This post examines the virtue of social responsibility. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations.

I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it and to become better at it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

I am going to mostly shy away from writing about specific contentious things that some people consider to be socially responsible. I don’t intend to stake out a position in the “social justice” debates, for example. I plan instead to consider this question: whatever it is that socially responsible people do, how do you become the sort of person who characteristically does that?

(I may not be able to totally avoid the temptation to get on the soapbox and harangue a bit, however.)

What is this virtue?

“That which isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee.” ―Marcus Aurelius[1]

“Man is by nature a political animal.”[2]
“The polis is a community of equals for the sake of a life which is potentially the best.”[3] ―Aristotle

“In no other realm does human excellence approach so closely the paths of the gods as it does in the founding of new and in the preservation of already founded communities.” ―Cicero[4]

People participate in groups of all sorts: internet discussion fora, churches, fandoms, nations, audiences, mobs, corporations, neighborhoods, book clubs, posses, gangs, unions, classes. When things go well, we get a lot of value from such participation. Some groups are better than others at contributing to the thriving of those in them; some can even be harmful. Any particular group may have aspects that work better or worse in this way. Groups also may be more or less sustainable: there are potential costs to be borne in starting a group, in the disintegration of a group, and in keeping a group going.

All of which is to say that the flourishing of each of us as individuals is influenced by the health of the groups in which we participate.[5] The health of these groups in turn is in large part a function of the decisions made by the people who make up these groups.

The person with the virtue of social responsibility recognizes this, and works earnestly to sustain, defend, and improve the groups that person participates in (or perhaps in extreme cases, to sabotage, disband, or replace those that are harmful and irredeemable) and the environments in which those groups operate.

Related virtues and vices

Other virtues in the same general bailiwick include teamwork/cooperation, leadership (and its flip side: obedience/submission?), loyalty/fidelity, and duty/responsibility.

Rhetoric/persuasion and charisma/influence can make you more effective at shaping cooperative efforts. Those virtues are also important because persuasion via discussion, debate, and reason are the classic alternatives to coercion by violent force in times of political conflict. Hannah Arendt identified a third alternative to those two: authority.[6] Commanding authority, or seizing the mantle of authority, can also be a way to wield political influence.

The virtue of social responsibility is sometimes called “civic” virtue or “citizenship” (because the latter also refers to a particular legal status, this can be confusing). The Boy Scouts, for example, have merit badges for “citizenship in society,” “citizenship in the community,” “citizenship in the nation,” and “citizenship in the world,” that address social responsibility. Sometimes civic virtue at the national level is described as true patriotism.

Social responsibility can strengthen and be strengthened by a sense of belonging or community or solidarity. You are more likely to feel responsible for something when you feel that it is (at least partially) yours. And taking more responsibility for something can give you more of a stake in it.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn suggested that courage is an important component of social responsibility. “[W]e have gotten used to regarding as valor only valor in war (or the kind that’s needed for flying in outer space), the kind which jingle-jangles with medals. We have forgotten another concept of valorcivil valor. And that’s all our society needs, just that, just that, just that!”[7]

One way of setting and defending high standards in a group is through the judicious deployment of judgment and righteous anger.

Having initiative, being ambitious or bold, and demonstrating confidence can improve social responsibility. How many problems go unaddressed simply because it’s “not my job” for anyone to address them? The phenomenon of bystander apathy can cause even acute and obvious problems to be neglected because nobody is bold (or presumptuous?) enough to be the first person in the group to break out of the status quo trance. This is the case even for small things: That flickering light bulb in the hallway, that squeaky ceiling fan that bugs everybody a little bit… All it would take would be someone willing to say “that’s my job today” and do something about it.

With all of the deliberate disinformation, urban legends, propaganda, and bullshit floating around these days and causing harm and unnecessary social friction, there may be a case for adding “epistemic responsibility” to social responsibility (see: honesty, sincerity, and rationality). Francisco Mejia Uribe made this case not long ago in an essay for Psyche.[8] He believes that the liberal norm of wanting to make room for everyone to have their own moderate and restrained opinions of whatever sort they care to—to calmly agree to disagree—isn’t good enough anymore: “the stakes of credulity are simply too high.” Instead, we have “the moral obligation to believe only what we have diligently investigated.” A responsible citizen “in her capacity as communicator of belief… has the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge and instead to strive to sustain its integrity.”

