THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

The Economic Perspective On Moral Standards

[Content warning: scrupulosity. Some recent edits, see Mistakes page for details.]

I.

There are some pretty morally unacceptable things going on in a pretty structural way in society. Sometimes I hear some activists take this to an extreme: no currently living person is morally acceptable. People who aren’t reorienting their entire lives around acknowledging and combating the evils of the world aren’t even on the scale. And people who are may be (in the words of one of my friends who is close to that community) “only making comfortable sacrifices that let them think of themselves as a good person within their existing comfortable moral paradigm, instead of confronting the raw terrible truth.” IE “If you think you’re one of the good ones, you’re wrong”.

I have heard this sentiment raised by animal rights activists. The average meat-eater isn’t even on the scale. The average vegetarian still eats milk and cheese, and so is barely even trying. Even most vegans probably use some medical product with gelatin, or something tested on lab rats, or are just benefitting from animal suffering in some indirect way.

And I have heard it raised by environmentalists. The average SUV driver isn’t even on the scale. The average conscientious liberal might think they’re better because they bike to work and recycle, but they still barely think about how they’re using electricity generated by coal plants and eating food grown with toxic pesticides. Everyone could be doing more.

And I have heard raised by labor activists. Most of us use stuff made in sweatshops. Even if you avoid sweatshops, you probably use stuff made at less than a living wage. Even if you avoid that, are you doing everything you can to help and support workers who earn less than you do?

Even if you aren’t an animal rights activist, environmentalist, or labor advocate, do you believe in anything? Are you a Christian, a social justice advocate, or rationalist? Do you know anyone who really satisfies you as being sinless, non-racist, and/or rational? Then perhaps you too believe nobody is good.

We shouldn’t immediately dismiss the idea that nobody is good. By our standards, there were many times and places where this was true. I am not aware of any ancient Egyptians who were against slavery. By Roman times, a handful of people thought it might be a bad idea, but nobody lifted a finger to stop it. I doubt you could find any Roman at the intersection of currently acceptable positions on slavery, torture, women’s rights, and sexuality. Maybe a few followers of Epicurus – but is there much difference between 0.01% of people being good, and nobody being good?

But let’s back up here philosophically. There’s a clear definition of “perfectly good” – someone who has never deviated from morally optimal behavior in any way. “Nobody is perfectly good” is, I think, an uncontroversial statement. If “nobody is good” is controversial, it’s because we expect “good” to be a lower bar than “perfectly good”, representing a sort of minimum standard of okayness. It might be possible that nobody meets even a minimum standard of okayness – the Roman example still seems relevant – but we should probably back up further and figure out how we’re setting okayness standards.

My subjective impression of what we mean by “good” in the sense of “a decent person” or “minimally okay” has internal and external components. Internally, it means a person who is allowed to feel good about themselves instead of feeling guilty. Externally, it means a person who deserves praise rather than punishment.

Some people would deny one side or the other of this dichotomy. For example, some people believe nobody should ever feel guilty. Or, on the other hand, the “do you want a fucking cookie?” attitude activists sometimes take toward people who expect praise for their acts of support. This seems to rest on an assumption that even socially rare levels of virtue fall within the realm of “your basic minimal duty as a human being” and so should not get extra praise.

But I find the “good person”/”not a good person” dichotomy helpful. I’m not claiming it objectively exists. I can’t prove anything about ethics objectively exists. And even if there were objective ethical truths about what was right or wrong, that wouldn’t imply that there was an objective ethical truth about how much of the right stuff you have to do before you can go around calling yourself “good”. In the axiology/morality/law trichotomy, I think of “how much do I have to do in order to be a good person” as within the domain of morality. That means it’s a social engineering question, not a philosophical one. The social engineering perspective assumes that “good person” status is an incentive that can be used to make people behave better, and asks how high vs. low the bar should be set to maximize its effectiveness.

Consider the way companies set targets for their employees. At good companies, goals are ambitious but achievable. If the CEO of a small vacuum company tells her top salesman to sell a billion vacuums a year, this doesn’t motivate the salesman to try extra hard. It’s just the equivalent of not setting a goal at all, since he’ll fail at the goal no matter what. If the CEO says “Sell the most vacuums you can, and however many you sell, I will yell at you for not selling more”, this also probably isn’t going to win any leadership awards. A good CEO might ask a salesman to sell 10% more vacuums than he did last year, and offer a big bonus if he can accomplish it. Or she might say that the top 20% of salesmen will get promotions, or that the bottom 20% of salesmen will be fired, or something like that. The point is that the goal should effectively carve out two categories, “good salesman” and “bad salesman”, such that it’s plausible for any given salesman to end up in either, then offer an incentive that makes him want to fall in the first rather than the second.

I think of society setting the targets for “good person” a lot like a CEO setting the targets for “good vacuum salesman”. If they’re attainable and linked to incentives – like praise, honor, and the right to feel proud of yourself – then they’ll make people put in an extra effort so they can end up in the “good person” category. If they’re totally unattainable and nobody can ever be a good person no matter how hard they try, then nobody will bother trying. This doesn’t mean nobody will be good – some people are naturally good without hope for reward, just like some people will slave away for the vacuum company even when they’re underpaid and underappreciated. It just means you’ll lose the extra effort you would get from having a good incentive structure.

So what is the right level at which to set the bar for “good person”? An economist might think of this question as a price-setting problem: society is selling the product “moral respectability” and trying to decide how many units effort to demand from potential buyers in order to maximize revenue. Set the price too low, and you lose out on money that people would have been willing to pay. Set the price too high, and you won’t get any customers. Solve for the situation where you have a monopoly on the good and the marginal cost of production is zero, and this is how you set the “good person” bar.

I don’t have the slightest idea how you would actually go about doing that, and it’s just a metaphor anyway, so let me give some personal stories and related considerations.

II.

When I was younger, I determined that I had an ethical obligation to donate more money to charity, and that I was a bad person for giving as little as I did. But I also knew that if I donated more, I would be a bad person for not donating even more than that. Given that there was no solution to my infinite moral obligation, I just donated the same small amount.

Then I met a committed group of people who had all agreed to donate 10%. They all agreed that if you donated that amount you were doing good work and should feel proud of yourself. And if you donated less than that, then they would question your choice and encourage you to donate more. I immediately pledged to donate 10%, which was much more than I had been doing until then.

Selling the “you can feel good about the amount you’re donating to charity” product for 10% produces higher profits for the charity industry than selling it for 100%, at least if many people are like me.

III.

I can see an argument for an even looser standard: you should aim to be above average.

This is a very low bar. I think you might beat the average person on animal rights activism just by not stomping on anthills. The yoke here is really mild.

But if you believe in something like universalizability or the categorical imperative, “act in such a way that you are morally better than average” is a really interesting maxim! If everyone is just trying to be in the moral upper half of the population, the population average morality goes up. And up. And up. There’s no equilibrium other than universal sainthood.

This sounds silly, but I think it might have been going on over the past few hundred years in areas like racism and sexism. The anti-racism crusaders of yesteryear were, by our own standards, horrendously racist. But they were the good guys, fighting people even more racist than they were, and they won. Iterate that process over ten or so generations, and you reach the point where you’ve got to run your Halloween costume past your Chief Diversity Officer.

Another good thing about the number 50% is that it means there will always be as many good people as bad people. This can prove helpful if, for example, the bad people don’t like being called bad people, and want to take over the whole process of moral progress so they can declare themselves the good guys.

I’m not saying the bar should be set exactly at average. For one thing, this would mean that we could never have a situation where everyone was good enough. I think the American people are basically okay on the issue of fratricide, and I don’t want to accidentally imply that the least anti-fratricide 50% of people should feel bad about themselves. For another thing, it might be possible to move the generational process of moral progress faster if the bar is set at a higher level.

But I think these considerations at least suggest that the most effective place to set the bar might be lower than we would naively expect. I think this is how I treat people in real life. I have trouble condemning anyone who is doing more than the median. And although I don’t usually go around praising people, anybody who is doing more than the average for their time and place seems metaphorically praiseworthy to me.

IV.

A friend brings up an objection: even if low standards extract the most units of moral effort from the population, that might not be what’s important. In some cases, it’s more important that a few very important people put forth an extraordinary effort than that everyone does okay. For example, whether a billionaire donates some high percent of their money matters more than if you or I do. And whether a brilliant scientist devotes their career to fighting disease or existential risk matters much more than the rest of us.

I’m still trying to think about this, but naively it seems that we can treat the set of all exceptional people the same as the set of all people in general, and standards which extract the most moral value from one will also apply to the other. This especially makes sense if the standards are normed to effort rather than absolute results – for example, “everyone should donate 10%” extends to billionaires better than “everyone should donate $100”; diminishing marginal utility issues do argue that billionaires should donate more than that, but once you find the right unit the same argument should work.

One exception might be if we would otherwise hold exceptional people to higher standards. For example, if everybody tries to pressure a billionaire to donate most of their fortune, or on a brilliant scientist to work very hard to fight disease, then having a universal standard that it’s okay to do a little more than average might make this pressure less effective. Maybe trying to hold the average person to high standards usually backfires, but everyone would be able to successfully gang up on exceptional people to enforce high standards for them. If this were true, then a low bar might hold in Mediocristan, and a higher bar in Extremistan. Things like “not eating animal products” or “not driving an SUV” are in Mediocristan; things like curing cancer or donating wealth might be in Extremistan.

Another exception would be if it’s more important to extract many units of moral worth from the same people, rather than distributed across the population. For example, if cancer research (or AI research) turns out to be the most important thing, then even in the counterfactual world where everyone is equally intelligent, it’s important that somebody be the person to spend five years laboriously learning the basics so that they can make progress, and then that this person spend as much effort as possible doing the research and exploiting their training. A random person donating one hour of their time here or there is almost useless in comparison. In this case, we might want to have the highest standards possible, since a world in which most people give up and do nothing (but a few people accept the challenge and do a lot) is better than the alternative where everybody does a tiny bit. Again, this seems more applicable to issues like curing cancer or aligning AI than ones like not driving an SUV or using products made with unfair labor practices.

V.

I tried being vegetarian for a long time. Given that I can’t eat any vegetables (something about the combination of the bitter taste and the texture; they almost universally make me gag), this was really hard and I kept giving up and going back to subsisting mostly off of meat. The cost of “you can feel good about the amount you’re doing to not contribute to animal suffering” was apparently higher than I could afford.

For the past year, I’ve been following a more lax rule: I can’t eat any animal besides fish at home, but I can have meat (other than chicken) at restaurants. I’ve mostly been able to keep that rule, and now I’m eating a lot less meat than I did before.

This is a pathetic rule compared to even real pescetarians, let alone real vegetarians, let alone vegans. But I can tell this is right on the border of what I’m capable of doing; every time I go to the supermarket, I have an intense debate with the yetzer hara about whether I should buy meat to eat at home that week, and on rare occasions I give into temptation. But in general I hold back. And part of what holds me back is that I let myself feel like I am being good and helping save animals and have the right to feel proud when I keep my rule, and I beat myself up and feel bad and blameworthy when I break it.

I am sure any serious animal rights activist still thinks I am scum. Possibly there is an objective morality, and it agrees I am scum. But if I am right that this is the strictest rule I can keep, then I’m not sure who it benefits to remind me that I am scum. Deny me the right to feel okay when I do my half-assed attempt at virtue, and I will just make no attempt at virtue, and this will be worse for me and worse for animals.

Sticking to the economics metaphor, this is price discrimination. Companies try to figure out tricks to determine how rich you are, and then charge rich people more and poor people less: the goal is everyone buying the product for the highest price that they, personally, are willing to pay. Society should sell me “feel good about the amount you’re doing for animals” status for the highest price that leaves me preferring buying the product to not doing so. If someone else is much richer in willpower, or just likes vegetables more, society should charge them more.

Companies rarely try price discrimination except in the sneakiest and most covert ways, because it’s hard to do well and it makes everybody angry. Society does whatever it does – empirically, not care about animals unless someone is torturing a puppy or something. But we-as-members-of-society have the ability to practice price discrimination on ourselves-as-individuals, and sell our own right to feel okay about ourselves for whatever amount we as experts in our own preferences believe we can bear.

I don’t know the answer to the question of where “we” “as” “a” “society” “should” “set” “moral” “standards”. But if you’re interested in the question, and you have a good sense for what you are and aren’t capable of, maybe practicing price discrimination on yourself is the way to go.

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584 Responses to The Economic Perspective On Moral Standards

  1. IvoryTowerDenizen says:

    Maybe a trigger warning for scrupulosity could come in handy here?

    Edit: Thank you.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks, done.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        What does this even mean? Honest question. Who is triggered by “scrupulosity” and what exactly triggers them?

        • Thegnskald says:

          The thing being gestured at here is that there is a group of people who are made miserable by falling short of 100% morality, and being reminded that they fall short of 100% morality makes them miserable.

          More to the point, they are made miserable by the -possibility- of falling short of 100% morality, such that if you bring up things people do wrong, they will pattern-match proximal behaviors they engage in to that wrong that, and hate themselves over it.

          It’s the sort of thing where a person hates themselves for having asked somebody out on a date once because asking somebody out on a date is proximal behavior to PUA behavior.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            >It’s the sort of thing where a person hates themselves for having asked somebody out on a date once because asking somebody out on a date is proximal behavior to PUA behavior.

            What is not hating yourself like? I know this sounds silly, but I have a hard time escaping the typical-mind fallacy on this one despite intellectually recognizing that most people don’t hate themselves. I wonder if there’s useful writing about this…

            (Please don’t feel sorry for me if you were otherwise inclined to do so; my state of mind seems completely normal to me and so I don’t think it merits sympathy. But then I suppose the fact that I don’t think it merits sympathy may itself merit sympathy… Argh!)

          • l33tminion says:

            What is not hating yourself like? I know this sounds silly, but I have a hard time escaping the typical-mind fallacy on this one

            If you’re inclined to think about various topics at various times, you can get the gist of it by imagining having a higher likelihood of being inclined to think about topics other than “things you dislike about yourself” and a higher likelihood to think about things you feel positively about in general. People who feel good about themselves spend some time thinking about “things they like about themselves”, but I think the more significant difference would be more time spent thinking about things with positive affect that aren’t directly related to self-assessment.

          • Thegnskald says:

            From my perspective, it doesn’t feel like anything. It is the absence of a thing, I think, rather than a thing in itself? You might be better served asking what it feels like to love yourself, which somebody might be able to answer.

            I have trouble conceptualizing your perspective, to be honest. Hating myself feels like hating nothing. Or, perhaps more accurately, I can’t really fathom a difference between what somebody else would call “Hating myself” and what I would term “Hating the situation I am in”.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            I have trouble conceptualizing your perspective, to be honest. Hating myself feels like hating nothing. Or, perhaps more accurately, I can’t really fathom a difference between what somebody else would call “Hating myself” and what I would term “Hating the situation I am in”.

            I’m not sure how to describe it except by example. It is feeling really guilty when eating “special” food like an elaborate dessert or an exotic fruit. That nice food should have gone to some hypothetical better person. Or feeling worse about negative consequences to other people than negative consequences to myself. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I just sigh and go on with my day. If I accidentally cut someone off (I wouldn’t do it on purpose, I’m not more important than them!) I feel really guilty, especially if they honk.

            To me that’s totally different than hating the situation I’m in.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            @arbitrary

            I’ve spent more time hating myself than not, and still have some scrupulousity issues.

            I’d say that not hating yourself is the feeling you have for the people who do cut you off, directed inwards. Compassion and patience, principally. Irritation still exists, but the heavy-handed moral judgments don’t really accompany it. For me this hasn’t so much come with relaxing my standards, but instead with learning to tell myself that I’ve felt the appropriate amount of guilt, and that I’m doing myself a disservice by wallowing.

            Advice, if you want it: try to come to understand regret as a practice that you can use to make yourself better, and try to use your own failures as an opportunity to perform kindnesses. A dependent animal that’s receptive to affection is a good vehicle for this; I pat my cat when I’ve done something wrong. Any love that you give to such a creature is an act of unmoderated kindnesses that makes the world a slightly better place, and having the ability to perform such acts can be incredibly good for feeling like your existence is worthwhile. It’s easier to love yourself when someone or something loves you, and the nice thing about animals is that they love very undemandingly.

          • Baeraad says:

            What is not hating yourself like? I know this sounds silly, but I have a hard time escaping the typical-mind fallacy on this one despite intellectually recognizing that most people don’t hate themselves. I wonder if there’s useful writing about this…

            Er. To me it mostly feels like intense annoyance at the entire rest of the universe.

            Partly because every single other person in the world despises me (or would, if they knew me), so the surest sign that I’m not hating myself at present is that I resent them for telling me I should hate myself. But mostly I think it’s just that I’m a really negative, nitpicky person who finds fault with everything, so the only time I’m not hating myself is when I realise that everyone else sucks every bit as much as I do. And they don’t even seem to realise it, the smug, deluded bastards!

            I doubt that that’s a very typical mindset either, though.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I have the relative good fortune of only getting a case of self-hatred fairly late in life– past age 30, maybe past age 40, so I can compare not hating myself and hating myself.

            As far as I can tell, not hating myself isn’t about focusing on my good points, it’s about not holding myself up for judgement. I might like some things better about myself than others or want to change some things, but I didn’t have an opinion about my whole self.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          There are people who have “obsessive” thinking on being scrupulous…

        • C_B says:

          Ozy has some good posts on the subject (which the spam filter appears to be eating my links to). They say things like:

          Some people, perhaps most people, have lax consciences– that is, they tend to believe that they didn’t do anything wrong when, in fact, they did. However, many people, particularly but not solely people with OCD or anxiety disorders, have scrupulous consciences: they believe that they’ve done wrong things all the time, even when they haven’t; they are afraid that something is wrong, even when it isn’t; they believe, for silly reasons, that something is sinful when it isn’t.

          “I cannot do morality.”

          I cannot do it in the same sense that an alcoholic cannot drink, and a person with an eating disorder cannot go on a diet. I am incapable of engaging with universalizable morality in a way that does not cause me severe mental harm. While I can reject a universalizable moral claim on an intellectual level, I am incapable of rejecting them– no matter how absurd or contradictory to other things I accept– on an emotional level. If I fail to live up to such a claim, I will hate myself and curl in a ball and be utterly nonfunctional for a few hours, causing harm to both myself and those who have to put up with me.

          • mtl1882 says:

            This sounds so basic once I’ve read this that I’m amazed I haven’t realized this is my problem before. Well, I sort of have, and it’s become worse recently. I find myself “implicated in everything,” and feel very upset when I hear other people being moralized against. I immediately put myself in the shoes of whoever I hear of or interact with, and compare myself. I can almost always see myself doing something in some way equivalent, or having the potential if I had undergone what they had.

            I get very upset when I deal with lax consciences because they just hammer away at other people, completely unable to see that they could be attacked the same way, or be compared to them. And I almost always identify with the hammered person, so I feel like they should realize they are talking about me in a degraded way, even if they would never think it could be directed at me.

            I don’t necessary have an issue with not being perfectly moral – I know that doesn’t happen, and it’s probably best it doesn’t – the world is too complicated. But interacting with people who seem to think it is possible, but are confident that they meet this standard all the time, is terrifying to me. It’s just very unsettling, and has really messed with my functionality.

            The irrational way people choose to identify and bring up lapses makes me constantly nervous – relatively stupid (IMO) allegedly moral lapses will cause huge reactions, but things I consider to be pretty serious are laughed off or compliance is considered unrealistic. I just feel like I can’t rely on my own judgement because of this seeming difference between me and most of the world.

            I don’t find this site as triggering, though, since there are always many posters at least willing to talk about different ways of viewing this and exceptions. It’s the news media that drives me crazy, because it passes inconsistent judgments on everything, and always frames everything by a standard that can’t be met. I used to be a news addict; now I get severe anxiety even listening to it.

            If anyone has suggestions for getting past this, please let me know.

        • MereComments says:

          From wikipedia:
          “Scrupulosity is a modern-day psychological problem that echoes a traditional use of the term scruples in a religious context, e.g. by Roman Catholics, to mean obsessive concern with one’s own sins and compulsive performance of religious devotion.”

      • Harkonnendog says:

        As a psychiatrist, do you ever wonder if trigger warnings encourage or legitimize fragility?
        I really thought the request for a trigger warning was a joke and I don’t mean to be disparaging. It is like we live in completely different worlds.

  2. metacelsus says:

    “I can have meat (other than chicken) at restaurants”

    Environmentally, chicken is the least-bad meat (see for example here https://slate.com/technology/2009/04/which-meat-harms-our-planet-the-least.html ). In my view, the environmental impacts are more important than the animal-suffering effects. (And furthermore, if we encourage people to switch from chicken to other meats, the negative effects on the environment might harm wild animals, although I don’t know how big this effect might be.)

    Personally, I am limiting myself to meat at 3 meals per week, and only chicken or fish (usually it’s chicken). However, I do eat a lot of dairy products.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “In my view, the environmental impacts are more important than the animal-suffering effects.”

      Disagree. Some quick calculations: average American eats about 100 kg of meat per year. If that’s entirely beef, then that produces greenhouse gases equal to 8000 lbs CO2 (note unit conversion), which can be offset for $40 at carbon offset sites.

      If it’s entirely chicken, then that adds up to about 100 chickens per year.

      So if one chicken worth of animal suffering seems more than 40 cents worth of bad to you, you should go with beef.

      • Vorkon says:

        I still think of eating chicken as the least bad option morally, because chickens (and most birds, really) are vile, monstrous beasts who deserve every ounce of torture we can mete out upon them, and would probably do the same to us if given half the chance. They lost their stranglehold on this planet 65 million years ago, and I, for one, am not about to sit idly by and watch them take it back.

        Cows, on the other hand, strike me as pretty chill dudes, who would probably want to hang out if I wasn’t so busy slaughtering them for their delicious flesh.

        (No, this post was not paid for by Chik-fil-a. It’s slightly exaggerated, but it does more or less reflect my genuine feelings on the matter.)

        • eric23 says:

          I don’t know how you can say this seriously.
          Chickens are relatively emotionally sophisticated, and chicken factory farming is horrible. If you care the least bit about animal suffering, eating less chicken would be a good place to start.

          (Admission: I still eat a lot of chicken because it seems to be healthier than beef and I lack other protein options that I find tasty enough to eat. But I would pay a premium for chicken farmed in more ethical circumstances.)

          • Thegnskald says:

            Experience with chickens, I’d guess, or talking to somebody with experience with chickens. If chickens were people in a horror movie, they’d be the borderline-rapist-jock, and the cheerleader-who-emotionally-abuses-everyone-around-her. The people whose ironic deaths are a comeuppance in that context, rather than a tragedy. Those are chickens. Actually, scratch that, those people are better than chickens. Chickens are assholes.

