Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable

by Scott Alexander 11 min read19th Dec 20142 comments

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I.

Recently spotted on Tumblr:

“This is going to be an unpopular opinion but I see stuff about ppl not wanting to reblog ferguson things and awareness around the world because they do not want negativity in their life plus it will cause them to have anxiety. They come to tumblr to escape n feel happy which think is a load of bull. There r literally ppl dying who live with the fear of going outside their homes to be shot and u cant post a fucking picture because it makes u a little upset?”

“Can yall maybe take some time away from reblogging fandom or humor crap and read up and reblog pakistan because the privilege you have of a safe bubble is not one shared by others?”

Ignore the questionable stylistic choices and there’s an important point here worth considering. Something like “Yes, the feeling of constantly being outraged and mired in the latest controversy is unpleasant. And yes, it would be nice to get to avoid it and spend time with your family and look at kitten pics or something. But when the controversy is about people being murdered in cold blood, or living in fear, or something like that – then it’s your duty as a decent human being to care. In the best case scenario you’ll discharge that duty by organizing widespread protests or something – but the absolute least you can do is reblog a couple of slogans.”

I think Cliff Pervocracy is trying to say something similar in this post. Key excerpt:

When you’ve grown up with messages that you’re incompetent to make your own decisions, that you don’t deserve any of the things you have, and that you’ll never be good enough, the [conservative] fantasy of rugged individualism starts looking pretty damn good.

Intellectually, I think my current political milieu of feminism/progressivism/social justice is more correct, far better for the world in general, and more helpful to me since I don’t actually live in a perfectly isolated cabin.

But god, it’s uncomfortable. It’s intentionally uncomfortable—it’s all about getting angry at injustice and questioning the rightness of your own actions and being sad so many people still live such painful lives. Instead of looking at your cabin and declaring “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and recognize that a long series of brutal injustices are responsible for the fact that you have a white-collar job that lets you buy a big useless house in the woods while the original owners of the land have been murdered or forced off it.

And you’re never good enough. You can be good—certainly you get major points for charity and activism and fighting the good fight—but not good enough. No matter what you do, you’re still participating in plenty of corrupt systems that enforce oppression. Short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

Once again, to be clear, I don’t think this is wrong. I just think it’s a bummer.

I don’t know of a solution to this. (Bummer again.) I don’t think progressivism can ever compete with the cozy self-satisfaction of the cabin fantasy. I don’t think it should. Change is necessary in the world, people don’t change if they’re totally happy and comfortable, therefore discomfort is necessary.

I’d like to make what I hope is a friendly amendment to Cliff’s post. He thinks he’s talking about progressivism versus conservativism, but he isn’t. A conservative happy with his little cabin and occasional hunting excursions, and a progressive happy with her little SoHo flat and occasional poetry slams, are psychologically pretty similar. So are a liberal who abandons a cushy life to work as a community organizer in the inner city and fight poverty, and a conservative who abandons a cushy life to serve as an infantryman in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. The distinction Cliff is trying to get at here isn’t left-right. It’s activist versus passivist.

As part of a movement recently deemed postpolitical, I have to admit I fall more on the passivist side of the spectrum – at least this particular conception of it. I talk about politics when they interest me or when I enjoy doing so, and I feel an obligation not to actively make things worse. But I don’t feel like I need to talk nonstop about whatever the designated Issue is until it distresses me and my readers both.

I’ve heard people give lots of reasons for not wanting to get into politics. For some, hearing about all the evils of the world makes them want to curl into a ball and cry for hours. Still others feel deep personal guilt about anything they hear – an almost psychotic belief that if people are being hurt anywhere in the world, it’s their fault for not preventing it. A few are chronically uncertain about which side to take and worried that anything they do will cause more harm than good. A couple have traumatic experiences that make them leery of affiliating with a particular side – did you know the prosecutor in the Ferguson case was the son of a police officer who was killed by a black suspect? And still others are perfectly innocent and just want to reblog kitten pictures.

