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Infinite Debt


A patient of mine is getting to that age where she can’t support herself independently. She’s not a big fan of nursing homes, and I don’t blame her. She wants her son to take care of her.

Her son has a career, has a family, doesn’t have extra room in his house. Taking care of a sick elderly person is a full-time job, one that can involve everything from giving medications to emptying bedpans. He is not very keen on this plan.

And she says, come on, I worked hard to raise you, you owe me.

And I wonder, how far does this go?

Suppose she is going to need a decade of pretty much twenty-four hour care. She says “Well, I gave you two decades of essentially twenty four hour care. You owe me everything, you have to take care of me.”

Suppose she lives in a different state from him, and she really doesn’t want to leave the family home. She says “Quit your job, sell your house, and move to Michigan to take care of me. You owe me everything, you have to take care of me.”

Suppose his wife is really reluctant to share the house with a very demanding sick elderly person. Maybe she knows he works all day and realistically she’ll be the one doing the day-to-day caretaking. Maybe she’s not so keen on bedpan-emptying. Maybe she categorically refuses. And his mother says “Then divorce your wife and move to Michigan to take care of me. You owe me everything, you have to take care of me.”

Most Westerners would probably consider these requests unreasonable. But the mother is probably right. Probably she sacrificed more for her son than she’s asking him to sacrifice for her; the credit is still in her favor.

The problem with infinite debts is that they are really hard to repay.

This blog is really bad at staying away from politics for very long, so I’ll tell you what this reminds me. This reminds me of the argument some people make against libertarians: “You said you earned your money fair and square. But really, you owe a debt to society. If society hadn’t worked really hard inventing things like laws and public health, you would never have been able to found your successful business or even survive past birth. If other members of society hadn’t died fighting the Nazis and the Commies and whoever else they fought, you wouldn’t have the freedom that helped you succeed. So you owe us, and right now we’re calling in that debt in the form of a five percent higher tax rate.”

And a lot of libertarians get really angry at that argument because they don’t think it’s true, they think they don’t owe society anything.

I get really angry with that argument for the opposite reason. It is so true that one could presumably owe society anything.

What happens if society says “You owe us everything, pay us 10% higher taxes”?

“You owe us everything, pay us 100% higher taxes.”

“You owe us everything, go live in a cardboard box and give us the deed to your house so we can use it as a community center.”

“You owe us everything, I know you want to be a writer but what society really needs right now is oil rig workers, go become an oil rig worker.”

Of course, healthy societies do not say these things – but there have been a lot of unhealthy societies that have. I’m not worried that paying five percent higher taxes is going to lead to me being obligated to quit my job and become an oil rig worker. But the idea of handing society a blank check for anything they want out of me is pretty scary.

I kind of wonder how many of those libertarians who are so upset about a five percent tax raise would be perfectly happy with a Constitutional amendment saying “All rich people must pay 60% of their income in taxes, at which point their entire debt to society is discharged, we promise we will never raise this number above 60% or give them any grief after that, it’s right here in the Constitution.” Even if 60% was way more than a 5% raise over their current rate. 60% may be high, but it is notably lower than “infinity”. Just the acknowledgment that they’re allowed to have their own time and do things they like without being infinitely beholden to society at every moment would be pretty anxiety-relieving.

This is one reason I am so excited about Giving What We Can. Their rule is you give 10% of your income to charity, and you’re allowed in their little club and you get your name on their site as an Officially Recognized Good Person.

For years, I felt like I was probably ethically obligated to give all my income to charity, minus whatever I needed to survive. And the fact that I obviously wasn’t going to do that made me not give anything at all.

Once someone told me that my obligation wasn’t infinite, but just some finite amount like ten percent per year, every year, I was thrilled to be able to comply.

And of course there are people who make fun of this. “Oh, you really think you can just give an amount you find “convenient”, then feel like your conscience is clear and you can stop caring and be smug and self-satisfied?”

The proper response to this person is to ask whether they give so much as ten percent.

(“What? No, why should I?! I do my part by yelling at you!”)


But I think the opposite tendency, the tendency to deny the debt entirely, also falls short of the mark.

I mean, there are good arguments for doing so. You never contracted the debt. Your mother never told you as an infant, “I will raise you, but only if you agree to take care of me in any way I require for the rest of my life”, and then made you sign it with your wee little baby hands, threatening to give you back to the stork if you refused. Society never said “We’ll provide you with public health and technological civilization, but only if you agree to pay any tax rate we set, here’s a ticket to Somalia if you refuse.”

For the decision theoretic take on the question, consider a variation on the Hitchhiker Problem. You’re lying unconscious in the desert, dying of thirst. A very selfish man drives by in his Jeep and considers rescuing you and bringing you to the nearest hospital. This very selfish man is only willing to go through the trouble if you pay him $100. He decides you probably will pay him $100 in gratitude for having been rescued, and so takes you to the hospital.

You wake up in the ICU, feeling cool and refreshed. The very selfish man is sitting by your bedside. “Hey,” he says. “I rescued you in the desert because I was pretty sure you’d pay me $100 for having done so. Will you give me the money?”

I think most of us would feel some obligation to give him the cash. This would be especially true if his actions were a big inconvenience to him – if he had to drive hundreds of miles out of his way, or if he had already paid the $50 doctor’s bill. Right now a lot of my ideas about morality revolve around “things that help you acausally coordinate hard decision theoretic problems”, and being willing to pay for debts you didn’t contract, as long as you still come out ahead, seems like one of those.

There’s another, more visceral argument. Imagine that my patient didn’t want her son to take 24 hour care of her. She just wanted him to come visit once a year, maybe for Christmas. “Please,” she says, “I’m really lonely and it would mean a lot to me to have you around.”

Now, that guy is under no obligation to go visit random elderly women on Christmas, even if those random elderly women would like company. But most of us would say he is under some obligation to visit his mother, or at least that he would be a pretty bad person if he refused. And it’s not just that she is closer to him. Most of us would cash out that obligation in terms of “Your mother did so much for you, can’t you do at least a little for her?”

This is a weird position. You can defend the guy having no debt to his mother. You can defend the guy having an infinite debt to his mother. But a small debt to his mother? Where does that come from?


I struggle with this concept a lot. I don’t know the moral answer. But I do know the practical answer. Infinite debts make everyone miserable and tend not to be paid at all.

And the moral and practical are sometimes pretty closely aligned. If infinite debts make everyone miserable, then by the decision theoretic definition of morality above we might decide to forgive them. After all, every mother was also a child, and it may be that, at the point where you’re making timeless acausal Platonic contracts, everyone agrees to free their child from a debt to them as long as they are themselves freed from debt to their parents. Maybe they would agree that infinite creditors deserve a certain level of respect, very very high respect, but not enough that it ruins your life. This is frustratingly nontechnical. But timeless Platonic contracts are notoriously bad at giving specific figures. Sometimes you’ve just got to seize whatever you can get, find some socially sanctioned middle ground that doesn’t make you feel like you’re a bad person or that you can never enjoy yourself and draw a huge bright line there and defend it to the bitter end.

Maybe your infinite obligation to those worse off than you demands ten percent of your income.

And your infinite obligation to society demands that you pay tax at the prevailing rate.

And your infinite obligation to your mother demands that, at the very least, you call her up on Mother’s Day and tell her thanks.

None of those things clear your debt, exactly. But they keep you in good standing. You pay a tiny fraction of your debt, year after year, and it keeps the moral repo man from your door.

The problem with infinite debts is that they are really hard to repay. On the other hand, the interest can be quite manageable.

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159 Responses to Infinite Debt

  1. SP says:

    I seem to recall that Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years makes the argument that social interactions are actually facilitated by infinite debts, or debts that are never repaid. It’s not that anyone has the possibility to actually call an infinite debt; it’s that your mutual indebtedness ties you together in a mechanism of society-building.

    In general, I’d recommend the book for some fairly novel thinking on debt. Yes, Graeber is as left as they go, but he has interesting ideas all the same.

    • Andy says:

      From a quite lovely book called A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold:

      You don’t pay back your parents. You can’t. The debt you owe them gets collected by your children, who hand it down in turn. It’s a sort of entailment. Or if you don’t have children of the body, it’s left as a debt to your common humanity. Or to your God, if you possess or are possessed by one.

      The family economy evades calculation in the gross planetary product. It’s the only deal I know where, when you give more than you get, you aren’t bankrupted – but rather, vastly enriched.

      Sometimes it seems to me that Bujold was onto something. On the other hand, the character who said this is one of the strangest in modern fiction, and sometimes goes very far left indeed, but I love the whole series for lines like this.
      Then again, I am a flaming center-leftist, so I don’t mind the maybe-leftism much.

      • Cyan says:

        Beat me to it.

      • Deiseach says:

        No, I disagree with Bujold here. That bit about “If you don’t have children of the body, it’s left as a debt to your common humanity”.