            If you think all life is worthy, of course, this view doesn’t make any sense. But a lot of people think it is how you live your life that gives it value, so arguments that creatures that cause one another pain just to put them in their place have some degree of emotional complexity doesn’t mean anything to them; you’re almost arguing that they should know better, and do evil anyways, and so are extra deserving of death.

          • queenshulamit says:

            eric23 – I don’t know where you live but there are lots of good fake-chicken type foods available. I can give you recommendations tailored to the US and UK if you are in either country (although if you’re in a hyper-ural food desert in the US they may be no good.)

          • eric23 says:

            queenshulamit – I live in neither of those places, but a representative suggestion or two from either place, particularly the US, would be nice!

          • Mary says:

            I’ve known people who’ve dealt with chickens whose opinion was that the chickens are related to the T. rex, and know it.

            But — another factor. Cows are vegetarian. Chickens? The reason they advertise “vegetarian feed” is that to keep them vegetarian not only requires confinement, but confinement so perfect that no bug ever gets in.

          • Vorkon says:

            Hitler was relatively emotionally sophisticated, too.

        • queenshulamit says:

          I love birds and this is bullsh*t. Chickens are b*st*rds to each other because of the horrible conditions we put them in, but I know people who keep chickens as pets and they are adorable.

          Birds are the best. Many species are smart and capable of altruism.

          I recommend Tim Birkhead’s pop science books on birds, they are so good.

          • Thegnskald says:

            I suspect the chickens they are keeping as pets were bred to be kept as pets, no? The chickens bred for placid personalities and pretty plumage?

            Because farm chickens don’t need terrible conditions to be terrible to one another.

            Granted, maybe they themselves have been bred to be that way. But once you’ve granted that it is okay to treat an evil creature poorly, that does suggest that maybe breeding chickens to be evil would alleviate some of the moral issues with eating them, in which case we should be breeding even more evil chickens until factory farming because a good thing.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            >in which case we should be breeding even more evil chickens until factory farming because a good thing.

            But isn’t deliberately creating more evil, in itself, evil? It’s like the “you made me this way!” objection to the concept of original sin.

          • queenshulamit says:

            I don’t actually think it’s okay to torture torturers (unless it’s the only way of massively decreasing the total amount of torture.) But even if I did, I am not sure that chickens are “naturally evil” towards one another and this is very [citation needed.]

            Also, I will point out that humans don’t need terrible conditions to be terrible to one another (although terrible conditions do tend to exacerbate the process.)

          • Kestrellius says:

            @Thegnskald:

            [intentionally manufacturing evil creatures to torture because Punishing Evil Is Good]

            Oh. Ohhhhhhh.

            Thank you very much for that delicious story bait, Thegnskald. I’ll be filing that one away near the top of the stack.

          • @Kestrellius

            Ubj nobhg gur “onq thlf” jnag gb oerrq gur rivy perngherf gb gbegher gurz fb nf gb znkvzvmr “whfgvpr”, gur “tbbq thlf” whfg jnag gb trabpvqr gur rivy perngherf gb raq gur fhssrevat, naq gur ERNYYL “tbbq thlf” guvax gur negvsvpvnyyl rivy perngherf pna or erunovyvgngrq, yrnqvat gb havirefny fpnyr qvfnfgre?

          • yossarian says:

            I remember I read somewhere that the farmed chickens are a breeding attempt gone horribly wrong, as it can happen when you try to use the force of evolution for some goal. Basically, the dudes who were selectively breeding the chickens bred them past the point where the general genetic variablilty of being able to make most eggs or produce the most meat was already exhausted, and they ended up with the most aggressive and evil chickens, as those were able to take food away from their mates and lay more eggs or gain more weight.

          • Kestrellius says:

            @Forward Synthesis: Good idea.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I suspect the chickens they are keeping as pets were bred to be kept as pets, no? The chickens bred for placid personalities and pretty plumage?

            Most chicken breeds that act as pets were bred to be production birds, we have 4 austrolorps in our yard, a breed that set egg laying records in the 20s, and they are generally placid birds.

            Farm animals are generally selected for passivity when possible, you don’t want dozens of thousand pound animals with short tempers hanging out while you care for them, nor do you want them injuring each other. This is one reason why bulls have been almost entirely replaced with artificial insemination on farms.

            It might be the case that current factory farmed chickens are horrifically behaved due to their breeding outside of the conditions that they are raised in but this is likely some artifact of something else and could be displaced.

          • holomanga says:

            @Thegnskald Literally Thamiel.

          • Mary says:

            @baconbits9

            Chickens don’t weigh a thousand pounds.

            Also, for generations on end, they lived outside the coup, fending for themselves, pecking the eyes out of the cat and dog and weasel to survive, etc. Perhaps that temperament can be breed out quickly. Perhaps.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ Mary

            You still wouldn’t want to breed chickens (in most, non cockfighting scenarios) that attacked each other, and you would still prefer that your 2-300 (if you were a small farmer) 5 lb chickens didn’t aggressively peck you.

            As far as chickens defending themselves, well ours certainly don’t. Our 5 year old has been wrangling our chickens since he was 3, and only 1 of our 12 gives him even minor problems (named Mr. Bad Pecky from what amounts to maybe a dozen pecks in 2.5 years). We have also seen the chickens panic in the face of small hawks and largely fail to defend themselves against them without our interference.

            As for broader anecdata if you frequent chicken forums you will find numerous posts on how to prevent stoats, weasels and foxes from getting into your hen house and the expected outcome when it happens is roughly zero living chickens unless the predator gets bored of killing them.

            Cocks are a different matter, but adult cocks aren’t a think in factory farming.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            yossarian,

            That was one experiment– breeding the most successful chickens in each pen– but it wasn’t the way chickens in general are selectively bred.

          • Vorkon says:

            I apologize, I probably shouldn’t have said, “and most birds, really.” To be honest, I mostly threw that in there so I could add the bit about not letting dinosaurs take back over the planet. My real beef (no pun intended) is with chickens. (Though, I guess ducks and geese are nearly as bad.)

            That said, while like I said, that post was largely exaggerated for humorous effect, I still stand by it. My central point is that I assign far more moral weight to cows than I do to chickens, so even though, as Scott says, we kill far more chickens than we do cows, I feel the death of each cow is a far greater crime than each chicken, so if you’re going to cut only one meat out of your diet, it seems strange to me to choose chicken for moral purposes. I suppose you could argue that chicken factory farming is uniquely terrible, and you’d have a point, but I’m not sure if that makes enough of a difference.

        • dionisos says:

          I still think of eating chicken as the least bad option morally, because chickens (and most birds, really) are vile, monstrous beasts who deserve every ounce of torture we can mete out upon them

          I am generally not for censorship, but if defending torture outside of a thought experiment (and not for the consequences, but for the thing itself) isn’t ban-worthy, I really don’t see what would qualify for it.

          • John Schilling says:

            Personally insulting the person with whom you are discussing e.g. the ethics of poultry-torture.

            The legitimate purpose of bans is not to Suppress the Wrongest of Wrongthink, it is to enable civil discussion of contentious topics. If that’s not a thing that you value, then this probably isn’t the best place for you to be.

          • Salem says:

            TBH, I think your comment is far closer to the ban-worthy line than Vorkon’s (although I do not think either should be banned).

            You’re asking for someone to be banned purely because they espoused a viewpoint you dislike. That’s pathetic, in the true meaning of the word. If Vorkon is wrong, I’m sure you can figure out good arguments against him. Have a bit more faith in yourself!

          • dionisos says:

            Personally insulting the person with whom you are discussing e.g. the ethics of poultry-torture.

            I didn’t insult him. (as far as we don’t consider that saying a comment is ban-worthy is insulting the person)
            Anyway saying it was ban-worthy was maybe too much. (I was really angry about this comment at the time)

            The legitimate purpose of bans is not to Suppress the Wrongest of Wrongthink, it is to enable civil discussion of contentious topics.

            I understand it (and it is something I value), but does this rule go as far as being able to say anything we want on the object level ?
            If someone come here and start to honestly and politely defend that we should torture women for whatever reason, is that ok ?

            I’m sure you can figure out good arguments against him.

            I can probably discuss the fact that chicken are evil or not, but I don’t see how to make an argument against the purely moral point : “It is good to create evil beings and then torture them”, aside from saying it is super evil in my own moral framework.
            If you see a way to start this kind of arguments, I am interested.

          • John Schilling says:

            I didn’t insult him. (as far as we don’t consider that saying a comment is ban-worthy is insulting the person)

            I didn’t mean to suggest that you had, only to put it out as an example of something that would be truly ban-worthy. Should have been more clear about that, and will try to do so in the future. Sorry.

            Beyond that, we’ve had perfectly civil discussions of the ethics of torture here before, and we can do so again if necessary.

          • dionisos says:

            I didn’t mean to suggest that you had, only to put it out as an example of something that would be truly ban-worthy. Should have been more clear about that, and will try to do so in the future. Sorry.

            Don’t be sorry, there is no problem at all.
            In fact I thought it was maybe that, but I wanted to defend myself just in case it wasn’t. (the goal wasn’t to say you was wrong, but to be clear that I didn’t want to insult him)
            (and I wasn’t clear about that either)

          • dionisos says:

            Beyond that, we’ve had perfectly civil discussions of the ethics of torture here before, and we can do so again if necessary.

            Ok, so.
            How creating beings and inflicting torture level suffering on them just for the sake of it, isn’t super wrong/evil ?
            Or, imagine I am defending the point of view that it is good to rape and torture babies because they don’t know anything about moral philosophy, how would you start to contradict my point ?

            I ask because I really don’t see how to start from that.

          • Salem says:

            I don’t see how to make an argument against the purely moral point : “It is good to create evil beings and then torture them”, aside from saying it is super evil in my own moral framework.

            Well, I did say if he’s wrong. If you think he wasn’t wrong, but was merely expressing a different taste than you, that’s even less reason to ban him.

            If you see a way to start this kind of arguments, I am interested.

            I can imagine many approaches. Perhaps, assuming he doesn’t believe in either already, you would need to persuade your interlocutor of either error theory or moral realism. There are well-known arguments for each one. If he is, or can be persuaded to be, an error theorist, then your job is done. If he is a moral realist, then use those sources of morality to ground your argument.

            Alternatively, one could approach it in a more Socratic fashion. Ask him what he means by deserve, and explore that. Persuade him that rounding off all chicken behaviour to “vile” is an exaggeration. Perhaps ask him to imagine a person who spent his whole life torturing chickens – not for meat, or eggs, or even sadistic pleasure, but simply out of an abstract sense of justice. All day long he waterboards chickens. Would he consider that a life well-lived, or the man’s behaviour admirable? Or would he think the man unhinged? And so on.

          • dionisos says:

            Well, I did say if he’s wrong. If you think he wasn’t wrong, but was merely expressing a different taste than you, that’s even less reason to ban him.

            (I assume an anti-realist meta-ethic in the fallowing)

            It seems you are assuming my reaction was worse because it was a matter of taste and not a matter of fact, but:

            1) I think calling it a matter of taste is misleading, because it is generally used to speak about what we like or dislike for food, musics, movies, etc… and not for what we morally dislike.
            For example :
            – I dislike potatoes.
            – I dislike that people kill each other.
            – I dislike that people burn my house with all my family inside.

            Each one of these propositions could be considered a matter of taste because it describes my preferences, anyway I think it is better to reserve the word “taste” only for the first one.

            Now if what you wanted to say was that it was really just like not liking potatoes, I disagree because the problem was that I found it immoral.

            2) I think it is the opposite, it isn’t a good idea to ban people for saying factually wrong things because we can just talk about it, and all end-up with a better understanding of the world and less disagreement. (that he or/and we were wrong)
            And that is the main reason I value free speech, disagreement about factual things are partially fixable with open debates.

            But now if someone come here and start to insult/flood/threaten, there is a good reason to ban him, and this reason is that we don’t like to be insulted, to read useless messages, to be threatened, and we don’t like the bad atmosphere this create.
            And we would ban him even if he only say true things (or things which aren’t true nor false), we would ban him because of our “tastes”. (or Alexander would ban him because of its preferences or the community preferences, whatever the detail)

            To be clear what I am saying isn’t that we should ban people as soon as they say something we dislike (nor that I was right), my point is that your category is just way too large to say it is pathetic or wrong to want to ban someone for that.

            Thanks for all the advice, I think I found an interesting way to start a debate about it with him.(will probably post it tomorrow)

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        If you’ve convinced yourself that Hindus are monstrously backwards in their animal rights morals and that Catholic Christianity is false but Indulgences are completely true, it’s time to rethink your convictions.

        • Rand says:

          You want him to have a strong prior on hindu morality being true morality, from the perspective of animal rights? I cannot fathom why.

          And indulgences, or better put offsets, are pretty valid. If I emit some carbon into the atmosphere and then remove that carbon from the atmosphere, I have a net carbon impact of zero. I think you’re concerned about the kind of indulgences where the sins are denominated in bullets and the offsets are denominated in fairy tales. Fairy tales obviously don’t do a great job of offsetting bullets.

        • Rand says:

          I am curious, though, why the cost of offsetting chickens doesn’t come into play here. (How much does it cost to save a chicken?)

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            Scott’s written on this previously. If I recall correctly, the most recent conclusion was something along the lines of:
            “No one knows how much it costs to save a chicken or even if ‘save a chicken’ is something you can effectively do with money at all. All the research on these charities is biased and confounded to hell. More recent estimates on ‘donation required to prevent a chicken-year of suffering’ are off by orders of magnitudes from the original ones I wrote about and still incredibly uncertain.”
            (forgive my paraphrase, Scott)

      • Watchman says:

        I’m pretty certain that cows have a greater environmental impact than chickens though, seeing as cows require large fields whilst chickens do not. So is encouraging shifting meat consumption to cows on the basis of concern about animal cruelty actually well-thought through. All else being equal transferring preferences from chicken to beef requires more cows and therefore more fields. Fields are created at the expense of the local environment including the inhabitants of the relevant ecosystems. You’ll need to be certain the suffering this causes is not greater than that of 99 chickens (I assume we discount one of the hundred chickens to balance out the cow) for your point to stand.

        I suspect it might be possible to make similar arguments about vegetable production as well: chickens (and pigs, if your cultural values allow them into diets) are probably less intensive in terms of environmental impact than monocultural fields of corn or turnips.

        Just to note I’m not really into this whole debate, but to stop calculations at the level of suffering of the actual food animal seems rather questionable when the production of that animal also has impacts.

        • skaladom says:

          If we’re going to get into animal species vs animal species, it’s probably worthwhile to mention here that pigs are remarkably more intelligent than cows and (probably) chickens. That should probably count for something in deciding not to eat them.

          • spineback says:

            probably chickens?
            Chickens are dumb. Really dumb.
            There’s a reason the term “bird brain” exists.

          • attir says:

            @spineback
            And it isn’t this: link text.

            Birds’ brains can do complex processing, and they do it using a different structure analogous to, but derived independently form, the one our brain has. That structure is one which makes more efficient use of space, since they can do as much processing as they can with such small brains.

        • Lillian says:

          Note that when calculating environmental impacts, one must not just consider the trade-off between cows and chickens, but also between animals and crops. It is not always the case that crops are better for the environment than animals. In large scrublands such those found in the Southwestern United States, land is plentiful, but water is not. Therefore agriculture that requires lot of land stresses the environment relatively little, while agriculture that requires lots of water stresses it a lot. Consequently, it’s much better for the environment to raise proteins in the form of grazing cattle than it is to grow it in the form of soybeans.

        • Tenacious D says:

          probably less intensive in terms of environmental impact than monocultural fields of corn

          If the animals are corn-fed (which many are), the monocultural fields of corn are additive rather than alternative. But as Lillian points out, when you can raise animals on rangeland, it may be a more environmentally-appropriate form of agriculture for that locale. There are even some ecologists (e.g. Allan Savory) who contend that fairly intensive grazing is a necessary feature of certain grassland ecosystems (and herds of wild herbivores aren’t nearly as plentiful as they used to be, so there is slack to take up).

      • johnswentworth says:

        Wait, what? We’re comparing badness-of-beef, calculated solely on the basis of carbon emissions, to badness-of-chicken, calculated solely on the basis of animal suffering?

        At the bare minimum, if we’re using carbon emissions of beef on one side of the equation, then there should probably be a term for carbon emissions of chicken on the other side.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        I don’t know if this is true, but it perhaps seems plausible that luring people into doing something good in a particular mode, even if it’s not much. and then praising them for it might sensitize them to be interested in moving on to the next level.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        So, by this logic, we should eat blue whales and elephants rather than chickens, because we don’t have to kill as many animals per 100 kg consumed?

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          Not sure about the animal suffering calculus, but I have a hypothesis that the most effective way to conserve endangered species – the rhino, say – is to breed them for meat.

          It’s not like pigs are in any danger of dying out.

          • eric23 says:

            I think most endangered species are hard to breed. Otherwise zoos would have already bred them until they aren’t endangered.

        • RavenclawPrefect says:

          Well, the whole point is that you do this as a compromise of moral concerns vs wanting to eat tasty things. I don’t know of anyone who would actually prefer a diet of whale blubber to vegetarian meals, but I suppose if someone’s tastes were actually “literally any kind of meat > plant matter”, then yes, whales are probably a better bet.

          Unrelated nitpick: the relevant factor, IMO, is suffering rather than lives, since it seems unlikely any factory-farmed animals are capable of forming coherent preferences for life over death beyond that which instinct compels. I personally have zero objection to eating meat that’s the product of hunting or fishing; a few seconds of pain weighted by a fraction of a percent is worth my gustatory pleasure for a meal, but a lifetime of pain and fear and disease isn’t. (And my moral weights for animals are measured in neuron-seconds per meal, not lives.)

      • baconbits9 says:

        @ Scott Alexander

        I feel like you position on this goes back and forth on the reasons not to eat meat (and I could be remembering. From a utilitarian point of view it seems that if killing a chicken is bad because you end its life then farms are generally near neutral as they are generating those lives to begin with. If your objection is the animal suffering during their lives then why not just eat humanely raised meat?

        • dionisos says:

          It is way better to eat humanely raised meat than to eat most meat, but :
          – It is pretty hard to know if the meat you buy was really humanely raised.
          – You should also take slaughter into account, it is hard to kill without suffering, and still harder to do it massively, cheaply, and without using drug.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Perhaps, I don’t have an issue with it as far as I can tell. I go directly to the farm where they raise the animals and have been offered walking tours with my kids to see the conditions, and buy directly from them and go ~3 times a year for the past 8-9. I have never visited the slaughterhouse, so that could be an issue, but I doubt it.

            This seems like a trivial amount of effort (buying a chest freezer, spending 10 hours a year picking up the meat) compared to what Scott is describing being issues for him. There are also monetary costs and you can’t get eggs/milk this easily (ie you can’t store 3-6 months of them easily), we have our own chickens and buy cage free/free range when they don’t lay enough. This leaves us with milk and cheese being ethically dubious.

      • PeterDonis says:

        if one chicken worth of animal suffering seems more than 40 cents worth of bad to you, you should go with beef.

        This assumes that offsetting 8000 lbs CO2 is actually worth $40, which assumes that you accept that the carbon offset site prices are based on an accurate understanding of the impacts. Since such an understanding would require not only a level of accuracy in climate modeling, but a level of accuracy of economic modeling, that does not exist, that seems like a stretch.

        You’re also assuming that the CO2 impact, assuming for the sake of argument that $40 is an accurate number for that, is in fact the only significant impact of eating beef. That would seem to depend strongly on how the beef you eat is raised. For organic free range beef, perhaps; for conventionally raised beef, I don’t think so. (Note that I am not talking here about the impacts on the animals; I’m talking about the environmental impact of, for example, antibiotics and hormones getting into our bodies, into our water supply, into our sewage systems, etc.)

  3. nameless1 says:

    My reaction to extreme morals is having no morals. Because the more extreme they are the more like empty signalling they look like. I don’t mean no morals in the criminal sense, I just mean it in the sense of not doing more than obeying the law. If you want me to stop eating meat, ban it. I won’t even resist the ban, I stopped voting long ago, precisely so that I don’t have to care about moral issues like what should be the law, just obeying whatever it is. I feel I have very little surplus, primarily mentally, but also in money, for going beyond the call of duty, i.e. law. Even if I had, I’d be afraid to lose it so I’d save it for a rainy day. All the moral extremists, who think a law-abiding meat-eating, car driving, Nike wearing law-abiding citizen is evil are simply not on my radar, I don’t know any and don’t follow them on Twitter or care about them anyhow. Thankfully they tend to congregate in different, more important places, not in my kind of backwater.

    Mental surplus obviously means depression. I cannot really afford to hate myself for things like eating meat. Having said that, I am aware that some aspects of trying to be a better person actually help with it. Compassion, like volunteering at a food kitchen is often mentioned. I found it very hard to connect with people I don’t know and basically really care or develop any feeling. Recently I tried with far more success the gratitude attitude. Being very thankful to people who did something nice to me, no matter how tiny. This kind of correlates with being a better person and does improve my mood. So I guess this is how I am going to be going above the bare minimum required by the law. Trying to be very altruistic with those people who were nice to me.

    • Evan Þ says:

      That seems like a low horizon for living life. Humans are capable of so much more; why would you want to limit yourself to whatever laws get through our dysfunctional legislature? As Mill said, “Better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”

      I’m glad you’ve chosen to develop your thankfulness. That’s a great place to start. Perhaps next you could try doing something nice for them back? Or for someone else?

      • Lancelot says:

        On the one hand you’re right, on the other hand considering he mentioned being depressed, I’d say in that situation it is wise not to hold oneself to a moral standard higher than a bare minimum. First save yourself, then maybe save others.

        • Evan Þ says:

          On the still-other hand, the times I feel I’ve been closest to depression are precisely those times when I’ve sort of closed in my horizons.

          But back on the first hand, I guess I’ve never done it as well as the Nameless1, and it might very well be the case that my down-ness had a different etiology than actual depression.

      • quanta413 says:

        I think there are lots of things one could focus their energies on that aren’t a moral good (at least in the typical sense) if you’ve got the energy to do more than the minimum of moral behavior. I don’t see any problem on doing those things instead of striving to be as good as possible.

        Like, if you just want to be minimally morally good and spend your remaining energy knitting, that’s ok.

    • Baeraad says:

      I take that attitude to a number of things, too. Mostly because of exactly the sort extremists you mention – they’re going to scream at me about how horrible I am no matter what I do, so why should I lift a finger to please them?

      That said, I do have a conscience, so I try to at least be a nominally positive person – just not anywhere close to as much as I might be able to if I got any sort of positive reinforcement. But you seem to have discovered that principle, also.

  4. marxbro says:

    You somehow missed the entire point of the quote which essentially rests on the use of the word “consumption”. That’s is, the purchasing of commodities in a market. Until you grapple with socialist critiques you’re not going to understand the point of such slogans and will spin it into a bourgeois morality play.