That is reminiscent of Sissela Bok’s argument that I mentioned in my discussion of the virtue of honesty: that the negative consequences of a lie include not only its harm to the person deceived, but also its corrosion of the general culture of truth-telling.[9]

Maybe that’s just a specific example of a broader phenomenon: The social virtues in general—including honesty but also things like tolerance, helpfulness, justice, gratitude, hospitality, and courtesy/civility—all tend to contribute to healthy social environments. The practice of such virtues also exemplifies them for others and demonstrates standards of behavior, and so has ripple effects that can benefit the group and those in it.

Some schools of thought suggest that the most socially responsible thing you can do is to become more personally virtuous, rather than to concentrate on specifically community-oriented activity. The key to healthier communities, according to this school, is the level of virtue in the members of (or at least the leaders of) those communities.[10] If you are full of vices, your idea of how to improve the groups that you are part of will be affected by that (how can I change this group so it better-coddles my vices or shields me from their negative effects?). If you are full of virtues or at least desire them, you will want to change the group to be more encouraging of or amenable to the virtuous sort of person or the person who strives for virtues. In this school of thought, social responsibility and political science are secondary—for minor tweaks around the edges—while what you really need for flourishing communities are flourishing people.

Sometimes social responsibility is just a matter of behaving personally in a way that has good social side effects. But other times it requires more specialized skills of coordination and persuasion: To make things better, it is not enough that you alone do the right thing. If everyone in the village shits in the convenient shitting field upstream, then you digging a latrine for your family in some more sanitary location may be a virtuous and even socially responsible thing to do, but it won’t do much about the cholera epidemic. In such a case, the solution is necessarily done in cooperation (or potentially in conflict) with others.

Aristotle saw ethics and politics as mutually-reinforcing: you developed the virtues in large part so that you could contribute as a citizen to making the polis an excellent and stable one, and you did that in order that the polis would be fertile soil in which a thriving, virtuous citizenry could grow and in order that there could be an appropriate political context in which you could successfully practice virtues like justice.[11]

Social responsibility is sometimes described as a particularly important virtue for the financially fortunate and privileged, in a noblesse oblige sort of way. For example, Aristotle’s ethics included the virtue of munificence—a sort of lavish generosity exhibited by the rich on behalf of their communities.[12] A wealthy Athenian might finance and tastefully produce a festival or theatrical performance, erect a public building or religious shrine, or host visiting foreign dignitaries in style.

On the vice side, you might lack social responsibility because you feel powerless over group dynamics: believing that you can only be responsible for yourself, and whatever behavior of the group emerges does so from an unpredictable chaotic process, or due to the machinations of more sophisticated and powerful operators than yourself. A sort of helplessness or failure of imagination might be the vice at the base of this, or it could be just the considerable cognitive challenges of understanding complex social machinery. The ways to effectively help shape a community are not always obvious. It takes some skill just to identify which levers to pull or dials to turn. (In some communities this may even be more-or-less deliberately obscured, for example in a city where the ordinary rubes petition the mayor while the sharp operators who know how to get things done take the city manager out for cocktails.)

Another vice that interferes with social responsibility is pessimism or indifference: “ah, so my group is going to hell in a hand-basket, isn’t that just the way of the world? wuchagunnadu?” That highlights another possible benefit of social responsibility: an invigorating feeling of empowerment and agency. If you make an effort to be socially responsible, presumably you do so because you feel that your decisions matter, that you have some amount of influence.

Some people are recluses who do not seem to get much value from group participation, and so have less motivation to contribute to the health of groups. This perhaps implicates virtues like amiability, community, and connection.

Some people are social vandals—they like to see what happens when things break or people get hurt, so they deliberately sabotage groups in various ways in order to see sparks fly. This suggests a lack of virtues like benevolence and respect for others.

Some people seem to identify their self interest with a short-sighted and narrowly-defined selfishness. They do not see how their influences on the groups they belong to contribute to their own thriving in indirect ways. They may go through life burning bridges behind them and constantly scramble to scrape together a pittance of social capital. It takes long-term thinking and imagination to follow the diffuse cause-and-effect by which you contribute to health of the group, and the health of the group contributes to your well-being, without any obvious and immediate quid-pro-quo.

