Suppose there’s a heavily armed sociopath, a kidnapper with hostages, who has just rejected all requests for negotiation and announced his intent to start killing. In real life, the good guys don’t usually kick down the door when the bad guy has hostages. But sometimes—very rarely, but sometimes—life imitates Hollywood to the extent of genuine good guys needing to smash through a door.

    Imagine, in two widely separated realities, two heroes who charge into the room, first to confront the villain.

    In one reality, the hero is strong enough to throw cars, can fire power blasts out of his nostrils, has X-ray hearing, and his skin doesn’t just deflect bullets but annihilates them on contact. The villain has ensconced himself in an elementary school and taken over two hundred children hostage; their parents are waiting outside, weeping.

    In another reality, the hero is a New York police officer, and the hostages are three prostitutes the villain collected off the street.

    Consider this question very carefully: Who is the greater hero? And who is more likely to get their own comic book?

    The halo effect is that perceptions of all positive traits are correlated. Profiles rated higher on scales of attractiveness are also rated higher on scales of talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence.

    And so comic-book characters who seem strong and invulnerable, both positive traits, also seem to possess more of the heroic traits of courage and heroism. And yet:

    How tough can it be to act all brave and courageous when you’re pretty much invulnerable?

    —Adam Warren, Empowered, Vol. 1

    I can’t remember if I read the following point somewhere, or hypothesized it myself: Fame, in particular, seems to combine additively with all other personality characteristics. Consider Gandhi. Was Gandhi the most altruistic person of the twentieth century, or just the most famous altruist? Gandhi faced police with riot sticks and soldiers with guns. But Gandhi was a celebrity, and he was protected by his celebrity. What about the others in the march, the people who faced riot sticks and guns even though there wouldn’t be international headlines if they were put in the hospital or gunned down?

    What did Gandhi think of getting the headlines, the celebrity, the fame, the place in history, becoming the archetype for non-violent resistance, when he took less risk than any of the people marching with him? How did he feel when one of those anonymous heroes came up to him, eyes shining, and told Gandhi how wonderful he was? Did Gandhi ever visualize his world in those terms? I don’t know; I’m not Gandhi.

    This is not in any sense a criticism of Gandhi. The point of non-violent resistance is not to show off your courage. That can be done much more easily by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Gandhi couldn’t help being somewhat-but-not-entirely protected by his celebrity. And Gandhi’s actions did take courage—not as much courage as marching anonymously, but still a great deal of courage.

    The bias I wish to point out is that Gandhi’s fame score seems to get perceptually added to his justly accumulated altruism score. When you think about nonviolence, you think of Gandhi—not an anonymous protestor in one of Gandhi’s marches who faced down riot clubs and guns, and got beaten, and had to be taken to the hospital, and walked with a limp for the rest of her life, and no one ever remembered her name.

    Similarly, which is greater—to risk your life to save two hundred children, or to risk your life to save three adults?

    The answer depends on what one means by greater. If you ever have to choose between saving two hundred children and saving three adults, then choose the former. “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world” may be a fine applause light, but it’s terrible moral advice if you’ve got to pick one or the other. So if you mean “greater” in the sense of “Which is more important?” or “Which is the preferred outcome?” or “Which should I choose if I have to do one or the other?” then it is greater to save two hundred than three.

    But if you ask about greatness in the sense of revealed virtue, then someone who would risk their life to save only three lives reveals more courage than someone who would risk their life to save two hundred but not three.

    This doesn’t mean that you can deliberately choose to risk your life to save three adults, and let the two hundred schoolchildren go hang, because you want to reveal more virtue. Someone who risks their life because they want to be virtuous has revealed far less virtue than someone who risks their life because they want to save others. Someone who chooses to save three lives rather than two hundred lives, because they think it reveals greater virtue, is so selfishly fascinated with their own “greatness” as to have committed the moral equivalent of manslaughter.

    It’s one of those wu wei scenarios: You cannot reveal virtue by trying to reveal virtue. Given a choice between a safe method to save the world which involves no personal sacrifice or discomfort, and a method that risks your life and requires you to endure great privation, you cannot become a hero by deliberately choosing the second path. There is nothing heroic about wanting to look like a hero. It would be a lost purpose.