    Here’s a short Zizek (I know, I know) clip that will help you start thinking about this.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpAMbpQ8J7g

    • 1soru1 says:

      You somehow missed the entire point of the quote which essentially rests on the use of the word “consumption”.

      Yeah, but so did 99.4% pf the people who repeated it. And it’s the fact that slogan resonated, not the logic that justifies those choice of words that is interesting.

      • marxbro says:

        Yeah, but so did 99.4% pf the people who repeated it.

        Unless I’ve missed something 90% of people who say this are socialists and know exactly what they’re saying and why. If the slogan resonates with Scott then he should probably read the lengthier critiques behind that particular slogan rather than ignoring them and spinning them off into his own little thing.

        This is part of why very few leftists actually read or comment on this blog, by the way. There is a generalized refusal to deal with the meat (no pun intended) of socialist critiques of capitalism. Then when someone like myself points out that the slogan has been misunderstood, the answer is that “99.4%” misunderstood it. No – most understand it perfectly well.

        • Aftagley says:

          Unless I’ve missed something 90% of people who say this are socialists and know exactly what they’re saying and why

          I swim in left-aligned circles, have heard this phrase more times than I can count and have never heard it referring to the purchasing of commodities on a market. Nearly every time I’ve heard it used it’s in the same vein as how Scott used it. If your 90% claim is true, I’ve had an almost unbelievably bad sampling error on this.

          Let’s test our competing hypotheses. From some basic research, it looks like, rather than this being some kind of famous quote from a respected socialist academic, it grew out of leftist Tumblr/Twitter. I think this challenges your claim, since without some definite authorial intent to go back to, claiming that this phrase uses a definition of consumption that well outside how the word is ever used in normal conversation is questionable.

          Nest up: I looked at the first two google results pages of that phrase. My intention for looking at this was to get a feel for how this phrase is most commonly used online. The vast majority of results were either memes, discussions of memes, or stores selling T-shirts with that phrase on them. Again, I’m unwilling to believe that the people wearing this on a T-shirt or posting this phrase over some minions are doing it with the awareness of your particular definition of consumption.

          In total, I counted 12 written articles that referenced the phrase from the first 2 pages of google results. I can provide links if you’d like, I’ve removed them from this initial post to keep it legible. In total, all of them approached the phrase from the perspective of an individual consumer making decisions about what specifically what brands/products they should purchase, not referring to the acquisition of commodities on a market.

          While I’m not going to disagree that maybe among hard-core Marxist/socialist types this phrase has taken on the alternative meaning you’ve ascribed to it, I think it is incorrect to say that “over 90%” of the people who use this phrase are doing so using your definition. Moving even further, I think your definition is likely apocryphal and not in keeping with how the phrase is actually used or intended to be used.

          • Watchman says:

            Marxbro’s probably should not have joined in the game of making up statistics here, because that is giving you something to focus upon other than what he originally said. This is that for those enlightened enough to know what is correct the meaning is different from that used by Scott. It’s not about statistics and common usage but about knowing what is the right way to read this.

            It’s also believable that everyone here is acting in good faith in light of what they see as the normal or correct (these are not the same but would both be valid categories) choice about what the phrase means. It wouldn’t exactly surprise me if someone who is active in socialist circles finds most people they know use this phrase correctly whereas someone living in the Bay Area is going to encounter an understanding of the phrase much more broadly interpreted to reflect preoccupation with issues beyond the class-bases struggle (to parody socialism rather unfairly). It’s the difference between progressive thought and socialism if you like. The Internet results just show that progressives are more active there, which is what I’d expect to see. So different experiences of this phrase produce different interpretations, and Scott is addressing the one he encounters through his friends not through Marxbro’s. Now friends are normally good, even I assume for someone as capable of critical analysis of himself as Scott is, so Scott is unlikely to have felt the need to challenge the understanding he encountered especially as he is clearly not internalising the maxim anyway.

          • ilikekittycat says:

            There are lots of libertarians repeating oversimplifications of libertarian cliches, too, and not understanding the Hayekian/Nozickian/Rothbardian points being hinted at as well as say, Davidfriedman does

            For some reason this terminology drift where the vulgar definition/usage that has maybe lost sight of the original academic subtlety gets held against Marxist/socialist/etc. thought on this site in a way that libertarian, etc. thought doesn’t, even if most vulgar libertarians using it aren’t any more comprehensive/scrupulous about it.

            “Property is theft” and “Taxation is theft” are both punchy slogans that don’t retain much of the intricate arguments behind them, and are, if I had to guess, most often used by younger people trying to be provocative, but even beyond just political disagreement, posting the former here gets you thought of as an obscurantist, confused and probably emotional youth, whereas using the latter is automatically understood as just shorthand for a real argument.

          • Aftagley says:

            Marxbro’s probably should not have joined in the game of making up statistics here, because that is giving you something to focus upon other than what he originally said.

            You’re right, instead of making the point I wanted to make, I leaned to heavily on his 90% claim as a crutch.

            Still though, you seem convinced that Marxbro’s interpretation of the quote is the more academically sound one, and that the alternative one is a watered down misinterpretation. This is the basic idea I’m questioning. I’m honestly curious, do you have any evidence that this quote actually started out in his definition and then drifted vulgar, because everything I’ve seen is that his definition is the one it was originally created for and the one that made it go viral.

          • marxbro says:

            You’ll have to link to the blogs as proof dude.

          • lmaoist says:

            registered just because this part was driving me nuts.

            In total, all of them approached the phrase from the perspective of an individual consumer making decisions about what specifically what brands/products they should purchase, not referring to the acquisition of commodities on a market.

            you do realize that an individual consumer making decisions about what brands/products they should purchase *is* acquiring commodities on a market?

            the main misunderstanding that scott is making is that he’s interpreting the “no ethical consumption under capitalism” as being a call for people to be more ethical consumers, when it’s the exact opposite of that. the phrase emerged as a way to *combat* the over-emphasis on ~ethical consumption~ which had for a time become overly popular in progressive circles. the point of the catchphrase isn’t “we are awash in our filthy sins and must always strive to be better consumers” but rather “in capitalism all products are created through unethical means anyways, so trying to be an ethical consumer is a waste of time and you should instead focus on ending capialism”

            i’m of two minds about the issue, personally- when the “ethical consumption” trend was popular, it oftentimes was tied up in class pretensions- the ~fair trade~ organically farmed locally sourced blah blah blah blah blah products were often much more expensive than their ostensibly less-ethical counterparts, and, of course, when one dug a little under the surface, it was clear the “more ethical” products were often just as unethical, just better marketed (and more expensive) often being produced by the same company, in fact!

            this was all very obnoxious and silly, but on the other hand, the attitude of the “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism” crowd, that it’s *always* a waste of time to try to avoid companies with unethical practices, doesn’t entirely sit well with me. while i agree that progressive dick-wagging contests about who is buying the most ethical tofu are a waste of time, the idea that we should never care about avoiding the products of companies if they behave especially heinously seems to be going too far in the other direction. especially since for all the talk of “we should be trying to overthrow capitalism instead of trying to consume ethically!” most people saying the catphrase don’t seem to be doing much for The Revolution besides posting memes.

        • Watchman says:

          Scott is a neoliberal economically, so why is he going to engage with socialist critiques? Neoliberalism is an ideology built on the realisation of the failure of government as a system to manage the economy whilst still allowing it a role; it disregards the key mechanism that socialism claims to work.

          What you are demanding is the same as someone suggesting that as a theist I should engage with the philosophical implications of Christianity. My belief structure may have arisen as a result of Christian thought, but considering I reject the central tenant of text as revelation of God’s will, I’m not going to engage with thought based on that exact tenant.

          It’s an odd demand to request people to engage with your critiques if they reject the underlying logic really. I think you have to convince people of the viability of the overall ideology before they’ll buy into individual aspects of it: so expecting non-socialists to accept a critique based on socialist thought is like expecting non-Christians to accept a teaching based on the Gospels. They might well take away a nice aim, or a soundbite about consumption being unethical, but they aren’t going to take the whole message or even necessarily understand it.

          • marxbro says:

            It’s an odd demand to request people to engage with your critiques if they reject the underlying logic really.

            It’s even odder to use a socialist slogan and then write something totally unrelated to socialist thought. Shouldn’t Scott be steelmanning the socialist theory behind this slogan and doing his best to engage with socialist texts?

          • eyeballfrog says:

            The purpose of the slogan is to get your attention and lead into what he actually wants to talk about. The fact that a socialist said it does not mean that the entire article has to be about socialism.

          • marxbro says:

            @eyeballfrog

            Then why use that slogan at all? I hope I’m not being pedantic on this point, I went into this essay assuming that Scott would actually… comment on the slogan or the socialist thought that surrounds it. I understand if non-socialists didn’t have that same expectation. It’s just a really weird bait-and-switch and makes me think Scott doesn’t really understand why socialists are cynical about “ethical” consumption under capitalism.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            @marxbro

            Probably because it’s the most “popular” saying that demonstrates a standard of scrupulousity when taken literally.

        • Eponymous says:

          @marxbro:

          Do you mind explaining what you think the slogan means and what you think Scott thinks it means? Because as far as I can tell it has a straightforward plain meaning.

          • marxbro says:

            The slogan is about a systemic critique of capitalism, and acknowledging that individualist/consumer choice is not a sufficient action for eliminating the problems of capitalism. As far as I can tell Scott has interpreted it as a “nobody’s perfect” style banality.

          • Eponymous says:

            Okay, I’m pretty sure you’re misunderstanding Scott, and he interpreted the quote in pretty much the same way you did.

            I take the quote to mean roughly, “The current capitalist economic system is so unethical that one cannot engage with it at all in an ethical way.” That seems to be what you’re saying, and I believe that’s what Scott takes it to mean as well.

            Scott is interested in a general question: suppose that we agree that some aspect of the current system is unethical. What sort of moral obligation does this place on us? And what sort of moral obligation should we place on others?

            Now since Scott doesn’t personally agree with the sentiment expressed in that quote, he moves on to examples that he finds personally more convicting (animal suffering and donating to charity).

            But I would be curious to hear your take on Scott’s question as applied to the original quote: do you agree that any engagement with the present economic system is unethical? And if so, how do you live out that moral view? And how do you apply it to others?

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Im confused what slogan yall are even talking about.

      • arlie says:

        Wow! I think I understood the quote, but then completely failed to notice that the article was about something else.

        I’m not sure what that says about me (as a reader) or Scott (as a writer). But I feel a need to be more careful in future.

    • Deiseach says:

      Which still does not address the problem of meat-eating: is it moral or not? If it’s wrong to keep and kill animals simply for the consumption of their flesh, then whether it’s the local butcher selling it to you at $20 per lb or the Socialist State-issued weekly ration of 1 kg of beef, it’s still wrong.

      The decision of what acts are or are not ethical or moral is not answered by simple adoption of one political system over another.

      • marxbro says:

        Which still does not address the problem of meat-eating: is it moral or not?

        That’s not the problem that the slogan is pointing towards.

        • fr8train_ssc says:

          You somehow missed the entire point of the quote which essentially rests on the use of the word “consumption”. That’s is, the purchasing of commodities in a market. Until you grapple with socialist critiques you’re not going to understand the point of such slogans and will spin it into a bourgeois morality play.

          I’ve read and listened to Žižek (among others). I’ve found him (among others) wanting. Socialism is not a monolith, and the Socialist Calculation Debate actually involves discussion over some of the issues Scott brings up. Maybe read some Lange and Kontorovich instead of watching living memes?

          Deiseach makes a good point, which I’ll elaborate on later. Philosophers like Žižek enjoy making Normative statements about ethics, while Scott/this-blog and his followers here are at least trying to make Positive statements, because at least we can test and evaluate things like “Does it make sense to have some kind of ‘price-discrimination-like’ mechanism associated with ethical effort to increase global utility?” as opposed to “Consumption based on a Capitalistic System is not ethical because any ethical competitor will be put out of business by and unethical competitor and thus all consumption in such a system will be based on some type of suffering or exploitation” The former statement means we try things like ‘Giving What We Can’ and we analyze if a) More money is given on average to charity, b) Feelings like Depression and Alienation are reduced, and c)If benefits from the first two are more than deleterious effects from decreased consumption. Statements like the latter are a Motte to convince naive individuals to rethink their positions, with the ultimate goal of asserting the Bailey that “MY SYSTEM IS THE ONE TRUE UTOPIAN COMMUNISM”

          Your proposal of Žižek’s statement is fundamentally A Sphinx to the Pyramid of argument that Scott is presenting here. Slogans like “There is no ethical consumption under Capitalism” in your interpretation become empty because as Deiseach basically said, we can ask “OK. So what is ethical consumption under a socialist system?” and we’re back to the same question of whether it’s ethical for a planning committee to ration 0.5kg beef per day per member of the population on average or for the committee to ration only 0.1kg beef per day per member of the population on average and replace the remaining 0.4kg with chicken.

          At no point in planned or non-market Socialist thought is the following consideration brought up: “Is it more or less moral and ethical to restrict the ability of people to coordinate and freely associate in order to reduce the suffering associated with alienation in labor? Here’s the Calculus.” One doesn’t even need to bring up different interpretations of property norms to see how much hand-waving goes on in certain schools of Socialist thought.

          Of course, this assumes you’re trying to argue in good faith. Looking at your user-name “MarxBro” does sound like an intentional ‘Ideological Turing Test’ Failure and an attempt at trolling us, in which case…

          Well-played.

          • cryptoshill says:

            I hadn’t actually considered the problem that an ethical competitor always being outcompeted by an unethical competitor – but this seems untrue on the face of it. There are plenty of unethical behaviors that have been curbed by rational consumer choices over time.

            Something to note is that the price-arbitrage going on in labor worldwide (exploitation of lower classes of labor in third-world countries) eventually creates the economic development that raises those classes out of “exploitation”. Or at least, “exploitation” the way Westerners think about it. The middle class and nouveau-riche in China are swelling social classes, and “subsistence farming” to “1950s working class” is still a substantial improvement.

            The thing that comes into play, historically – is that under capitalist free markets, the conditions under which we qualify a worker as “exploited” have only improved!

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            One person’s “trolling” is another person’s “fair warning”. I’m less annoyed by the Marxism than by the prescriptivism.

          • marxbro says:

            “Consumption based on a Capitalistic System is not ethical because any ethical competitor will be put out of business by and unethical competitor and thus all consumption in such a system will be based on some type of suffering or exploitation”

            That’s not what the slogan is about either, so it seems like you’re failing the Turing test here.

          • 1soru1 says:

            > There are plenty of unethical behaviors that have been curbed by rational consumer choices over time.

            Can you name an example?

            For example, if pie-sellers rarely use ingredients cheaper and more dangerous than they claim, that’s not because consumers tallied mortality rates for consumers of different brands and make a rational choice, but because a government inspector checks the shop once a year or so.

            In cases where they don’t, like drug dealers, you _do_ still see that kind of adulteration.

            Competition can get you better quality and price, but doesn’t by itself guard against unethical behavior aimed at winning the competition

          • cryptoshill says:

            1soru1:
            1. The fur trade.
            2. Hydrogenated oils/trans fats. Before that, animal oils were traded for vegetable oils.
            3. “Fair trade” coffee from Starbucks is presently outcompeting the entire universe in the coffee business.

            Some items/products absolutely do get less popular as their dangers become known, even at increased prices.

            The drug market is a bad example – because it’s the very definition of “not a free market”, the government will intervene to arrest YOU if you make any sort of noises against the local drug dealer – so using it as your example is a little far-fetched.

        • fr8train_ssc says:

          OK, then which of the following is it then? There is no ethical consumption under capitalism because…

          1) Firms selling or trading a commodity or product need to make a surplus profit from that good, but any surplus comes from the labor used to make that product and thus all goods produced are exploitative of that labor and thus unethical?

          2)Even in circumstances where everyone is an individual proprietor, present property norms under a capitalist system do not guarantee sustainability for future generations or end up exploiting nature in some way, thus any system with said property norms is exploitative and unethical?

          3)Even in circumstances where property norms have been changed to Mutualist or possession based norms, automation and individual talent will lead to a segregation of classes as more able individuals accumulate more capital that can be automated and further their ability to accumulate possessions. This will lead to conflict and thus is immoral/unethical?

          4) Class conscious and identification must be taken into consideration for a theory of ethics, and thus value statements about consumption cannot be made in isolation of class. A working class person must focus on decisions that often involve their dependents or their own survival, and cannot reasonably be expected to have duties on how to guide their consumption. Likewise, all consumption of the bourgeoisie is unethical because the existence of class distinctions is in itself unethical and any individual bourgeoisie could always give away all their property to abdicate their class but choose not to?

          5) “Ethics” is just a shaming/pressure tactic developed by Philosophy under a Capitalist system to ‘trick’ people into following rules or points of argument that perpetuate the Capitalist system of class and exploitation instead of dismantling it. Therefore “Ethical Consumption” is a mirage, literally a concept not worth the time of thought when it comes to making decisions about how to eat or obtain goods?

          The problem is that the statement is a Motte-and-Baily. An Ouroboros. The statement is used by Champagne Socialists to defend the fact they use Apple products or Nikes. When challenged on this fact, they use statements like #4 and #5 to defend themselves: “I’m not a shitty person because even though I’m clearly part of the lumpen I identify with the proletariat even with my luxury goods that I bought using my trust fund money.” Later, when asked why ethics should be purely class conscious (#4) or why they support Socialist/Communist systems when they don’t believe in ethics whatsoever (#5), and then I get some variation of answers #1, #2, or #3 (Plus or minus my previous statement on firms that manage to be non-exploitative being out-competed) The cycle then perpetuates itself when asked why such individuals haven’t taken the initiative in divesting themselves of as much exploitative consumerism.

          If it’s none of the above, then no wonder why Communism will always fail. If Marxists and Postmodernists can barely communicate with each other effectively, then forget about coordinating a central economic plan.

          • marxbro says:

            I’d say 1 and 5 are the most important factors.

            The problem is that the statement is a Motte-and-Baily. An Ouroboros. The statement is used by Champagne Socialists to defend the fact they use Apple products or Nikes.

            It’s not about “defense”, its about acknowledging that matter of consumption are not how you change things politically. Deciding to use one product or another is not sufficient for eradicating the “ethical” problem. Neither is it an effective action. That’s just ceding ground to bourgeois individualism. Only collective action can solve this problem which is intractable under capitalism. This can include strikes, working-class organization, seizing the means of production. Yes, it can also include targeted boycotts if they are co-ordinated with working class action in mind.

            If Marxists and Postmodernists can barely communicate with each other effectively, then forget about coordinating a central economic plan.

            As far as I can tell, most working-class people understand the quote perfectly well. It is middle class “educated” types who use the phrase “motte-and-baily” who have difficulty understanding the logic of it. You can use Champagne Socialists as a strawman as much as you like, I’m a working-class communist and I’m telling you how the world actually works. You might as well listen up now or you’ll be left behind in the debates in the coming years as socialism continues to grow.

            The cycle then perpetuates itself when asked why such individuals haven’t taken the initiative in divesting themselves of as much exploitative consumerism.

            You only find this argument “circular” because you asked the same question twice. You cannot divest yourself of exploitative consumption under capitalist because all such commodities are created to produce surplus value.

            Do I think there’s some room for avoiding products which are particularly bad for whatever reason? Sure, I often avoid workplaces that I’ve heard are particularly mistreating their staff. However, I do not think that this is a sufficient action for eliminating economic exploitation.

            I most often see this phrase used in two situations.

            1. In response to a naive liberal who thinks they can make individualist choices and buy their salvation in the marketplace.

            2. In response to cries of “hypocrisy” when a socialist has some consumer item. I’m a little more sympathetic to this critique, and I do try to avoid some of the worst companies when I can. However, socialists will need to use items the capitalists have made for their own purposes. Put simply, we will use guns, ropes, communications, books, etc originally for produced for capitalist purposes for socialist purposes. “The last capitalist will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”, as the saying goes.

          • benwave says:

            I rate 2 and 5 as most important (I think 1 is true but maybe not so useful in today’s environment)

            There are a lot of ways in which the capitalist system which we operate under undervalues and mistreats people. Most prominently, the cost of climate change is not paid by those who profit from causing it. Property markets have gotten pretty bad at serving the housing needs of populations in really a lot of cities and countries by now, for another example.

            Yes we are getting better at fixing these sorts of problems – the ozone hole is now well on its way to being restored. We no longer allow ourselves to profit from slavery and from segregation. But business as usual will always perpetuate those elements of inadequacy and unfairness that remain, rather than solve them. Solving them requires change, and almost always this has to happen in a coordinated manner.

            So, where #5 comes in, it’s counterproductive to bully people for not taking individual consumer action to try and right these wrongs. Individual consumer action in a presently unfair market condition is always more expensive to the consumer, and particularly those with low incomes do not really have the choices or freedom required to make those choices. The most effective way to remedy them is through collective action, otherwise low income people are effectively forced to continue perpetuating the inadequate systems.

          • moscanarius says:

            @marxbro

            As far as I can tell, most working-class people understand the quote perfectly well.

            Now you took your trolling too far to be convincible.

          • fr8train_ssc says:

            I moved my response (and a continuation of this discussion) over to the Open Thread

          • j r says:

            I’m a working-class communist and I’m telling you how the world actually works. You might as well listen up now or you’ll be left behind in the debates in the coming years as socialism continues to grow.

            I am trying to pick my words carefully, because I don’t want this to be ad hominem. But I cannot decide which part of this I disagree with more: the idea that you’ve said anything here that approximates “how the world actually works,” or the idea that failing to grok this kind of jargon-heavy, non-falsifiable, ideological reasoning will mean that we will be “left behind.”

            The future will belong to whoever builds the most successful institutions, the ones that can out-compete their rivals, and not whoever comes up with the dankest memes. Maybe somewhere in this thread you’ve explained why that will be communism, but I haven’t seen that. And frankly, I am skeptical. I guess time will tell.

      • Mary says:

        Though it may be some excuse that the ration is barely enough to keep you alive. Cats, being obligate carnivores, have to eat meat, and likewise, a human being who will starve without the meat has to eat it.

        Ditto for meat obtained on the black market if the calories of the ration are insufficient.

    • sabre51 says:

      Thank you for linking as I have never really listened to pure Zizek. I had read a few quotes and assumed he was just parroting socialist talking points and so wasn’t worth a serious listen.

