Originally posted in 2023 April. This post is old and doesn't totally represent my current thinking. 

Particularly in this post I use the word "own" which I don't use so much anymore. What I mean by "own" in this post is, "something that is inside his boundary/membrane". (And I explain this more here: What is inside your own membrane? A brief abstract model.) There's also a part in this post that might be circular under this substitution— I think in reality it all works out, but I can't be bothered to fix what I wrote.

I’ve quite liked the «Boundaries» Sequence so far (written by Andrew Critch). In this post I discuss a disagreement I have on how to conceptualize «boundaries» in practical examples, and I also propose a fix.

What I don’t like about the conceptualization of «boundaries» given in Part 2: 1. Expansive Thinking

Excerpt from «Boundaries», Part 2: trends in EA's handling of boundaries: 1. Expansive Thinking:

A "job" for Alex is a scope of affairs (features of the world) that Alex is considered responsible for observing and handling.  Alex might have multiple roles that we can think of as jobs, e.g. "office manager", "husband", "neighbor".

Alex probably thinks about the world beyond the scope of his job(s).  But usually, Alex doesn't take actions outside the scope of his job(s):

What I think this description lacks is that it doesn’t explain what is not Alex’s ‘job’ (what things are not in Alex’s boundary). 

I’ll get back to this. Also see:

The Effective Altruism movement has provided a lot of discourse and social context that helps people extend their sense of "job" to include important and neglected problems in the world that might be tractable to them-personally[…]

But, hm, if one’s “job” (i.e., boundary) can expand to include donating to poverty in another country, then what’s to stop it from expanding to include anything and everything? Surely the concept of «boundaries»[1] would not be useful if that were the case. This is why I don’t like the way this section is presented in the original post.

How I would fix this

My preferred conceptualization of «boundaries» in the case of “jobs” is to look at the contracts involved. Note: the 'contracts’ I mean can be formal or informal.

For example, in the world of Alex:

  • Alex is an office manager, i.e.: a company has requested that he adopts certain responsibilities in, and Alex has accepted this in exchange for a salary. 
    • Moreover, his company has given him the necessary powers (office keys, a company credit card, etc.) to do his job effectively.
  • Alex is a husband, i.e.: he and his partner entered into a (probably, informal) contract. 
  • (I am intentionally excluding Alex’s “neighbor” job.[2])

The ‘contracts’ frame shouldn't seem too unfamiliar, I don’t think— the electrical repairs example introduced in «Boundaries» Part 3b is quite similar:

your electrician is allowed to affect your home, and other aspects of your life in general, if they do so via electrical repairs on your home that you've consented to. Thus, by default you yourself serve as a boundary between your home and your electrician, and when you open up that boundary for the purpose of electrical repairs, the repairs on your home are supposed to be a boundary between your electrician and the other aspects of your life. 

(I.e.: For electrical repairs, you have allowed an electrician access to your home only for the specific and bounded purpose of electrical repairs. There is an agreement/ (formal or informal) contract.)

I hope that makes sense for explaining how Alex and his boundary relate to his ‘jobs’ of “office manager” and “husband”.

However, how do Alex’s *donations* fit into his boundary? Are they part of a job (or contract)? 

I would not consider “donating to effective charities” as part of Alex’s “jobs” like Critch seems to (see his figure). And, from the perspective of contracts at least, I think Alex’s donations are clearly not part of any contract (and therefore not part of any “job”). 

But, if Alex’s donations are not part of a job, how are they part of his boundary? Are they even part of what’s inside his boundary?

Well, I would define the interior of Alex’s boundary as not just his jobs (not just the contracts he’s agreed to). I think there’s more than that, and I conceptualize this additional portion as he simply owns things— and the things he naturally owns are also in his boundary.

For example, he owns his body, his possessions, his thoughts, and his actions. And if he wants to be self-sufficient in managing these things to his liking, he better take responsibility for those. However, for example, Alex does not own anyone else’s body, possessions, thoughts, actions, etc.— thus those are beyond his boundary.

This (rough) figure may be helpful to visualize what I mean (but if it’s not feel free to ignore it):

And the relevant piece here is that Alex owns his values. It is entirely because of his values that Alex donates. — That is, “donating” is not part of Alex’s “job”, and Alex is not “responsible” for poverty in another country far away. 

Instead, Alex is merely expressing care for poverty that belongs to someone else.

Alex does not/could not own anyone else’s poverty (clearly), and, in this world, he also hasn’t made any agreements with anyone to manage their poverty. So everyone else’s/anyone else’s poverty is truly outside of the scope of his boundary.

In summary:

  • I propose defining boundaries in the Alex example not in terms of “jobs”, but in terms of: 1) contracts (mutual agreements between two parties), and 2) property / things he owns.
  • Alex is not “responsible” for *someone else’s* poverty. (And “donating” is not/cannot be part of his “job”.) He is, however, responsible for his values, and in this case because of his values, he is *expressing care* for someone else’s poverty, and this is distinct from “taking responsibility”.

Additional Notes

I will also use this occasion to critique another another sentence from the original post:

EA has helped people to expand both their circle of compassion and their scope of responsibility to act.

I think this is confusing: it doesn’t make sense for someone to have responsibility for something they neither own, nor have power over. (And I would not consider “expressing care for something” to be “taking responsibility for something”.)

One possible objection to this might be: “But of course Alex has power over whether someone else is in poverty, he can just give them money!”

So, while Alex can exert some influence over whether someone else in specific is in poverty, he can only do this if that person lets him. Certainly, it would be very difficult for him, even at the greatest levels of effort, for him to 100% ensure that a given someone isn’t poor. E.g.: That person could just blow all of the money!

Of course, Alex could prevent that person from blowing all of the money he’s given them by somehow controlling their expenditures, but that would be crossing a «boundary» on them! (Violating that person’s autonomy / self-sufficiency.) And, with that off the table, Alex has very little power to control someone else’s poverty. (Overall, I think that to ensure something for someone else is crossing boundaries.) 

Also see: What is inside your own membrane? A brief abstract model for my most recent thoughts.

  1. ^

    FWIW, though, this section in the original post doesn’t use the word “boundary” at all, so I’m inferring a bit.

  2. ^

     I’m excluding the “neighbor” job because, for reasons that I hope become clear through this post, I’m not sure it fits in with the other “jobs”. I think it’s ambiguous.


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