    Truly virtuous people who are genuinely trying to save lives, rather than trying to reveal virtue, will constantly seek to save more lives with less effort, which means that less of their virtue will be revealed. It may be confusing, but it’s not contradictory.

    But we cannot always choose to be invulnerable to bullets. After we’ve done our best to reduce risk and increase scope, any remaining heroism is well and truly revealed.

    The police officer who puts their life on the line with no superpowers, no X-Ray vision, no super-strength, no ability to fly, and above all no invulnerability to bullets, reveals far greater virtue than Superman—who is a mere superhero.

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    43 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:58 PM

    What? I didn't realize humility had become an objective value that changes the results of your actual actions. Who cares why people save lives? Or how brave they are inside?

    Ghandhi built a movement that your anonymous nonviolent protester belonged to, and has inspired millions to be better people. I think that's a plus, and I don't really care if someone 'more deserving' 'sacrificed more' in a greater cause, but to less effect.

    I presume this article is the same article referenced by the earlier link.

    Part of the reason people respect Gandhi is he created his fame. It's true that it got somewhat easier after he got started, but he still did something hard that other people weren't able to do. Anyone can march, but not anyone can successfully create a famous movement.

    Being a celebrity may protect one from consequences, that's true. On the other hand, that celeb people are held in higher regard has partly to do with their taking a 'bigger' risk: Most celebrities could live well without further engaging themselves. They also don't profit as much for themselves - the regular guy's life next to him could change drastically upon any progress reached, while the celebrity himself could still live well without any progress whatsoever (and lose more by the backlash).

    Maybe I'm thinking more of Kasparov than Ghandi, but well...

    Also, of course, the small guy in the mass is pretty much exchangable. The celebrity in front is not (or to a much smaller degree). Both know that.

    In Putin's Russia, I would feel safer as one of a crowd of protesters, than as a famous critic of Putin.

    That's not historically true. If Russian police pull in 20 protestors and one of them is a celebrity that celebrity will be treated better, although better is a relative term. They won't disappear and never be seen or heard from again.

    This "if" embodies the decrease of risk from being part of a crowd. In a protest of 5000, 20 may be pulled in, but the leader is much more likely to be one of them than any one person in the crowd.

    People respected Zeus and gave him a tremendous amount of credit and he didn't even exist. Given that people are in the habit of giving nonexistent beings much more credit than they (being nonexistent) can possibly deserve, then surely it is all the easier for people to do the same with actual human beings, who start off with the advantage that they exist.

    Why would we evolve to have positive feelings towards people in proportion to their altruism rather than in proportion to their value as allies? If your positive feelings towards someone are supposed to correspond to the fitness benefit you stand to gain by helping them and thus becoming a more likely target for their altruism its surely far better to help Gandhi or Superman. We probably aren't even evolved to note how altruistic someone is, only that they are altruistic. If we know that a person is an altruist they are probably a member of our tribe, and so have reason to be altruistic towards us.

    "But Gandhi was a celebrity, and he was protected by his celebrity."

    Yeah, I'm particularly impressed at how celebrity protected Gandhi from assassination. Oh, wait...

    TGGP: For anyone who hasn't read it yet, The Gandhi Nobody Knows.

    A rebuttal is here. Both are flawed, but I don't like believing revelations before hearing counterarguments.

    Normally, the stories tend to have superheroes go up against villains that are similarly empowered... Superman saving people from some guy with a gun? Not very heroic, although it makes for an impressive looking scene in a movie (and would be something to applaud anyway). Superman defending the world from someone powerful enough to harm and possibly even kill him, such as Darkseid? That would certainly qualify as "heroic" and makes for a better story. (Comic book writers have said that it's hard to write good Superman stories because he's too powerful. See also The Law of Bruce.)

    I suppose heroism must be some kind of function of potential risks (to oneself and to others) and potential gains (to oneself and to others), but constructing a mathematical formula for it is not something I'd want to try.

    What if the policeman has reason to expect that his death here would lead to the deaths of more than three other people that he (and only he) could have saved? Unrealistic, I know, but interesting as a case where the virtuous thing to do looks not only less virtuous but downright cowardly.

    Well, Gandhi wasn't a born celebrity. There was a time when he was pretty much an "anonymous protestor" and he did get beaten up, thrown out etc.

    Part of the attraction of superheroes is their alpha male status: The warm glow we feel from power that protects us, the more the better. This is not quite the same thing as the halo effect.