Pervocracy admits this, and puts it better than I do:

But god, it’s uncomfortable. It’s intentionally uncomfortable—it’s all about getting angry at injustice and questioning the rightness of your own actions and being sad so many people still live such painful lives. Instead of looking at your cabin and declaring “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and recognize that a long series of brutal injustices are responsible for the fact that you have a white-collar job that lets you buy a big useless house in the woods while the original owners of the land have been murdered or forced off it. And you’re never good enough. You can be good—certainly you get major points for charity and activism and fighting the good fight—but not good enough. No matter what you do, you’re still participating in plenty of corrupt systems that enforce oppression. Short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

That seems about right. Pervocracy ends up with discomfort, and I’m in about the same place. But other, less stable people end up with self-loathing. Still other people go further than that, into Calvinist-style “perhaps I am a despicable worm unworthy of existence”. moteinthedark’s reply to Pervocracy gives me the impression that she struggles with this sometime. For these people, abstaining from politics is the only coping tool they have.

But the counterargument is still that you’ve got a lot of chutzpah playing that card when people in Peshawar or Ferguson or Iraq don’t have access to this coping tool. You can’t just bring in a doctor’s note and say “As per my psychiatrist, I have a mental health issue and am excused from experiencing concern for the less fortunate.”

One option is to deny the obligation. I am super sympathetic to this one. The marginal cost of my existence on the poor and suffering of the world is zero. In fact, it’s probably positive. My economic activity consists mostly of treating patients, buying products, and paying taxes. The first treats the poor’s illnesses, the second creates jobs, and the third pays for government assistance programs. Exactly what am I supposed to be apologizing for here? I may benefit from the genocide of the Indians in that I live on land that was formerly Indian-occupied. But I also benefit from the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, in that I live on land that was formerly dinosaur-occupied. I don’t feel like I’m complicit in the asteroid strike; why should I feel complicit in the genocide?

I have no objection to people who say this. The problem with it isn’t philosophical, it’s emotional. For most people it won’t be enough. The old saying goes “you can’t reason yourself out of something you didn’t reason yourself into to begin with”, and the idea that secure and prosperous people need to “give something back” is a lot older than accusations of “being complicit in structures of oppression”. It’s probably older than the Bible. People feel a deep-seated need to show that they understand how lucky they are and help those less fortunate than themselves.

So what do we do with the argument that we are morally obligated to be political activists, possibly by reblogging everything about Ferguson that crosses our news feed?

II.

We ask: why the heck are we privileging that particular subsection of the category “improving the world”?

Pervocracy says that “short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” But he is overly optimistic. Has your total revolution of everything eliminated ischaemic heart disease? Cured malaria? Kept elderly people out of nursing homes? No? Then you haven’t discharged your infinite debt yet!

Being a perfect person doesn’t just mean participating in every hashtag campaign you hear about. It means spending all your time at soup kitchens, becoming vegan, donating everything you have to charity, calling your grandmother up every week, and marrying Third World refugees who need visas rather than your one true love.

And not all of these things are equally important.

Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.

The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it. Giving even a tiny amount of money to charity is hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than almost any political action you can take. Even if you’re absolutely convinced a certain political issue is the most important thing in the world, you’ll effect more change by donating money to nonprofits lobbying about it than you will be reblogging anything.

There is no reason that politics would even come to the attention of an unbiased person trying to “break out of their bubble of privilege” or “help people who are afraid of going outside of their house”. Anybody saying that people who want to do good need to spread their political cause is about as credible as a televangelist saying that people who want to do good need to give them money to buy a new headquarters. It’s possible that televangelists having beautiful headquarters might be slightly better than them having hideous headquarters, but it’s not the first thing a reasonable person trying to improve the world would think of.

Average number of hits for posts on this blog, by topic

Nobody cares about charity. Everybody cares about politics, especially race and gender. Just as televangelists who are obsessed with moving to a sweeter pad may come to think that donating to their building fund is the one true test of a decent human being, so our universal obsession with politics, race, and gender incites people to make convincing arguments that taking and spreading the right position on those issues is the one true test of a decent human being.

So now we have an angle of attack against our original question. “Am I a bad person for not caring more about politics?” Well, every other way of doing good, especially charity, is more important than politics. So this question is strictly superseded by “Am I a bad person for not engaging in every other way of doing good, especially charity?” And then once we answer that, we can ask “Also, however much sin I have for not engaging in charity, should we add another mass of sin, about 1% as large, for my additional failure to engage in politics?”

