Tag Archives: responsibility

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

Dominance, care, and social touch

John Salvatier writes about dominance, care, and social touch:

I recently found myself longing for male friends to act dominant over me. Imagining close male friends putting their arms over my shoulders and jostling me a bit, or squeezing my shoulders a bit roughly as they come up to talk to me felt good. Actions that clearly convey ‘I’m in charge here and I think you’ll like it’.

I was surprised at first. After all, aren’t showy displays of dominance bad? I don’t think of myself as particularly submissive either.

But my longing started to make more sense when I thought about my high school cross country coach.

[...] Coach would walk around and stop to talk to individual students. As he came up to you, he would often put his hand on your shoulder or sidle up alongside you and squeeze the nape of your neck. He would ask you - How are you? How did the long run feel yesterday? What are you aiming for at the meet? You’d tell him, and he would tell you what he thought was good - Just shoot to have a good final kick; don’t let anyone pass you.

And it felt really good for him to talk to you like that. At least it did for me.

It was clear that you were part of his plans, that he was looking out for you and that he wanted something from you. And that was reassuring because it meant he was going to keep looking out for you.

I think there are a few things going on here worth teasing apart:

Some people are more comfortable with social touch than others, probably related to overall embodiment.

Some people are more comfortable taking responsibility for things that they haven't been explicitly tasked with and given affordances for, including taking responsibility for things affecting others.

Because people cowed by authority are likely to think they're not allowed to do anything by default, and being cowed by authority is a sort of submission, dominance is correlated with taking responsibility for tasks. (There are exceptions, like service submissives, or people who just don't see helpfulness as related to their dominance.)

Because things that cause social ineptness also cause discomfort or unfamiliarity with social touch, comfort with and skill at social touch is correlated with high social status.

Personally, I don't like much casual social touch. Several years ago, the Rationalist community decided to try to normalize hugging, to promote bonding and group cohesion. It was correct to try this, given our understanding at the time. But I think it's been bad for me on balance; even after doing it for a few years, it still feels fake most of the time. I think I want to revert to a norm of not hugging people, in order to preserve the gesture for cases where I feel authentically motivated to do so, as an expression of genuine emotional intimacy.

I'm very much for the sort of caring where you proactively look after the other person's interests, outside the scope of what you've been explicitly asked to do - of taking it upon yourself to do things that need to be done. I just don't like connecting this with dominance or ego assertion. (I've accepted that I do need to at least inform people that I'm doing the thing, to avoid duplicated effort or allay their anxiety that it's not getting done.)

Sometimes, when I feel let down because someone close to me dropped the ball on something important, they try to make amends by submitting to me. This would be a good appeasement strategy if I mainly felt bad because I wanted them to assign me a higher social rank. But, the thing I want is actually the existence of another agent in the world who is independently looking out for my interests. So when they respond by submitting, trying to look small and incompetent, I perceive them as shirking. My natural response to this kind of shirking is anger - but people who are already trying to appease me by submitting tend to double down on submission if they notice I'm upset at them - which just compounds the problem!

My main strategy for fixing this has been to avoid leaning on this sort of person for anything important. I've been experimenting with instead explicitly telling them I dont' want submission and asking them to take more responsibility, and this occasionally works a bit, but it's slow and frustrating and I'm not sure it's worth the effort.

I don't track my social status as a quantity much at all. A close friend once described my social strategy as projecting exactly enough status to talk to anyone in the room, but no more, and no desire to win more status. This may be how I come across inside social ontologies where status is a quantity everyone has and is important to interactions, but from my perspective, I just talk to people I want to talk to if I think it will be a good use of our time, and don't track whether I'm socially entitled to. This makes it hard for some people, who try to understand people through their dominance level, to read me and predict my actions. But I think fixing this would be harmful, since it would require me to care about my status. I care about specific relationships with individuals, reputation for specific traits and actions, and access to social networks. I don't want to care about dominating people or submitting to them. It seems unfriendly. It seems divergent.

I encourage commenting here or at LessWrong.

Confutatis and cold comfort

On a recent morning bits from Mozart’s Requiem were playing in my head, and when I got to Confutatis I began to translate it in my head:

When the accused are convicted

To the acrid flames sentenced

Call me among the blessed.

I pray supplicant and prostrate,

Heart contrite as ash.

Show care for my end.

And I felt a strong desire to grant these prayers. My first impulse was to identify - not with the prayer, but the one to whom the prayers were directed. My first thought was not, how much like my own sentiments, but how terrible it is that someone might think I wouldn’t rescue them from the flames.

And then I remembered that I don’t have the power. I can’t just call everyone among the blessed. And I cried.

An acquaintance - not yet a friend, I think, though we have mutual friends - has been going through a very tough time, and meditating on their struggle, I wrote this poem, drawing again on my self from several months ago. So it’s not quite about them - as usual, I write the poem I’d have liked to read from someone else: Continue reading

Safety in numbers

Relaxation and waking up

Taking a bath taught me that I hate it when things relax me.