    Michael Vassar, conchis, and Joshua Fox:

    You know, you're right.

    TGGP, most of what is said against Gandhi in that document, consists of Gandhi doing things that sound strange to Westerners and much less strange to Hindus. The worst that can be said of Gandhi, in my opinion, is that he told the Jews and British to lie down in front of Hitler. If Gandhi failed to confront the essential dilemma of pacifism - that it doesn't work against genuine Evil, only misguided Good - then he failed in his specialty. Maybe he was just getting old and overly rigid, for he thought differently in middle age.

    One must also be wary of what might be termed the "zero-sum game" bias. In real life, how often does it really occur that a person is faced with either saving X people OR saving Y people (where Y is greater than X)?

    The notion of human lives as some sort of currency to be paid in exchange for fate's favor seems like something stemming primarily from the world of mythology and story problems, rather than something stemming from practical reality. While of course people shouldn't let themselves be "blinded by their own greatness" to the point where they merely save whatever group of people they believe will signal the most virtue on their part, it is important to keep one's mind attuned to the fact that sometimes, it is possible to save everyone.

    (And, while I do think from a values standpoint that "Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world", this does not imply that I believe that people who can save lives should feel "satisfied" once they have saved a single life. And I don't think saving lots of lives is good because of some abstract "additive utility" that cannot ever be subjectively appreciated by any entity; I think saving lots of lives is good because individuals and their unique perspectives are irreplaceable, and from the perspective of each person who is saved, the entire world has been saved -- seeing as they can only continue to experience the world if they are saved!)


    If X=HIV victims in Chad, Y=malaria victims in Gabon, to a pretty good approximation you do that every time you donate to a charity supplying antiretrovirals in Chad rather than one distributing bed-nets in Gabon. Time and other resources are scarce for each of us, and we have to deal with it.

    I realize people have to make decisions regarding how to best distribute their own resources, and I agree that "whichever cause saves the most lives" is a far, far better choice criterion than "whichever cause is more likely to make others look admiringly at me". That's a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned. Of course we each have to deal with, if not a literal lack of sufficient resources, the difficulty of figuring out how to distribute resources effectively where they are needed. My comment was meant simply to caution people against assuming too quickly that they know they're dealing with a zero-sum tradeoff, which could lead them to make a decision that effectively ends up saving fewer people.

    I'm sure there's a component of having to avoid spending too much time seeking more information as people keep dying left and right (as they wait for you to make up your mind), but given that, I think my point still stands. Not every situation is as clear-cut as it might seem to be at first, and plus, when it comes to the information people have available about possible charitable causes, there's a lot of "noise" to sort through (case in point: some celebrities are very gung-ho about "curing autism", to the point where I doubt that some of them even realize that autism isn't fatal!)


    Examples where some lives might have to be sacrificed is placebo groups for potentially life saving drugs. If you don't have the placebo group, the efficacy of the medicine cannot be known for certain, putting lives of many people potentially at risk. But those in the placebo group are goners, for sure. Correct me if I am wrong.

    Anne: Do you have some particular reason for thinking consequentialist/utilitarian thinking, in practice, leads to to people not searching hard enough for alternatives?

    Prakash: Good example, I can see that.

    Nick: Institutional bias comes to mind. A lot of people think that some groups (the elderly, people with particular disabilities) "naturally belong" in institutions, when the fact is that institutions are completely unnecessary. There is no form of care provided IN an institution that cannot be provided in the community (often for lower cost, though I don't have exact figures on hand right now). And institutions themselves tend to be internally structured in such a way that power imbalances, abusive situations (see the Stanford Prison Experiment), and "learned helplessness" are perpetuated.

    I'm not saying that a "proper" utilitarian (whatever that means) would agree that all old people need to be put in nursing homes "for the good of the community", but there are people who believe that institutional care saves money and represents an appropriate option for people with certain kinds of health needs. This leads to a situation in which some health problems (pneumonia, infections, etc.) run the risk of being associated with the mere fact of being a certain kind of person as opposed to associated with an institutional environment. Yet very few people seem willing to consider alternatives to nursing homes, since they see such facilities as fundamentally part of the landscape and not potential sources of problems.

    That's the first example that came to mind, though I'll give that people's reluctance to seek alternatives may simply be a result of lazy thinking as opposed to specifically "utilitarian" thinking.