      After watching I feel my original position was correct and no more time is needed to reach a conclusion. Two main points stand out:
      -He calls socialism “a system where poverty is impossible.” How anyone can still say this with a straight face, after all the empirical evidence of the last 100 years plus the clear economic explanations of why socialism fails, is crazy to me.
      -He specifically condemns private altruism for slowing progress toward the socialist utopia!! You clearly have different ethical standards than I do, but the average person who buys Starbucks and feels good about the environment has no power to moving society toward socialism. Surely it is better that they buy fair trade coffee, rather than spending time on socialist activism which accomplishes nothing. And wouldn’t it be better still if they gave the money directly to support good causes, rather than only 10% or whatever is given when they buy from Starbucks? But according to his logic this is bad as it absorbs empathy that could be used to advance socialism.

      To me this seems like a clear good. People feel ethical obligations and capitalism has found a way to make them feel better, while also providing additional profits/brand value to Starbucks, while also getting money to good causes (fair trade is not the best cause from an EA perspective, but it is one that resonates with a lot of people). But hey, if you are a professor there is no route to fame by repeating things that make sense and were already explained by others. You need some counter-intuitive, (somewhat) original ideas to make a name for yourself.

      • VivaLaPanda says:

        Zizek is an accelerationist. He was pro-Trump because he thought Trump would help destroy things faster.
        I think accelerationism is pretty insane, but there are many who agree with it.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        I think his condemnation of private altriusm is of the sort (that I have heard repeated elsewhere) that it relies too much on the whims of givers (and especially rich givers) to direct the resources, and certain needs go unmet and lacking. Most of the criticism I have read regards the failure of relying on altruism via deep pocketed donors, but the EA movement could act as a counter to some of this criticism, if publicized appropriately.

      • rlms says:

        Tangential, but EA criticism of fair trade specifically is a lot stronger than “it’s not the most effective cause”.

      • marxbro says:

        How anyone can still say this with a straight face, after all the empirical evidence of the last 100 years plus the clear economic explanations of why socialism fails, is crazy to me.

        Perhaps you should read about why he holds that position instead of pretending to be indignant.

      • Mary says:

        He calls socialism “a system where poverty is impossible.” How anyone can still say this with a straight face, after all the empirical evidence of the last 100 years plus the clear economic explanations of why socialism fails, is crazy to me.

        Because those Aren’t Real Socialism.

        By this point, of course, we know that Real Socialism is the philosopher’s stone: you can make many things in the search for it, but you can’t make it.

        He specifically condemns private altruism for slowing progress toward the socialist utopia!!

        Huh?

        This is a Marxist cliche: the worse, the better. All good people work to immiserate the people so the Revolution will come quicker. Like Lenin criticizing giving money to a beggar on the grounds it would delay the Revolution.

    • benwave says:

      For my 2 cents, I was expecting some analysis of the content of that quote as well. But, people Do spin it into a bourgeois morality play a lot, and it’s probably churlish of me to expect people like Scott not to respond to that aspect of it. We on the left really ought to face up to the fact that our bloc has a real weakness for morality plays, I think it’s kind of toxic.

      That said, I’m very much glad that you did bring up the original thought behind that quote and that you have continued to engage people on it. Thank you!

      • thevoiceofthevoid says:

        Genuine question: What’s a “bourgeois morality play”?

        • baconbits9 says:

          Discussing morality within the existing structure without challenging the structure.

          • Mary says:

            What a question-begging statement. You simply assume there is some relevant difference between buying steak at a grocery store and having some meat product slapped on your tray at the State cafeteria.

        • benwave says:

          Exactly what Scott actually discusses in the article. Perpetual demands for individual perfection by some standard without addressing the systemic causes. Spending effort policing individuals.

          • Mary says:

            The systemic cause of human meat-eating is evolution. Do you have any program to address that?

          • benwave says:

            This thread branch is not about meat eating.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Its pretty clear that Mary meant to address your invoking of “systemic”, which, in the case of omnivorous behavior in humans is simply the equivalent of “non-utopian”.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            Well in that case, you can put me down as a bourgeois morality playgoer. Thinking about how I should individually act is a lot more valuable to me than railing against an unjust system with no concrete plan of action to fix it.
            Zizek says [paraphrasing], “Instead of putting a band-aid on poverty, we need a system in which poverty is fundamentally impossible.” I agree, a system with no poverty would be great. What should I do about it?
            Scott says, “For each moral issue that matters to you, try to do better than 50% of the population.” Now, if I have an above-average ability to actually implement life tips I read on the internet, I can go out and actually try to start improving my conduct. Personal shortcomings are often actionable; societal ones usually aren’t.
            Of course, I do agree that talking about what society should look like on a large scale can be useful, important, and a whole lot of fun to debate. My criticism of Zizek on this account is again that, he doesn’t actually say anything (in that clip or 20 minutes of googling him) about what he thinks the world should look like (beyond “NOT CAPITALISM!”) or how he thinks we should achieve that (beyond “END CAPITALISM!”).

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          Something that has diffuse costs (preferably on other people) while you get concentrated benefits (typically related to reputation or social status).

    • Slicer says:

      “You somehow missed the entire point of the quote which essentially rests on the use of the word “consumption”. That’s is, the purchasing of commodities in a market.”

      Can’t have unethical consumption if you don’t have consumption, right?

    • Every time Scott makes some small mention of socialism that is non central to his post, you always come in and demand that he engage more with Marxism. It’s not happening. Give it a rest.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      Re: “consumption”: yeah, it means “purchasing commodities on a market”; what else do people think it’s supposed to mean? I’m a bit confused as to what you’re saying the intended interpretation is and how it differs from the misinterpretation.

      Re: Zizek clip: His arguments would make a lot of sense and be fairly persuasive if I believed that poverty was actively caused or worsened by capitalism, and that “a system where poverty is impossible” would spring up if only we were to abolish the evils of capitalism. However, as far as I can tell poverty and squalor is the default human condition. Raising the standard of living requires cooperation, industry, innovation–in short, the development of civilization. Our current civilization is based on the (somewhat) free exchange of goods and services, and trying to abolish that will not magically solve poverty. (I admit I haven’t read up on exactly what Zizek’s socialist utopia looks like.)
      Further, I’m not sure what he expects people to *do* instead of purchasing Starbucks. Hold a sign on a street corner? Refuse to give money to anything altruistic, so that the evils of capitalism become slightly more apparent? Riot in the streets?

      • 1soru1 says:

        Re: Zizek clip: His arguments would make a lot of sense and be fairly persuasive if I believed that poverty was actively caused or worsened by capitalism, and that “a system where poverty is impossible” would spring up if only we were to abolish the evils of capitalism

        I think you are getting the causality backwards. Zizek is claiming that if we were to create a system in which poverty was impossible, we would have abolished the evils of capitalism. And if not, not.

        Such a system, as he takes pains to point out in the video, would not look much like the Soviet Union, in either the 1970s or 1930s. But it also doesn’t look much like ‘Starbucks-style business models become the norm’. He doesn’t really explicitly say why, but a reasonable interpretation of the type of jokes he makes about them is that it can’t really scale past a market niche; most people are going to ignore that that kind of stuff, and some will react negatively. The exceptions are enough to build a business on, but not to transform the system in the way he believes to be possible or necessary.

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          What kind of system does Zizek think we should be striving for? And what does he think we should do to get there?

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          This is just me, but I suspect that it also would not look much like a civilization involving humans. The reason capitalism muddles through and the socialism of the 1930s and or 1970s didn’t even get to that low standard is because the “evils of capitalism” are things like greed and envy, which predate Christ, predate the Pyramids, and likely predate humans. Abolishing them is genocide.

      • and that “a system where poverty is impossible” would spring up if only we were to abolish the evils of capitalism.

        Really “a system where poverty is impossible” is more likely to be fulfilled by full automation and capitalist agitation for the basic income than a proletarian dictatorship collectivizating the means of production. Whether you still call that capitalism or not is sort of irrelevent, because there’s a bait and switch going on anyway where all anti-capitalism is axiomatically supposed to require an international, classless, moneyless, society of common ownership as the solution. It goes without saying.

        All human labor systems involve exploiting a surplus from the barely willing in order to create growth, and anti-capitalist agitation against that is powerless without technological changes that might well make it redundant anyway. Under capitalism, corporations “steal your labor” in order to grow. Under actually existent socialism, states “stole your labor” in order to grow. The Soviet Union was acting like one giant capitalist when it confiscated grain in order to pay for industrial equipment. The worker emphatically did not recieve what he had produced. He was still exploited. Changing the form does nothing alone.

        This is recognized by Marxists and expressed in a modern form with the idea of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but it’s kind of missing the point when you get down to it. What do workers councils and “common property” matter if machines make machines and then everyone gets a share of the property? Maybe we could have FALC by that point, but it’s the fully automated part that’s doing the major legwork there, and not the luxury (GAY SPACE) communism. If we really had “superproduction” the debates about distribution would be of a lower temperature.

        Only automation can overcome the exploitation of human labor, and that’s where the emphasis actually should be (even if the results are far off it seems). It shouldn’t be about “a system where poverty is impossible”, but a technology that allows the size of the pie to increase for all without requiring any human exploitation. If society becomes vastly more productive while withering exploitation away, then property is more and more accesible, certainly so if it’s self-replicable property. Assuming we solve Friendly AI, but if we don’t we’re screwed anyway, and it’s not like we have a choice about AI in the first place.

        So long story short, “there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism” can be expressed more accurately as “there is no ethical consumption under human labourism”. Weird how we don’t even have a word for that system.

        • 1soru1 says:

          It shouldn’t be about “a system where poverty is impossible”, but a technology that allows the size of the pie to increase for all without requiring any human exploitation.

          The technology is enabling, but not sufficient.

          For example, everywhere in the world has more or less the same access to technology. Still, the quality of different societies varies; technology only raises the high end of the spectrum.

          America is a particularly troubling case for anyone who thinks technology and economic development alone is sufficient, as it is both richer and a worse place to live than other developed countries.

          The gradual realization of this fact is the fundamental driving force of all contemporary US politics; it is what people mean by the ‘failure of neoliberalism’ that energizes both left and right.

        • That’s why I said “a” technology (AI, advanced robotics, self-replicators), and not technology in general. The difference between countries is still highly dependent on human organizational factors because humans are the driving force of modern economies. One day, this won’t be the case.

          Managing human capital leads to strong differences due to ideological disputes and differing opinions about what is a human right and what is not. A robot based economy allows you to homogenously stuff productivity into the smallest space possible with the least amount of lunch breaks everywhere. It allows you to supercharge “exploitation” without any ethical issues. That’s never going to smooth over differences to do with resources and usable space between countries, but the point is to end poverty (so long as we define this reasonably as levels of resource deprivation that can leave one barely able to eat, or at risk of being homeless), not make everywhere and everyone equal.

          Still, the quality of different societies varies; technology only raises the high end of the spectrum.

          No, the bottom end has been raised massively too. Third world countries are much better off than they were before the industrial revolution. My point isn’t that ideology can’t impoverish countries or have a massive effect generally. My point is that only technology really has a reasonable chance of supporting universal elimination of poverty and exploitation. So ideology can be part of the solution and a catalyst to it, but it can’t be the solution.

          Think of the basic income. Right now, no country could easily afford to put one in place, even if they ideologically wanted one. The Eastern Bloc never had such a thing while it was around, so it wasn’t ideology that was the major barrier there. If you had a machine economy that was greatly more productive compared to a human economy, then a basic income would be far more likely to be accepted as a solution (hence current big capitalists being favorable towards it) than “seize the means of production”, and furthermore the major stumbling block of reducing the will to work wouldn’t even be a theoretical issue anymore. In any case, putting in place a basic income would be an existential necessity for capitalism.

          Even if we resort to a Marxist perspective, it’s not obvious what the class basis for communism would be under such a scenario, since society would be divided into lumpenproletariat and bourgeoisie, not proletariat and bourgeoisie.

          America is a particularly troubling case for anyone who thinks technology and economic development alone is sufficient, as it is both richer and a worse place to live than other developed countries.

          In what way? Healthcare? That doesn’t require a total system change. All the reforms that America could require to bring it in line with other developed countries involve slapping on programs.

          The gradual realization of this fact is the fundamental driving force of all contemporary US politics; it is what people mean by the ‘failure of neoliberalism’ that energizes both left and right.

          So should the US be characterized by a social democratic range of debate instead of a neoliberal one? Again, that doesn’t run counter to maintaining capitalism. We’re discussing communism here, which would involve a change to the system right at its very basic level. Neoliberalism vs social democracy is an academic debate about how many programs and regulations we should slap on here or there.

          You can tell this because countries that identified as communist were life or death ideological enemies with countries that identified as capitalist, whereas if the US is on the neoliberal end of the capitalist scale and Norway is on the social democratic end of it, we don’t really see any national ire being generated from that.

    • baconbits9 says:

      You somehow missed the entire point of the quote which essentially rests on the use of the word “consumption”. That’s is, the purchasing of commodities in a market. Until you grapple with socialist critiques you’re not going to understand the point of such slogans and will spin it into a bourgeois morality play.

      Under “late stage” capitalism virtually all production includes the use of commodities which are sold on a market. Unless you have a terrible definition where buying selling the actual commodities is bad, but buying something from someone who is profiting from the sale of commodities is totally fine, the effect is the same.

  5. Markus Ramikin says:

    > to successfully gang up on exceptional people to enforce high standards for them.

    The unironic suggestion that people who do little should tell people who do more how much they should be doing, and hold power of moral approval or disapproval over them, gave me an unpleasant shiver. The Twentieth Century Motors Company from Atlas Shrugged comes to mind.

    I mean, if you came to a vegetarian who is happily enjoying his lifestyle and food, and said “you should do more and be a vegan; I eat meat because I happen to dislike vegetables, but you totally should do more and you’re failing morally if you’re not”, he’d be justified in giving you an answer you probably wouldn’t enjoy.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I would hope this would look more like everyone encouraging (and celebrating) exceptional people who do more.

      Also, it doesn’t have to be people who do less pressuring them. If 1% of people do an exceptional amount, they form a bloc that can non-hypocritically pressure a few important other people to do an exceptional amount.

      Or a group of exceptional people could have internal norms that they have to do an exceptional amount (eg noblesse oblige)

      • matthewravery says:

        Exactly. This type of thing is how we get super rich people divesting their fortunes into charities and founding colleges and the like. Places like CMU and Stanford, for example. They spend their money in a way that’s seen as “moral” and get praised as a result. The Gates foundation is another example.

        Specific to Scott’s point about the elite pressuring the elite, the key here is to direct the regular conspicuous consumption they engage in into things like charity auctions for wildlife preservation or whatever moral crusade you want. They’re already buying prestige when they spend seven figures on old art or whatever. Instead, you package the prestige with something that you value morally.

        Now, as to how one would go about doing that….

      • Jiro says:

        If a block of exceptional people try to pressure other exceptional people, that results in the same purity spiral you get when everyone tries to do better than the average. It’s just happening to the set of exceptional people rather than the set of all people.

      • Watchman says:

        Or a group of exceptional people could have internal norms that they have to do an exceptional amount (eg noblesse oblige)

        This has been tried. Most notably in monasteries and in groups like the Masons. I’m not sure these have achieved what you suggest might be an outcome.although I don’t think this is a direct refution of your point so much as an observation that where this has been attempted there does not seem to have been widespread adoption of those Norma so far, but other factors (poverty?) may account for this.

  6. Ashley Yakeley says:

    I believe this approach to ethics comes from Christianity, and specifically Protestantism. In Protestantism, the absolute most you can possibly do is the absolute bare minimum that is expected of you, and anything else is sin. Your moral balance before God can never be positive, nothing impresses Him, and in practice due to fallibility cannot be zero for any length of time. However, Christ offers a mechanism to erase your debt. (Catholicism is a bit different, since it has the concept of supererogation that Protestants reject.) This nonpositive approach to ethics has since spilled over into social justice activism, which famously does not hand out supererogatory cookies.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve heard this many times, but never really sourced. Do Judaism, Hinduism, or other older religions have a model of supererogation? What percent of moral systems end up looking more like Protestantism vs. more like supererogation? Would a lot of things end up without supererogation just by coincidence?

      • Ashley Yakeley says:

        Hmm, Judaism has “lifnim mishurat hadin”, which in some interpretations has a supererogatory flavour (according to the SEP article on supererogation). I think in Hinduism, one has Karma, to which some acts contribute negatively, and other acts contribute positively.

      • Salem says:

        Islam has a form of supererogation. Basically, all actions are divided into five categories – compulsory, recommended, unimportant, discouraged, forbidden. There are occasionally arguments about exactly what falls into what category, but there’s no question that you don’t have to do all the recommended things, or that occasional discouraged actions aren’t the end of the world.

        • Lambert says:

          >In many religious documents, several words are used to signify
          the requirements in the specification. These words are often
          capitalized. This document defines these words as they should be
          interpreted in Ulama documents. Muftis who follow these guidelines
          should incorporate this phrase near the beginning of their document:

          The key words “FARD”, “HARAM”, “WAJIB”, “MAHZUR”, “MANDUB”, “MAKRUH”,
          “MUSTAHAB” and “MUBAH” in this document are to be interpreted as described in
          RFC 2119.

          • J says:

            Scriptural Working Group

            The Old Testament
            Category: Historical

            The New Testament
            Category: Best Practice

            The Koran
            Category: Standards Track

            Bhagavad Gita
            Category: Unknown

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            @J

            What on Earth do you mean by “unknown?” The Gita, like the Vedas, is a prescriptive document that most closely resembles the Koran.

      • Forge the Sky says:

        I think the more relevant question is whether things are thought of as being ‘sin’ (or something resembling it) in the first place. Other religions didn’t tend to see things as you being judged by a God for moral or immoral behavior generally; the one exception I can think of is ancient Egyptian religion. In that religion, good deeds would be weighed on a scale against bad, so kinda supererogatory I suppose?

        Primitive religion tended to view natural forces as animate, and so tried to avoid the anger of natural forces by avoiding taboo or curry their favor by sacrifice or ritual. The flavor is really more ‘practically speaking, will this piss off the rain god’ rather than any question of whether you were a good person or not.

        Buddhism can have the adherent try and please a higher being, but mostly in an attempt to emulate them rather than to avoid judgement. The priority is to shake free of the bonds of illusion through devotion, meditation, etc – if anything this looks pretty supererogatory, but the goal is pretty different.

        Sikhism is an interesting case, and I don’t know enough about it to really comment much, but it looks to me like the goal is to make a positive effort to achieve unity with God through positive spiritual practice and the keeping of virtues – again, kind of supererogatory flavored, but with a different objective than avoiding judgement.

        I understand Taoism and Zaroastrianism even less, so no comment there.

        Some ancient atheistic/nontheistic philosophies of living seem to basically say that anything you do that nets enjoyment for you and others in the long run is a positive good – see Stoicism and the hindu Charvaka philosophies for example.

      • DavidS says:

        Salvation by Grace alone relies on the concept you can’t be good enough. Whereas in older religion you can get better incarnations or a good afterlife by being good not perfect (or divine favour of the afterlife concept is murky as it often is)

        Eastern religion has liberation you can’t get through karma but that’s because karma is irrelevant to it not that you can’t be good enough.

    • Deiseach says:

      In Protestantism, the absolute most you can possibly do is the absolute bare minimum that is expected of you, and anything else is sin.

      Luke 17:7-10

      7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

      Sure, yes, “all our righteousness is as filthy rags” and even the heavens are not pure in His sight. The idea in Catholicism though is that we can co-operate with grace – we can’t do anything to buy or earn salvation, but we can go beyond the bare “recommended daily minimum”. Someone who makes strenuous efforts may be said to exhibit heroic virtue (and this is one of the stages towards canonisation).

      That may be something like what is being recommended here: most people will do the ordinary bare minimum on the good side. It is worth encouraging everyone (but particularly the talented) to strive for heroic virtue.

    • eric23 says:

      Christianity has a theological mechanism for this, but I think many people of any or no religion get the urge to look at things the same way.

    • Randy M says:

      Protestantism is tough here, especially if false–that is, if taken as a non-supernatural but possibly wise set of ethical prescriptions and judgments.
      All have fallen, none are righteous.
      But, you can be forgiven and share in God’s state of goodness.
      But, that doesn’t give you license to sin! You still have to try.
      Goto 1, unless God intervenes and makes you act better.

      I think the practical effects might be a matter of emphasis.

    • Ashley Yakeley says:

      God is infinite, so a positive act impresses Him not at all, while a negative act is an offense against an infinite being, and therefore worthy of infinite suffering in Hell.

      In other words, to calculate the divine consequence of human moral acts, the positive ones we divide by God’s infinity, and the negative ones we multiply by God’s infinity.

    • Tenacious D says:

      In Protestantism, the absolute most you can possibly do is the absolute bare minimum that is expected of you, and anything else is sin.

      The corollary of this is that the only winning move is not to play. That is, success or failure at adhering to moral standards is not central to Protestantism, either for being in good standing before God, or for status relative to other people (in theory anyway). There’s the Martin Luther quote to “sin boldly”, and antinomianism has been a recurring debate in Protestant history. “There but for the grace of God go I” is a common saying in response to scandals. Moral standards are still promoted, but the motivation for following them is supposed to be thankfulness and wisdom.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I grew up in a pretty Protestant household (we watched every Martin Luther biopic) and didn’t wind up with a nonpositive approach to ethics. In fact, I ended up with a fairly crude approximation of the perspective Scott outlines in the OP.

      The impression I got from Protestantism was, “Yes, in theory everyone has to be perfect or burn in Hell forever. But don’t worry, Jesus already took care of that hellfire stuff for us. So instead of being perfect, you should just try to be good enough. You might not be good in some ideal, cosmic sense, but don’t worry about that, Jesus has got you covered.”

      This seems to me to be a pretty accurate interpretation of Martin Luther’s teachings and philosophy, based on his life. He strikes me as a man who was plagued by scrupulosity, and who developed his theology as a way to cope with it. If Protestantism has since gone on to induce even worse scrupulosity than Catholicism then that is a perversion of its original intent.

      • Dack says:

        My guess would be that you’ve got it backwards, based on quotes from Luther like this:

        You are perturbed over Christ’s injunction in Matthew 5, “Do not resist evil, but make friends with your accuser; and if any one should take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.” … The sophists in the universities have also been perplexed by these texts. … In order not to make heathen of the princes, they taught that Christ did not demand these things but merely offered them as advice or counsel to those who would be perfect. So Christ had to become a liar and be in error in order that the princes might come off with honor, for they could not exalt the princes without degrading Christ—wretched blind sophists that they are. And their poisonous error has spread thus to the whole world until everyone regards these teachings of Christ not as precepts binding on all Christians alike but as mere counsels for the perfect.

        This looks like a pretty central supposition of Luther’s, that Catholicism is in his opinion not scrupulous enough. If Protestantism has since gone on to induce even less scrupulosity than Catholicism then (it would seem to me that) that is a perversion of its original intent.

        • Ghatanathoah says:

          Martin Luther’s life story is basically that he was plagued by scrupulosity. It made him physically sick because he was convinced that he would be damned for forgetting to confess all of his sinful thoughts and deeds. He recovered from his scrupulosity when he concluded that Jesus would save all believers, regardless of whether or not they were perfect in their morality or in their confession.