There is some tension between social responsibility, which is often accompanied by loyalty and some partiality, and virtues like independence, impartiality, and cosmopolitanism.

There is also some tension between social responsibility and humility. To exert social responsibility may imply that you have confidence (or, less flatteringly, hubris) about how to best influence a group and those in it. It can be difficult to know how bold or how humble you should be in such circumstances. You might feel inhibited from trying to help influence a social group because you are unsure if you are a fully-fledged member of the group, or have sufficient authority within it, or have enough of a grasp of the group’s history and dynamics to understand the effects of your interventions.

Some aspects of social responsibility

Social responsibility vs. social engineering

A thin line separates social responsibility from the darker arts of social engineering or social manipulation. Many of the same skills that can make you better at social responsibility—imagination, insight, patience, charisma, influence, leadership, ambition, and so forth—can also help you parasitize groups such that others bear the costs while you reap the benefits. Even a bank robber is deliberately changing the dynamics of his social environment to better contribute to his idea of human thriving.

Social responsibility paradigmatically concerns win-win scenarios; social engineering, zero-sum or parasitic ones. But this is not a hard-and-fast rule. The Nudge school of social engineering ostensibly aims at socially responsible ends, for instance.[13] Some socially responsible efforts may be beneficial to the group, and in general to those in it, but nonetheless result in winners and losers. And even what looks like a broadly win-win scenario to you may not appear that way to others with different priorities. Expedient group compromises frequently compromise standards of fairness, or cannot possibly satisfy diverse standards of fairness. And sometimes things operate differently at different levels: for example, you work to strengthen your group in an internally win-win way in order that your group may successfully compete with other groups in zero-sum competitions.

Some people behave as though they have a model of the world in which most all social arrangements are zero-sum, and that therefore one’s social efforts ought to be directed toward figuring out how to get on the winning side and get other people on the losing side as much as possible. Such people’s attempts at social responsibility are bound to be stunted by such a worldview.

One way of distinguishing social responsibility from social engineering might be to recall Aristotle’s distinction between a virtue and a science.[14] A science concerns a subject matter in which your knowledge and skill can help you aim for opposite extremes: for instance, a doctor knows the science of health, and this knowledge is just as useful to her in curing someone or in poisoning them. A virtue, on the other hand, goes in only one direction—having the virtue of courage doesn’t also make you a more proficient coward, for instance. So social engineering might be regarded as the science of social manipulation; social responsibility as the virtue of striving to promote the health of one’s social environment.

But when I look at it that way, I wonder if there really is such a virtue. Maybe what I’ve been calling the “virtue” of social responsibility is merely the science of social engineering combined with virtues like benevolence and respect for others, or with a robust understanding of self-interest.

Collective action challenges

Obstacles to social responsibility include collective action problems like those of the prisoners’ dilemma / free rider / tragedy of the commons sort. What if you can best thrive personally by making decisions that degrade the social environment? Or, to look at it the other way, what if the best contribution you can make to the health of the social environment is one that would leave you personally worse-off?

In unique or unusual cases, you may just have to prioritize and make a judgement call. However, if there is a class of problems like this, or if they repeat themselves, it may turn out that one of the best things you can do for your community is to “go meta” and try to design some sort of workaround for the collective action problem itself rather than merely addressing the individual case in which the problem arises.

It is unfortunately common to see collective action problems depicted as the social sciences equivalent of a dead end: Once you foresee “a tragedy of the commons situation” you have been defeated and you must immediately turn around and head the other way. But collective action challenges are ubiquitous and solutions to them are varied and ingenious.[15] Economist Elinor Ostrom was an avid researcher of how different communities have invented ways to resolve collective action problems. She concluded:

At any time that individuals may gain from the costly action of others, without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping methods. When de Tocqueville discussed the “art and science of association,” he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit. Some aspects of the science of association are both counterintuitive and counterintentional, and thus must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry.[16]

Ostrom believed that typical civic education shortchanges citizens by overprioritizing “elections, political parties, and what politicians and public officials do” and that we should also try to learn more about these varied, painstakingly developed, sometimes unintuitive grassroots methods of conflict resolution and of building more capable social organizations.

