Tag Archives: moral

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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Be Faire

At the dinner table of the Beeminder family, who had generously invited me to stay with them during my recent travels, I accidentally took the butter knife for my own. As an indirect result, the knife of Danny and Bethany’s daughter Faire was accidentally conscripted as the butter knife, leaving her with none, so she complained. Bethany offered her own knife as a replacement. But Faire didn’t accept this solution. She clearly felt strongly about it, she even raised her voice, and she refused to be satisfied with a stopgap solution that deprived someone else of a knife. Her true objection wasn’t that she herself lacked a knife, but that it was unfair for a person at the table to lack a knife. She demanded a systemic solution. The situation was resolved when I noticed my extra knife and gave it to her in recompense - because this was a fair solution.

Her indignation was a profoundly moral one, and it reminded me of a story of my own moral indignation.

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