As part of my project to repair my relationship with desire, I’ve been working through the pleasure exercises in the book Pleasurable Weight Loss. These exercises frequently expose me to something that paradigmatically gives pleasure. The intended effect, I think, is to learn to embrace pleasure through habit-formation. The effect on me, however, has been to show me something surprising each time, often through my failure to be pleased by the activity, improving my self-model in a relevant way. I wrote about my experience with a nature walk. Another pleasure exercise was to take a luxurious bath.

When I finally emerged from a long, hot bath, I found my body unusually relaxed. I sat down on the couch and wanted to flop over. I didn’t feel like moving at all. And this was terrible. It felt as though a wizard had cast a spell on me to dullen my mind. I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t moving, and I didn’t want to, and this was terrible. It was dangerous.

I went for a walk afterwards with a friend, and didn’t wear my jacket. The brisk winter Berkeley air cheered me up, since now I felt like moving, and thinking, and didn’t feel like I had to resist slipping into a restful oblivion.

I dislike warmth, and soft dim lighting, and deep soft couch cushions that threaten to envelop me, for much the same reason: it feels like a trap. It feels like something is trying to lull me into a false sense of security. It feels like one of those scenes in a fantasy story, where the hero’s exploring some underground catacombs, and enters a mysterious important-seeming room and all of a sudden is feeling nice and warm and sleepy, and wants to sit down for a bit, and meanwhile there are the skeletons of previous adventures littering the floor, and you want to shout, “wake up! Look around you! Get oriented or you die!”.  It feels like the warm, comforting, enveloping embrace of - death. Continue reading

Want to Summon Less Animal Suffering?

I've been thinking about Julia Galef's chart of how much of an animal's live an unit of food costs. Her summary of her approach:

If you’re bothered by the idea of killing animals for food, then going vegetarian might seem like an obvious response. But if you want your diet to kill as few animals as possible, then eschewing meat is actually quite an indirect, and sometimes even counterproductive, strategy. The question you should be asking yourself about any given food is not, “Is this food animal flesh?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “How many animal lives did this food cost?”

She ends up with this chart:

But as we know, from a hedonic utilitarian perspective, the moral cost of consuming animals is not measured in their deaths, but the net suffering in their lives - and lives are made of days.

I am not a hedonic utilitarian, but I think that for big-picture issues, utilitarianism is an important heuristic for figuring out what the right answer is, since at least it handles addition and multiplication better than our unaided moral intuitions.

So I looked up how long each of these animals typically lives, to estimate how many days of each animal's life you are responsible for when you consume 1,000 calories of that animal. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that beef cattle are slaughtered at 36 months old (i.e. 1,096 days), and pork hogs at 6 months old (183 days). Wikipedia says that chickens raised for meat typically live about 6 weeks (42 days), and laying hens about 2 years (730 days), and that dairy cows live an average of four years (1,461 days) before dying or being culled and sold as beef.

Using those figures yields the following:

Days per 1000 Calories


Eggs now appear to be even worse than eating chicken flesh, since broiler chickens live very short lives compared to laying hens. Similarly, beef loses its advantage relative to pork, which comes from smaller but faster-maturing animals. Dairy still seems pretty okay, comparatively.

A few complicating factors need to be explored before this becomes a reliable guide, though.

First, not all animal suffering is of equal intensity. It may actually be net good for well-treated animals to exist. It is still not obvious that factory farmed animals would rather never have been born, or how to count their suffering.

Second, it is not obvious how to attribute responsibility for animals that are not themselves raised to feed humans. For example, Julia divided laying hens' yield in half to account for killed male chicks, but the chicks obviously live almost no time. If you double the yield back to what it would have been before this adjustment, eggs come out about the same as chicken. Similarly, if a dairy cow is killed for beef, it seems like this should lower milk drinkers' and cheese eaters' day counts, since beef eaters contribute to the viability of raising dairy cattle too.

Finally, there may be different elasticity for different animal products; because lowered demand leads to lowered prices, which increase demand, the industry might reduce production by less than a full chicken for each chicken you abstain from buying, and this rate may differ by animal.

What am I going to do? I like eggs a lot, and think they're cheap and pretty good for me, and I basically believe Katja Grace's argument that I shouldn't put in a lot of work to change my behavior on this, so I'm going to keep eating them, though I'll continue to preferentially buy free range eggs where available. I have a rationalization that laying hens don't suffer nearly as much as broilers, so I'll flinch a little bit each time I consider eating chicken. I was favoring eating beef over pork due to Julia's analysis, but I will stop doing that now that I know the two are pretty much equivalent in terms of animal-days.

[UPDATE: Brian Tomasik has an unsurprisingly somewhat more thoroughly worked out treatment of this line of thinking here.]