Care for the commons is one way to exhibit social responsibility. You may correct a misspelling on Wikipedia, pick up litter in the parking lot, or buy carbon offset credits, for example, as attempts to preserve or improve the commons. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay “Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism” is a plea for people to adopt a stronger ethos of social responsibility in the context of on-line commons in particular, which can devolve into awfulness if they are not vigilantly protected against trolls and vandals and other such fools. If we want delightful commons, someone has to put in the work to maintain their delightful nature: someone who appreciates the commons and who also has the social responsibility to recognize that this maintenance is their job too.

Some on-line commons have formally codified some of their best practices for socially responsible behavior. Wikipedia, for example, has a code of conduct and a huge variety of other principles (e.g. “assume good faith”, “be bold”). We may be able to improve our contributions to the general on-line commons by thoughtfully reviewing advisories like these.

Levels of social responsibility

Social responsibility applies to different sorts of groups, and to groups of different sizes. Different skills and techniques of social responsibility work better in different contexts. The skills you need to negotiate the allocation of household chores harmoniously among roommates are different from those you would use when trying to desegregate a school district or defend against a Russian invasion. Some communities are brief, others are durable, and this too means different skills come into play. A community of commuters sharing a bus between stop A and stop B is an ephemeral one, but one for which social responsibility can still be relevant.

You can expect individual efforts of social responsibility to be diluted according to the size of the group. A child’s tantrum can interrupt a church service, but hundreds of thousands of protesters can fill the streets and still fail to change a national policy.

Sometimes what you do has effects at multiple levels. For example, how you behave in the LessWrong comments section affects a particular comments thread, the LessWrong community, and how that community serves as an example for the larger internet community. Sometimes your efforts might have conflicting effects on different levels—maybe even deliberately so, as with advocates for centralization or decentralization of political power who may want to empower one level and disempower another.

We are members of intertemporal communities as well. We maintain a “conversation” of sorts with past authors and other cultural creators. Our language & culture & institutions & such came into our hands as shaped by past generations. We in turn pass our own influences on to generations that will succeed us. To the extent we recognize ourselves as participants in this generational torch-passing, we also can engage in social responsibility to the community we have in common with our ancestors and with our posterity. Helping the children we raise to understand their culture and to participate confidently in it is one way we can do this.

Effective altruists and people who try to mitigate existential risks can be thought of as trying to optimize social responsibility at the largest scale: the community of conscious beings from here to eternity.

The trouble with government

“Suppose a problem in psychology was set: What can be done to persuade the men of our time—Christians, humanitarians or, simply, kindhearted people—into committing the most abominable crimes with no feeling of guilt? There could be only one way: to do precisely what is being done now, namely, to make them governors, inspectors, officers, policemen, and so forth; which means, first, that they must be convinced of the existence of a kind of organization called ‘government service,’ allowing men to be treated like inanimate objects and banning thereby all human brotherly relations with them; and secondly, that the people entering this ‘government service’ must be so unified that the responsibility for their dealings with men would never fall on any one of them individually.” ―Tolstoy[17]

“The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls—the worst man is as strong as the best at that game. It does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” ―Thoreau[18]

Standing, institutionalized governments hold out the promise of being tools that people can leverage for socially responsible action. Indeed, they tend to present themselves as the legitimate tools for such a purpose. In government-oriented propaganda about civic responsibility, it can be neutered to things like being law-abiding, paying your taxes, voting, petitioning, and jury duty. This can atrophy the sort of civic responsibility that is most needed: instead of deliberating or acting together, people merely vote or petition (or complain about the government). They lose the skills they need to work together on large-scale problems; they assume such problems are “out of our hands.” If some shared social responsibility becomes a bureaucrat’s job title, that can have the effect of making it everyone else’s “not my job.”

On the other hand, if there are existing institutional channels for political action, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you need to make collective decisions. Because of their familiarity and regularity, such channels can make it easier for people to learn some modest forms of political engagement. For example, de Tocqueville observed that “Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.”[19]

Sometimes standing government is justified under the assumption that it causes social responsibility, or is a prerequisite for it. Without the overwhelming coercive capability of government forcing us to be civilized, according to this theory, we would become bestial and savage in our civic nakedness: “nature, red in tooth and claw”[20] would reemerge, in some Lord of the Flies or Mad Max way, and, until we can bring ourselves back under the protection of our authorities and institutions…

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain… no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.[21]