        Which in practice means government funded state care nursing homes and strangers being the ones to take care of your kindred whom you never go see. It’s a cop-out. Okay, you pay your taxes and that goes into the central pot that looks after everyone’s granny, but the fact of the matter is that you’re still shoving your responsibility off on Mary Jones who comes from the working class to go and look after your mother in the retirement home as her job. Who looks after Mary’s mother? Well, maybe Mary’s family pitches in and does it, or maybe Mary has to put her mother into a state retirement home so she can go to her job looking after your mother.

        Elderly parents who are so sick they need round the clock nursing care and so going into a nursing home is the best solution is one thing; pious platitudes about “common humanity” so we all feel better about pursuing our own needs and desires rather than our duty to our parents is another.

        Now, if Bujold’s character proposes that as the debt of our common humanity everyone does a stint working in a retirement home looking after the patients on the public weal, whether you’re the Lord Chief Justice, the Galactic President, or just Nice Middle-Class Writer, then I’m for it.

        • Anonymous says:

          The debt to society miles is talking about here is t about retirement homes, it’s about serving your planet in war and peace. He comes from a line of aristocrats. He’s not talking about deserting service but about serving regardless of who you have to serve

        • Andy says:

          The debt to society miles is talking about here is t about retirement homes, it’s about serving your planet in war and peace. He comes from a line of aristocrats. He’s not talking about deserting service but about serving regardless of who you have to serve

          Except it’s not Miles talking here, it’s his mother Cordelia, to his adopted twin-clone-brother Mark, the man raised from infancy to be an assassin, his body and mind shaped to his creators’ will.
          And Cordelia is the one who treats the entire Vor aristocracy as a fiction.

        • Deiseach says:

          I’m very aware of the necessity for men and women to serve their country.

          I’m also very aware of the necessity for someone to bathe, feed, and dress the sick and incapable. A Military SF novel series about martial glory still has to address the question: what about the veterans? Or who takes care of the widows and orphans? Or when Johnny goes marching off, who looks after his mother and father when they become elderly and ill?

          The debt of humanity needs paying even for the soldiers (and indeed, the treatment soldiers get when they return from service is something that needs doing). A lady with servants who won’t need to go into the public nursing home may have the attitude to her children/clones/myrmidons “With your shield or on it”, but Trooper Smith’s widowed mother whose eyesight is failing her needs a better answer to “Who will help me when my daughter-in-law is too busy with her own family and my son is three star systems away” than “We pay our common debt to society in an uplifting but vague on the details speech”.

  2. Leah says:

    You want infinite debt + ethics, you want Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov.

    But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth. This knowledge is the crown of the monk’s path, and of every man’s path on earth. For monks are not a different sort of men, but only such as all men on earth ought also to be. Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and that knows no satiety. Then each of us will be able to gain the whole world by love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved.

      That speech would also work in the mouth of a Rand villain.

      • adbge says:

        When Ellsworth Toohey details how to rule the collective soul of mankind:

        There are many ways. Here’s one. Make man feel small. Make him feel guilty. Kill his aspiration and his integrity. That’s difficult. The worst among you gropes for an idol in his own twisted way. Kill integrity by internal corruption. Use it against himself. Direct it towards a goal destructive of all integrity. Preach selflessness. Tell man that altruism is the ideal. Not a single one has ever reached it and not a single one ever will. His every living instinct screams against it. But don’t you see what you accomplish ? Man realises that he’s incapable of what he’s accepted as the noblest virtue – and it gives him a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness.

        Followed a bit later by one of Rand’s more famous lines, which mirrors my own feelings about any talk of debts (especially of the implict, “well, you were born into it” kind):

        The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.

        • Deiseach says:

          We are indebted to the earth for the air we breathe and the support under our feet. If every single one of us was a naked individual who had to re-invent, from the ground up, everything from tools to the alphabet in order to realise our potential and maintain our integrity, then that might make sense.

          And even if you are a scientific genius who can invent super-metals or infinite energy sources, being as proud of that as an individual achievement is as much sense as boasting of “Look at my blue eyes. I made my eyes blue myself. I chose to have blue eyes before ever I was born, and I worked hard to make them as blue as they could be. I owe nothing to no-one, neither society nor nature, for the blueness of my eyes”.

        • Nornagest says:

          When I first read Rand, I was an arrogant high-school nerd, with an unreasonable faith in my own intelligence (as opposed to e.g. work ethic), poor social skills, and a bad habit of bullshitting. At the time I thought that she’d gotten the psychology of her heroes right but her villains wrong.

          Now that I’m older and hopefully wiser, I think the reverse might be true. I’ll give her heroes credit for having admirable goals, but they’re oddly naive, their motives are bizarre, and their methods are flatly unworkable without benefit of authorial fiat. But I’ve met an awful lot of people that hew closely to her villains’ goals and viewpoints, and often in almost as many words.

      • Eli says:

        Since Rand is evil, this makes perfect sense.

    • Sarah says:

      When I think of interdependence, the kind you write about on your blog post, I think of the one time I really experienced being dependent. I was on a camping trip. I have no mechanical aptitude or sense of direction. When I’m not surrounded by technology, when I’m not in a context where my intellectual skills matter, I’m damn near helpless. I *needed* my boyfriend. And it was very clear to me that, for all I consider myself an independent woman, there are possible worlds in which I would be literally dependent on him for my survival.

      It’s a humbling experience. And of course, dependence is a real thing for lots of people. A lot of disabled people *need* help. Children need help. Sometimes poor people need help. It’s a *real* situation. I just tend to think of it as a problem to be solved, rather than a human condition to be embraced. Being dependent on other people is…kind of awful. It’s sometimes unavoidable, so it would be cruel to stigmatize it, but no, I don’t want to call it a good thing. It’s very hard to have dignity when you’re throwing yourself on somebody else’s mercy. And *especially* when there are Christian associations involved, I begin to suspect that people who praise interdependence *want people to be humiliated.* To which I can only say GAHHH!

      • Desertopa says:

        I certainly have no desire to be humiliated, but I think that interdependence is an integral part of the human condition. Maybe it’s escapable- it might not be part of the transhuman condition. But our own society could only freedom from interdependence at the cost of functionality. So at least for the time being, I’d rather people try to avoid having their pride be so contingent on independence, since they’ll essentially be boxing themselves into an unwinnable scenario.

        • blacktrance says:

          There are different degrees of interdependence. At one extreme, there’s “I physically can’t feed myself”, at the other extreme there’s “My quality of life would be entirely unaffected if I never encountered another human being again”. In between, there’s the more dependent “I rely on my husband to bring home the bacon” and the less dependent “I have a stable well-paying job that I’m in no danger of losing”. While total independence is impossible at the moment, it makes sense that more independence leads to a more comfortable life.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I often feel like the Western family format does not squeeze sufficient value out of its old people. The Middle-Class-Indian model is to have the parents move in with the children soon after the birth of the grand-children, freeing up both parents’ time away from childcare and onto career.

    Obviously, if the two have been living apart for the many years intervening between the son’s financial independence and the mother’s physical dependence, the son will be reluctant to help his mother in the final stages because he is now less emotionally close to her…and the mother will not understand why he’s reluctant for the same reason: she’s less close to him.

    The mother might feel differently about imposing onto her son if she knew his day-to-day struggles, and the son might feel differently about abandoning the mother if he knew hers.

    What *aught* to be happening here is that the mother should be trying to impose as little as possible, and the son insisting on helping as much as possible. The opposite is happening. Is this as disconcerting to completely Western readers as it is to me (a mostly-but-not-entirely-Western reader) ?

    That’s not to say that the Indian model (or, i suppose it’s the “non-Western model” since I think most cultures function this way) doesn’t have its own unique drawbacks, such as loss of privacy and flexibility…but that’s a “living with parents” thing, not a “hospice care” thing.

    I do understand time constraint issues and the challenges of serious mental health issues, but in the absence of that, if it’s something trivial like administrating medications or emptying bed-pans I’m sure that a solution could be arranged that wouldn’t require more than 20-40 minutes a day of work, if you’ve got all that money that you didn’t give to the nursing home available to put towards the solution. It’s certainly cheaper and less time consuming than say, a baby…and people seem to be able to make time for that.

    And the idea of a shortage of rooms being a limiting factor is just bizarre to me.

    • suntzuanime says:

      People don’t make time for babies in the West anymore. Haven’t you read the articles about the upcoming demographic collapse? Germany is at like 60% replacement fertility or something ridiculous.

      • Anonymous says:

        That only makes refusal to support elders yet more baffling…if you’re not putting resources into children, and you’re not putting resources into elderly parents, and you’re not putting resources into charity…then what on earth are you doing with your resources?

        This isn’t a matter of repaying debts…it’s a matter of maximizing the utility of the people you care about. Humans are *supposed* to do that automatically…

        • suntzuanime says:

          Oh, they are. It’s just that they only care about themselves. Surely you have already realized this implication.

        • Eli says:

          The answer is actually quite simple: the near-retirement generation actually owns most of the wealth already. The young are poor.

        • Anonymous says:

          Well…if that is indeed the conclusion, then this is a problem to be analyzed and solved.