          He sums it up in this quote:

          “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

          Again, the basic idea is that you don’t need to worry about being perfect, nobody’s perfect. But it’s okay because Jesus understands and is here to help you out. Catholicism was what caused Luther’s scrupulosity, developing Protestantism was what cured it.

          I think the issue was that Catholicism’s concept of superogation wasn’t good enough. Sure, Catholicism might state that doing amazing things like tithing 100% of your income to the poor and liberating Jerusalem from the heathen were above and beyond the call of duty, and you wouldn’t go to hell for not doing them. But it also posited all sorts of petty thought crimes that it considered sins.

          Which is ridiculous because controlling your train of thought is every bit as impossible as single-handedly liberating Jerusalem from the heathens (i.e. don’t think of an elephant). And sure, it posited the idea that if you recount all your thought crimes in the confessional, you’ll be forgiven. But the human brain, especially ones with certain forms of OCD, generates way more thought crimes per day than it is possible to keep track of in your memory and confess.

          The problem, I think, is that Catholicism had a concept of superogation to deal with the crushing demands it’s morals made about your behavior in the external world (ie you don’t have to tithe 100% or start a crusade). But it didn’t have one to deal with the crushing demands its morals made about the contents of your skull (ie don’t think sinful thoughts). Luther had to devise a new concept of Grace to deal with that.

          Killing scrupulosity was the entire reason the Protestant Reformation happened in the first place. I wouldn’t be surprised if subsequent evolutions of Protestantism found ways to bring it back. It’s a problem that keeps emerging wherever humans are to be found. But treating scrupulosity was what got the whole thing started.

  7. panloss says:

    One problem with these sorts of cutoff-based morality systems, and especially the “practice price discrimination on yourself” one, is that it incentivizes traits that prevent the more morally good choice. Presumably, for people who don’t mind the taste of vegetables, the cost of a vegetarian diet is easier to bear, which means society should raise their price of equal moral goodness to you on the animal suffering dimension, maybe to no meat at all at home instead of allowing fish. This adds costs, from a more constrained menu to jealousy when they smell your salmon almondine from across the street. You, not bearing these costs, are then more likely to out-compete them in a multitude of subtle ways, and evolution will do its thing. Soon enough more and more people have a distaste for vegetables and more animals are consumed.

    In practice, for something like vegetarianism, those effects will be minimal, but other traits in other moral areas will have larger effects. If I have trouble reading emotions, do I get a bit of a pass in interpersonal communication that allows me to push someone a bit harder or cause more offense to get what I want? That could come in handy negotiating a deal or picking someone up in a bar. The alternative prevents groups of people from being considered morally good on certain dimensions due to things, like Aspergers, that seem to be no fault of their own.

    • loophole says:

      Well, if the idea is that everyone’s individual moral commitment costs an equal amount, can’t the initial calculation just account for those added costs? The extent to which someone would be jealous of fish smell should be a factor in calculating the level of morality required of them, just as is their distaste for vegetables.

      If I have trouble reading emotions, do I get a bit of a pass in interpersonal communication that allows me to push someone a bit harder or cause more offense to get what I want?

      Maybe you’re still required to put some extra effort into reading emotions, such that the cost of that effort balances out whatever advantage you gain from still not reading them as well as well as most other people. (Of course that would be an impossible calculation, especially because you can’t know how much advantage you might get from being ignorant of something.)

    • Randy M says:

      The trouble is that, from an outside perspective, we can’t judge how difficult is a command is for anyone in particular with much accuracy. The vegan who loves meat and hates vegetables is putting in a heroic effort, but we can’t readily distinguish this from the guy who loves sprouts but bemoans the inflated cost of his commitment for the sake of earning more respect.
      In the end I think judging the results is all we can do with any accuracy, which is why is behooves us not to place undue burdens on people and to keep our condemnation to what truly matters. (agreement on that forthcoming any day now)

    • Baeraad says:

      If I have trouble reading emotions, do I get a bit of a pass in interpersonal communication that allows me to push someone a bit harder or cause more offense to get what I want? That could come in handy negotiating a deal or picking someone up in a bar.

      I think this works out better in practice than in theory, since regardless of what people say, they’re never actually going to completely give you “a pass.” They might, in the name of tolerance and compassion, grudgingly put up with your failures to communicate – but they’ll never respond as favourably to you as they would to someone who was genuinely smooth and agreeable.

      Vegetarianism isn’t actually favoured in our society, but to take a small step sideways towards healthy living: I think the people who manage to eat right and exercise generally enjoy the social approval they get more than the fat and lazy people enjoy their unlimited donuts. It’s not quite that virtue is its own reward, but it comes with all sorts of fringe benefits.

  8. Szemeredi says:

    But if you believe in something like universalizability or the categorical imperative, “act in such a way that you are morally better than average” is a really interesting maxim! If everyone is just trying to be in the moral upper half of the population, the population average morality goes up. And up. And up. There’s no equilibrium other than universal sainthood.

    This would seem to incentivise viewing as many people as possible as immoral, to ensure you view yourself as above average with the least possible effort expended (and I believe this is something that happens).

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      This does explain a whole lot of observed human behavior, in regards to tearing down out groups. People love to inflate the value of the things they are already doing, and downplaying the value of things they are not doing. Add in a dimension of a baseline disagreement about which way a thing should be valued (i.e. is eating meat good, bad, or neutral? Is going to war good or bad (WWII verses Iraq war confounding!)), and you end up with positions that are impossible to reconcile, but allow each side to feel morally superior and justified within themselves.

  9. Bugmaster says:

    I think you might be over-complicating the issue.

    Imagine that you were a purely rational agent, whose utility function is set such that it values other people as much as itself. In that case, your only rational course of action would be to dedicate as much effort as possible to helping other people. You can quibble about the instrumental goals — perhaps you’d try to earn as much money as possible so you can spend it on EA causes; or perhaps you’d try to smash the patriarchy or whatever — but ultimately, every minute of time, every calorie of energy that you spend on anything other than helping others becomes an unforgivable sin.

    However, instead of doing all that, you’re writing articles on SSC about morality and daylight savings time and such, and you feel more or less fine with it. This means that you are likely not a perfectly rational agent who values other people as much as it values itself. And that’s fine ! You’re not a paperclip maximizer, you’re a human. There’s no divine authority that expects you to have one utility function over another. In fact, a society of perfectly scrupulous rational agents would kind of be a hellish place to live in, according to your current utility function — so why agonize about it ?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree you shouldn’t agonize about not being perfectly moral.

      It also seems that if I devoted zero effort to trying to be moral, so much so that I was drowning puppies all the time, that also would be bad.

      That suggests I should put in some specific amount of effort (neither zero nor infinity) into being moral, and this post is about trying to decide how much that is.

      • Bugmaster says:

        It also seems that if I devoted zero effort to trying to be moral, so much so that I was drowning puppies all the time, that also would be bad.

        I agree that drowning puppies 24/7 is bad, but I’m not sure what you mean by “effort”. Right at this moment, I have zero desire do drown any number of puppies, and I expect this state of affairs to persist in the future. It takes me no effort whatsoever to avoid drowning puppies… don’t you feel the same way ?

        • Deiseach says:

          It takes me no effort whatsoever to avoid drowning puppies… don’t you feel the same way ?

          I suppose the classical Christian answer there is if you don’t have any inclination whatsoever to the sin so you never commit that sin, there isn’t any virtue there. You’re not resisting temptation or choosing the good over the evil, you’re just not eating raw roadkill because you have no desire to eat raw roadkill. Where it becomes a matter of morality is when you do have to exercise some effort.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Yes, but being an atheist, I don’t find the Christian viewpoint particularly persuasive. I do agree that resisting temptations in general is admirable, and so is choosing good over evil (for a certain value of “good”); but I disagree with Scott’s (and, presumably, the Gospels’) implied statement that without constant sustained mental effort each individual would devolve into a puppy-drowning monster.

            I do agree that a society where people valued others a little more than they do now might be a nicer place to live; but setting up a positive feedback loop, as Scott is suggesting, is a recipe for a world of paperclip maximizers, and that would be Hell by our current standards.

          • DragonMilk says:

            @Bugmaster

            Where do you get the impression that the message of the Gospels is that people would devolve into puppy-drowning monsters if not for God?

            Gospel message is everyone sins, but God came to save. But to accept salvation is to also defer to God – as CS Lewis put it, in the end, either a person says to God, “thy will be done,” or God says to you, “they will be done.”

            You don’t need to drown any puppies. But everyone needs something at the center of their life, and will pursue relationships, career, or other things, all of which are good things. But to make a good thing an ultimate thing leads to misery ultimately. And one message certainly is that it is the impulse of every human heart to be self-seeking and elevate certain things above their proper place. Proper, according to God. That, at least to me, is the essence of sin. Choosing to follow my own will and priorities rather than God’s. Not because I’m breaking some sort of rule or law, but because I think I know what’s better for me or just feel like doing something suboptimal in the moment.

          • vakusdrake says:

            @Bugmaster I think you’re mistaken in thinking people trying to all be more virtuous with no real limit, would somehow lead to horrifying outcomes. We aren’t talking about UFAI here these people’s idea of good deeds won’t have reason to be something we find unpalatable.

            You just end up with people reaching a equilibrium where people don’t necessarily do that much charity, because there’s already so much focus on it. Once the world is no longer filled with so much low hanging moral fruit the morally optimal options will no longer come at the cost of one’s own happiness.

          • Nornagest says:

            We aren’t talking about UFAI here these people’s idea of good deeds won’t have reason to be something we find unpalatable.

            You know, aside from all the inquisitions, witch hunts, pogroms, purges, and genocides.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @DragonMilk:
            You are right, of course; I shouldn’t have said “the Gospels”, but rather, “some interpretations of the Gospels”.

            Many Christians believe that morality is a sort of divine spell that is continuously maintained by God (as far as I can understand, given my limited theological experience); without it, we humans would revert to our baser natures and start drowning puppies right away.

            Other Christians believe that it is the lure oh Heaven and the fear of Hell that keeps us in check, and that everyone — even atheists — believe in these two realms on a subconscious level, and are thus kept in check.

            Choosing to follow my own will and priorities rather than God’s … because I think I know what’s better for me or just feel like doing something suboptimal in the moment.

            Firstly, from my perspective, following what you believe to be the priorities of God is ontologically equivalent to following your own priorities, since — again, from my personal perspective — there are no gods. Every time you choose to do something more “optimal” than, say, eating ice cream; you are doing so because eating that ice cream, though temporarily pleasurable, will ultimately make you unhappy in the long run and you know it. That said, I still believe that a world where everyone was doing “optimal” things 100% of the time would be more akin to a beehive than a human society. I fully acknowledge that it would be more efficient than our current world, but I don’t think I’d like to live there.

          • Mary says:

            Many Christians believe that morality is a sort of divine spell that is continuously maintained by God (as far as I can understand, given my limited theological experience); without it, we humans would revert to our baser natures and start drowning puppies right away.

            Total depravity and common grace. Both of which are Calvinistic, not generally Christian — although I have heard some people who call themselves Calvinists reject them so perhaps even more limited.

      • Watchman says:

        The antithesis of moral is immoral not evil. As good here is being defined in moral terms I think an absence of good/morality will lead to behaviours that do not consider utility, not actions that are actively destroying utility.

        I’d also point out that drowning unwanted puppies was not historically an immoral act anyway. If there is not the resource available to provide food for the dogs that will exist then morality and utility should both require you to take action, otherwise you will either have starving animals (including those dogs you can otherwise feed) or you produce feral dogs, who are competitors with humans for food and on occasion dangers to them. People required a certain number of dogs so had to breed replacement canines, therefore litters of puppies were required, but not every puppy or litter was necessary. So in terms of utility drowning puppies was probably a moral thing to do once. Probably not now though.

        • Ghillie Dhu says:

          Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia – the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death…before they breed more hemophiliacs.

          ― Robert A. Heinlein

          • Evan Þ says:

            Even by that inhumanely utilitarian standard, and even neglecting all the good things a hemophiliac might do during his life, wouldn’t it work just as well to sterilize him and let him go on his way?

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            Does he consent to be sterilized?

            If not, most would draw a distinction between actively intervening to prevent procreation and simply declining to prevent bleeding.

            If so, is the good he* might do likely to be greater than the cost of sterilization and the ongoing costs of hemophilia treatment? How much self-righteous blowback would you have to weather over conditioning treatment on acceptance of sterilization?

            Inaction is my prior.

            *Statistically very probably, due to sex-linkedness

          • Mary says:

            If it’s moral to let him bleed to death, it’s moral to let him bleed to death unless he consents to be sterilized.

          • DavidS says:

            @Mary: that sounds logical but people tend not to believe it in practice. Most believe at least in practice that it’s morally.acceptAble to not go to Africa and give our medicine but that’s it’s not morally acceptable to go and give it out only to those willing to give you sexual favours, accept sterilisation, it themselves in debt bondage, give you one of their kidneys…

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            If it’s moral to let him bleed to death, it’s moral to let him bleed to death unless he consents to be sterilized.

            But only the former option is practical.

          • AG says:

            Well, relevant to the economic ideology debate above, the most moral solution here could be to develop gene therapy to fix hemophilia, but the stories of Glybera and Luxturna indicate that capitalism is ruining that possibility for us.

    • but ultimately, every minute of time, every calorie of energy that you spend on anything other than helping others becomes an unforgivable sin.

      No. On the assumption, you value yourself as much as you value others. So any time you can increase your welfare more than anyone else’s by spending a minute of time doing so, you should–and it’s a sin not to.

      And since you have much better information about yourself than about others, you may well be better equipped to increase your welfare than that of other people.

      • Bugmaster says:

        So any time you can increase your welfare more than anyone else’s by spending a minute of time

        Your reasoning is valid, but not sound. We live in a fairly prosperous society, which means that most people in the world are far worse off than we are. This means that the marginal utility of money is much lower for you than it is for, say, a child starving to death in some third-world country. Your $20 will buy you a premium coffee and a donut, but it will buy that child a week’s worth of food; so, according to perfect scrupulosity, buying a coffee and a donut is a sin.

    • holomanga says:

      It’d suck for the first century or so, while all resources are dedicated towards reducing torture and stuff, and then it would be much, much better than anything you or I have ever seen.

  10. Alliumnsk says:

    It appears Scott deleted my comment. Tracking comments here is difficult, and I don’t see which my comments have been answered and which deleted. :c
    is there a way to do this?

  11. WashedOut says:

    IV

    One exception might be if we would otherwise hold exceptional people to higher standards. For example, if everybody tries to pressure a billionaire to donate most of their fortune, or on a brilliant scientist to work very hard to fight disease, then having a universal standard that it’s okay to do a little more than average might make this pressure less effective. Maybe trying to hold the average person to high standards usually backfires, but everyone would be able to successfully gang up on exceptional people to enforce high standards for them. If this were true, then a low bar might hold in Mediocristan, and a higher bar in Extremistan. Things like “not eating animal products” or “not driving an SUV” are in Mediocristan; things like curing cancer or donating wealth might be in Extremistan.

    I like your venture into fat-tails but I want to see if I can state it in a way more consistent with how the concepts were originally framed.

    When one ranks the total population in terms of scientific ability, you are straight away in Extremistan: presumably about 99% of the disease-fighting knowledge and ability in the world is distributed across about 0.01% of the population. In other words ‘being in extremistan’ is an inherent property of ‘scientific aptitude’. This means we can still have close to optimum disease-prevention outcomes by having the vast majority of people completely clueless (but not belligerent or destructive), as long as we have a tiny but stable group of geniuses.

    Mediocristan is the place where the majority of outcomes are produced by the majority of people, so animal welfare belongs here. We cannot optimise for animal welfare by having billions of people slaughtering large animals everyday whilst relying on a few really, really caring people. In fact it seems returns (not counting personal satisfaction) diminish very rapidly as an individual’s care exceeds some mediocre threshold.

    Pollution is a bit weirder, because we can all drive solar powered cars and ditch disposable plastics but our gains are quickly destroyed by the one in 50 year accident at the power station, or a volcano eruption, or an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Personally I endorse a policy something akin to ‘pressure people around you to be better than they were, up to the point where additional pressuring would detract from the top-level goal by making them feel guilty, annoyed at you, or annoyed at the world.’

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      There has been a lot of pressure (mostly from the left) recently to imagine that “billionaires” hold more of our wealth than is actually true. If the 50% of American households that make more than $50k per year each gave $1k per year (2% of their pre-tax income or less) to charity, then there are about 120M households, so 60M, so that’s $60B per year. That’s more than we could get from any realistic charitable giving of billionaires.

      This is why Europe has more regressive taxes than the US: because you can’t actually fund really expensive shit just by taxing the ultra rich — or even the rich. You need to tax the middle class, because that’s actually where most income is.

      Maybe scientific ability is in extremistan (but I’m less convinced than you are). Very little else is.

      • matthewravery says:

        $60B per year. That’s more than we could get from any realistic charitable giving of billionaires.

        Why do you say that? A quick Google search shows that there are 540 billionaires in the US with a combined net worth of $2.4T. 2% of that is $48B. (For further context, the Gates Foundation’s endowment is $50B, though I don’t know how much it grows or what it spends annually.)

        If you assume a reasonable return on investment for these fortunes, you could get to that $60B you cite without touching the principal.

        I do agree with your broader point that the accessible tax base is really in the 30-99.9% range of the income spread.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          I mean, $48 billion is peanuts when it comes to tax revenue.

          When it comes to charities, I’d actually argue we already have a fairly large surplus of charitable funds chasing an almost non-existent charitable benefit. The Gates foundation is a great example, as are Zuckerberg’s various incursions into trying to help in education. That is because for most of our problems we don’t have a funds deficit, we typically have either institutional blocks to reform, or we have an idea deficit. There is also a related issue which kind of straddles both wherein charity that actually would work is not really fashionable. This is like how giant pandas get a huge percentage of animal preservation funds, as an example.

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          I mean, you’re comparing asking people to give up more than 2% of their wealth per year with asking people to give up less than 2% of their income per year.

          If billionaires earn 10% on their income, risk free (surely generous), then you’re saying that we could plausibly imagine convincing all 540 of them to give up more than 20% of their income per year to charity.

          It kinda feels like you’re agreeing with me.

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t actually have a dog on this fight politically, but the underlying misunderstanding is sort of a pet peeve of mine, and I’m afraid you just fell into the same trap that the factoid does. Wealth is not income. Wealth is things like your house, your 401K, your collection of rare comic books, the Benjamins buried in coffee cans in your backyard. Income is what you make at your job, or the capital gains you’re drawing off if you’re living off your investments.

        It is absolutely true that a small number of people hold more wealth than a large fraction of the population, because a lot of the population has a negligible or even negative amount of wealth (think credit card or student debt). But you can’t take that factoid and use it to show that taxing the rich will solve all the social ills you’re concerned with, because you’re usually* going to be taxing the rich on their income, not their wealth, and nothing like the same factoid is true for income inequality.

        (*) Estate taxes are the biggest category of politically feasible wealth tax, but they don’t tend to generate much revenue.

  12. Yair says:

    I read this straight after watching Episode of season 3 of The Good Place – “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,”
    and the coincidence/serendipity between the themes of this post and the themes of that episode is just amazing 🙂

    • AG says:

      A lot of Scott’s posts have been in line with The Good Place, lately. That show has just been phenomenally good at dramatizing serious moral debates. “Picture worth a thousand words” in live action.

  13. I’m confused as to why you describe the dichotomy as ‘helpful’, then go on to describe all the ways in which an all-or-nothing attitude is really unhelpful. I’m not sure I even buy that it exists in the wild: are there any EAs who heap scorn upon those who ‘only’ give 10 per cent? Are there more than a tiny handful of fringe animal rights activists who think people making a conscious effort to eat less meat are ‘scum’?

    The dichotomy kind of feels like an elaborate rationalization for someone who wants to just keep doing what they’re doing (which is fine!). Surely feeling virtuous about whatever good you’re able to do isn’t incompatible with striving to do better/more? I would have guessed that’s the default setting for most people (rather than feeling crippling guilt at falling short of X, and being paralyzed into inaction).

    Example: I’m thrilled when my friends take steps to cut down on meat consumption, and I like hanging out with vegans, because it encourages me to lift my own game. It would never occur to me to do anything except encourage people who are taking positive steps. If your point is that animal rights activists shouldn’t think of you as ‘scum’, I’m 100% on board.

    I really like the idea of an average that ratchets up over time, sort of like the moral equivalent of raising the sanity waterline. Easily-actionable commitments like GWWC with an element of social proof seem like they could be handy incremental steps.

  14. Faza (TCM) says:

    This is an interesting way of looking at practical morality, but I feel I must point out a number of issues.

    1. “Aim to be above average”

    Leaving aside the matter of establishing of what exactly it means to be above average – which you rightly recognize is a bit of a problem – this is a terrible maxim to universalize.

    Such a maxim – as you point out – is positive feedback mechanism. If everyone strives to be above average, the average moves up, so they’ll have to strive a bit more to exceed the new average – and that moves the average to a new, higher baseline – and so on.

    The problem with positive feedbacks is that they tend to blow things up, if left unchecked.

    To give a depressingly common example: say that your moral compass is religiously oriented and you want to be just a bit better in fulfilling your moral obligations than the average Joe. Given current trends, this may simply involve going to church every Sunday, as opposed to every Christmas. However, once the average Joe is also going to church every Sunday, you’ll need to up your game. Once the low-hanging fruit of greater participation in your religious community and performing the good works (charitable giving, for example) that it recommends, have been picked, the next steps tend to involve either bringing your faith to the unbeliever – and likely making sure they don’t corrupt the healthy moral fabric of your society with their heathen ways. At the end of this road lie such niceties as the Crusades, the Inquisition or ISIS.

    Hell, the current Culture War is exactly the same thing, playing out in a secular context. We start from some rather mild positions, like “women can be just as competent as men” or “black people aren’t sub-human”, and we end up with “micro-agressions”, “white male privilege”, “unconscious biases” and all the rest. It is my long-time suspicion that we’ve already gone over the hump and there’s some real proper racist and sexist sentiments being sown by the currently woke left, because if being a white male makes me automatically suspect, at best, and an enemy at worst, you might as well bite the bullet and say: “Bring it on!”

    The maxim of trying to be above average morally will reduce quite decent people to frothing radicals with no tolerance of the other, quite simply because that is the feedback trajectory. Once you’re doing everything you personally can to make the world a better place – by whatever ethical standard you assume – the only way up is to look at all the other people who aren’t doing their share (for example: because their moral intuitions don’t align with yours). If it is in your power to compel them to do so, you kinda have a moral obligation to.

    2. Negative feedback loops keep systems stable

    This should be pretty obvious from part II of your post, but worth mentioning anyway.