Some inadvertent experiments in which institutional government is temporarily disrupted because of natural disaster have undermined this theory. The sociological subdiscipline of “disaster studies” has revealed that bloody tooth and claw is hardly the only backstop following the collapse of institutional political authority. Rather:

Just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster… [W]e revert to something we already know how to do.[22]

Institutional government and other standing institutions can also degrade individual social responsibility (as Tolstoy pointed out in the quote above). People sometimes don’t consider the ramifications of their behavior if that behavior is legal (or legally mandated), is part of their job description, or is directed by those above them in an institutional hierarchy. “Good Germans” for example, fooled themselves into pursuing respectability in the eyes of very irresponsible social institutions, as an apparently palatable counterfeit of social responsibility.

I work with an all-volunteer, private, donation-supported non-profit that provides services to homeless people in my community. In this role I have also been struck by how comparatively inefficient government-provided solutions are. Often paltry results emerge from expensive and well-staffed government projects ostensibly designed to help homeless people. This experience has made me more skeptical of proposed solutions to societal problems that boil down to “let’s get the government to do it.” I’ve become knee-jerk about slapping an implied “maybe if all else fails” onto the front of that.

In short: government strikes me less as a useful mechanism for enacting social responsibility, and more as something unfortunate that seeps in and fills the cracks where social responsibility has failed. And I should probably get off my soapbox now.

Consumer responsibility

When you purchase goods or services, you help make profitable—and thereby incentivize—the way those goods or services were provided. A provider may cause harmful things to communities, or on the other hand may contribute to communities above and beyond the value of the goods and services provided. Your purchase may also incentivize these additional effects.

For example, if you buy a bargain bicycle at the swap meet from a vendor who “doesn’t ask questions” about where the used bikes he purchases and refurbishes come from, you help make the black market in stolen bicycles profitable and thereby incentivize bike theft.

Abolitionists who realized how much of the cotton and sugar trade was dependent on slave labor felt the need to boycott such goods or to instead consume painstakingly-differentiated “free produce” alternatives.

If our purchasing decisions send the message “I don’t care how you do it, but I want it cheap,” should we be surprised when the companies who win the bidding war for our custom and who then dominate the market turn out to be the ones that have cut corners? Doesn’t this suggest that if we want better behavior from the suppliers of our lifestyles that we’ll have to pay a little more attention?

I recently participated in a discussion group that mulled over the topic of consumer responsibility, and we mostly threw up our hands in frustration at the topic. The argument in favor of greater consumer responsibility is intuitively attractive. But when we started trying to consider what criteria we would use, and how we would go about investigating whether, for example, a pair of sneakers or a smart phone was more-or-less responsible of a purchase than its competitor… we began to despair. If we tried to do this for every purchase we made, it seemed we’d have a full-time job of it. There are groups that try to do this work for you—for example, those that provide certifications like “fair trade”, halal/kosher, American Humane, or union labels—and sometimes particular brands will stake their reputations on a certain ethos of responsibility—but you still have to find those whose criteria you agree with, and you have to trust them to do their job well.

On the other hand, most of us reported that we did confidently or semi-confidently make some of our shopping decisions from motives of consumer responsibility. And some of us used general heuristics that we felt were reasonably reliable guides even if they were not powerful enough to capture all that could conceivably be at issue.

How to become more socially responsible

The most discussed and studied methods to improve social responsibility seem to be those designed for schoolchildren. All of the interventions described in the positive psychology handbook Character Strengths and Virtues were targeted either at juveniles or at criminal offenders.[23]

I see this pattern a lot as I learn about virtue-related interventions and studies, and I find it discouraging. Adults often seem unduly self-congratulatory. In particular, I do not think there is good reason to be sanguine about the level of social responsibility in the typical adult.

In addition, the typical school is a very authoritarian place, and so it mostly teaches an authoritarian-friendly variety of social action (e.g. ask the teacher, complain to the principal). There are some nods toward teaching children techniques of self-organization or giving them authority to make collective decisions (e.g. boy scouts, school clubs, model UN). And some varieties of school put higher priority on student initiative. Children also inevitably learn on their own how to make group decisions in their occasional islands of freedom from adult control (e.g. which games to play at recess, who gets which roles in those games, how to decide on the rules). But it seems to me that interventions designed to help people become more socially responsible ought more often to be remedial education targeted at adults who have been subjected to such intense and lengthy authoritarian control, rather than as a half-hearted corrective directed at the children who are still otherwise subject to it.

