Tag Archives: agency

Against responsibility

I am surrounded by well-meaning people trying to take responsibility for the future of the universe. I think that this attitude – prominent among Effective Altruists – is causing great harm. I noticed this as part of a broader change in outlook, which I've been trying to describe on this blog in manageable pieces (and sometimes failing at the "manageable" part).

I'm going to try to contextualize this by outlining the structure of my overall argument.

Why I am worried

Effective Altruists often say they're motivated by utilitarianism. At its best, this leads to things like Katja Grace's excellent analysis of when to be a vegetarian. We need more of this kind of principled reasoning about tradeoffs.

At its worst, this leads to some people angsting over whether it's ethical to spend money on a cup of coffee when they might have saved a life, and others using the greater good as license to say things that are not quite true, socially pressure others into bearing inappropriate burdens, and make ever-increasing claims on resources without a correspondingly strong verified track record of improving people's lives. I claim that these actions are not in fact morally correct, and that people keep winding up endorsing those conclusions because they are using the wrong cognitive approximations to reason about morality.

Summary of the argument

  1. When people take responsibility for something, they try to control it. So, universal responsibility implies an attempt at universal control.
  2. Maximizing control has destructive effects:
    • An adversarial stance towards other agents.
    • Decision paralysis.
  3. These failures are not accidental, but baked into the structure of control-seeking. We need a practical moral philosophy to describe strategies that generalize better, and that benefit from the existence of other benevolent agents rather than treating them primarily as threats.

Continue reading

Copernican revolutions, lordship, and bondage

I got a wonderful compliment from a friend recently.

They had mentioned that I was a good host - that I got some important things right (this on its own made me feel recognized) - and expressed some worry that I might feel unappreciated. Another of their friends had expressed the sense that their contributions to the community weren’t being reciprocated. From what my friend could observe of my behavior I was acting fairly similarly, and they were worried I’d burn out.

I responded to the effect that I am already "burnt out" in the sense that I'm only doing things if they feel worth doing with no expectation of reciprocation. (My other motives are finding it intrinsically motivating to do good for others, and empowering allies to do good things more generally.) But, I continued, I was sad that I'm not setting off a success spiral where other people perceive the public goods I'm contributing to as benefiting them, and try to reciprocate by generating more public goods of a similar kind. A sort of public goods success spiral, where people do more, not just because they have more resources & like people, but because they perceive themselves to live in an environment with prosocial norms.

My friend responded that my behavior had inspired them to be a better host, and given them affordances of things to do, that wouldn’t have occurred to them otherwise. They gave a concrete example: offering people water when they come in. And this was exactly the thing I'd wanted to happen, and had sort of given up on.

I shouldn’t have given up. But I should have expected it to be hard, because it implies a level of spiritual development that you can’t just skip ahead to. I should have known this, because I've read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Continue reading

On purpose alone

On being an agent

“Hey, do you mind if I steal one of those cookies?”
“I brought them to share.”

Denial of agency

I feel compelled to correct people when they jokingly ask permission to “steal” something. At first I assumed this was just due to some general pedantic impulse, but recently I’ve been noticing that this particular usage annoys me more than other casual semantic misusages. My current hypothesis is that this particular phrasing bothers me because it implicitly denies my agency.

Often I will have more of something on hand than I personally need, specifically because I anticipate that other people might need or want it too. I care about being the sort of person who thinks ahead like that, and I care about this thoughtfulness being understood and acknowledged. When a friend pretends that they’re stealing, they’re crafting a narrative where their good fortune happens by accident, that I just happened to have a thing they wanted, that they seized a random opportunity. It denies me the right to feel proud of having anticipated my friend’s probable needs, and to have the rightness of that pride acknowledged.

I felt a similar irritation in other circumstances where no one actively denied my agency, but people simply assumed that I wouldn’t have put work in: Continue reading

Steve Jobs and the Impossibility of Parents

Steve Jobs felt abandoned by his parents - but which ones?

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs repeatedly brings up Jobs’s sense that his birth parents abandoned him by putting him up for adoption, as an explanation for his bad behavior towards others: setting people up to believe they’re close friends or even revered mentors and father figures to him, only to suddenly and coldly abandon them when their usefulness to him has ended.

This explanation - that the central trauma of Jobs’s life was a sense of abandonment by his birth parents - doesn’t quite fit. Other of Job’s famously bad behaviors are is not explained by this: the quickness with which he would categorize people into “geniuses” and “bozos,” or their accomplishments into “amazing” or “shit,” and the fury with which he would berate those in the second half of the division. In addition, Jobs was adamant that his adoptive parents always made him feel special, making a point to tell him that they had picked him out, chosen him.

One passage from early in the book stuck out to me, and I think it helps resolve this puzzle. Jobs told Isaacson a story about how, when he was a kid and becoming interested in technology, a friend showed him something his father - who had been teaching him how to make things, about electronics, etc. - wasn’t able to account for. A big part of Jobs’s relationship with his father had been his father teaching him how to make things, and how things worked. In that moment, Jobs says, he began to realize that he was smarter than his parents, and as soon as he noticed this thought, felt a deep sense of shame. Anyone who knows anything about the character of Steve Jobs will be unsurprised to find out that shame was an emotion he rarely experienced. I don’t have a copy of the book handy, but would be unsurprised if this is the only time the word shame is used to describe Jobs’s state.

The central trauma of Steve Jobs’s life was that he felt abandoned by his adoptive parents, when he realized that they were not as smart as him. His father couldn’t be his mentor anymore. No one was above him. Continue reading