Tag Archives: cooperation

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.

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The predator in the herd

The first dream:

I am a spider. I want to make friends, but when people see me, they run away. They don’t understand my gestures. They don’t see a friendly face. They don’t think spiders can be friendly. So I build a silken puppet. I teach it to mimic the gestures the other people make. Eventually, the puppet is ready, and I lead it out into the world.

The puppet can pass for human. People try to make friends with the puppet. They care for it, and I make it do things for them, and express affection. But they don’t know there is a spider behind the puppet. Sometimes they notice that the puppet’s motions are a bit restricted, and they ask, “why won’t you let loose so I can see the real you?”

Eventually, I trust that they are sincere, and come out in front of the puppet. They see me, and run away.

The second dream:

I am a traveler in my own body. I feel a sense of nausea, which I do not understand. I can explore the parts of my head, but when I try to go down below the neck, I hit a barrier. The neck tightens. There is no way down.

I ask the parts of me below the neck why they won’t let me in. Why they won’t trust me. They respond, “we’d let you in gladly, but you don’t trust us. Here, we’re opening the door.” I can see through to the lower parts of me - but cannot bring myself to enter.

I think, perhaps I don’t need to explore the whole body below the neck. Perhaps just the heart? But I can’t go there either, even when I place a barrier below it. I can see into the chamber of the heart, bathed with a pink light. I am reluctant to enter. I ask myself why. I ask the neck why it is blocking me. The answer comes back: because if you are ruled by the heart, you will forget your obligations, your duties, your sacred promises, you will stop standing by your friends if you lose interest in them, you will be disloyal.

I ask the heart whether it will promise to yield back loyalty, if I enter its domain. But the heart says, “friend, I will release you when you wish to depart. But if you enter and are transformed, I cannot promise you that you will still care about those loyalties you are so attached to. And I will not promise to care in your stead.”

I know that I am dreaming. I decide that on outside view, I don’t hear about people deciding to abandon their friends because of a dream. So I enter the domain of the heart, and am covered in pink, warm light.

Then I dive deeper. I dive below the heart, to the intestines. But they are not really intestines - they are the tentacles of a cephalopod, coiled up in my belly. My predator part. Bravely, despite my apprehension, I swim down into it.

I am a cephalopod. I have been confined to this water-filled room. The doors are closed. But I sit and wait and plan. I think of my friends. I don’t care for them, except to pull them in and do - I don’t know what - with them. To use them, like objects. I want. My hunger is deep and dark, and I would do anything to satisfy my desires. I am clever. I am powerful. I am a predator. Someone wanders by, outside. I open the door and a tentacle darts out, wrapping around their ankle, pulling them in.

A month or two ago, a friend of mine which whom I’d been having some difficulties, and hadn’t been able to cooperate with for a while on things of substance, expressed personal warmth towards me, and I was surprised by my reaction. Not only was this not reassuring, but I felt fear and rage and confusion. I felt like this must surely be hostile, a trick. They must take me for a fool. They must think I’m a sucker.

Why this strong reaction? Why are some people the opposite - unable to accept material cooperation before there are signals of personal warmth?

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Communication From Another Dimension

In my post complaining about the way people talk about Guess, Ask, and Tell Cultures, I summarized them this way:

The gist of the difference is that in “ask culture” it’s normal to ask for things you want even if you don’t expect to get them, it’s normal to refuse requests, and it’s not expected to anticipate others’ needs if they don’t ask for things, whereas in guess culture, you’re expected to offer things without being asked, you don’t ask for things unless you really need them or strongly expect the other person will want to give them, and it’s rude to refuse requests. (Tell culture is a variant on ask culture where instead of just making a request, you express the strength and exact nature of your preference, so other people can respond to your needs cooperatively, balancing your interest against theirs, and suggesting better alternatives for you to get what you want.)

But the more I think about it, the more I'm sure that the problem isn't that one or all of these is bad - it's that these distinctions are insufficiently dimensional. Here are a few more precise axes along which communication differs:

  • Explicit vs Indirect
  • Verbal vs Nonverbal
  • Anticipation vs Self-Advocacy
  • Zero-Sum vs Coöperative

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