“We often find, upon a thorough review, that our expedients, while they have for a time seemed to produce very valuable results, have in fact corrected one evil by creating or enhancing another. We have borrowed from Peter to pay Paul.” -Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey through the Back Country
It is, I think, for the reason of epistemic modesty that even the most virtue-inclined of us quaver at the prospect of discussing the great atrocities of the past: slavery, genocide, mass murder. We want to believe that our modern values are correct, neither too cruel nor too enabling. But the best counterargument to our new and improved morality is a simple wave at the vast cohort of people throughout history who similarly believed themselves to be right while upholding principles we have since decided are unthinkable.
The conventional defenses of these grave affronts to human decency all ring the same. James Henry Hammond, governor of South Carolina during legalized slavery, claimed, “It is by the existence of slavery, exempting so large a portion of our citizens from labor, that we have leisure for intellectual pursuits.” Historian Tony Judt reports that in war zone surveys of German nationals during World War II, a majority of the population claimed that the killing of Jews and other non-Aryan peoples was “necessary for the security of Germans.”
The idea that citizen nationals turned a blind eye to the evils of slavery and genocide is a myth. Indeed, they recognized the shattering and sundry sufferings of their fellowmen as not only manifest, but instrumental to their own fulfillment. As Olmsted succinctly surmises, “We have borrowed from Peter to pay Paul.” In this case, the Pauls that the participants paid were themselves and their cultures, and the Peters were very unfortunate indeed.
So why, then, when I encountered the Olmsted quote above, did I think first not of atrocities but of the type of moral justification I hear daily? I and the people around me are aware of the great quantity of suffering in the world, and at least profess that we want to bring about better circumstances. In so doing, we claim that the reasons we’ve chosen to pursue a university education rather than join up with an international relief organization are ultimately altruistic. We are bettering ourselves, we declare, so that we can be of better help to others someday. But how much do we need to be “improved” before we are ready to go put such improvement to use towards the final end of reducing human suffering? We say of our meta-values that it is virtuous to pursue the kind of world-class education that will permit us to grow in virtue. But is there really nothing immoral about the kind of “virtue development” that tells us to spend four years enjoying the company of friends, languishing in well-furnished dormitories, gorging ourselves on ready-made food? We claim that the time we spend here gives us the direction we need to figure out in what way we can best help the world in the era of specialization. But how long and costly must a cost-benefit analysis be before just taking the plunge and guessing becomes a more effective mechanism?
In his famous essay “Singer’s Solution to World Poverty,” Peter Singer (with whom I generally don’t agree at all) argues, “The formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.” I’ll slightly reformulate Singer’s point in a way that makes more sense for a long-term value maximizer of the type I’ve described: “Whatever time and money you’re not spending toward your own necessities should be redirected toward altruistic ends.”
But the alleged long-game virtue-seeker worms his way out of this request using an application of expected-utility theory (EUT). “If I were to right away begin a life of service,” he responds, “I’d be losing career opportunities that would later allow me to cut a fatter check for charity.” He plugs in some arbitrary values for probability and reward and breathes a sigh of relief at the implication that he is, in fact, living virtuously. I’ve seen people go ridiculously far down this line of reasoning: “I’m morally obligated to attend a party with my colleagues tonight instead of volunteering at X shelter, because that way I marginally increase my chance of getting a promotion from the boss, and thus will receive more money for my later donation.” And depending on his Bayesian priors, he can prove this to be true. Sure, “self-centered” doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but these two scenarios lie on an increasing axis of puerility. Somewhere before either of them is the point where self-improvement turns into self-indulgence and altruism becomes a weapon against itself. Either that, or letting Econ majors and politicians use EUT for effective altruism just happens to create results that seem very convenient in light of their first-order desires.