And Cliff Pervocracy’s concern of “Even if I do a lot of politics, am I still a bad person for not doing all the politics?” is superseded by “Even if I give a lot of charity, am I a bad person for not doing all the charity? And then a bad person in an additional way, about 1% as large, for not doing all the politics as well?”

There’s no good answer to this question. If you want to feel anxiety and self-loathing for not giving 100% of your income, minus living expenses, to charity, then no one can stop you.

I, on the other hand, would prefer to call that “not being perfect”. I would prefer to say that if you feel like you will live in anxiety and self-loathing until you have given a certain amount of money to charity, you should make that certain amount ten percent.

Why ten percent?

It’s ten percent because that’s the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in whichever way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.

Finally, it’s ten percent because if you believe in something like universalizability as a foundation for morality, a world in which everybody gives ten percent of their income to charity is a world where about seven trillion dollars go to charity a year. Solving global poverty forever is estimated to cost about $100 billion a year for the couple-decade length of the project. That’s about two percent of the money that would suddenly become available. If charity got seven trillion dollars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permamently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars. That would be the first year. Goodness only knows what would happen in Year 2.

(by contrast, if everybody in the world retweeted the latest hashtag campaign, Twitter would break.)

Charity is in some sense the perfect unincentivized action. If you think the most important thing to do is to cure malaria, then a charitable donation is deliberately throwing the power of your brain and muscle behind the cause of curing malaria. If, as I’ve argued, the reason we can’t solve world poverty and disease and so on is the capture of our financial resources by the undirected dance of incentives, then what better way to fight back than by saying “Thanks but no thanks, I’m taking this abstract representation of my resources and using it exactly how I think it should most be used”?

If you give 10% per year, you have done your part in making that world a reality. You can honestly say “Well, it’s not my fault that everyone else is still dragging their feet.”

III.

Once the level is fixed at ten percent, we get a better idea how to answer the original question: “If I want to be a good person who gives back to the community, but I am triggered by politics, what do I do?” You do good in a way that doesn’t trigger you. Another good thing about having less than 100% obligation is that it gives you the opportunity to budget and trade-off. If you make $30,000 and you accept 10% as a good standard you want to live up to, you can either donate $3000 to charity, or participate in political protests until your number of lives or dollars or DALYs saved is equivalent to that.

Nobody is perfect. This gives us license not to be perfect either. Instead of aiming for an impossible goal, falling short, and not doing anything at all, we set an arbitrary but achievable goal designed to encourage the most people to do as much as possible. That goal is ten percent.

Everything is commensurable. This gives us license to determine exactly how we fulfill that ten percent goal. Some people are triggered and terrified by politics. Other people are too sick to volunteer. Still others are poor and cannot give very much money. But money is a constant reminder that everything goes into the same pot, and that you can fulfill obligations in multiple equivalent ways. Some people will not be able to give ten percent of their income without excessive misery, but I bet thinking about their contribution in terms of a fungible good will help them decide how much volunteering or activism they need to reach the equivalent.

Cliff Pervocracy says “Your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” This seems like a recipe for – at best – undirected misery, stewing in self-loathing, and total defenselessness against the first parasitic meme to come along and tell them to engage in the latest conflict or else they’re trash. At worst, it autocatalyzes an opposition of egoists who laugh at the idea of helping others.

On the other hand, Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This seems like a recipe for getting people to say “Okay, I’ll take your yoke upon me! Thanks for the offer!”

Persian poet Omar Khayyam, considering the conflict between the strict laws of Islam and his own desire to enjoy life, settles upon the following rule:

Heed not the Sunna, nor the law divine;
If to the poor their portion you assign,
And never injure one, nor yet abuse,
I guarantee you heaven, as well as wine!

I’m not saying that donating 10% of your money to charity makes you a great person who is therefore freed of every other moral obligation. I’m not saying that anyone who chooses not to do it is therefore a bad person. I’m just saying that if you feel a need to discharge some feeling of a moral demand upon you to help others, and you want to do it intelligently, it beats most of the alternatives.

This month is the membership drive for Giving What We Can, the organization of people who have promised to give 10% of their earnings to charity. I am a member. Ozy is an aspiring member who plans to join once they are making a salary. Many of the commenters here are members – I recognize for example Taymon Beal’s name on their list. Some well-known moral philosophers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfit are members. Seven hundred other people are also members.

I would recommend giving them a look.

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