(Interventions designed for schoolchildren, because they are often mediated through taxpayer-funded government-run schools, inevitably also get tangled up in culture war stuff, which can make them very stupid indeed.)[24]

One of the more well-studied and frequently-deployed varieties of social responsibility education is “service learning.” Students engage in hands-on community service projects, and simultaneously are asked to reflect more consciously on the agency of the individual in the health of the community. This is almost exclusively studied as an intervention on schoolchildren, but I expect the basic technique could be used profitably by adults who want to improve their social responsibility. In any case, I’m often tempted, when I hear someone complain about this or that aspect of society, government, the environment, public policy, corporate misbehavior, and so forth, to recommend that the complainer take a crash course in getting their hands dirty and helping to do something about it.

For what it’s worth, I found my own social responsibility went up several notches after I read the autobiography of American anarchist and all-around ornery character Ammon Hennacy. His idiosyncratic variety of anarchism was all about setting and following high standards of social responsibility.[25] Here’s a taste:

A lady wrote a let­ter to the lo­cal pa­per about a dead cat on the street, and be­moaned the fact that no one came to re­move it. A week later she wrote again and the cat was still there. In an an­ar­chist so­ci­ety, each one would be re­spon­si­ble, and would not have to write let­ters to pa­pers, or to call the cops, to have some­thing done: They would do it them­selves.

Com­ing home from help­ing my friend Joe Craig­myle pick or­anges and grape­fruit the other night, I men­tioned this lady and the cat, and said that, the Sun­day be­fore, I had seen a dead cat on the lat­eral on my way to the bus, but be­ing late, I did not stop to re­move it. On my way back in the af­ter­noon, af­ter hun­dreds of cars had passed, and nu­mer­ous Mex­i­cans go­ing to the bus, I no­ticed that the cat was still there, and stopped to throw it off of the road. As we were talk­ing, we no­ticed a two-by-four with four spikes stick­ing up on the high­way. We swerved around it, and were a quar­ter of a mile past, when Joe said, as an af­ter­thought to my re­mark, that this would cause some­body some trou­ble: “I’ll back up and you can throw it in the ditch.” In my mind, then, Joe, who has not been much of a man of ac­tion, rose from a one-cylin­der to a two-cylin­der an­ar­chist.[26]

Something that I have found helpful in improving my social responsibility is this: I’ve attached a flag to the sentiment “somebody oughta.” Whenever I find myself thinking “somebody oughta fix that thing” or “somebody oughta do something about that” or something of that nature, this flag goes up and that reminds me to investigate further. Who exactly is this somebody who oughta? How do they become aware of what they oughta do? How do they prioritize among the things they oughta do? What are the constraints that they have to work with? How do they marshal the resources to do what they oughta do? What are the obstacles in their way, and why are they there? Or is there no such somebody? Is it perhaps me who oughta do something? If so, how would I go about doing it? Who are the stakeholders and how would I get buy-in? How could I obtain the necessary expertise and material? Whom might I enlist to help, and what arguments might they find persuasive? What additional future responsibilities does my solution entail, and who can take those on?

You can amplify the effect of your socially responsible impulses by coordinating your efforts with others. For example, Benjamin Franklin’s Junto was both a small cooperative continuing education and self-improvement club, and a mechanism for initiating and coordinating schemes of civic improvement. America’s first lending library, a volunteer fire department and volunteer militia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Hospital all got their start as discussions in the Junto.

A thought experiment that some people find motivating when developing their social responsibility is this: Imagine your life as a whole and ask “is the world a better place for my having lived my life the way I did?” This is implicitly an answer to the question “what’s it all about?”, which is a notoriously difficult one to answer confidently. (In any case, I falter and blush when I try to state my best guesses out loud.) But that answer strikes me as worth trying on for size anyway.

  1. ^

    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅵ.ⅼⅳ

  2. ^

    Aristotle, Politics Ⅰ.ⅱ. And we’re not the only one; see, e.g., Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics (1982)

  3. ^

    Aristotle, Politics Ⅶ.ⅷ

  4. ^

    Cicero, De Legibus

  5. ^

    Or, in social-scientist-speak, how “salutogenic” the groups are, e.g. S. Graeser “Salutogenic factors for mental health promotion in work settings and organizations” International Review of Psychiatry (2011) pp. 508–515

  6. ^

    Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” Between Past and Future (1968) pp. 91–141: “Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance.”