    A second (semi-related) example is that of when intensive behavioural therapy was used in order to "cure" homosexual tendencies in boys who seemed to exhibit same-sex affections and "effeminate" behaviour. It wasn't until 1973 that activists managed to get homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And when young men were subjected to "therapies" intended to make them heterosexual, the basic idea behind these therapies was that it was only the outward result that mattered -- the notion of subjective internal distress was not even considered in light of the pervasive social sense that homosexuality was unhealthy, aberrant, sinful, etc. That is, the "consequence" of ensuing hetero-normative behaviour was deemed much more important than whether the treatment led to depression or other mental health issues. It certainly wasn't the psychiatrists or researchers who came up with the idea that forcing people to outwardly conform to social norms (like heterosexual behaviour) could result in internal strife; it was the actual individuals being subject to constant pathologization.

    I guess what I'm saying is, while I do think utilitarian/consequentialist thinking have their places (to the extent that I understand them), they are somewhat vulnerable to a tendency to support prevailing social and structural norms even when those norms are destructive and damaging. (And beware the fallacy of the excluded middle -- I am certainly not saying that the utility-minded and consequentialists among us are all evil and blinded to social injustice, I'm just saying that there are traps people need to watch out for. Incompleteness applies to philosophies as well as to mathematics.

    Then how come we see utilitarian libertarianism as in Machinery of Freedom?

    Also, the general claim "the fact is that institutions are completely unnecessary" seems suspicious. Capability of communities to provide help does not ensure that any help will be provided, whereas an institution, given certain control from outside, is unlikely to outright ignore its habitants.

    Examples where some lives might have to be sacrificed is placebo groups for potentially life saving drugs. If you don't have the placebo group, the efficacy of the medicine cannot be known for certain, putting lives of many people potentially at risk. But those in the placebo group are goners, for sure. Correct me if I am wrong.

    I do think you're wrong, Prakash. You're only looking at the case where the drug is actually better than the placebo. When it isn't helpful, or is harmful, the placebo group is better off than those receiving the drug.

    And that's just the immediate situation. The long-term consequences of abolishing the placebo group and not understanding the true effects of the drug have to be considered as well. Since it's far easier to screw up than to get things right, a drug with unknown effectiveness and questionable effects will tend to cause far more harm than it ever prevents.

    AnneC: That's the first example that came to mind, though I'll give that people's reluctance to seek alternatives may simply be a result of lazy thinking as opposed to specifically "utilitarian" thinking.

    You can hardly argue otherwise, since you just inveighed against nursing homes on consequentialist, utilitarian grounds...

    Eli: I wouldn't argue otherwise, though I think that sometimes people think they are applying "utilitarianism" when in fact they are just going with "what sounds good" to them based on very limited information.

    This is probably just something I should think harder about and go off and make a post on my own blog about, but one thing I've noticed recently is that many people claim that their preferred option provides the most utility, when in fact, there are other options they haven't even considered. So as I conceded above, the nursing home scenario (in which people don't even consider that perhaps nursing homes aren't necessary, or that they might do more harm than good) is probably a manifestation of "lazy thinking", but it seems as if there's a particular kind of lazy thinking that the structure of utilitarian/consequentialist thinking enables, if not the actual content.

    That is, what looks like the "greatest good" on the surface might not actually be, and people need to be wary of assuming they've "found the answer" to a particular problem, particularly if "the answer" entails treating some groups of people in ways that would be considered unethical if applied to other groups. E.g., a person can't just stick their mother-in-law in a nursing home because they find her irritating; however, if she has any trouble whatsoever managing daily living tasks, society will justify and enable nursing-home placement almost without question.

    Hmm. In some respects this actually relates back to the original post, in the sense that people might be tempted to choose a socially acceptable/enabled option and feel that their job is "done", when in fact, they could add more value to more people's lives by taking the reputational risk of an "outside the box" option.

    Power and goodness are less common than goodness and so we value the combination higher. Also in the case of Gandhi the powerful gain less from winning that fight (marginal benefit).

    I would think the worst that could be said about Gandhi from Grenier's piece is that he supported British wars and may have actually delayed Indian independence (though possibly some might think those are good things!).

    Thanks for the link, Recovering Irrationalist.