          Is it necessarily true that increased affluence does this to human relations, or is this a culture-bound problem that can be prevented from spreadng beyond the anglosphere?

          Eli: if that were the case, they wouldn’t be asking for support, would they?

          Also, I’d argue that when one reaches such a stage in life when one needs children to change bed-pans and administer medication, one aught to turn over ones finances to said children. (Or at the very least, one should invest the money into the children). It doesn’t really make sense to try to manage your own finances when your mind and body are in rapid decline.

        • suntzuanime says:

          It’s already beyond the Anglosphere, when it comes to the “West” the Anglosphere has it relatively good compared to places like Germany, Spain, or Japan (honorary West).

        • Eli says:

          Anonymous: wealth inequality is a thing. There’s plenty of poverty among the elderly as well, despite the existence of massive affluence among the fortunate section of the late-middle-aged and elderly. It’s easier to predict that the young will be unfortunate than that the elderly will be fortunate.

      • peterdjones says:

        How people tend to feel about demographic collapse tends to depend on how they feel about ethnicity. Ethnicity aside, the opportunity to make up numbers with selective immigration is a golden one. What else can you do to increase average IQ, etc, in a generation?

    • naath says:

      To me the problem of adopting a model where children care for parents is that frequently children *don’t like* their parents – anywhere on a scale from “you are a bit annoying” up to “you abused and tortured me”. I am in general against forcing people to live with people they dislike (let alone people they hate), especially in the cramped conditions implied by “not enough rooms” (privacy is very important to me).

      I hated living with my parents as a teen/young adult. Really hated it. And they didn’t even ever do anything abusive. Now that we live in different cities I get on OK with them; but I can’t imagine having them in my *home* touching my *stuff* and telling me that my life-choices suck.

  4. blacktrance says:

    There’s a difference between a Parfit’s Hitchhiker-type problem and birth. In the Hitchhiker problem, you would be worse off if the rescuer is motivated by repayment and doesn’t think you’ll pay. In the case of birth, you wouldn’t be worse off if your mother didn’t think you’d pay – you just wouldn’t exist. It’s the same sort of thing as if you had been aborted – if it had happened, you’d never have been around to care.

    But my true rejection is that parent-child relations isn’t a Hitchhiker problem at all – the parent isn’t (or shouldn’t be) motivated by repayment. The care the child receives is a pure gift and doesn’t create any debt on their part.

    • Nisan says:

      Indeed, from behind the veil of ignorance I have no reason to want Nisan in particular to exist. If he hadn’t been born, I would have been someone else.

    • Anon256 says:

      Your parent could have chosen to bear you but devote far fewer resources to your upbringing, in which case you would exist but your life would be significantly worse. This is particularly obvious in the case where you were adopted, and in that case it seems much more reasonable to claim that you owe nothing to your birth-parents than that you owe nothing to the parents who raised you.

      • Fadeway says:

        If you don’t value life by itself, and your parents left you for adoption, then they brought you no utility but caused a lot of misery for you, so you might consider them a vendetta target.

        • Mx says:

          Not if your experience with adoption happened to be excellent. Which I believe is less likely, but not entirely.

  5. Nick Novitski says:

    I find myself hoping, but unable to determine with certainty, that the last paragraph of II is ironic. Surely, better outcomes are encouraged by recognizing a parental debt between the two extremes?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It’s not ironic. I agree that between the extremes is better. I’m just saying it’s very hard to formally support it.

  6. suntzuanime says:

    I think the solution to this dilemma is that if you were raised in such a manner that you wouldn’t voluntarily take care of your parents in their old age, then clearly your upbringing was defective and you don’t owe them anything for it.

    EDIT: Similarly, a civilization that does not inspire in me civic virtue and loyalty is faulty, and has claim to neither.

    • Rowan says:

      But the manner in which your parents raised you isn’t the only variable, it’s perfectly possible for parents who do nothing wrong to raise a psychopath.

    • Anonymous says:

      Argument doesn’t work for civilization.

      People who would *like* mutual cooperation (civic virtue) often still won’t cooperate if they can’t be sure that others will cooperate. Punishing defectors is what enables cooperation..

      Argument doesn’t work for parents, because I think in practice it’s more often your culture that determines your values here, not your upbringing.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Really? What if you feel strong loyalty/love to your parents, and want to take care of them, but also think it’s really hard and would be a huge burden on you? It doesn’t sound like your system really gives you any idea what to do.

      • blacktrance says:

        You may as well ask what to do if you really like ice cream but are short on money and feel that buying it would be a significant burden on you.

        You acknowledge the tradeoff, then decide what you’d like better.

  7. Nisan says:

    This general topic is a suicidality trigger for some people. I wonder if Christianity is an effective treatment.

    • Sarah says:

      Christianity has at least *some* theories about what to do if you find out you are a sinner.

      A lot of philosophical and religious frameworks don’t.

  8. CaptainBooshi says:

    I get really angry with that argument for the opposite reason. It is so true that one could presumably owe society anything.

    It’s interesting, looking at the argument from the outside made me realize something I hadn’t seen before. I’ve been in that argument before, and, of course, my goal is not to argue that society can demand anything at all from you. However, I usually get so frustrated that the other side is arguing something that I see as so clearly wrong (that all of their success is entirely and only through their own hard work, or something like that), that I will try to over-prove the opposite case, to make it overwhelmingly obvious that they owe at least something.

    Of course, at least some of the people on the other side are probably doing the same thing, so both sides end up arguing past each other, and nothing gets accomplished. Which is one of the reasons I try not to discuss politics on the internet anymore (not that I’m always successful).

  9. Alyssa Vance says:

    My response to the first question is (and has been for a while):

    The debt has already been repaid. English common law is very clear that the rights and obligations of a parent are reciprocal. For eighteen years, your parents must take care of your financial needs. In exchange, they get total legal power over all aspects of your life, up to and including power to literally torture you to death with no repercussions whatsoever (lest you think this is an exaggeration, see this report to the US Congress).

    If this is unfair to anyone, it’s unfair to the children, who did not even choose to enter into this contract. We don’t let people sell themselves into slavery, even if the slaveowner pays them a lot and is obligated to take care of them from that point on.

    • Anon256 says:

      That seems a fair justification for why you have no legal obligation/debt to your parents, but if you parents refrained from treating you as badly as the law allows, then it seems reasonable to claim you should also refrain from treating them as badly as the law allows. The debts at issue here are not legal ones.

    • Konkvistador says:

      “We don’t let people sell themselves into slavery, even if the slaveowner pays them a lot and is obligated to take care of them from that point on.”

      And that is terrible.

      • cheesesandwich says:

        How did you come to that conclusion? I find it hard to see the benefits of slavery.

        • ckp says:

          Moldbug formulates slavery as a kind of limiting case of government, applied to individual relations. I think he calls it “nano-sovereignty” or something.

        • peterdjones says:

          I’m not optimistic about your getting an answer from K.

        • Multiheaded says:

          Wrote a long comment on American vs. Roman vs. Arab slavery, then deleted it due to doubting my limited understanding of history.

          Bottom line: broadly speaking, the awfulness of slavery as a system can be migitated by tradition and social structure, but it’s absolute folly to conclude that the individual slaveowner can be kept from “abusing” power by any laughable “regulation” – individual power relations just always work the worst possible way – and that’s not considering the wider psychosocial effects even in the less malign system.

          Privately, I second Lincoln’s oft-quoted reaction to pro-slavery arguments.

        • ozymandias says:

          Multiheaded: It seems unlikely to me that individual power relations always work in the worst possible way. For instance, despite the distressing amount of power parents have over children, most parents do not abuse their children and many parents seem to genuinely desire that their children be happy. I am not sure if that’s what you meant?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Multiheaded, I’d like to hear your account of history. Sure, include a disclaimer, but no more than you’ve already done.

          How do you think that the power of regulations compares to the power of tradition and social structure? My understanding of history is that chattel slavery is rare, Rome and the Americas being the main examples. Doesn’t that distinction count as regulation? Is it merely the codification of tradition?

        • Konkvistador says:

          Well we already have formally recognized publicly owned slaves and unrecognized privately owned slaves that still very much are slaves.

          Slavery, especially sexual slavery, is one of those things that in practice seems impossible to outlaw, with there being more slaves in the British isles of today than in 1814 (or rather 1714)

          It seems to me that if in certain ways we privatize or at least open the possibility to privatize some of the publicly owned slaves (prisoners, draft soldiers, etc) and if we formalize the de facto ownership of many private slaves we are currently unwilling or unable to prevent (human trafficking in Europe) this would on net improve the lives of the slaves.

          Many people are more economically productive if not given free decisions on how to manage their lives. In Far mode we object to this as false, but in Near mode we think it blatantly true. The design of the modern workplace, with its absurd depersonalization and micro-control has one of its few sane foundations in this realization, despite taking it too far.

          Many people are also better off if not given free decisions on how to manage their lives. We recognize this reasoning with children, who however I think should be given traditional levels of autonomy instead of modern diminished agency. Perhaps if we found a way to restore the economic value of children, they would be less considered status objects and pets and more as useful people I happen to own.