    When societies in general aim for moral improvement, they tend to trample over individuals who aren’t getting with the program. So why not draw the line at self-improvement only and forswear attempting to make others better?

    The problem here is that there’s always room for improvement and – as you yourself point out – that way madness lies.

    The Giving What We Can pledge allows you to satisfice your desire to give charitably and gives you piece of mind. It’s essentially a negative feedback on your urge to do better.

    I would posit that satisficing positions are essential for social stability, much like negative feedback loops are necessary for system stability in general.

    3. The Mediocristan/Extremistan distinction sets forth the Hounds of Hell

    I will begin by observing that if you’re even making that distinction, you’re likely positioning yourself as a resident of Mediocristan. If you happen to be a resident of Extremistan, you can simply set your personal ethical bar at whatever level you consider appropriate and not worry about Mediocristan at all.

    If the foregoing is true, you’ll be in a position of aiming to achieve your personal moral goals by the hands of another. In other words, it’s okay for you to do a little, provided someone else does a lot.

    I probably don’t need to say where it goes off the rails, but I will anyway: if the moral intuitions of Alice Average and Gina Genius are aligned, then Alice needs do nothing save mind her own business (Gina will set her own personal bar exactly where Alice would, in any case). If they do not align, Alice must compel Gina – somehow – to do what Alice thinks is right.

    Philosophically, this cannot be done unless we assume Alice is a subject – a moral agent – and Gina a mere object – a means to achieve Alice’s moral ends. Given that Gina has her own thoughts on the matter, it shouldn’t strike us a strange that she might have some pretty strong objections to such a state of affairs. I’m with Gina here.

    4. Morality is good as means, terrible as ends

    At the risk of mortifying the moral realists here, I’d posit that pursuing morality for its own sake is… shall we say… highly questionable. I’d go as far as saying that few things people do are poised to cause more misery to individuals and societies alike. The conversation we’re having right now provides a number of corroborations.

    I would instead propose a different perspective: morality as a means to ensure that human society co-operates a bit better and comes to blows a bit less often.

    A full argument for this is well beyond the scope of a blog comment, but I think a case could easily be made for all enduring moral systems (i.e. those prevalent in populous cultures over long periods of time) having the shared property of introducing cohesiveness to groups of individuals who might otherwise be working at cross purposes. Conventional moral systems proscribe things that would spur conflict within the group (violence, theft, nabbing other people’s women) and promote things that encourage mutual trust and co-operation (shared rituals, charitable giving).

    (Aside: They also tend to suppress heterodoxy, because questioning parts of the system might undo all the work that’s gone into ensuring people aren’t at each other’s throats all the time.)

    If we take such a view, we realize that asking “are there any good people anywhere?” is not particularly useful. Instead, we should be asking “does the way people act promote co-operation or conflict in society?”

    (Aside: We can justify promoting co-operation over conflict by pointing out that whatever our goals – unless getting in a scrap is the end-in-itself – the destruction brought by conflict sets us back, whilst the help of others can move us closer or quicker to the end, than we could get by our own means. Systems that do have conflict as an end tend to be selected against in the long run, by dint of the fact that there’s always someone stronger than you.)

    Looking through the “social cohesiveness lens”, a lot of the moral positions in this post don’t seem particularly commendable. The activists are a menace, aiming to be above average leads to radicalism, Mediocristan/Extremistan is looking for a way to force others to do what you want and your desire to be vegetarian is causing strife in the smallest unit of society (yourself).

    If the fruit don’t look particularly appetizing, chances are the tree ain’t all that either.

    • Vorkon says:

      I was about to say something similar to your points 1 and 2.

      50% seems like a terrible place to set your “good person vs. bad person” benchmark. If you simply must divide people into “good people” and “bad people,” the benchmark should be much lower than that, to avoid (or at least delay) either setting off the chain reaction described above, or making all the people in the “bad” category band together and say, “screw these people calling us bad, we’ll never meet their standards anyway,” like is happening in society right now.

      Scott saw it himself, with his charitable donations. Imagine if he needed to give 50% of his income to consider himself a good person. Only the most fabulously wealthy can afford to give 50% of their income to charity, so with that kind of standard in place, only the most fabulously wealthy among us could ever be considered good people.

      Now, I know that “percentage of your income given to charity” and “percentage of the population who are good people” are two entirely different concepts, but I think a similar principle applies. If you must write certain people off as “bad,” it should be significantly less than 50% of the population. Maybe 10-25%, at most. Feel free to censure the worst behavior as being beyond the pale, but after a certain point it really needs to go from “bad vs. good” to “good vs. even more good,” or else you’re just going to end up getting untennable results.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        If you must write certain people off as “bad,” it should be significantly less than 50% of the population.

        That’s satisficing in a nutshell, but I’d be loath to put a number on it.

        In fairness to Scott, I read the 50% of population as a spectrum that goes from “needs to try harder” to “absolute monster”, with the upshot that everyone in the top 50% should just carry on as is. We reserve our harshest judgements for the monsters and villains – your 10-25% – but might only gently chide the sub-threshold folks or encourage them to do better.

        Doesn’t really matter; keep it up and you’ll always end up with the SS (or compatible), ‘coz that’s what a positive moral feedback loop does.

        Corollary: If you’re surrounded by the SS, do some of them get bumped into the “mostly okay” category, because they aren’t as terrible as the bottom 10%?

        • cryptoshill says:

          I think the problem is that when your goal is “be better than average” , the feedback loop described above moves “gently chiding” into “How dare you believe that the wage gap isn’t the most pressing problem facing people today? Are you a NAZI?” type histrionics that we see *every day* in the modern culture war.

      • Deiseach says:

        50% seems like a terrible place to set your “good person vs. bad person” benchmark.

        Perhaps the figure was arrived at by the Hillary Clinton Sorting Method – you know, 50% in the basket of deplorables, 50% into the basically good-hearted but stupid mistaken basket? 🙂

        • AG says:

          Less of this, please.

          “Perhaps the figure was arrived at by the Donald Trump Sorting Method – you know, most are rapists murderers thieves or lying press, and some I presume are good people if they flatter me?”

      • Randy M says:

        If you simply must divide people into “good people” and “bad people,”

        I think the problem is having only two categories. We already have a wider vocabulary, why not use it? (I guess this is me fundamentally disagreeing with the premise Scott is entertaining, then)
        Evil = you take money out of the poor box
        Bad = you spend every cent on yourself
        Good = You give, but not to the point of feeling it
        Admirable = You make genuine sacrifice
        You’d probably get a 20/30/30/20 breakdown.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          I’m not sure more categories are necessary, to be honest. Essentially, Scott is proposing a split between “don’t need to change anything” and “should do better”. Presumably, the really bad folks won’t want to change anyway, so the target are people hovering at or just below the average.

    • jw says:

      You’ve got many good points there.

      Positive feed back loops are very bad, they should be avoided at all costs. Anyone who’s taken a Electronic Systems class knows this.

    • Randy M says:

      4. Morality is good as means, terrible as ends

      Interesting thought. To paraphrase, “Don’t aim to do good things, aim to do things good?”

    • carvenvisage says:

      re your point (1), it doesn’t matter if it’s not sustainable in the long term, you can throw it away the moment society has no more low-hanging moral fruit.

      _

      While I’m here, my take is that [pursuit of happiness] is a right you have to actively lose rather than one you have to earn, and deliberately denying it to someone is a drastic punishment not so many steps short of exile. In this context I think “good” is a confusing word to point to the idea with.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        I can see the appeal of “throwing the idea away once the low-hanging fruit have been picked”, but in real life it doesn’t happen that way. For a start: how do we know there are no more low-hanging fruit? The Overton window has been on an upward trajectory all this time and it’s not like the next step seems particularly harder than all the previous ones.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Agreed on points #1..#3; you’ve said it much better than I ever could. However, your point #4 sounds a little confusing (though that is understandable, since you are presumably condensing a full argument into a comment). It sounds like you’re just deferring the feedback loop by one step: instead of promoting goodness, you aim to promote cooperation, but the overall structure is the same, and will probably end up in the same failure mode.

      • Faza (TCM) says:

        This bears closer examination, however I believe promoting co-operation – as opposed to a notion of “good” – has a negative feedback mechanism built in. Specifically: if you find yourself pushing too hard, you will get pushback. In other words: intra-society co-operation breaks down if over-promoted.

        I can think of several ways the idea could be abused or misunderstood. Being something of a (philosophical) Taoist I would suggest the following heuristic for avoiding mishaps: if it starts to get hard, stop doing it.

  15. AppetSci says:

    This especially makes sense if the standards are normed to effort rather than absolute results – for example, “everyone should donate 10%” extends to billionaires better than “everyone should donate $100”; diminishing marginal utility issues do argue that billionaires should donate more than that, but once you find the right unit the same argument should work.

    I always wonder to what extent these philanthropic billionaires who attend fund raisers and give to charity are only doing only as a tax mitigation exercise. I think many see them as wonderful people giving wealth to good causes, (and they probably think that too) but is the reality not actually quite different? Scott’s 10% has little to do with offsetting costs of his regular business income (I imagine) and comes from a place of wanting to be morally “good” so is worth far more ‘Brownie points’ or ‘feelings of ethical satisfaction’ than a far larger donation that lacks the ethical incentive.

    Charity donations also make me think of electricity and water usage. I religiously switch off the lights in our house that the kids leave on, and I shut off the water while I brush my teeth etc. I feel good about those things, but that effort is a drop in the ocean compared to industry and agricultural usage and wastage of those commodities. My individual effort counts for little, and industry has little incentive to reduce usage – its a resources prisoner’s dilemma of sorts. In the end, the only thing that can cause a massive yet fair shift in individual and industrial practices is state regulation, so is voting for the party which supports your moral cause, be it water usage or helping children in need or disincentivising meat production, is the only way to affect significant change compared to the “drop” individuals give and which unfortunately impacts them financially for their losing prisoners’ dilemma choice.

    And Scott, if you take the reproduction route, how will you balance your 10% donation with the need to plough resources into your progeny’s development and upbringing. A moral dilemma for the future maybe?

    • jasmith79 says:

      I would wager they for the most part give beyond the point where it reduces their tax burden but probably not to the point where it meaningfully diminishes their personal life experiences (i.e. I gave a billion dollars to charity and as a result have a slightly less giant giant yacht, slightly less palatial palatial mansions, etc).

      As for the progeny bit, what about the need to set a good example? Gotta walk your talk as parent even more than a blogger. Very few readers will ever meet Scott, but your kids can smell bullshit at a distance of 5 AU.

    • Deiseach says:

      I always wonder to what extent these philanthropic billionaires who attend fund raisers and give to charity are only doing only as a tax mitigation exercise.

      To be brutally cynical, the “use social pressure to hector encourage people who have more into giving more” notion is and always has been open to abuse. Think of Harvey Weinstein wearing pink ribbons and donating to the Democratic Party and holding fundraisers for good progressive causes, at the same time as he was employing the good old traditional casting couch method to actresses and other women in the industry.

      Because if everyone else is donating to the Pink Hat Ladies’ Fund Gala Dinner and Ball fundraiser, you do the same so as not to stand out. Writing a large cheque is easy, you get your picture in the paper and a good reputation, and you don’t have to change a single thing in your behaviour (at least until the scandal breaks, then all the institutions formerly so eager to hit you up for a donation are now calling it blood money).

      As allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape topple his career and wipe out his clout, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is apparently trying to contain the blaze with generosity. So far, he isn’t finding takers for this contrition cash.

      Fast-tracking a plan he claimed was in the works for a year, Weinstein said in his initial public statement about his monstrous behavior that he would donate US$5 million to the University of Southern California in scholarship money for women directors. The school declined that gift. He also pledged to leverage his wealth and – what he expected would continue to be – his power to advance gun control, swearing to “give the NRA my full attention.”

      As a political philosopher who studies the ethics of philanthropy, I see the Weinstein scandal as embodying an important question: Can the rich and powerful redeem their reputations through acts of generosity?

      Offering money as a form of atonement is easier for Weinstein than finding someone who will accept it now that the source is so tainted. As the Change.org petition started by a USC student put it, these donations are “blood money” intended to distract the public and purchase forgiveness.

      • aristides says:

        I mostly agree with Deiseach. I don’t think the rich donate money for tax reasons, they do it to gain power and influence. There is a book, The Power Parodox, by Daniel Keltner, that’s main thesis is that people gain power by helping others. If you help someone you gain power over them. This is best seen with much more popular local or political charities are than international ones. People want power over those close by with power, not those far away, even if it’s effective altruism. Even international charities often have the name of the founders in their title, so people think if I donate to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I get influence over them. That leads to the success of the Clinton Foundation as well.

      • cryptoshill says:

        An interesting question – why is “purchasing forgiveness” considered such an evil thing?
        As far as I’m concerned, in terms of life outcomes – a rape victim is *substantially* better off if their rapist gives them Some Life-Changing Number of Dollars (accepted by the victim of course) to Not Testify than if the rapist goes to jail for a very long time. It may be upsetting to *other people* around her that she doesn’t testify for money, but money (especially 5 to 6 figure sums) are *quite* useful, much more useful than a fleeting feeling of justice from watching someone be imprisoned.

        I don’t have a concrete intuition on this – but I think it at least leads me to believe that I am not completely deserts-oriented.

        • Aftagley says:

          It’s evil because it doesn’t scale well and it doesn’t result in a society anyone would want to live in. Let’s run through some examples:

          1. We shift to this new system and immediately Jeff Bezos starts raping people. One a day, followed by the gift of a life changing amount of money. He can afford to do this literally forever.

          2. Mark Zuckerberg, after watching Jeff Bezos do this for a while, get’s annoyed and decides to stop it. He hires someone to kill Bezos. This hitman sets up a car bomb, and while it doesn’t end up killing Bezos, it does take out the driver, an assistant and two passing pedestrians. Zuckerberg immediately comes forward, pays the victims families a relatively insignificant, but still life changing amount. He then goes back to planning how he’ll kill Bezos again.

          3. George Soros decides that he’s had enough of conspiracy theories just claiming he’s running the world, he wants to start trying to do it for real. He finds a way to hack into election systems and change people’s votes. Some people find out, but he offers them a life-changing amount of money and then goes back to doing it.

          I’ll stop here. Basically this morality system means that the richest among us would no longer be accountable to anything or anyone. For everyone else, the most reprehensible crime ever is just a period of saving away. This is not a healthy society.

        • Randy M says:

          An interesting question – why is “purchasing forgiveness” considered such an evil thing?

          There is a difference between an indulgence and restitution.
          If you have a moral lapse, and you can pay or work to restore any harm created, you are on the path of redemption.
          If you enjoy hurting people, and give out money to otherwise worthy causes so your utilitarian society will leave you alone, you are a sophist who creates needless misery.

          It may be upsetting to *other people* around her that she doesn’t testify for money

          The reason it is upsetting is because she is endangering potential future victims. Perhaps ones who may not be as easily mollified. (This is not a comment on people who feel too traumatized to appear in court or what have you)

    • Protagoras says:

      That charitable donations can be deducted from taxable income makes it less expensive to make such donations, it does not make it actively profitable. Now, I’m sure there are varieties of tax fraud (or just exploitation of loopholes, but I’m pretty sure it would usually require fraud) which enable a deduction much larger than the donation actually cost, and so which would end up being profitable, but I would be very surprised if anywhere near a majority of charitable donations by the wealthy were of this kind. Though I welcome insight from anyone more familiar with tax law.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        It would be hypothetically possible for a very high overhead charity to serve as a tax-deductible way for the rich to spend their money. That said, some of the more ostentatious donations given at such dinner parties tend to be at least as large as the cost of the dinner party, so I doubt that this actually happens.

        E: it might actually be the case for the majority of attendees, now that I think about it, and a status game among the rich. Low-status rich gain value from charity events, while high-status rich gain status by losing value and financing the party.

    • Randy M says:

      I always wonder to what extent these philanthropic billionaires who attend fund raisers and give to charity are only doing only as a tax mitigation exercise

      Who cares? The point of the tax mitigation is the same as the point of calling them good–to encourage the behavior.
      Now, if you care about their souls, you can tell them about the problems of rich men getting into heaven all that, but if you care about functioning society let’s be happy that the children’s hospital got a new wing or whatever. (Obviously, the what does matter a lot!)

  16. Aging Loser says:

    “currently acceptable positions on slavery, torture, women’s rights, and sexuality.”

    Slavery in the Roman world was equivalent to “having a job” in the modern world. And about half a million New Yorkers should be serfs in an official legal sense. Maybe two million should be. They’d be happier. There’d be less trash on the sidewalks and toilets would get flushed.

    Other than that — putting “torture” just before “women’s rights” and “sexuality” is kind of obnoxious. Like, thinking that women shouldn’t be voting and having “careers,” thinking that homos should be discreet and that basically men are men and women are women, is on a level with wanting to stick needles under people’s fingernails?

    • jasmith79 says:

      The things on that list are on it because the common thread is that ancient Romans’ opinions on them fall outside our Overton Window of morality. Why would you assume they have anything else in common? The list of “people who aren’t me” includes both Attila the Hun and Ghandi. I’m not suggesting any other commonality by placing them together in that fashion.

    • onyomi says:

      I notice that when people today want to point to uncontroversial examples of moral progress, they usually cite either a drop in violence (Steven Pinker’s Better Angels, etc.) or a movement toward greater equality, especially of political rights (women’s suffrage, etc.). Maybe slavery is the go-to example of past peoples’ relative moral benightment because it often, if maybe not always, combines physical coercion with some sense that the slave is morally less valuable than the master.

      To me at least, the reduction in violence and capacity to tolerate, even enjoy, the suffering of other creatures seems like a long-term secular trend I’m comfortable calling “moral progress” (we may not all be vegetarians, but we can’t imagine bear-baiting catching on as a hip new trend in the Bay Area).

      I’m not as sure about the equality thing, especially when it refers to equality of outcome, because it seems much more recent and more prone to the kind of virtue signalling spiral Scott describes. Though it’s possible to imagine non-violence getting out of hand (e.g. high school wrestling comes to be viewed as an abomination), there seems much less risk of that than the current game of trying to always stay less-racist-less-sexist-than-average (yes there are militant vegans but they don’t strike me so much as “Super-Ghandi” as people who have gotten extreme about one particular facet of the moral problem of violence). Maybe we’ll look back on it like we now would a sobriety crusader pointing to a recent drop in alcohol consumption as a great moral victory–not so much wrong as spiraling out on a tangent orthogonal to actual morality insofar as sobriety becomes a virtue decoupled from e.g. lower rates of domestic violence.

    • Brad says:

      Like, thinking that women shouldn’t be voting and having “careers,” thinking that homos should be discreet and that basically men are men and women are women, is on a level with wanting to stick needles under people’s fingernails?

      Yep. I hear women can’t have careers or “careers” in Saudi Arabia. Maybe move there and experience the bliss of alignment between your personal values and those of society at large?

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      Setting aside all the other issues in this comment, ancient Rome was not a place particularly noted for the discreetness of its homos.

    • Quintus Fabius Minimus Cunctator says:

      Think about number of people affected and length of time: half the population was female, and they had little autonomy and legal power (and very little respect for anything intellectual) their whole lives.

      Sticking needles under fingernails is really really horrible but it lasts for a relatively short time and happens to a small number of people.

  17. Robert Jones says:

    I don’t find it plausible to suggest that the average Roman was morally worse than the average modern. We happen to have been born after the abolition of slavery, but no doubt if we had been born in a slave-owning society, most of us would have accepted slavery. And no doubt, if a typical Roman had been born in the US in the 21st century, he would have been anti-slavery. It’s all a matter of definitions, but if you end up saying, “There were no good Romans”, then your model of morality probably isn’t useful and you should start again.

    I agree that the attitude “If you think you’re one of the good ones, you’re wrong” is common, particularly among groups which are very concerned with moral questions. I think you’re overlooking the social aspect of this principle. In a group which places high value on a particular virtue (religious zeal, caring for animals, equity, etc), an individual high in that virtue can claim social status on that basis alone. But allowing that to happen would undermine the existing status hierarchy, so you have a rule against affirming your own virtue. “Do you want a fucking cookie?” serves the same purpose as “What a scrawny antelope!”: it stops people getting too big for their boots.

    • Nootropic cormorant says:

      What would it mean for me to be born in ancient Rome? Having a clone of mine born to a Roman woman? Would my Roman parents also be identical to my actual parents? How about early life experiences? Would they also be the same mutando mutandis?

      • Watchman says:

        I think that’s the point. A genetically identical Marcus Nootropicus Cormorans would otherwise be a Roman in upbringing and understanding so their morality would be that of a Roman with different morality and understanding of good (for a start the Romans didn’t really have good as a value (bonus implied living up to an ideal of a warrior citizen, and seems to ultimately come from emulating a God, as Roman gods were types not models).

        And yes, my main motivation in writing this post was just to vaguely Latinise your user name…

        • Nootropic cormorant says:

          Well, obviously, but that isn’t me born a Roman, that’s just my twin that will be not-me in innumerably many ways.

          This is basically pedantry, but it’s a pet peeve of mine when presumable atheists imply that essence predates existence.

          Thank you Vigil, I always appreciate language related jest.

    • 1soru1 says:

      The word ‘progress’ is often misinterpreted to mean people becoming morally better. But what it actually means is a continuing, but contingent, development of structural and economic factors such that people don’t need to be better.

    • Aftagley says:

      I don’t find it plausible to suggest that the average Roman was morally worse than the average modern. We happen to have been born after the abolition of slavery, but no doubt if we had been born in a slave-owning society, most of us would have accepted slavery.

      I feel like you’re misinterpreting what’s being said here. The claim isn’t that something has shifted in the species over the last 2k years that has made humanity reject certain practices, it’s that our culture has evolved to the point where people no longer think various reprehensible practices are acceptable. Yes, if you removed the culture from someone and indoctrinated them in the other they’re beliefs would change… but that doesn’t undermine the underlying argument.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      One complicating point here is that the average Roman agreed with us on a lot of the bedrock principles of ordinary morality (e.g. be kind and generous, fulfill your contracted duties, etc) and often reasoned about them in pretty sophisticated ways. They had their rationalizations for why e.g. slavery didn’t violate those principles, but of course we very likely have some of our own which future generations will excoriate us for similarly (I would nominate my own candidates here, but they would just start a CW thread for no good reason). It is instructive to read e.g. Cicero’s De Officiis and think about how someone with those moral principles could have rationalized typical Roman practices.

    • 10240 says:

      Well, this leads down a deep free will vs. determinism rabbit hole where, if we side with determinism, moral judgement of persons becomes impossible. (If you had the circumstances of that person in every respect, you’d do the same.) I for one agree with that conclusion in this case, and I have come to caring about better or worse outcomes or occurrences, but not about classifying persons as good or bad. Or, with the terminology Scott has used, I care about axiology but not morality.