We readily acknowledge the depravity of slavery and genocide, but we don’t often talk about why they are so depraved–because, as it turns out, the best defense of these unconscionable acts is also the best defense of the way many of us currently live. If we ignore for a moment the vast difference in moral charge between allowing the deaths of millions of people worldwide and literally killing them firsthand, then the perpetrators of atrocities meet our reasoning with uncanny accuracy, almost point for point. If they had declared that they wanted to grow in virtue for the particular end of being better toward the people whose well-being they were sacrificing to accomplish these ideas of virtue, then the situations would be isomorphic. But they didn’t. They instead espoused a perverted brand of preferencing, e.g. “Paul’s net worth is more important than Peter’s,” to justify their moral abuses. We, living in the era of equality, have rejected this notion and replaced it with the affirming market-based rhetoric of “If he takes enough of Peter’s money to begin with, then Paul can invest it through Bain and pay Peter back tenfold in two years!” And to me, this line of thought doesn’t seem all that much safer.
I’m not claiming working in finance to “save up” for charity donations is anywhere near as awful an act as genocide. The manner in which the two are comparable is purely at the meta-level. Using EUT-based morality calculations to justify our ceaseless borrowing is actively destructive to the fabric of ethics in a way that selective usage of the concepts of freedom and nationhood wasn’t. This conclusion stands regardless of how much more pain mass atrocities caused, or how much more directly its authors were involved in its causation. How poor must Peter be before we pay him back? It doesn’t matter anymore, amidst all the dollar signs that will pull him from destitution in two years…if he survives that long. Yes, we are not responsible for Peter’s death in the way that the perpetrators of genocide were. But their meta-principles, unlike ours, didn’t validate the ability of anyone, anywhere, to use the tools of morality against morality itself. In fact, the reason we’re aware of their moral fallacy at all is that at the meta-level, their principles were not even coherent. Our successors will have a much harder time disproving our meta-principles than we did theirs.
This is all unnecessary, because one really doesn’t need to consider the two evils as comparable in order to want to avoid both. The old “killing versus letting die” distinction is toothless here. Singer is aware of the salience of ignoring moral qualms in which we are not directly involved. “To be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet,” he admits. But the metric of difficulty should not be confused with the metric of virtue. We do plenty of good without even thinking about it (and if you can’t recall an example, that’s equally likely an indicator that you never perform unconscious virtuous acts as it is that you often do and don’t even consider them consequential enough to remember). Anyways, even the strong version of this argument–that killing someone is, de jure, worse than letting her die–does not mean that we should a priori take to be supererogatory any moral actions toward remedying situations which we did not cause. How virtuous should we be expected to be? My answer: virtuous. There’s no spectrum. I’ve long believed that “good” and “bad” are measured in degrees, whereas “virtuous” and “sinful” are binary. A friend asked me today, “If you’re off the mark, doesn’t it matter by how much?” I answered, “Yes, but first you check whether you hit the target, which is a Yes/No question, and then you measure the distance in terms of inches or feet.” Similarly, consider two pregnant women; one is due in 3 months, the other in 6. Would you regard one as “more pregnant” than the other? No, that’s ridiculous–“pregnant” is a binary variable, and “time until due date” is a continuous, distinct variable. Just so for morality: we should turn the “virtue” switch on, and strive to maximize the continuous variable of “good.”
We could perhaps take this blatant misuse of EUT more charitably and claim that the Paul paid in the exchange is not ourselves, sheepishly holding up an IOU, but future recipients of aid, endowed with all the good we can instantiate with this carefully augmented nest egg. In such a calculus, we’re foregoing present good for the sole purpose of maximizing future good, and we do not enter into the equation as agents. But then isn’t it a failure of epistemic modesty for us to assume we can invest these “Schrodinger’s utils” more reliably to produce a long-term sum than can the organizations and people we’d be helping if we forked it over now? It’s at least paternalistic, which is usually a warning sign. And in the case of those economic geniuses who are truly best suited to monitor the growth of the utils, I find it hard to believe that they’re doing so purely to provide invaluable, unpaid financial management to the United Way. Even if they were, how is it not completely self-defeating to take from the present to give to the future–when those from whom we are withholding real-time aid would perhaps otherwise have become the parents, educators, missionaries, and relief advocates for the agents of the future?