          We also recognize this with the mentally ill or deficient.

          Sometimes many people are better off if some other people are not free to manage their lives. We think this true for many criminals.

          We used to be able to consent to our own slavery, marriage and debt. These are comparable in a way. Slavery being consent to do any labor the master comes up with whether you like it or not until you are no longer a slave. Marriage being consent to have sex with the spouse in the future whether you like it or not at the time until you are no longer married (see ). Debt is consenting to pay someone an amount of money until you are no longer in debt whether you like it or not at a future time, until you are no longer in debt. In all three examples you often get money, a special position or a service, that it would not otherwise be rational to grant to you, in return for credibly precommiting to do something in the future even if you won’t like it then.

          Now we are allowed to consent only to debt. The very institution that was for most of history considered by far the most blatantly exploitative and in reality plain evil when implemented on humans of the three. But the one we consider normal and benign in all but its most extreme form. Interesting, isn’t it.

          @peterdjones: Why do you say that?

          @Multiheaded: Slave owners that can’t sell their slaves but can have their children inherit those slaves, seem to have good incentives. Especially in a culture that has slavery for a long time. The ideal slave owning arrangement is a slave as part of the family as was in early Rome. The slave market and slaves captured in war seem to corrupt such traditional institutions.

          ” it’s absolute folly to conclude that the individual slaveowner can be kept from “abusing” power by any laughable “regulation””

          Agreed, but this is also true of animal, prisoner, solider and child ownership. It is also to a great extent true of employer-employee relationships.

          @ozymandias: Remember the same response would be given to you if you tried to explain why traditional marriage isn’t a good thing for women to someone living in 1600s. I think Multiheaded is getting at a left dark enlightenment perspective that parent-child relationships are fucked up in a way we systematically have blinders not to notice, often for self-preservation in the same way radical feminists say marriage was and still is fucked up in a way we are blinded not to notice.

          The child-parent relationship pretty much is a slave-master one. And at least *some* people historically pretty much did use the same cognitive adaptations used for and had the same subjective experiences for master-slave relationship that we still endorse for parent-child.

        • Konkvistador says:

          An indicator of the profound irrational curtailing of the freedom and autonomy of underaged slaves that resulted according to Sarah’s theory because of a drop in their economic value:

          I would add general social atomizations as an important factor to explain the general pattern, and cars a third distant in explaining this particular indicator.

          Note: Cars transferred autonomy from children to adults. This seems a useful data point for thinking about the impact of different kinds of technology on liberty.

          They also for a short time contributed to creation of teenagers in America, they never did here, and from what I understand fewer teenagers drive now than in the 70s in the US.

        • Konkvistador says:

          Left and Right contrarian enlightenment:

          “Hey look at all these unprincipled exceptions we have for people that are basically slaves and the rationalizations we come up with for why this is OK but “slavery” is evil!”

          “The rationalizations being selectively applied to these cases is obviously bullshit.”

          Left: “Lets end slavery!”

          Right: “But if you generalize them, some of them start making sense, so I guess we should expand slavery to where those arguments carry it.”

        • peterdjones says:


          That was an answer,

          You seem to be saying that children are slaves.

          You also seem to be saying that they are of reduced economic value.

          If you take your children out if school and force them to work for you, and you cannot, they are not an economic asset. (In fact they are a liability as far as the tax authorities are concerned)

          Slaves are transferable assets. Children are non transferable liabilities. They are more like white elephants than slaves: you are obligated fir their upkeep, but can’t extract value from them.

        • nydwracu says:

          peterdjones: Hahaha you think all labor is wage labor. *takes off Multiheaded mask*

          It’s possible to extract value from children in other ways. Making them keep up the house, for one. If the parents do the chores, there’s less time for them to work.

          I don’t think that’s the reason people [at least in urban/suburban areas and at least if they don’t own family businesses] have kids anymore. These days it seems to be mostly a status game: children are objects that accumulate status for you by doing things that you can brag about.

          Maybe that’s why people don’t get around to reproducing at a sensible age: anything before the parents get old enough that the kids will probably come out autistic is a weird, creepy thing that low-status idiot proles do.

        • peterdjones says:

          @nyd & K

          I am well aware that it has been common for parents to make their children work and not school them. The Romans went the whole hog and allowed them ti be bought and sold as well. (But we already know them to be a slave owning society). The point is that virtually none of that still applies. It’s a tad hysterical to say “I’m a slave because my parents make me take the garbage out”

        • peterdjones says:


          You have stated that some people would be better off individually as formally recognised slaves;and that it would be more economically productive if that were the case.

          These statements are quite disjoont. Neither supports the other, and both are in need of support.

          Whether someone is better off without the ability to make free decisions depends onthe intrinsic value of freedom, which you appear not to have factored in.

        • ozymandias says:

          Samo, I agree that aspects of modern childrearing are avoidable and horrifying (Sudbury schools and free-range kids now!) and other aspects of modern childrearing are unavoidable and horrifying (parents can select their children’s doctors for them). Similarly, some aspects of 1600s marriage were avoidable and horrifying (legal marital rape) and some were unavoidable and horrifying (gender roles). However, I think for both modern parenting and 1600s marriage it is reasonable to say that most parents/husbands didn’t abuse their children/wives and many seem to actively value the happiness of their children/wives.

          TBH I have absolutely no idea why anyone would want to make a contract where your partner can’t legally turn down sex. The thought of my partner having sex when they don’t want it (even assuming, for the sake of argument, that the mental health consequences of rape don’t exist) is repulsive to me rather than erotic.

        • Multiheaded says:

          TBH I have absolutely no idea why anyone would want to make a contract where your partner can’t legally turn down sex.

          I get the feeling that Ialdabaoth might have something disturbing to say about that.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Which I will gladly discuss at length, in the right environment.

    • DavidS says:

      Can I check (as an English person!) what you mean by English common law saying that. Because obviously that is not actually English law in any sense: people do in fact get put in prison for neglect or mistreatment of kids. And in the US too, I assume. So I suspect what you’re saying here is something more subtle: that in the US, you can make incredibly bad judgements about what’s ‘best for your kids’ or something without repercussions. Which is concerning, but different to

      “total legal power over all aspects of your life, up to and including power to literally torture you to death with no repercussions whatsoever ”

      It would also be helpful to unpack a bit more how much this is about kids per se. Are there different rules for mentally ill or elderly dependents? Is the rule just ‘if you’re making decisions for someone, we don’t second-guess those much’?

      • Alyssa Vance says:

        Sorry, I didn’t mean that “torture is OK” is a fundamental legal principle; obviously that varies between times and places and circumstances. What I’m saying is fundamental is that parental rights and obligations are reciprocal; you can’t have one without the other. If, through whatever circumstances, you lose the obligation to support your children, you also lose your power over them, and vice-versa. Hence, the law already guarantees “fairness” in a certain sense; you can’t have the rights without the responsibilities (or the other way around).

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          What I’m saying is fundamental is that parental rights and obligations are reciprocal; you can’t have one without the other.

          Interesting. I come from a US subculture where that isn’t understood to be true at all – where, in fact, the more rights you have, the fewer obligations you have (and vice-versa). I think this is ultimately a reflection of “Divine Command Theory”; the idea that you owe God everything and God owes you nothing, and therefore the closer to God you are the more people below you owe you, and the less you owe them.

      • Eric Rall says:

        At least in the US, “English Common Law” generally refers to the body of (mostly precedent-based) traditional law prevalent in England and the American colonies around the time of American Independence. Blackstone’s Commentaries is the primary contemporary reference work.

        In most US jurisdictions (every state except Louisiana, I think), English Common Law applies by default except where it conflicts with the state or federal constitution or where it’s been altered by statute. Child abuse laws are one of many areas which have been revised.

  10. NeshSelvar says:

    My favorite solution to problem is rejection of the idea of “moral” Debt as having any intrinsic value. the idea of moral debt is at odds with both the universal tendency of morals to try to be person independent values and subjective morality since it makes demands separate from personal preferences. Moral debt and loyalty are simply felt to be moral by humans since they promote a type of social order usually to some human society not because they agree with any decent basic principles. I do still support some emotional and game-theory reasons for some return of non-explicitly conditional favors though.

  11. I don’t have a full answer, but one might feel that your mother is not owed that part of the infinite debt that she did not repay her mother.

    • anon says:

      So everyone deserves to be treated by their children exactly as well as they treated their own parents? That does have a neat acausal balance to it.

      On the other hand it seems pretty unfair to the people with shitty parents who nevertheless raised their own children well.

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        If you’re parents were shitty then I think your debt to them is not infinite.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        On the other hand it seems pretty unfair to the people with shitty parents who nevertheless raised their own children well.

        Only if we take a ‘person’ to be an individual human organism, rather than an entire family line.