      • Robert Jones says:

        If I had been Nero, I would have acted as Nero did, because ex hypothesi I would have been Nero. But isn’t that the same as saying that if I was an evil person, I would be evil? Nero, being Nero (an evil person), could not act other than he did. If he had been a good person, he would have acted differently, but then he wouldn’t have been Nero.

        I think we can rescue some sense in which persons are good or bad without violating determinism. All outcomes are determined by the prior state of the universe (modulo some possible quantum randomness which does not engage moral agency), but the universe can be divided into the part which is Nero and the part which isn’t. To the extent that the outcomes are determined by the bit of the universe on the inside of Nero’s skin, those outcomes are attributable to Nero and we can blame him accordingly.

        The difficulty is that we cast the net of blame somewhat wider than our intuition tends to tell us: people are blameworthy for things entirely outside their consciousness, e.g. genetic defects or physical frailty. But I don’t think that can be avoided (if the concept of moral blame is to be retained). Once we accept that people can’t act other than they do, it is difficult to see how a distinction in moral weight can be made based on whether acts are voluntary.

        A further consideration is how we deal with the case of organisms which live inside other organisms (which of course many do). Am I at fault for acts of my gut bacteria? The bacteria certainly form part of the universe inside my skin, but they also have boundaries of their own. To some extent I’m symbiotic with my gut bacteria, so why should I escape moral blame for their acts when I accept moral blame for the acts of my own cells? Is it really a morally important distinction whether a cell carries my DNA? But what about hostile bacteria? Am I at fault if I get TB? Am I fault simply because of the morally culpable failure of my immune system, or am I at fault for the acts of the TB bacilli directly? I think there’s some argument that I just have to take responsibility for everything that happens inside my skin, in the same way that a minister is responsible for everything that happens in a ministry, whether or not he had knowledge or control.

        The problem is, this probably isn’t helpful. Moral condemnation of cancer sufferers won’t reduce the incidence of cancer. From a utilitarian perspective therefore, condemning them is irrational: it just makes the situation worse.

    • mtl1882 says:

      The history of American slavery is hugely complex. I would not surprise me if a majority of Americans in 1840 believed it to be wrong; they just weren’t willing to push back (if they did not own slaves) or they felt it justifiable since society was dependent on it (if they owned slaves).

      This issue is important to me because I grew up with the whole “they didn’t know any better.” Now, I’m not saying the times in which you grew up don’t matter, as the majority of people will tend to fall in line. But a sizeable minority does not, and they are never given any credit. Thomas Jefferson “trembled for his country”, despite his interesting arrangements with his slaves. Washington freed his slaves at his death. Benjamin Franklin joined an abolitionist society at the end of his life. JQA spent many years in Congress decrying slavery. Some slaveholders freed their own slaves on principle. The founding fathers had believed it would die out, outlawing the slave trade in the constitution because they held it to be obviously immoral. If slaves went to France or other nations, they were given asylum if they requested it, and if not, their owners were forced to pay them wages. Thomas Jefferson did this with Sally Hemings. Her mother wanted her to seek asylum. Instead, she came back pregnant with Jefferson’s child. Abolitionist newspaper editors were lynched regularly.

      Huge portions of America never really accepted slavery, but they did tolerate it. However, once they had to interact with it (namely through the Fugitive Slave Law, which shows how it was very much not completely accepted), we got the Civil War.

      Some of the best American writing was done on this issue, and so it makes me sad when people say “well, if you’d been born then, you’d never have questioned it.” Boy, did they question it. And that included many slaveowners – it was right in front of them, and it made many of them uncomfortable. While some may have been, as said above, the equivalent to “employees,” and I think that is how many American think of American slavery today, put aside the labor part for a second. A female slave (or child) rarely had any choice but to submit to sexual acts if approached. Quite often, they bore their masters’ children. Everyone saw this kid, who sometimes looked a lot like his/her father, and that was really unsettling. JQA wrote about how repulsive it was the southern men like Jefferson were all fornicating with slaves – he said it was an obvious inevitability in that system, and it was. A woman’s child could be sold from her at any time – that upset people, watching that reaction. Some families intended to keep their slave families together in a nice home – then they ran into financial problems, and that was that. American slavery was somewhat unique in its declaration of people as slaves for life, from birth, denying family structures, and denying education. In other places, a bright slave was kind of an asset – he could make you more money, without the fear of his becoming educated enough to flee or resist you, since he was allowed his family, education, and usually a potential for freedom.

      People did know enough to wonder about what they were doing. It does an injustice to both the supporters and the opponents, as though they were obtuse and couldn’t come to conclusions on their own. Certainly someone like Jefferson knew what was going on. He was a man of his time, but he did know that slaveownership was not the default good position. His own words show he wrestled with it. Give him the credit of being able to see that, even if he couldn’t bring himself to publicly free his children or teach them to read.

      And the opponents risked life and social status, and they did it anyway. It was the first movement that allowed female participation in leadership roles, and they took them. To say that people of that time could not realistically be held to “modern standards” ignores their existence, and also makes standards seem way more modern than they are. The prevalence may change, but these men were judged as much or more so in their own time than they are now. The same goes for women’s rights and some other issues. There were extremely conspicuous exceptions to the rule – some people were able to “know better” on their own, and by virtue of their actions, many others were at least able to consider the possibility things could be different.

      I agree the “no good Roman” thing is a fallacy. But that’s because most people are passive, not because they couldn’t possibly have figured out that it might not be right. And there is always a sizeable minority that deviates in one way or another. Someone from that time could debate with the best of us.

      Angela Grimke wrote a particularly good response to the still-given justification that “every other country had slavery/it’s in the bible!” Way too long to post, but she lay out the terms of slavery as described in the Bible.

      Before going into an examination of the laws by which these servants were protected, I would just ask whether American slaves have become slaves in any of the ways in which the Hebrews became servants. Did they sell themselves into slavery and receive the purchase money into their own hands? No! Did they become insolvent, and by their own imprudence subject themselves to be sold as slaves? No! Did they steal the property of another, and were they sold to make restitution for their crimes? No! Did their present masters, as an act of kindness, redeem them from some heathen tyrant to whom they had sold themselves in the dark hour of adversity? No! Were they born in slavery? No! No! not according to Jewish Law, for the servants who were born in servitude among them, were born of parents who had sold themselves for six years: Ex. xxi, 4. Were the female slaves of the South sold by their fathers? How shall I answer this question? Thousands and tens of thousands never were, their fathers never have received the poor compensation of silver or gold for the tears and toils, the suffering, and anguish, and hopeless bondage of their daughters. They labor day by day, and year by year, side by side, in the same field, if haply their daughters are permitted to remain on the same plantation with them, instead of being as they often are, separated from their parents and sold into distant states, never again to meet on earth. But do the fathers of the South ever sell their daughters? My heart beats, and my hand trembles, as I write the awful affirmative, Yes! The fathers of this Christian land often sell their daughters, not as Jewish parents did, to be the wives and daughters-in-law of the man who buys them, but to be the abject slaves of petty tyrants and irresponsible masters. Is it not so, my friends? I leave it to your own candor to corroborate my assertion. Southern slaves then have not become slaves in any of the six different ways in which Hebrews became servants, and I hesitate not to say that American masters cannot according to Jewish law substantiate their claim to the men, women, or children they now hold in bondage.

      She grew up in the South, and this was a pamphlet she published to Southern women. It did not go over well there, but she became a northern celebrity.

      Sorry for the rant, but this subject is important to me. It’s not really directed to you specifically, just to the arguments that relate to this topic. The debate tends to end where it should begin. I also think it is important because the writings of people in these times, whether pro or antislavery or about anything else, show how to take a bold, moral stand without flailing around or scolding, but calmly ripping a position to shreds through intense intellectual engagement.

      I know you may have just been saying people went along with it, not that they didn’t know better, and we would have done so too. This is true as to probably the majority of people; I just find that it tends to be extended beyond that to claims that it is unreasonable to expect anyway to feel otherwise. I think a significant minority of people alive today. would be opposed then as well.

      • arbitraryvalue says:

        Thank you for writing this post, and for introducing me to a fascinating historical figure (Angela Grimke) of whom I had been ignorant. I think it is a pity that abolitionists and suffragists aren’t studied more today, even as I tend to neglect studying them myself since their success makes them less interesting on a surface level (in the way that an old movie or book that originated something that has since become a common trope may appear formulaic to someone who was first exposed to its derivative works).

        • mtl1882 says:

          I’m glad to hear you found it interesting – I love talking about it because some people during that era were so awesome, and we know nothing about them! I don’t mean it as a moral lecture, but I just think understanding it is so important and useful for thinking about how to deal with modern issues. Our false understanding of history is seriously a handicap to us now. The strength and intellect and confidence of many of the leaders of that time is unbelievable, and that goes for people of all different beliefs. It minimizes someone as amazing as Jefferson to defend him by saying he shouldn’t be held to modern standards and couldn’t have known better. He was a guy who thought about everything if there ever was one, and who was way ahead of his time when it came to ideas and standards. He thought about these things, and made his choices. He was a complicated guy and left a complicated legacy, and I think he knew that.

          I agree many of these things can be tropes, but I was amazed at how much I am still impressed by many of their arguments. I don’t think all of them have become cliche – I think most people today think people from that era could never have shown such understanding or defiance of convention. Look at our politicians today, and imagine what would happen if a Grimke or Sumner or many others showed up. People don’t even believe that kind of person is possible, let alone successful. And at a point it seems kind of intentional to lower people’s expectations – Lydia Marie Child is best known today for writing “Over the River and Through the Woods” – no one mentions the rest of her life. http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/02/lydia-maria-child.html

          I want to shoot the accursed institution from all quarters of the globe. I think, from this time till I die, I shall stop firing only long enough to load my guns.

          Can you imagine someone being that straightforward now about a public policy issue, let alone a woman in 1802? And at the same time taking responsibility for it – not detailing the wrongness of her opponents and acting like her work was done, but announcing her intention to fight it with everything she had. Jane Grey Swisshelm is another one worth looking up.

          A poster recently made a comment along the lines of how it is too much to expect people to advance so far when in 1913 working women and modern social agitation were unimaginable. Try 1802! Anyways, glad you liked learning about Grimke!

  18. mussgr says:

    I’m happy to call this an ethically good post, and reply with a poem if I may (translation mine, text not) :

    Every time he saw, still a teenager, on TV or in books
    those famous wonders of the world,
    Pyramids, Great Walls, Cathedrals reaching to the sky,
    he thought of killers holding swords and whips
    and slaves buried in various foundations
    unable to hold out
    and others slain, torn apart by the guards,
    because in vain they tried to hide in their armpits
    a handful of grain or rice.

    That’s why he got really mad at the tourists
    and the couples in love
    who took photos in front of the Pyramids
    and had the doom of the slaves
    as background to their love.

    Oh, he was truly peculiar:
    when one day saw in the paper
    a favorite opera singer of his
    wear a Great Wall t-shirt
    (he was on tour in China)
    he tossed the paper in anger —
    and for a long time had stopped listening to his CDs.
    And when again in a bar
    found an old classmate of his
    showing the group photos of the Escorial
    (his Master’s in Spain being recent)
    he turned his back and left without saying a word —
    he knew, you see, how much Indian blood took the Escorial to be built…

    And so time passed —
    and so our hero grew,
    as we all grow eventually,
    (no, we don’t erase the blood of the Indians,
    just see things more generally,
    just put things in their historical frame).
    And the horror (which, after all, was only theoretical —
    a monomania of the mind, what can you do)
    started to dull, to retreat inside him —
    altogether natural too…

    Once, with his girlfriend
    — they were going well for a year now,
    thought seriously of an engagement —
    took a five-day trip to Cairo.
    Already on the second day
    their group visited Giza — however else?
    the tour guide spoke, as did tens of other tour guides in so many languages.
    But the tourists only half-listened,
    all posing for a photo with a background
    of four and a half thousand years of history beckoning…

    And as they stood in embrace
    a couple of co-travelling pensioners
    offered to take their photo
    (“if you young people don’t have their photo taken, who will…”)
    He had no trouble passing the camera;
    you see, the day was warm and poetic
    and the sun shone so magically by the Pyramids
    that he set aside his mind’s corpses.
    What can you do, that’s History, he thought.
    Besides, they were two people in love —
    is there anything more sacred than love?

    And so they took their photo;
    and the doom of the slaves
    was background to their sacred love.

  19. Zephalinda says:

    This seems like such an oddly messy post for SSC. On a site both beloved for precise reasoning and demonstrably well-read in moral philosophy, how are we leapfrogging here over the need to even define terms or set a system of moral premises? Why are “public respectability,” “self-regard” and “moral worth” blithely conflated, as though the modern novel hadn’t spent 200 years obsessively tracing the distinctions between the three? I feel as though I’m fundamentally not getting something.

    On a related note, I am intrigued by how thoroughly traditional moral terms like kindness, bravery, justice (at least in their private/ apolitical/ strictly interpersonal sense) have fallen out of these conversations, such that our go-to example of someone of dubious rectitude is not somebody who shirks at work, never calls their mom, cheats on their spouse and spreads gossip about their personal enemies, but somebody who doesn’t recycle.

    I mean, I thoroughly understand the utilitarian case for how really, by not recycling, you are dooming the entire human race, etc., etc., so not recycling is obviously much worse than X/Y/Z act of private selfishness or mild cruelty to relatives and friends. But it does seem like it’d have an interesting effect on people’s characters to be absolved from worrying about nonpolitical moral obligations. In circles where environment/anti-racism/animal rights really are the main moral axes, is there still awareness or discussion of the regular old virtues/vices that Shakespeare or Dickens would have written about, or are those just not things folks include in their moral inventories anymore?

    • jasmith79 says:

      I had the same thought. I wonder if it’s a geographical thing? In the part of the world I live in those are more common measures of a human being. Based on the people I know in the Bay Area, recycling would probably be higher on the list than the things you name.

      • aristides says:

        Agreed. Living in the religious South, infidelity, laziness, and not talking with family, are still some of the worst sins. Also, knowing people who at one point in their lives have hunted for survival, animal rights are not a high priority, unless it’s the rights of pets, since they perform a valuable service. Everyone needs a good hunting dog and mouser. Personally, I aspire to the utilitarian standard, but it’s a bit removed from my day to day life.

    • arlie says:

      That’s really interesting. This post benefitted a lot from the older connotations of terms like “good”, which do involve things like lying, cheating, stealing, etc. But how much did it use them?

      OTOH, I’m not overly worried about some of the things in the packages of “good” mentioned as Southern. Not calling family? Too many people in this (any) city are here in part because they needed to get away from their families-of-birth. The go-to example there would be disowned children whose sexuality/religion/whatever was unacceptable to their parents. Or now-grown-up children whose parents were bad enough that any rational person would have called “childrens services” in a heartbeat, if aware of what was actually occuring. But Al-Anon is full of people with less extreme reasons for avoiding family of birth.

    • srconstantin says:

      Agreed! Shirking at work, being a messy roommate, being rude or unkind to the people around you, etc, are much bigger deals than this post makes out.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      It is not super-clear to me why “doesn’t recycle” is in a different category than “cheats on spouse, spreads gossip, never calls mom.” The closest I can figure out is that the latter category is maybe less controversial than the former category? But in fact there are a lot of people who think most cases of never calling your mom are morally fine, and quite a few people who think American culture needs to be less hysterical about adultery. (The latter position on adultery is, of course, quite common historically.)

      • moridinamael says:

        The distinction, I think, is that the latter class predictably (near 100% likelihood) significantly harms some specific person or people that you personally know, while the latter class is a socially diluted action. By recycling you are having a very tiny (invisible to you, and impossible to be traced back to you personally) impact on a huge number of people.

        There is a certain perspective that the world would be, generally and on net, a better place if we cared more about our conduct with respect to our own universe of immediate social relationships and less about our investment in the grand abstract untraceable prosocial actions like recycling.

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          Shirking at work doesn’t necessarily hurt an identifiable person. In fact, not shirking very well might hurt identifiable people, if everyone has an (explicit or implicit) pact to do less work than they can so that they can hang out in the breakroom talking instead.

          • moridinamael says:

            There’s a difference between shirking and just not working at maximum capacity. If your team is depending on you and you fail to deliver it because you have consciously chosen to work only one hour a day despite collecting a full paycheck, then you’re harming your team, and in a sense you’re stealing their income.

            True, in a large corporation responsibility can be diluted quite a lot, but you can still see that you’re harming your immediate manager by consistently failing to perform adequately.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        The difference is that if you know that I cheat on my spouse or abandon my elderly parents, then you should absolutely not trust me. If I’m willing to betray the mother of my children and my own mother how can you possibly expect me not to betray anyone else as soon as it becomes convenient?

        Thinking about people’s character sounds old-fashioned but if you think about it from a game theory perspective it makes perfect sense. If you know that I’m willing to defect even against my own family, then it doesn’t make sense to ever risk cooperating with me.

        • arbitraryvalue says:

          >Thinking about people’s character sounds old-fashioned but if you think about it from a game theory perspective it makes perfect sense.

          I would go further and say that it is biology. Altruistic behavior towards one’s family and one’s tribe is what our moral sense evolved to encourage. Altruistic behavior towards total strangers on the other side of the world is a sort of memetic cancer; an idea that grows beyond naturally-selected constraints and reduces evolutionary fitness.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            I agree but as a practical matter you need to speak to people in their own language.

            Game theory is good here because it’s hard to argue against something that can be demonstrated with a mathematical proof. That math cashes out in evolutionary biology, which is the telos behind natural law, which is the foundation of traditional morality. But that chain of reasoning needs to be built one link at a time.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            @Nabil ad Dajjal

            I think we agree on all the substantive points, but I am amused to see you put game theory on a more fundamental level than evolutionary biology. It reminds me of little differences between me (originally a biologist) and physicists I work with: I intuitively started from the view that evolutionary biology is fundamental and game theory is a useful formalism for describing it (among other things) whereas a physicist would probably consider game theory fundamental and evolutionary biology an example of game theory “in action”.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            Eh. I’m not an evolutionary biologist but I am a regular biologist who’s pretty comfortable with not being at the most fundamental level.

            All of the biological processes I study are fundamentally biochemical, which is to say chemical. Chemistry is fundamentally about interactions between subatomic particles, which is to say physics. And physics is fundamentally grounded in mathematics.

            That’s not to say that any given mathematician could do my job better than I can or that my work is any less important than his. The same way that I would never presume to do a medical doctor’s job or say that my work is more important than medicine. Just that we’re all operating at very different levels of abstraction.

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          I mean, the vast majority of the time when people I know stop talking to their parents, it’s because their parents treat them like shit. I feel like from a game-theoretical perspective I should support more parent-abandonment than I currently do, because I don’t treat my friends like shit and thus gain no benefit from a “be tolerant of shitty people” rule, but I might have to spend time with the shitty-ass people my friends are loyal to.

          (In practice, I have loyalty and reciprocity intuitions that imply that one has a certain duty to one’s immediate family.)

          Also, I’m not sure that it makes sense to have a unitary factor of Tendency To Betray People. For example, some monogamous people of my acquaintance have no desire to date people outside of their primary relationship. Another poly person of my acquaintance cheated a lot when she was in monogamous relationships, because she needed to be dating multiple people to be happy; she would willpower through six months of abject misery and then give in. The latter involves cheating while the former doesn’t, but I feel like the latter provides far more information about how likely I am to be betrayed. (The answer is “no, unless the thing I ask for requires more than six months of abject misery,” which is a perfectly reasonable amount of willingness-to-not-betray-me IMO.)

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            The thing about “I abandoned my parents because they treated me like shit” and “I needed to cheat in order to be happy” is that while the former may occasionally be true, they’re both typically nothing more than self-serving rationalizations.

            I’ve heard both of them too many times to count, and nearly every time I scratched the surface of the victim narrative there was nothing but selfishness underneath.

            Someone who can betray the people closest to them and then rationalize it as a good or necessary action is not someone who I can rely on. Because they can, and in my experience will, do the same to me if given the chance.

          • DavidS says:

            I agree on the parents but with cheating she had the option of ending the relationship (or ending it conditional on it not becoming open). The sign it gives for future betrayal is not ‘choose betrayal over abject misery’ it’s ‘choose to deceive me about something important to me rather than be honest’.

            Having said that I don’t know how much.adultery really tells you and it definitely tells you different things. For some its self centeredness for some a particular contempt in relationships or to the opposite sex, some powers of rationalisation, some perhaps a real difference in understanding the social convention (how much do people really expect fidelity?)

        • 10240 says:

          If you know that I’m willing to defect even against my own family, then it doesn’t make sense to ever risk cooperating with me.

          Of course it makes sense to cooperate with you as long as I don’t put myself in a situation where you can significantly hurt me, or where I have a good reason to think that it’s not in your interest to hurt me. That’s my default approach anyway.

      • “quite a few people who think American culture needs to be less hysterical about adultery. (The latter position on adultery is, of course, quite common historically”

        Example?

      • PeterDonis says:

        It is not super-clear to me why “doesn’t recycle” is in a different category than “cheats on spouse, spreads gossip, never calls mom.”

        Because someone’s belief that “doesn’t recycle” is bad is based on a much longer and shakier chain of reasoning than someone’s belief that “cheats on spouse” is bad.

        It is true that both kinds of beliefs can be mistaken. I might be mistaken in thinking that my neighbor or coworker cheating on his spouse is bad, because I don’t know them well enough to know that they have an open marriage and their spouse is perfectly OK with it. But that’s not the same kind of error as mistakenly believing that “doesn’t recycle” is bad because I put too high a confidence in models that have so many free parameters and unknowns in them that any number you get out of them is highly questionable.

        • Ghillie Dhu says:

          I might be mistaken in thinking that my neighbor or coworker cheating on his spouse is bad, because I don’t know them well enough to know that they have an open marriage and their spouse is perfectly OK with it.

          “Cheating” implies breaking a rule surreptitiously; if the spouse knows and consents, whatever it is it’s not cheating.

          • PeterDonis says:

            “Cheating” implies breaking a rule surreptitiously; if the spouse knows and consents, whatever it is it’s not cheating.

            Yes, agreed. That just means I need to rephrase how I might be mistaken: I might think my neighbor is cheating on their spouse when they’re actually not. (In hindsight I should have phrased it that way originally.) My point that this is a very different kind of error from mistakenly believing that “doesn’t recycle” is bad still stands.

    • MereComments says:

      Yes, “precise reasoning”, “well-read in moral philosophy”, and also, “rejects out-of-hand moral philosophers like MacIntyre who could explain why this post is such a mess.” See the SSC dismissal of After Virtue. The result is posts like this: well-intentioned reason aimed like a firehose at moral presuppositions that have become completely unmoored from tradition. It comes out sounding like Alice trying to recite poetry after going through the Looking Glass.