It doesn’t matter if killing is different from letting die, because this kind of reasoning, as it turns out, causes both. A few days ago, my nation was hit by a devastating act of violence, only the most recent in a series of cases that have seemed to demonstrate an upward trend in mortality. On the afternoon of Ash Wednesday 2018, a former student opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 students and teachers at the scene and injuring 15 more.
The Wikipedia articles for school shootings in all other world countries are consolidated into a single page. But America has perpetuated and suffered enough violence in this avenue to constitute its own page, as long as the rest combined. Yet lawmakers who refuse to clamp down on gun sales attribute their reticence to precisely the manner of thinking we’ve just explored.
Yes. Proponents of easy market access to automatic weapons use exactly the method of poorly-applied EUT to justify their farcically circular reasoning. They are, quite straightforwardly, robbing innocent lives to grant what they perceive as a public right that will then theoretically be used to prevent further loss of life. After the First Baptist Church shooting, two civilians grabbed their own rifles and pursued the shooter until he crashed his car, a heroic action that launched them into the national spotlight. One of these vigilantes, Texan Johnnie Landendorff, received overwhelming praise from far-right media such as Townhall and Breitbart. Said one Townhall staff member, “In the hands of a ‘good guy,’ a gun is what finally put an end to the massacre.”
Any good NRA hack will tell you that the best defense against a mass shooting is an armed, vigilant citizen. Sure, he argues, it is a drain on the aggregate value of society for some dangerous individuals to have access to guns, but this is a necessary price in order to allow the righteous citizens of America to purchase the guns they’ll use productively–to grow in virtue to the point where they can overcome such criminals. The logic of needing any guns in the first place if their telos is to resolve violence caused by people wielding other guns is blatantly self-defeating, like all instantiations of classic misuse of EUT. But no matter! We must pay Paul! It’s just too bad if we are both Peter and Paul, and we never break even.
Now you see the stark line between atrocity and innocent misuse of expected-value theory is not so stark as we thought. This Peter/Paul reasoning can feed the continuity of tragic and evil acts. It is as dangerous as they.
Given that even statistically-minded me has a penchant for permitting gun ownership, I’ll give any pro-gun readers some epistemic credit: there are better reasons not to want stringent gun control than this paradoxical argument. Using it is an insult to our intelligence and our values. If you are pro-gun, then other factors are entering into your reasoning than absolute aggregate utility–factors like freedom as a first principle, or concerns about effectiveness of the governmental measures themselves, or a non actor-network theoretic understanding of the relationship between weapons and people. For reference, nobody who believes in the legalization of heroin explains their position with “If everyone has access to heroin, we can use our experience with heroin to grow in virtue to better help addicts.” If you strongly believe that gun control legislation is wrong, then you can make a better case by avoiding such pathetically post facto justification.
The point is, there’s clearly something absurdly wrong with using EUT for post hoc justification of selfishness. This problem stems partly from the fact that it doesn’t make any sense to consider every present action we take through the lens of expected-utility theory. I posted earlier about the paralysis this approach causes. But I espoused a principle in that article that needs clarification in order to be consistent here: that we should care just as much, in certain situations, about future actors as we do about present ones. What does this mean, when the starving children represented by the $1K you didn’t pay Peter ten years ago are now dead because of your inaction, and any reparations you can make by paying forward your $10K to Peter’s sons will go to completely different people? What does it mean when the healthy children at Stoneman Douglas are now dead, rendering worthless the glorious bullets that would have been used to save them when the Civilian Hero arrived on the scene?
We should preference existent actors over nonexistent actors in cases where the existent actors are in clear and present danger, especially if helping them may help to avert the need by future actors of help.