    I myself have advocated leaving Hitler alone, even with the benefit of hindsight, and found myself to be more dovish than Noam Chomsky. While we're on the subject of pacifism though, I thought I'd point out this from Steve Dutch, this post from Mencius Moldbug and this paper by Dave Kopel on various Christian pacifist philosophies.

    I'm thinking that there are two ways we think about the word hero, and that is part of the cause of disagreement.

    First we think about it in the sense of heroism, whcih usually implies bravery in the face of adversity. That seems to be the way Eliezer was using it.

    However, it can also mean a champion (of a cause for example). For example, Superman did not put himself in any danger by standing in front of a bullet, but he was taking up a noble cause, doing it for a higher purpose. After all, he could have been sitting at home in the hot tub with Lois drinking a purple kryptonite cocktail...

    This reminds me of one time, long ago, when I was cave-crawling with a good friend of mine: I had crawled this cave several times before, and was not the least bit afraid, but my friend hadn't, and was absolutely terrified, tears running down her cheeks, shaking and even sobbing in a few tight places. I asked her several times if she was really certain that she wanted to continue, and she asked me if I was really, really sure that this was safe, and if she was going to make it. I was, and she wanted to continue, despite her fear. Afterward she asked me how I could be so brave that it didn't even scare me a little, and I answered almost reflexively how I wasn't the brave one, but that she was, going on despite her fear. It wasn't until much later that I realized how very true that was.

    [Edit: Spelling]

    Well, this distinction is officially acknowledged sometimes, fortunately. Among the opponents of the communist regime, the internationally famous intellectuals suffered far less consequences than a simple provincial teacher or a some worker in some factory. They risked everything. There is pathos in such a risk: while facing it you had little chance to get any result, retaliation was coming your way. Few stories of this type surfaced and they are justly regarded as martyrs. Probably most of them vanished quietly - and we cannot represent the disproportion, we cannot imagine it (yes, we don't have an image for it).

    Although it lacks decency, I should point out that there is evolutionary value in such behavior. Their stories are immensely emotional, they are real heroes. But then we have a really complicated context to define real and heroes...

    However, making the question a little bit more complex ... and adding in why that fame really can add to the act -

    How does it change your equation if that Policeman who saved the three prostitutes only became a policeman because he was inspired to do so by reading comic books about Superman saving 200 kids?

    Inspiring others by your deeds, causing your actions to reflect against the world in a far greater effect than the deeds themselves would, I think, have quite an effect on the equation.

    The police officer is PAID to do that. He isn't doing it for free out of the goodness of his heart like the superhero is. He didn't have to make his own moral judgements like the superhero. He didn't have to resist the option of just taking whatever he wanted in life while nobody could stop him.

    By the way, you should know better than to believe the PC propaganda about Ghandi.

    The police officer is PAID to do that. He isn't doing it for free out of the goodness of his heart like the superhero is.

    Oh cool, so if I pay you will you let me kill you?

    I think the reason Ghandi is famous is because he orchestrated his protests. Sure, other people marched alongside (it would have failed otherwise) but he had to plan it, not just join in. Add to that the fasts and sacrifices he made to his cause, and I'd say he deserves his reputation.


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    I find that that there similar bias for acknowledging "altruistic" rich peope. Say if Beyonce donates a million dollars to a charitable cause, newspapers will write about it and people will admire her. However, seen from a economic point of view, people like Beyonce are is some sense 'invincible', giving a million USD is not really much a risk or a sacrifice, when you are worth several hundres million USD. It is of course worth noting that a lot of good can be done for a million USD when compared the to the 100 USD that a low-income person might be able to produce. However, in terms of admiration, I have the sense that we fail to admire the small altruists, who might go to greater personal sacrifices to donate 'trivial sums' to charities.

    (And yes, I know I am here far far too late to participate in the discussion)


    Sounds like precisely the point Jesus recognized in the Lesson of the Widow's Mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). Not necessarily saying it was the best action, but recognizing a not very visible sacrifice against the backdrop of flashy, no-risk offerings.

    How tough can it be to act all brave and courageous when you’re pretty much invulnerable?

    —Adam Warren, Empowered, Vol. 1

    I only learned it at an embarrassingly late age, but the canonical counter to such an argument is to challenge the arguer to tell that to the invulnerable guy to his face.