeness. It would be unwholesome to focus just on what exists, and ignore the potential for what could be. But it would also be unwholesome to throw what exists out altogether and focus only on the hoped-for world. Finding the correct balance between these may be tricky (and I think this is an area where well-meaning people sometimes make large and damaging mistakes), but I don’t see a reason to give up on the principle of seeking to act wholesomely — and on the contrary think that following that principle could help people to navigate these tricky situations wisely.

Concluding thoughts

Across these essays I’ve centred a concept I hadn’t previously given too much attention to, and suggested that it should be part of our culture. For all this, though, I don’t think I’m suggesting anything radical or even especially new. I’m just giving a different frame which tries to capture things that many people already thought were good. In so doing, I’ve given a possible resolution to the longstanding puzzle of how to relate to the fact that EA is naturally maximizing, and maximization is fraught.

If I try to imagine EA[3] taking this wholesomeness stuff seriously, my sense is:

  • It would be good, and wholesome, for it to have moderate attention; for it to be endorsed as true-but-mostly-boring, and to be brought out sometimes as a lens for considering a puzzling situation, or in conversation if people are confused about when to get off the maximization train.
  • If I imagine it going wrong, it's mostly because people stop giving enough attention to what's new and important about EA (being caught up in giving attention to other parts of the whole)
    • This is a real concern, but I think there will be more wholesome ways to navigate it than to not think about the whole of things
      • e.g. Perhaps just being explicit when people are learning about EA that a lot of what it has to offer are perspectives on what's important, and that's what learning should therefore focus on; but that this doesn't mean to forget, when the time comes for action, all that one already knows about doing good
  • It wouldn’t feel wholesome if people made discussion of wholesomeness too front-and-centre. As well as not representing what’s novel about EA, this whole discussion is very meta, and it’s important to keep more object-level stuff as the focus of attention.

Essentially I think this would be good in the foundations of the culture, but it isn’t something one can or should build walls out of.

And as a first step, I wanted to put this writing out into the world and see if the collective consciousness of people who think about such things can uncover holes in my thinking or build some better version(s) of it.

  1. ^

    This could be understood as an application of global consequentialism to asking about the correct culture.

  2. ^

    This is not just a theoretical concern. I added this section, as well as the previous one on sanctimony and tolerance, after a commenter mentioned friends who refused to engage with EA because they saw it as ~sanctimonious.

  3. ^

    Although I've centred EA as a culture to think about (because I think it's important, and amenable to this type of argument), my views will significantly carry over to analysing optimal culture for any group trying to have serious and beneficial impacts of the world.

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I think this essay raises many good points, but doesn’t grapple with (to me) the hardest part of wholesomeness: when do I ignore parts of the whole?

I think that sometimes you make the choice not think about something for a while. For instance, trivially, you can only track so many hypotheses in detail. While I am designing a product that I think will change the world, I will spend most of my time considering different hypotheses for what sort of product users want, and considering how to quickly falsify them and iterate. I will not spend a ton of time questioning whether capitalism is even good for civilization. Insofar as I’m choosing to give this product a shot, that is not a good use of mental resources - the assumption questioning comes before, and after (and occasionally in the middle of I have exceptional cause for a crisis of faith).

To me the hard question of wholesomeness is about knowing when you’re choosing look away from a thing because on reflection it’s not worth the cognitive space to be tracking it as a consideration, and knowing when you’re doing it improperly because it’s painful or emotionally draining or personally inconvenient to keep looking at the thing.

(And that emotional cost itself is a factor to be weighed on the scales.)

Some written guidance on this would be valuable, I’d say.

I largely think that the section of the second essay on "wholesomeness vs expedience" is also applicable here.

Basically I agree that you sometimes have to not look at things, and I like your framing of the hard question of wholesomeness. I think that the full art of deciding when it's appropriate to not think about something be better discussed via a bunch of examples, rather than trying to describe it in generalities. But the individual decisions are ones that you can make wholesomely or not, and I think that's my current best guess approach for how to handle this. Setting something aside, when it feels right to do so, with some sadness that you don't get to get to the bottom of it, feels wholesome. Blithely dismissing something as not worth attention typically feels unwholesome, because of something like a missing mood (and relatedly, it not being clear that you're attending enough to notice if it were worth more attention).

There's also a question about how this relates to social reality. I think that if you're choosing not to look at something because it doesn't feel like it's worth the attention, then if someone else raises it (because it seems important to them) it's natural to engage with some curiosity that you now -- for the space of the conversation -- get to look at the thing a bit. You may explain why you don't normally think about it, but you're not actively trying to suppress it. I think the more unwholesome versions of not looking at something are much more likely to try to actively avoid or shut the conversation down.

I don’t think that this view described in your second paragraph stands up to scrutiny.

Like, suppose that you are designing a product etc., and I ask you whether you’ve considered that perhaps capitalism is not even good for civilization. “I choose not to think about that right now” is not a coherent answer. Either you have already thought about that question, and have reached an answer that is compatible with your continuing to work on your product or whatever (in which case you can say “indeed I have considered that question, and here, in brief, is my answer”)—or else you should, in fact, pause and at least briefly consider the question now, because your answer will affect whether you should continue with your project or else abandon it.

In other words, if the questioning came before, then just give the answer you found. If the questioning comes after… well, that’s too late. The questioning shouldn’t come after. If there’s possibly some reason why you shouldn’t be doing the thing you’re doing, then the best time to figure that out is before you started, and the second best time to figure it out is right now.

“I’ll question my assumptions later” typically means “I’ll question my assumptions never; I simply want you to go away and not bother me.”