        (The Roman paterfamilias and the Judaic “sins of the father” concepts are both highly applicable, if we consider a person to be an unbroken chain of human bodies – the act of raising a child is simply the act of downloading your personhood into the next body that it will inhabit, and the act of killing your child for disobedience is not so different from cutting off a particularly gruesome cancer before it overtakes you.)

  12. Paul Crowley says:

    Both deontology and consequentialism have burden problems, but they are very different problems; it’s odd to blur the distinction.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I don’t think the concept of “moral debt” is inherently nonconsequentialist. You can just take normal utilitarianism and then add a modifier where an act that increases utility and repays a moral debt gets “bonus points,” so it generates more utility than an otherwise identical act that does not repay a moral debt.

  13. Mothers don’t give two decades of essentially 24 hour care. If that were true, it wouldn’t be possible to raise more than one child at a time. Mothers do a tremendous amount, but the constant care part is more for kids under six, I think.

    Also, the hypothetical extremely selfish mother is demanding that her grandchildren (if any) should be abandoned.

    So far as the mother who just wants one day…. you aren’t considering the low end of the range of mothers– some mothers are sufficiently psychologically destructive to their children than any contact at all is very costly to them.

    • Thasvaddef says:

      I read 24 hour care to mean that the carer has to be available 24 hours a day, which is different from actually working every minute for 24 hours a day. Once you have given up work and committed yourself to being with your dependants full-time, you could be looking after one child/parent or ten. The time required to look after people does not increase linearly, and also must be spread throughout the day to an extent.

  14. Gilbert says:

    Alternate paradigm: unchosen loyalties.
    Example mom raised example son because that’s what a mom owes her son (no debt incurred here, rather one settled) and now she is reminding example son of this on occasion of asking for what he owes her just by being her son. This doesn’t let her ask for things a son doesn’t owe his mom by nature.

    Likewise with the libertarian: He’s assuming he can’t have obligations to society because he didn’t contract for them. And the counter-argument is that this simply isn’t about his chosen obligations at all, and he doesn’t really want to limit obligations to chosen ones, because by that logic society wouldn’t have owed him anything either.

    Of course this isn’t compatible with utilitarianism, but that’s just one more proof of utilitarianism being bunk.

  15. Thasvaddef says:

    Why is it necessary to have this concept of debt at all? A debt is something you enter into willingly and have the terms on a signed contract.

    I believe in taxes not because I’m indebted but because I believe the programs they fund (education, welfare &c.) are good. I believe in looking after aged parents or not based on the cost to me and the benefit to them, not based on what came before.

  16. Panflutist says:

    I used to strongly identify as an antinatalist, and one of my beliefs (before I realized deontology was bunk) was that it’s the parent who owes the debt, not the child. Life is shit, and saddling a child with it is evil at best (at BEST!).

    A softer version that I could agree with today, if I had to agree with any kind of morality based on blame, is that in creating the child, the parent also created the child’s needs. If someone hooked a kid up to heroin and then continued to provide them with their fix for eighteen years, we wouldn’t say they did them a favor, to put it mildly.

    These days I grudgingly admit that ceasing to bear children is not the solution to the world’s problems, but it still strikes a nerve with me when mothers (or fathers) are placed in a holy light for (1) creating burdens and (2) creating people to place them on.

    • Anonymous says:

      Agree. My parents did a serious disservice to me by inflicting this miserable life on me.

      Unless you are reasonably sure that you can ensure a life for your children that is truly worth living, getting children is unethical.

      • Hainish says:

        I’m not sure if this is intended ironically. (I’d tend to say it is, but then I’ve seen a wide range of opinions among commenters here…)

        • Anonymous says:

          I think it was meant seriously. If you want to find similar content, google “antinatalist,” a term used by the other comment.

  17. tjic says:

    You might enjoy the book “Debt”, which (a) suggests that the origin of money is not barter, per say, but debt paid back in a barter like way after the fact, (b) religion is based on the concept of infinite debt to a deity that gave one life.

    It’s written from a left of center position, and I – a far right anarchocapitalist – quite liked it and got a lot from it.

  18. mareofnight says:

    Tangentially related – the property system in pre-revolution France included something a lot like the hypothetical infinite debt, called rentes constituées. (I used Chrome’s translation to read the article. I’m pretty sure I first read about it in a book, but I forget which book.) It’s basically renting out money for an infinite period, and only the “tenant” can decide to pay the whole amount back (the creditor can’t claim it if the borrower would rather keep it). Land can also be indefinitely rented like this, but there’s a different name for it.

  19. Deiseach says:

    “You owe us everything, I know you want to be a writer but what society really needs right now is oil rig workers, go become an oil rig worker.”

    That comment there interests me because of your proposal from yesterday’s post:

    “Trade schools offering free classes to people on welfare, and the government paying them back from not having to give them welfare checks once they get good jobs.”

    But result A is what will happen from solution B. The state only funds training courses that it believes will result in gainful jobs (that’s how they work in the ‘real world’, or are supposed to, anyway). If the jobs market has a thousand vacancies for oil rig workers, then as an unemployed person genuinely seeking work, that’s what you’re supposed to apply for. Not your field of expertise? Then you retrain/reskill for a job in the oil industry.

    You go to your local dole office and say “No, I refuse to go on the IT training course/welding course/take up the six months’ Community Employment scheme as a janitor because I want to be a writer” and you get your benefits stopped.

    Or you can emigrate if you don’t like that. (Can you tell I’m a bit bitter about the current economic situation in Ireland?)

    And the “oil rig worker versus writer” one has resonance in education as well; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read stories in the paper about “Businesses say school leavers do not have appropriate skills” and various Ministers for Education proposing changes to the curriculum in line with what “future employers want” – e.g. computing! biotechnology! learn German! learn Chinese! and to make room on the curriculum we’re dropping art, music, and the other subjects that won’t get you a job in a cubicle farm or as a button-pusher in the pharmaceutical plant.

    • peterdjones says:

      So is the upshot that everybody should get a free education in any subject they decide, or that arts education is in danger of dying out, or that arts education is in danger of becoming restricted to the wealthy….?

    • Multiheaded says:

      I was struck by this too.

    • ozymandias says:

      IDK whenever I see people complain that we shouldn’t drop art or music for more practical subjects I hear someone from the 1950s complaining about schools dropping Latin and Greek in favor of more practical subjects. I think we are doing fine without most people learning Latin and we will probably do fine without most people having to learn the flute; perhaps both should be electives taken by those who are actually interested.

      (If you support mandatory Latin for everyone, my criticism is revoked.)

      • peterdjones says:

        Creative and performing arts are much less of an issue than the kind of subjects ending in “studies”.

        What’s often overlooked, OTOH, is that STEM subjects are significantly more expensive to teach.

      • Hainish says:

        Yes, but: Learning the flute at a young age (or, at the very least, having the opportunity to do so) confers a different kind* of utility than learning Latin or Greek in that people with musical training often enjoying playing, writing, and/or performing music later in life.

        * I guess by “a different kind,” what I mean is that it is more popular and easily appreciated. You could make the same argument about Latin, but I think far fewer people would get the same lasting enjoyment from it.

      • Matthew says:

        I’m pretty sure the current complaints about music and art being dropped extend to the secondary school level (where they are electives), not just to the elementary school level.

        • Creutzer says:

          Music and art as school subjects are impossible to take seriously, anyway. Those who actually learn an instrument in any meaningful way do that independently from school, unless they attend a musical school.

        • peterdjones says:

          Music and art aren’t singularly useless in that regard. Nobody learns a useful amount of engineering or medicine during secondary education either.

      • nydwracu says:

        Mandatory Latin isn’t actually a bad idea — it was used for A Long Time, and even after it fell from use, it was still assumed that readers would know it. So cutting off Latin cuts off students from all that history. (I’ve wondered before whether it was a coincidence that China simplified its characters only ten years before the Cultural Revolution.)

        On the other hand, I had to take music classes in school, and I learned absolutely nothing from them.

        It would be a bad idea to make Latin mandatory for everyone, of course — most people won’t need it and won’t be able to learn it without a great deal of time and effort which would be better used teaching them job skills or something — but our liberal-arts aristocracy (and that was, you know, the original point of liberal arts) is so totally cut off from history that twelve years of Latin — and twelve years of getting beaten over the head with the fact that Rome fell — would do them some good.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          10 years is rather fast to cut people off from history. The people who ordered the Cultural Revolution were the same people who ordered the simplification, and they knew the old writing. Also, Mao wanted to go all the way to an alphabet; Stalin wanted to preserve the language as a living zoo.

          When Ataturk switched from the Arabic to Latin alphabets he also eliminated many Arabic words from the language. This made republication of old books harder and had a much larger cutting effect.

          If you want to beat people over the head with the fact that Rome fell, wouldn’t it be more effective to do that directly? You certainly aren’t going to learn about the empire falling from Virgil or Livy. Maybe the point was to learn that it was great, the fact that it fell being obvious.

        • peterdjones says:

          Otoh: people think the bits of history written in Latin and relating to the Romans are important, because they are relatively accessible. Westerners tend not to notice what they are cut off from by not knowing Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, etc.