  7. ^

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (1973)

  8. ^
  9. ^

    Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978)

  10. ^

    e.g. that school of thought described in James Hankins Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (2019)

  11. ^

    Aristotle Politics Ⅰ.ⅰ–ⅱ, Ⅲ.ⅳ, Ⅶ.ⅰ–ⅲ; Nicomachean Ethics Ⅱ.ⅰ, Ⅴ.ⅵ, Ⅹ.ⅸ

  12. ^

    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Ⅳ.ⅱ

  13. ^

    Cass R. Sunstein, Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (2014)

  14. ^

    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Ⅴ.ⅰ

  15. ^

    One of the takeaways from David Graeber’s & David Wengrow’s newish (2021) book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is that historic and prehistoric human political and social organization in the face of collective action problems has been spectacularly inventive and flexible, in a way that can be obscured by homogenizing social science categories like “hunter-gatherer bands” or “matrilineal families” or “male dominance hierarchies” or what-have-you.

  16. ^

    Elinor Ostrom “The Need for Civic Education: A Collective Action Perspective” 1998

  17. ^

    Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899)

  18. ^

    Henry David Thoreau “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854)

  19. ^

    Alexis de Tocqueville “The American System of Townships and Municipal Bodies” Democracy in America vol. 1, ch. 4 (1835)

  20. ^

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson “In Memoriam A.H.H.” (1850), Canto 56

  21. ^

    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil ⅩⅢ.ⅸ (1651)

  22. ^

    Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2010)

  23. ^

    Christopher Peterson & Martin E.P. Seligman Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004), chapter 16. Peterson & Seligman cluster “citizenship, social responsibility, loyalty, and teamwork” and say they have in common “…a feeling of identification with and sense of obligation to a common good…” (p. 370)

  24. ^

    See for example Senator Rick Scott’s recent “An 11 Point Plan to Rescue America” which promises both “Kids in public schools will say the Pledge of Allegiance, stand for the National Anthem, and honor the American Flag… Public schools will teach our children to love America because, while not perfect, it is exceptional, it is good, and it is a beacon of freedom in an often-dark world” and, in the same set of bullet points: “We will not allow political or social indoctrination in our schools.”

  25. ^

    Two illustrative quotes from Hennacy:

    • “An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave.”
    • “Oh judge! Your damn laws! The good people don’t need them, and the bad people don’t obey them.”
  26. ^

    Ammon Hennacy The Book of Ammon (1970), free ebook available here.


4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:18 PM
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It is unfortunately common to see collective action problems depicted as the social sciences equivalent of a dead end: Once you foresee “a tragedy of the commons situation” you have been defeated and you must immediately turn around and head the other way.

This. It's like being the kind of person who at every opportunity screams: "hey people, this situation reminds me of Prisonner's Dilemma, the only intelligent move is to defect!" and wondering why the world gets predictably worse in your presence, as people start defecting in situations where most of them used to cooperate in the past. (Hint: there was a social incentive favoring cooperation, where people who cooperated got labeled "good" and the people who defected got labeled "bad". Now you replaced it with a different social incentive, where the people who defect get labeled "smart" and the people who cooperate get labeled "stupid". The payout matrix is different now, and so is the outcome. How "smart", indeed.)

That's a great point. I still don't know of a good single resource that can get people from zero knowledge of game theory, past this valley of bad game theory (if you will) and to a LessWrong style understanding of game theory that's actually beneficial both to themselves and to society as whole. So whenever someone asks me for recommendations on learning game theory I don't know where to point them.

I share the frustration at these over-simple responses, but these examples actually have well-understood and often-suggested solutions in economics discussions.

The solution to tragedies of the commons is often "enforce property rights".  Identify individuals (or sometimes institutions) who are explicitly benefiting, define their benefits, and let them optimize usage.

The solution to prisoner's dilemma is to jump out of the system.  Allow communication, negotiation, and enforceable contracts that turn it into a repeated game.

Ronald Coase and others worked this out many decades ago.

Could you please recommend a specific book on this topic, under Yoav Ravid's comment?