To do this rigorously, we could use multivariate EUT in which probability/value pairs are Borel products with different distributions that are time-sensitive to earlier selections. Karni (1989) has already done good work on EUT over multivariate probability distributions, which could be a place to start.
In less mathematical terms, we could think of this as a binary indicator. Is there danger for existent actors that is greater than some small epsilon? Probably. There likely will be for a long time–or at least until we stop using backwards EUT to implode morality. If there is such a danger, then act now to stop it instead of saving up to help people who will be born into suffering in the interval in which your bond was doubling–people who might’ve been born into comfort if you’d helped someone else. (Aside: “those people might not have existed, exactly” isn’t a counterargument worth rebutting here; helping earlier agents may linearly help later agents that don’t yet exist, regardless of the counterfactual details.)
This comment brings me to an important corollary. I don’t believe my metric applies to work that is done to overturn a long-term political principle that is contrary to virtue, or to instantiate one that is in accordance with virtue. In these cases, the future population in danger will likely look the same regardless of the individuals helped, and working to stop the cause of the danger rather than its effect may be more potent. If your current actions are directly and non-hypothetically correlated with a virtuous end goal that you can’t yet enact, perfect! Tell the truth when asked: that instead of joining Teach for America, you’re pursuing your law degree or self-studying machine learning in order to illegalize the death penalty or better implement AI alignment strategies, respectively. The moral threats you have diagnosed as salient–for you just can’t find everything salient–are best helped by what you are actually doing. This argument, I think, only works for systematic risks, in which one can have a good idea of what the climate of his concern of interest will look like moving forward. If you’re this kind of person, you’re probably already donating or tithing to the cause of current moral actors, so continue to do that in tandem with your altruistic project. One such altruistic project might constitute bipartisan endeavors to create a better understanding of what “guns” are and should be, who should have access to them, and what they should be used for.
So, reader, even if you’re just not going to donate to charity or volunteer for a helpful cause no matter what argument I present, stop using EUT to justify that impulse. Regardless of what Singer says, it would be unreasonable to expect you to donate all of your resources to relief, and the idea that this is the “only” moral way to live is a contributing factor in the emergence of post facto bad use of EUT. Perhaps going out for a nice dinner to clear your head will meaningfully improve the good you can do in the coming week, but this conjectural claim isn’t the way to frame your choice if someone angrily asks why you’d do such a thing. Neither is the default response that you are entitled to such days off, which harkens ominously back to the infamous atrocities of history–whose instigators claimed justification through the preferencing of their own abstruse interests over other moral actors’ very basic rights. You are not entitled to a day off from morality any more than you are entitled to a gun.
This shouldn’t be taken as a claim that there is only one model for a virtuous life, a model that always puts others before the self. When Luther wrote “On Temporal Authority,” he argued that God would not begrudge a thoughtful and principled monarch the occasional joust or hunt, but a monarch who strove to be thoughtful and principled would find little, if any, time in which to pursue such pastimes. As humans, we are constantly sinning in small ways by preferencing our immediate interests over more important concerns. The fact that it is to some degree inevitable doesn’t make it any better–but honesty does. No, it’s not moral to value your $200 fuzzy parka over the life of the child you could have saved with the money you used to buy it. In fact, it’s probably immoral. But it’s not anti-moral to admit that uncomfortable truth. It is anti-moral to say you bought the parka to keep yourself dry so that when you one day climb a mountain to save a stranded Himalayan child, you’ll have slightly less slippery skin. And it is deeply anti-moral to claim that the reason you own a gun is to someday be the hero who steps in to protect somebody from a villain wielding a gun just like your own.
If I have convinced you, call (800) 367-5437 now to donate to UNICEF. Go to http://www.gofundme.com/stonemandouglasvictimsfund to support survivors of the Stoneman Douglas tragedy. All you need is a credit card and a sense of doubt.