      • Nornagest says:

        In the United States, at least, I suspect that students would get as least as much or as little value out of Latin as they do from the foreign-language classes that are often now mandatory in its place. Spanish in the Southwestern states may be an exception.

        • anónimo says:

          Spanish in the Southwestern states may be an exception.

          No, it’s not.

          (Also, by the way, if you’re an American outside the Southwestern states and associate Spanish with the Southwestern states, as opposed to where you live, you’re living in a bubble.)

      • Xycho says:

        As someone for whom Latin was a compulsory subject until age sixteen, I find it approximately as useful as my equivalent German and rather better French: interesting from an etymological perspective, but of nil actual day-to-day value. I’m glad I learned them, but I would not suffer from not having done so. The maths, sciences, technology (in the sense of being able to solder, build circuits etc) and so on see use on a much more frequent basis.

        I think the issue is that art and music, while they can be made economically profitable, are not fundamental; I would encourage a child to learn engineering, research skills and the scientific method regardless of their preferences, whereas there is almost no actual value in teaching someone who has no interest to paint, sing, or play the piano.

        I have a reasonably clear line in my mind between fields of knowledge that count as ‘necessary skills’ and those that count as ‘hobbies’. The former includes some things that are not taught in schools by default but should be (basic medical care, for example; everyone should know how and when to stitch a wound etc), while the latter includes some things that are but really ought to be relegated to electives (e.g. religious studies, painting).

        I’m in favour of a free education in any subject for anyone who wants it, and the internet is driving us further towards that every day, but the things we teach everyone by default should be things everyone needs.

        On a somewhat unrelated note, anyone who thinks they can make a living by writing could equally well take up playing poker for a living: Have your dreams, but be aware that reality usually squelches dreamers in a quite satisfying fashion.

        • peterdjones says:

          What do you mean by engineering? Whatever you could teach as a mandatory school subject would have little connection to what professional engineers do.

        • ozymandias says:

          Those calculations make the assumption that most writers are spending eight hours a day on writing. I find it deeply implausible that most people making five thousand dollars a year from Amazon are doing writing as a full-time job rather than a part-time hobby. If you assume that it’s a ten-hour-a-week part-time job, they are actually making minimum wage.

        • Xycho says:

          @peterdjones: I actually had to think about that for a bit. I think from a ‘what we could teach’ perspective I mean technical problem solving, in the sense of being experienced in applying available resources in novel ways without direction or close oversight. I think the closest schools get is actually Design Technology, though many of those courses tend towards rewarding artistry in simple problems rather than novel solutions to complex ones.

          The first time I really saw the skills I’m thinking of being explicitly, rigorously, taught and tested was in the second year of university (about the same time for myself and a variety of people I know across chemistry, physics, and mechanical and electrical engineering). The computer scientists got there a fair bit earlier, presumably because programming is almost nothing but this once you are fully conversant with the language.

          I’m not saying it’s a skill people don’t have. They do, or many of them do, but we have to fight for it. In schools where guessing passwords is valid, and cramming for exams is possible because of the way exams are structured, there isn’t direct instruction and practice in what I think of as the engineering mindset. (You’re right, half of what professional engineers do doesn’t resemble this at all. Perhaps I need a different name for it.)

    • Anonymous says:


      SlateStarCodex argues Result A is repugnant when it happens in order to call in an infinite debt, despite having other options. He does not argue that Result A is repugnant when used as a means to support oneself.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think the difference is that the welfare school scenario in the past post isn’t a pre-emptive debt, it’s a perfectly normal trade.

      IE “I, society, will give you lots of money to learn something if you then repay me by being an oil rig worker. But if you don’t want to, that’s fine and you can keep doing what you’re doing.”

      As opposed to “No matter what you are doing now, you must become an oil rig worker based on a hypothetical Platonic debt you never agreed to.”

  20. Error says:

    I wonder when the owing-your-parents-for-raising-you meme arose, and if it comes from a time when the incapacitated elderly still tended to get eaten by tigers, rather than hanging on for 10+ years while slowly disintegrating. Whatever the actual moral obligation is, I’m pretty sure our intuitive sense of it isn’t calibrated for that sort of thing.

    Someone needs to cure aging just so I don’t have to figure out what to do when my own parents hit that stage.

  21. Michael Edward Vassar says:

    It seems intuitive to restrict the concept of debt to contractual obligation and rely on Newtonian Ethics to get the kids home for Christmas without relying on spooky obligation at a distance.

  22. Shmi Nux says:

    Scott, consider reading/listening to Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. From the description:

    > [The lectures are] about the debtor/creditor twinship in the broadest sense – from human sacrifice to pawnshops to revenge. In this light, what we owe and how we pay is a feature of all human societies, and profoundly shapes our shared values and our cultures.

  23. Piano says:

    You’re part of society, too:

    “Society exists, therefore taxes.”

    “Taxes go to government, not society. Convincing me of the government’s effecacy for helping society is a long and fruitless argument.”


    “You owe society everything, therefore home=>community center.”

    “I owe nothing to children, it’s quite the reverse. I owe to those that helped me, a select group of my peers and elders. I also can’t help everyone of them. So how about we split it up and just help our friends and relatives. Oh, I guess we’ve regressed to the 1400s.”


    “Your life is now taking care of me, son.”

    “I and my children are the future, not you. I’ll split duty with dad and my siblings to keep you reasonably comfortable and dignified. Oh, you’re widowed and I’m your only child? God that sucks, maybe you should have though ahead and had more children. I hope that a caretaker and giggling grandchildren are good enough, cuz that’s what you’re getting. (If you took better care of yourself, maybe you could have been a net plus and helped take care of your grandchildren. Oh god, now were in the 1400s again, aren’t we?)”

    The end all be all is strict adherence to traditional social norms, and leaving idiots to die.

    • Andy says:

      The end all be all is strict adherence to traditional social norms, and leaving idiots to die.

      I hope you’re being ironic/sarcastic/some other form of Not Serious here, because this seems more like the “I can’t think of a perfect way to fix it, so we’ll just go with what we used to do rather than experiment with improvements.”

      Because “idiots” would then include people who for one reason or another are childless, or people whose children died before being old enough to be caretakers, or all the other edge cases.

  24. Jesse says:

    Society never said “We’ll provide you with public health and technological civilization, but only if you agree to pay any tax rate we set, here’s a ticket to Somalia if you refuse.”

    Didn’t they? I mean, no one has offered me a ticket to Somalia, but I do understand that (1) I’m expected to follow the laws of my country if I want to enjoy the benefits of living here, (2) those laws will change over time, (3) I’m free to leave, and (4) laws don’t apply retroactively so I’ll have a chance to leave before changes take effect.

  25. Medivh says:

    Lets try a simple fix for the problem:

    You are only obligated to payments that result in a net gain in utility.

    This eliminates your horror szenarios.

    • Anonymous says:

      Calculating net gains in utility is already all but impossible, do you think a system by which people have an adversarial incentive to misrepresent utility to each other is going to do well? And that’s ignoring the meta issue of “this rule will result in net gain in utility even if some implementations of the rule are utility negative”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Actually, I think all First Worlders being obligated to give let’s say 80% of their money to charity *does* lead to a net gain in utility.

      • Matthew says:

        No, it doesn’t. Maybe it would if the first world consisted overwhelmingly of the sort of people who are already interested in effective altruism, but it does not. Even if it’s only a moral obligation, not a legal one, the psychological disincentive effect of shaming people for failing to give a huge amount of their income to charity is going to be similar to the economic disincentive effect of actually imposing an 80% tax. People are simply going to produce less wealth, so they don’t have to feel bad about not sharing it with the developing world.

  26. Ryan Reich says:

    What you call “infinite debt” is often termed by reasonable people a “gift” (mothers who consider it a debt are being unreasonable). The corresponding currency, of course, is gratitude, which is neither binary nor continuous, but a lot closer to the former than the latter. As the one who feels gratitude, it’s up to me to determine how much to express it in the form of a reverse gift. Of course, if this calculus is tainted with a rational consideration like cost, the result may seem like (or actually become) ingratitude, but if you admit the concept of an “infinite” debt you should have no problem admitting the concept of “non-valuable” gratitude. If you hold such a debt and you insist on being paid in kind to your own standard, you are, naturally, being “selfish”. Where the boundaries lie is a matter of negotiation between, in your story, your patient and her son, hopefully without using any of these words.

    • This is my preferred approach as well. A gift is not a debt, and gratitude is not repayment of a debt. Converting the categories of gift and gratitude into debt and repayment destroys their social meaning and, as this post shows, forces us into ridiculous calculations about who owes how much to whom.

  27. ozymandias says:

    Hey, wait, how can the debt be infinite? Your mother didn’t give you infinite things. It is true that you wouldn’t have a life without her, but if someone gives you fifty thousand dollars to start a business and you make fifty million, you owe them fifty thousand plus interest, not fifty million.

    Therefore, the debt you owe your parents is approximately eighteen years of care up to the standard that they cared for you and nine months of moderate disability. With variations– adoptees and foster children have divided debts; less for emancipated minors, runaways, and throwaways; more for people who received post-adulthood financial or domestic support; people whose parent’s pregnancy was really hard may owe nine months of severe disability. Plus, say, four percent interest? Not sure if it should be compounded.

    Ideally, the parent/child relationship is a relationship such that you actually *want* to change their bedpans and give them medication because you love them, and I propose that doing this sort of calculation is a sign that something has gone wrong somewhere.

  28. Salem says:

    As someone who thinks these “social debt” arguments are bunkum, allow me to make my stab at it. These arguments always work by a weird aggregation between the people to whom the debt is owed, and the people by whose work I benefited. These are distinct groups. There is not one big aggregated blob called “society” which is able to speak with one voice or act in unison.

    In other words, it’s true that we are able to prosper because of the good work by previous generations in creating a framework of laws and institutions for us. But that work was emphatically not done by the single mother on welfare for whose benefit I am being asked to fork over my hard-earned wages. In fact, she too enjoyed the exact same inheritance of laws and institutions I did – so how on earth do I owe her anything. If anything, she owes me.

    Now, if you’re going to say that I owe some societal debt to, say, a pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain, then I could be persuaded to agree. But as a general rule, the people to whom I might owe a special debt are the last people who would ask for, or need, any such thing – which is of course no co-incidence.

    • suntzuanime says:

      It could be argued that you owe a debt to the high-minded ideals that created a framework of laws etc., and that those same high-minded ideals now require you to fork over your hard-earned etc. Society is more than just an aggregation of people. It’s a system, a philosophy. This is sort of what Christianity is trying to get at with God – the people you are treating nicely are not the same people who have treated you nicely, but you have been treated nicely by the spirit of love (God), so loyally serve that same spirit.

      • Salem says:

        “High-minded ideals” did not create our framework of laws, etc, people did. And anyway, I can’t owe anything to an ideal.

        But, if you’re arguing that certain norms and ideals underlie the functioning society left to us by our forebears, then I agree. And, if you’re arguing that we have an obligation not to undermine those norms and ideals, to bequeath no worse a society to the next generation, then I agree.

        But once again, this argument ends up in the same place – I have an obligation to keep my promises, invest for the long term, be prudent and conscientious, etc, and perhaps to help/praise others who behave likewise. And the single mother on welfare, if anything owes the rest of us, because she’s undermining the norms and ideals that undergird civilisation.

        Unless you’re arguing that “feed the open mouth” is such a “high-minded ideal,” in which case you have lost me.

      • ozymandias says:

        One of the things society gives you is the insurance that, no matter what happens, you will not starve. In exchange for this insurance, you have to pay into the system that supports people who would otherwise starve.

        • Caspian says:

          Can you work out how much you owe in exchange? Because if it’s just “whatever society expects” you have the infinite debt problem again.

      • suntzuanime says:

        @ozy: What’s to stop me from saying “thanks but no thanks” and taking my chances, because I’m the sort of fellow who is unlikely to need much social safety net but am the sort of fellow who will be expected to pay large amounts of tax?

        You can’t conceptualize it as a trade, or people will wonder why they’re not allowed to refuse.

        • Matthew says:

          The obvious problem with this is even with a signed written document, no one is going to believe you if you opt out. And if we actually did have such a system in place, it likely wouldn’t take long for the number of people wanting to opt back in to reach critical mass, at which point… what?

          Also, even accepting arguendo Salem’s right-of-center assumptions on the relative proportions of luck and effort underlying people’s current position, you’re still left with the problem that even if the “single mother on welfare” doesn’t deserve anything because of her choices, the child(ren) of the single mother on welfare didn’t have any say in those choices.

          But maybe I should shut up ere I give the reactionaries the idea to combine ending welfare with seizing the children of the “undeserving” and redistributing them.

        • ozymandias says:

          You are perfectly free to opt out of the contract. There are two hundred and six other contracts for you to join if you wish. In addition, you may join the campaigns for renegotiation of this contract.

        • MugaSofer says:

          You can’t usually opt out of a contract the minute it looks like you might be expected to pay up.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          the child(ren) of the single mother on welfare didn’t have any say in those choices.

          Continuing devil’s advocate mode: What causes us to want to see children as separate moral entities from their parents?

        • peterdjones says:

          It’s in the immediate interest of healthy single people with earning potential to opt out. Whether you have the right to is not quite the question. The question is what you would be opting into. You cant stay where you are physical, because you would be free riding on infrastructure you’re refusing to pay for,
          And you can’t move to Tir naNog, the land of the forever young, because biology is against you. A biologically self sustaining society will have babies and oldies who need looking after.

          But maybe it doesn’t need to be biologically self sustaining. It could have a constant influx of young adults; they could save for their own retirements, and then be looked after by hirelings out of their own funds. They would have to be celibate, or at least in reproductive, of course. Its been done before: it’s called a monastery.

    • peterdjones says:

      Then try the insurance metaphor.

      • Salem says:

        The “insurance metaphor” is also flawed, but that is a separate topic. For now it’s enough to say that the “debt” metaphor is unreasonable (and I had forgotten about de Jasay’s excellent essay, linked below, which makes other key points).

  29. Anthony de Jasay analyzes a version of the “infinite debt” argument in his essay Your Dog Owns Your House.

    • peterdjones says:

      Yeah, but it’s terrible. He thinks it’s a reductio ad aabsurdum that there could be debts and obligations between a human and a nonhuman. But stop feeding your cat and it’ll fuck off. Mammals understand inputs and outputs well enough,

      And it all leads to the big tada, that societies aren’t individuals …well, gee, corporations aren’t either.

  30. Elithrion says:

    I actually have a significant number of problems with this post, but I’ll just focus on one – I’m not sure on what grounds the debt can possibly be considered “infinite”.

    I think the appropriate amount you should “owe” someone for taking some action is the amount it would take for them to elect to perform that action over the next-best alternative (plus perhaps some premium based on the relative negotiating powers of the parties).

    Applying this to the scenarios discussed, I think there are some parents who would have children even if after growing up the children did absolutely nothing for them. I’d guess that for most it would take a promise of at least some contact and care, and if they knew with perfect foresight that their children would not supply this, perhaps find something better to do. This is probably then that amount you “owe” them in some timeless negotiation sense – the promise you would have to make for them to give birth to you. Quite far from infinite.

    The debt to society argument seems analogous. As far as I can tell, while caring about future generations was some part of the motivation for those who, for example, went to war, a much much larger part was caring about self-preservation (from your own government in the case of drafts), nationalism, your own current existing family, and so on. I don’t think if the people making the decisions knew that future generations would not honor them, they would have done anything differently. As such, I don’t think you have any debt to them, though if you still choose to express gratitude that is up to you.

    It’s a bit more confusing when talking about other society fixtures, such as roads, educational institutions, and so on, the debts seem to come out as being moderate at most in my mind, and certainly very far from infinite.

    • Anonymous says:

      Heh. This highlights how “modern” and “Western” I really am because my wife and I have an explicit policy that our children owe us nothing, in that, that we created our children without asking them whether they wanted to be created so we owe them everything it is within our means to provide to ensure their success in the world, however they come to define it.

      Any other attitude seems perverse to me, and it bothers me not at all that the opposite attitude is the prevailing one.

  31. Sarah says:

    This is precisely the point at which I gave up on ethics. The idea of debt to society or to those who helped me is overwhelming to me, as I expect it is to you.

    I tried to repay a debt to a friend, once. He made a big difference in my life, so I tried to help him when he was down and out. It was *really hard* and didn’t work very well. I don’t think I can credibly promise to repay everyone who’s helped me, in any commensurate way.

    Several years ago, I made the decision not to consider myself as having a “debt to society.” Because I was quite seriously depressed. And I was terrified of becoming a burden on my family. I made a deal with myself: I will support myself financially, and refrain from force and fraud, and that will *damn well be enough.*

    I try — very much against the grain of my nature — not to imagine a Judge who counts my contribution inadequate.

    This doesn’t mean I never do anything helpful or prosocial. Ambition, sympathy, and prudence tie me to other people. I’m trying to make a positive impact on the world through my work. I give to charity. I try to do right by friends and family. But I’m not doing the “debt to society” thing. I don’t trust myself to handle it.

    From a generally communitarian point of view, I could see this sounding like I’m trying to get sympathy for being a nasty person. Being the bullet-biter I am, I concede that I *am* doing wrong, according to some consistent and compelling ethical theories. It is what it is. I’m not hurting anybody actively. Not even the most dedicated social justice or effective altruist advocate really expects to get every human being on Earth on board; I’m one of the ones you don’t get.

    • MugaSofer says:

      *shrug* You sound about as good a person as most, maybe noticeably better depending on the details.

      I don’t feel like most people seriously think they owe these huge debts to people … maybe I’m strange, but I would focus on whether you actually Do Good over some arbitrary passing grade demanded because you “owe” a higher amount.

      Y’know, if I was the Judge in question.

      • Sarah says:

        I have strong psychological defenses against believing that any particular person is God.

  32. Matt says:

    I have no doubt society has the right to demand any amount of taxes…. but the technical issue of whether it will be beneficial to society should prevail. For example, very high taxes will incentivize businesses to move away/establish themselves elsewhere, actually reducing tax revenues (I realize that in practice there is a lot of fear-mongering based on this argument, but I’m sure it’s actually true for *some* tax rate).

  33. MugaSofer says:

    I assumed that the cost to him of divorcing his wife etc. was higher than the benefit to his mother. Whereas driving out every so often is pretty easy and would probably cheer her up a good deal.

    (Looking after her 24-7 is close enough to neutral that both sides can minimize the other’s objections, perhaps; although ideally nursing homes should be about as good as home care, this is manifestly not the case so I’m not sure who to side with.)

    Of course, this implies there are no debts whatsoever and we’re depending on him just being a good person.

    Perhaps the assumption is that she did all that good for him knowing he could never repay his infinite debt, and so he should just generally have a positive relationship with her?

  34. James James says:

    For Land Value Taxers, your “debt to the state” is wholly repaid by paying Land Value Tax. The state builds roads, pays for public education, etc etc, which causes land to be worth more.

  35. Steve says:

    Children usually make their grandparents happier than they make their parents. So, most of the infinite debt to a parent has been discharged by transfer from the parent’s infinite debt, by adulthood.

  36. Deiseach says:

    The point is fairly basic: if we don’t or won’t take on the burden of helping those closest to us, how then can we be trusted in our grand announcements that we are going to help the sick and the suffering thousands of miles away?

    If I’m not willing to take care of my declining mother (for the amount of care I can give her until she needs professional medical care), then all my signing up to campaigns for Literacy! Empowerment! Equality! for strangers in another land mean nothing but hot air and making myself feel virtuous at no real expense.

    • +1e6.

      Caring for those near to you requires actual love and virtue. Caring for those far away devolves into signalling games pretty much instantaneously.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        Caring for those near to you requires actual love and virtue.

        In my experience, caring for those near to you is just as much about signalling as caring for those far away; we just have more incentives to make the signalling REALLY look genuine.

      • Randy M says:


      • Scott Alexander says:

        Uh, hold on a second.

        Suppose Alice uses her resources to care for her aging mother, and Bob uses equal resources to save 100 Africans from tropical disease.

        Alice’s sacrifice is very visible in her community and everyone sees her with her smiling mother and gets warm feelings. However, she is only helping one person.

        Bob’s sacrifice is not visible, and in fact people may think he’s a terrible person because he doesn’t even take care of his own mother. On the other hand, he saves a hundred lives.

        How can you possibly describe that as “Bob optimizing for signaling, but Alice optimizing for real virtue”?

        I mean, I know that the popular thing to do nowadays is to say all liberal attempts to help others are just counterproductive signaling games, but you still need to at least make a LITTLE bit of an argument in support.

  37. Pingback: Mothers, Monks, and Infinite Debts

  38. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Speaking of universal human experiences we lack, I don’t feel the “debt to society” instinct, like, at all. I don’t have a need to feel “useful” or to “give something back”, and in fact I am very bitter about having to work for a living. I’ve been looking into vandwelling as a way to minimize the amount of work and taxes imposed on me, and I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about it.

    Part of this is that “society” is too large; I can feel like a part of my family or early LW, but I can’t feel like a part of a multi-million people city, let alone a state or a country. But even then, my family is very adamant that I must get a job, and I can’t help but feel that their demands that I turn myself into a partial slave whose most awake and productive hours are devoted to doing boring bullshit someone else has an economic use for are a little unreasonable.

  39. David Simon says:

    I signed up for GWWC at 11%, because I figured “Heck, why stop at 10%?”.

    Then I immediately stopped that thought process because a meta-analysis routine realized where that was headed and forced an interrupt. So 11% it is.

    Also it’s a good Spinal Tap reference.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I am considering whether, if I later am able to increase my donation to 20%, I continue to claim I am donating 10% in order to maintain the Schellingness of that number.

      I probably won’t, because I like boasting.

      But I posted this comment anyway, because I like boasting.

  40. Jane says:

    This is part of the reason why (non-blatantly-abusive) parents should be given equity (say 20%) in the children. The debt would be quantified and made manageable, and parental incentives better aligned.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      That’s an interesting proposal, but I worry it would result in more “You’re wasting your life as an artist, you have to go to business school or else you’re cheating us out of our investment in you!”

      • affection for parents = trigger says:

        No kidding.

        Also, Scott, at the risk of being slightly social-jerkstice-y, I would like to remind you of your enormous privilege in this area: that of having the kind of parents such that you can contemplate proposals of this sort — or indeed the whole premise of this discussion — without experiencing horror-induced brain liquefaction.

        (Non-blatantly-abusive? Yeah, thanks, that really helps…)

    • MugaSofer says:

      Don’t be absurd.

      Clearly, this should be implemented with corporate baby farms, not the parents themselves. Much easier to regulate, and they’ll create a close-to-optimal-as-they-can eugenic influence based on their surrogacy choices.

  41. Doug S. says:

    There have been times in recent history in which society has indeed called in its “infinite debt”. It’s called the military draft. “You owe us everything, so you must quit your job and go be a soldier.”

  42. When I was Catholic, this was the single most terrifying thing about my religion. I had infinite debt to God, so I had to do everything He said and He was perfectly justified in torturing me for eternity if I didn’t. And, since I had in fact already committed multiple mortal sins, I already deserved Hell and only had a chance of being saved by his mercy (and I was probably still going to get millenia of extreme torture in purgatory.)
    I hated God for creating me and thus putting me in this situation where I was obligated to do whatever he said or be tortured. And I hated myself for hating God, and was scared of hating God because it meant eternal torture.
    (I am sorry if this is a Weak Man for Catholicism but this was my genuine experience.)

    • Onanymous says:

      Catholicism is extra fun because not only does it have these sanity-destroying loops, but they actually spiral into more amplitude because the religion is freaking *made of basilisks*. The first of which is the “duty to inform your conscience with Catholic teachings”. Most people seem to think/read shallowly enough to get off okay*, but…

      (I realize I should probably provide more supporting examples while stating a position this far out of the mainstream. But, basilisks. (There seem to be a significant number of well-above-average-intelligence Catholic readers here.))

      *I’m not actually sure about this. Some of my parents’ more irrational religion-related behaviors would be explained pretty well by them being caught *deep* in the spirals, but heroically trying to both mostly-shield their children from the spirals and not actually commit the spiral-called “sins” that really shielding their children from the spirals would involve, to the point of faking emotions and preferences.

  43. anon says:

    Speaking of infinite debt, the most extreme version:
    “Heaven brings forth innumerable things to nurture man.
    Man has nothing good with which to recompense Heaven.
    Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.”

    Tied to what may have been the only real life omnicidal maniac ever.

  44. nicole galpern says:

    i don’t think the mother and child relationship is the best hypothetical for testing intuitions about infinite debt. the fact that many parents are eager to have and take care of kids but the kids are usually not so eager to take care of their parents should tell us something: this is not a fair and equal bargain.

    is a mother taking care of her son necessarily “sacrificing”? that might be the case if she really didn’t want to have a child but felt compelled to anyway, and if she hated having to care for him and never got much joy out of it, but somehow felt it was her duty to have and raise him. (this might parallel how the son feels about caring for the mother now.) otherwise, if she’s making these demands on a child she wanted to have, the implication that raising her son was a selfless, joyless duty seems to be nothing but a guilt trip designed to get what she wants out of him now.

    for a woman who wanted to have a child, it was rational for her to invest so much in her son for 20 years because this was an attempt to replicate and care for her own genes and cultural values (to the extent that he maintained her cultural values), and to increase the likelihood of their continued replication in the future. to suggest that she spent 20 years selflessly taking care of someone just to be nice isn’t an honest accounting of what happened, though it’s convenient for her to suggest this now. motherhood for her wasn’t selflessly toiling (because of the selfish benefits of gene and meme spreading and meaning that it gave her), but selfless toil is exactly what she’s asking of her adult son. that’s because taking care of his mother won’t allow him to instill his values in her, and she can no longer spread his genes since she’s no longer fertile, and though it might give him some meaning and pride (‘i’m a good son who cares for his mother!’), it’s also asking him to give up most of the other sources of meaning in his life, like his career and his own family.

    essentially, she’s asking way more of him than she ever gave. “she gave him life!” isn’t enough: she gave life to whomever was going to be a combination of her genes mixed with one other person’s genes, because this is something that would bring her satisfaction. it happened to be him who was born, and i think he paid off any debt he supposedly owed her by representing her genes and to some extent her values, and being a source of meaning for her.

    there is no obligation to have children, so if you have them, admit that it’s not a selfless act and may not be mutually beneficial for everyone involved. if you see childrearing as some sort of duty, skip the duty, don’t have kids, save your money and hire a personal caretaker when you’re old.