    • mtl1882 says:

      Yup, you hit the nail on the head. It is completely bizarre how little mention any of these values get. It’s like people seem them as silly, unrealistic, and counterproductive. “Be amiable and a team player! No one wants bravery or standing up for what is right! Don’t be so difficult!” And when I try to raise these things with people I know, they go right to the cheating on the spouse thing! It’s like sure, not good, may indicate pervasive dishonesty – but didn’t they do 50 other things indicating dishonesty before that? That we excused because we don’t value bravery and expect our politicians to tell us nonsense? It’s a real problem. These things have a natural appeal to people and will resurface, but I’m afraid they’ll do so in a rather brutal way, like a return to a dueling society, if mainstream culture can’t seem to find a way to assign any value to them (which is a strong indictment of the culture).

  20. phil says:

    If you’re trying to maximize revenue, what you want is a system of price discrimination,

    If you’re an airline, you don’t want to demand the same price from college students who want to backpack Europe as you want to demand from business travelers.

    If you’re a movement or society, what you want to do is figure out a way to keep challenging people at all the different levels they’re at.

    In fact, probably one of your big risks for any movement is that you don’t keep your followers humble and continuously on the path for growth. And your congregation fills up with church ladies overly convinced of how much better people they are than the heathens, (which tends to be off putting to the heathens you’re hoping to get in the door)

    • soreff says:

      Re:

      If you’re a movement or society, what you want to do is figure out a way to keep challenging people at all the different levels they’re at.

      or Scott’s

      I think of society setting the targets for “good person” a lot like a CEO setting the targets for “good vacuum salesman”. If they’re attainable and linked to incentives – like praise, honor, and the right to feel proud of yourself – then they’ll make people put in an extra effort so they can end up in the “good person” category.

      I have to put up with this kind of thing at work – I do sell them my time.

      But in any other area of my life, if I catch someone trying to squeeze every drop of sweat out of my hide that they can… Ideally I’d choke the living shit out of them. Failing that – the right to feel proud of myself has nothing to do with what any moralist thinks, and neither praise nor blame from someone who would yoke me is worthy of my notice.

  21. Quixote says:

    When thinking about the populations, the right unit to think of is standard deviations not percentages. So if you want to call you self a good person you should aspire to be one standard deviation morally better than the population. If you manage to be two standard deviations morally superior you can feel great about yourself. At 2SD moral goodness, you can basically feel comfortable ignoring most criticism and telling anyone who disagrees to “*(&6 off”. This is well worth the sacrifices needed to obtain 2SD goodness status.

    • Enkidum says:

      Why?

      What if the distribution isn’t normal?

      I approve of nerdery and stats-related-nerdery in particular, but I think your “right unit” here is just as arbitrary as percentage, and Scott already specified the 50% cutoff was arbitrary.

      • Quixote says:

        I was a little tongue in cheek, but not totally, so I can back up my reasoning. “Moral goodness” is an aggregate quantity. There is how much you help third world poverty. There is if you remember to call your mom on her birthday. There is animal suffering. All these many subcomponents have their own distributions. When you aggregate lots of distributions together, the result tends to be normally distributed even if the underlying distributions are not themselves normal (note this can fail in some cases of infinite variance, which could apply here so my confidence on morality being normally distributed is probably less than 85%). So since morality is made of many sub distributions aggregated, and they most likely have finite variances, then moral worth should be normally distributed.
        Once you’ve bought into the normal distribution, standard deviations are a natural unit. And 1 and 2 are nice round whole numbers.

        • Enkidum says:

          God damn the central limit theorem does a lot of heavy lifting. I retract my objection sir/madam, good work.

        • MTSowbug says:

          This emergence of the normal distribution from numerous underlying distributions is only true if the underlying distributions are aggregated additively. If the underlying distributions are aggregated multiplicatively, then the lognormal distribution emerges instead. This matters because the lognormal distribution is asymmetric and does not possess a consistent relationship between standard deviations and percentiles. Lognormality shows up in areas such as wealth, lifespan, and biological growth rates.

          I have no intuition on the right way to aggregate components of morality. I just want to clarify a limitation of the approach you’re describing.

  22. Murphy says:

    I kinda think that society spends too much time and resources glorifying generals and similar for shooting people and blowing shit up vs altruists. Go to a local park in most major cities and the statue is probably of some general sitting on a horse or an admiral staring off into the distance. Ditto for politicians.

    Where is the giant 1000 foot high stone monument to the people who invented anesthetic. You don’t need to go through many surgeries to appreciate their contribution to your quality of life more than any military general.

    Ditto for extraordinary altruists. I’d quite like to see a situation where there’s a site as famous as Mt Rushmore dedicated to billionaires who give the majority of their money to important charities to save lives with a special section for the ones who give 95%+ of their total net worth. If it prompted even 1 extra such person to do so it would be a net win for the world.

    I’m less concerned with splitting people up into good vs bad. Rather I’d like to see our social norms adapted such that we move or create finish lines for what society considers success: manage to enter this pantheon? congratulations, you’re officially maxed out the score card. That guy who bought a really gigantic yacht and an island with his money? He’s not even close, no monuments for him and history will forget him.

    Though you may be able to tell from my post, I’m less interested in trying to shame people and more interested in creating norms that encourage massive charitable giving among the most wealthy.

    • 1soru1 says:

      > generals and similar for shooting people and blowing shit up vs altruists

      Almost all generals _are_ altruists; the main exceptions are those in third world countries where it’s a euphemism for warlord. They generally work hard, for relatively modest reward, for what they see as the right side.

      For example, the guys whose statues litter the South weren’t fighting for personal profit from loot, or because the Confederacy paid more for the work than the Union. They were motivated by altruism; the desire to make the world a better place, or at least prevent it becoming a worse one. And if you do that well, and someone gives you a medal, or puts a statue up, that’s a bonus.

      The fact that their definition of ‘better’ was based on the right of free men to own slaves doesn’t change anything about the psychology of the way they thought.

      Note that I think you do have to define altruism in this relative way, based on intent and psychology, not results. Otherwise you end up defining a ruthless and selfish capitalist who develops something useful as an altruist, which is clearly wrong.

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        I would much rather have the world be full of ruthless and selfish capitalists inventing useful things than I would have it be full of “altruists” ordering men to die in horrible pain so that other men can have the legal right to rape and torture human beings. If the latter is our example of altruism, and the former our example of selfishness, let us build statues to Ayn Rand in every park.

        • Garrett says:

          FYI: Ayn Rand was explicitly against rape and torture. (Okay, there was that one scene in the Fountainhead which was kind of rapey, but I’m pretty certain that was an outlier and her philosophical works certainly weren’t in favor of rape).

      • drethelin says:

        I think you have a hugely skewed perspective on Generals. Historically almost all generals are in it for Power, Money, and Glory. Your mistake might be that you’re considering the average monetary rewards for being a general compared to the work involved. But like competitors in a golf tournament, the players aren’t doing it for the average reward, even if most of them don’t even earn that. They’re doing for the potential to become the next Tiger Woods, a world famous billionaire. Historically most generals did not become Ceasars or Napoleons. But I bet most of them wanted to be. People playing the lottery aren’t considered altruists even though the actual result of most of their tickets is to give money to the government.

        Even if you you ignore the potential extremely high wealth, generals indisputably ARE rewarded a lot more power than almost anyone else, and get a lot more personal glory. A lot of people value that more than money, and desire for those things is not altruistic.

        • Watchman says:

          I think your views of the motives of generals need a bit of referencing to be honest. As a counterpoint, the last general in the UK to go on to political power (after he retired and in a family tradition) was the Duke of Wellington in the 1830s. The UK might be the exception of course, but since we’ve fought a fair few wars since the Battle of Waterloo (and been able to at least claim we won the majority of them) we’ve clearly had the springboard for generals with ambitions to try and exploit. I can’t think of any who have done so though.

          • drethelin says:

            Sorry but political power is not the only kind of power. The lowest ranking general usually commands somewhere north of 10 thousand men. If this isn’t power, what is? In addition, he probably controls the disposition of billions of dollars of materiel, and commands respect from everyone he meets even if they’re not directly under his command.

          • DavidS says:

            That’s a very different argument to aiming to be Caesar or Napoleon though. Some use military leadership to try to seize political power but very few of those more recent one we put up statues to. Your take is more true for ancient greece/Rome of course

    • Deiseach says:

      Where is the giant 1000 foot high stone monument to the people who invented anesthetic.

      Possibly none as yet because it’s a more fraught topic than I had imagined. The first person who publicly demonstrated the use of ether as an anaesthetic was an American dentist, but it’s blurry if he was the inventor; according to Wikipedia, he learned about the effects of ether in a chemistry class taken during study for a medical degree (his prospective inlaws wanted a doctor not a dentist as a son-in-law) so was his teacher the actual inventor? There is dispute, to say the least:

      In the autumn of 1844, Morton entered Harvard Medical School and attended the chemistry lectures of Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who introduced Morton to the anesthetic properties of ether. Morton then left Harvard without graduating. On September 30, 1846, Morton performed a painless tooth extraction after administering ether to a patient. Upon reading a favorable newspaper account of this event, Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow arranged for a now-famous demonstration of ether on October 16, 1846 at the operating theater of the Massachusetts General Hospital, or MGH. At this demonstration Dr. John Collins Warren painlessly removed a tumor from the neck of a Mr. Edward Gilbert Abbott. … The MGH theatre came to be known as the Ether Dome and has been preserved as a monument to this historic event. Following the demonstration, Morton tried to hide the identity of the substance Abbott had inhaled, by referring to it as “Letheon”, but it soon was found to be ether.

      A month after this demonstration, a patent was issued for “letheon”, although it was widely known by then that the inhalant was ether. The medical community at large condemned the patent as unjust and illiberal in such a humane and scientific profession. Morton assured his colleagues that he would not restrict the use of ether among hospitals and charitable institutions, alleging that his motives for seeking a patent were to ensure the competent administration of ether and to prevent its misuse or abuse, as well as to recoup the expenditures of its development. Morton’s pursuit of credit for and profit from the administration of ether was complicated by the furtive and sometimes deceptive tactics he employed during its development, as well as the competing claims of other doctors, most notably his former mentor, Dr. Jackson. Morton’s own efforts to obtain patents overseas also undermined his assertions of philanthropic intent. Consequently, no effort was made to enforce the patent, and ether soon came into general use.

      In December 1846, Morton applied to Congress for “national recompense” of $100,000, but this too was complicated by the claims of Jackson and Wells as discoverers of ether, and so Morton’s application proved fruitless. He made similar applications in 1849, 1851, and 1853, and all failed. He later sought remuneration for his achievement through a futile attempt to sue the United States government.

    • jasmith79 says:

      Otherwise you end up defining a ruthless and selfish capitalist who develops something useful as an altruist, which is clearly wrong.

      Then we need another word to describe the good done by the capitalist. If you follow Theory-of-Moral-Sentiments Adam Smith, then it’s the defining feature of capitalism.

      Unoriginal question, who has done more good for the world, Bill Gates or Mother Theresa? Mother Theresa’s CV includes a life spent personally helping the poorest of the poor and making every sacrifice that could possibly be made. Bill Gates’ contributions to the world include impersonally saving untold millions of lives via vaccination campaigns (also saddling us all with a crappy operating system via unscrupulous business practices). It probably cost him a slightly gianter giant yacht etc.

      The answer is that it’s a trick question. It compares two different things that get lumped together under the word “altruism”. I won’t argue which is better, but I hope it’s obvious that both are good. Now you might say that’s a twisting of your quote since you mentioned the utility of invention rather than charity, but capitalists who develop useful stuff actually have a fairly good track record of contributing to charity.

      • 1soru1 says:

        Can’t say I agree. Bill Gates is clearly both an altruist and a capitalist, Mother Theresa is clearly an altruist but not a capitalist, Hetty Green was a capitalist but not an altruist.

        It’s precisely because, as Adam Smith argues, under some circumstances it is possible to predictably do good without being motivated by the good done that there is a distinction to be made there.

        It was probably economically impossible to become rich selling health services to the 1950’s Calcutta poor, just as it is currently economically impossible to become rich by selling an operating system, or running a militia in the US.

        In either case, those who end up doing the job are those who do it for intrinsic motivations, including altruism.

      • belvarine says:

        >Then we need another word to describe the good done by the capitalist.

        To paraphrase Zizek as linked earlier: “Fixing with one hand what was broken by the other”

        Or as Oscar Wilde put it:

        “They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.”

      • Enkidum says:

        I think it’s very dubious that Mother Teresa was good, for the standard Hitchens reasons. But otherwise agreed, mostly.

    • Salem says:

      I’m not at all sure that Crawford W. Long was an “altruist.” He was a physician, just doing his job. William Morton and Horace Wells definitely weren’t altruists. Anaesthesia is certainly amazing, but why should altruists get any credit for it? More generally, very few of the positive developments in the world so far are down to altruists, so how sure are you that we should be celebrating them?

      It’s mostly an empirical question what makes society better off – billionaires investing their money in new businesses and technologies, or donating it to charities. Why are you so confident that charitable donations would be better? We’re in the middle of the biggest uptick in human flourishing in history, and it is economic development, not charity, that’s lifted billions out of poverty in the last two generations.

      I’m not at all sure that altruism has a positive track record in the world, let alone more positive than the opportunity cost. Yes, there’s the occasional Mother Teresa, but there’s also the Khmer Rouge, the Crusades, 9/11, Prohibition, most wars, Daesh, occupational licensing, the Holodomor… need I go on?

      How about instead we celebrate people who made tremendous contributions to human flourishing, regardless of their motivations. And I think generally we do. There are plenty of statues of people like Isembard Kingdom Brunel, Alexander Fleming, Charles Darwin, James Watt, etc. The reason there isn’t a statue of the inventor of anaesthesia is because it’s not clear who invented it, not because scientists and engineers aren’t celebrated in society. And if there are also statues of Nelson, Wellington, Churchill, etc – well, those guys deserve them too.

    • bean says:

      Where is the giant 1000 foot high stone monument to the people who invented anesthetic.

      It’s not that tall, but there is one in Boston Common (or possibly the garden next to it). It’s not to any specific person, because of the priority dispute Deiseach mentions. I believe someone suggested it should be dedicated “to ether”.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.

      Thomas Jefferson probably never said that famous quote, but it’s not any less accurate for that misattribution.

      A society without the ability to defend itself can only ever exist as a protectorate of a society which can. It might feel holier to depend on the good will of other men to protect you, but it’s a risky proposition.

      Ask Ukraine if you think that unilateral disarmament is a good idea. Do you think that the ten thousand or so Ukrainians who have died to date in the War in the Donbas are worth having the purity of relying on American good will instead of their own nuclear deterrent?

    • sourcreamus says:

      Up until about 50 years ago in all of recorded history the difference between a relatively good life and death by starvation or a lifetime of slavery was the quality of generals your society produced.

    • Uribe says:

      Preston Sturges made a big Hollywood movie in 1944 starring Joel McCrea called The Great Moment about the dentist who discovered the use of ether for general anesthesia. It’s a sort of attempt at building a statue to the guy. It’s not remembered because it’s not a very good movie.

      (The movie includes all the controversy described above by Deiseach. There’s a villain and a hero in it.)

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I mostly agree with you, but you might be underestimating how bad it is to be conquered.

      Now I’m wondering how much fame accrues to those who pursue expansive war vs. those who pursue defensive war.

  23. MarginalCost says:

    The Christian approach to this question is possibly what I like most about Christianity. It starts by unabashedly saying: yes, everyone has fallen short. Though it is theoretically possible to live the maximally ethical life, in practice, you need to come to terms with the fact that you will not meet that bar, and the damage it causes. But then, rather than creating a polite fiction that it’s okay to meet a lower bar, it asks for people to acknowledge these shortcomings, and then ask for mercy and forgiveness. Finally it says to go on and do the best you can anyway. Not because you will meet some lower threshold, but because you ought want to do the least possible damage.

    Every other religion seems to essentially just lower the ethical bar. Christianity is the only religion I’m aware of that doesn’t shy away from the terrible implications of a maximally ethical life, but simultaneously offers well-founded grace for those who don’t meet it.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      I think there’s an equivalent concept in Hinduism, actually. You’ll never be maximally good, the consequences of bad actions follow you beyond the grave, but you can dissolve that karma by asking for Vishnu/Shiva”s grace.

      Still, your point is an important one. It seems like Scott pays an awful lot of money for the privilege of being surrounded by Marxists and vegans who make him feel worthless, when he could be earning the same income practicing psychiatry in a city where Christians are more common than those extremists.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        I don’t what Marxists have to do with it..
        1. Do you mean materialists in that a Marxist view requires that everything is up to man?
        2. Or do you mean the Marxist phrase “no ethical consumption under capitalism,” which implies that there would be ethical consumption if we got rid of capitalism?

        If #1 and you are not a Christian anyway, why would a more Christian city like Saint Louis make someone feel any better? It might make them feel very much worse since there won’t be as many people putting much intellectual effort into solving bigger societal problems. If the price you have to pay is some people are hyper-scrupulous that’s not the worst thing. Additionally, messed up scrupulosity exists among Christians too. Kids who are terrified to form emotional attachments with relatives whom they think are going to hell, or crippling anxiety caused by their own masturbation, or an inability to be in social situations where the people around are talking about sex or drugs or atheism or the possibility that Christianity might be wrong on some important things. If you are a Christian, I am sure you know these immiserated Christians well.

        If #2, Scott was using that phrase as a lead. He, AFAIK, does not believe in any other viable economics besides ‘capitalism.’

    • woah77 says:

      I was going to say something to this effect, and then found someone already had. You keep being your righteous self.

    • Michael Handy says:

      If I recall, Christianity says that you can’t meet a maximally good life, even in principle, due to Original Sin. The position you take (We can, but it is practically impossible to do so.) is the Pelagian Heresy

    • DragonMilk says:

      Ever listen to Tim Keller sermons?

      The particular one linked is from a series on sin.

  24. Kuiperdolin says:

    Part III seems to waver between “above average” and “above median”, presumably based on the assumption that there is a normal-ish distribution of goodness.

    “Above average” is more attainable. We only need one person to remain really really bad and almost everyone can be above average goodness (“is there much difference between 0.01% of people being bad, and nobody being bad?”). Of course they’ll go to hell afterward, but surely there are more than 1 human who is unconcerned about that.

    Kind of an ethical Omelas.

  25. Deiseach says:

    yetzer hara

    Being unfamiliar with the term, I had to Google it and it reminds me (need to tread carefully here since a superficial similarity does not mean the two concepts are developed on the same theological lines) of concupiscence, one of the damages of Original Sin done to humanity (by depriving us of the preternatural gifts and reducing us to our natural state):

    In its widest acceptation, concupiscence is any yearning of the soul for good; in its strict and specific acceptation, a desire of the lower appetite contrary to reason. …But the lower appetite is of itself unrestrained, so as to pursue sensuous gratifications independently of the understanding and without regard to the good of the higher faculties. …If, in fact, the will resists, a struggle ensues, the sensuous appetite rebelliously demanding its gratification, reason, on the contrary, clinging to its own spiritual interests and asserting its control. “The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.”

    From the explanation given, it is plain that the opposition between appetite and reason is natural in man, and that, though it be an imperfection, it is not a corruption of human nature. Nor have the inordinate desires (actual concupiscence) or the proneness to them (habitual concupiscence) the nature of sin; for sin, being the free and deliberate transgression of the law of God, can be only in the rational will; though it be true that they are temptations to sin, becoming the stronger and the more frequent the oftener they have been indulged. …The first parents were free from concupiscence, so that their sensuous appetite was perfectly subject to reason; and this freedom they were to transmit to posterity provided they observed the commandment of God. …In our first parents, however, this complete dominion of reason over appetite was no natural perfection or acquirement, but a preternatural gift of God, that is, a gift not due to human nature; nor was it, on the other hand, the essence of their original justice, which consisted in sanctifying grace; it was but a complement added to the latter by the Divine bounty. By the sin of Adam freedom from concupiscence was forfeited not only for himself, but also for all his posterity …Human nature was deprived of both its preternatural and supernatural gifts and graces, the lower appetite began to lust against the spirit, and evil habits, contracted by personal sins, wrought disorder in the body, obscured the mind, and weakened the power of the will, without, however, destroying its freedom.

  26. Nootropic cormorant says:

    Morality is explicitly prescriptive, but its origin is descriptive. Romans couldn’t consider anti-slavery attitudes moral because they, tautologically, never observed a moral person espousing them. It is a model of how a hypothetical moral person would act. Morality is a way that society explains itself to itself, the good reap rewards and the sinful are punished.

    Wickedness may exist presently and escape punishment, but there is understanding that evil defeats itself, it cannot go on without destroying society itself, through God’s wrath, environmental disasters, reversions into fascism or feudalism, or, for Nietzsche, through destroying itself in the eternal return; there’s a prophecy that a society without evil will arise, or at least that the state of evil cannot continue perpetually.

    Saying that nobody is good is only possible in such a historical perspective in which the author’s ideals reach fixation in society of the future, and everyone will look at his ideological opponents with the same scorn that we reserve for Confederates or Nazis today.

    It is common to explore moral systems different from ours, but perhaps we should question more how universal the concept of ‘morality’ is in general. It seems obvious that different cultures may partition the space of social respect, and social valuations in general, in different ways, so that morality, virtue, power, prudency, health, piety, privilege, lawfulness and so on may appear mixed-up from our perspective.

    We can also observe how the concept of morality is shifting in our very society, from a virtue oriented to a utilitarian/consequentialist one. The worst evil is opposing ongoing projects to eradicate social ills, be they sexism, racism, pollution or drunk driving. It becomes less and less about personal quality, after all, “everyone is a bit racist”, and it increasingly doesn’t matter if you’re literally colorblind or how good of a husband you are, if anything these detract from helping the cause(s) on a wider, more effective level.

    Performing politically incorrect speech is not viciously attacked because it shows off your prejudices, after all we were all thinking it; but because you are defecting from a social experiment we agreed on, and the part of the experiment is pretending that nobody was thinking it until everyone stops thinking it (good luck with that).

  27. skaladom says:

    On this topic I like to leave a link to a thought-provoking article that I largely agree with: The superogatory acts are the ones that matter.

    Maybe I’m just lucky due to being naturally mild-mannered and not prone to conflict, but I refuse to subscribe to any morality that amounts to telling everyone (except possibly a small number of saints) that they are not good enough.

    This does not go against attempts at bettering my character – indeed this has been quite a major theme in this life, and I’ve used various tools, including experimenting with the five buddhist lay precepts. But for me it’s really important to own one’s own actions, so I take whatever I did in the past to be exactly what I was able to do at that point, no more, no less. If guilt comes up as a feeling, I will acknowledge it as a feeling, but not dwell on it or encourage it by comparing myself to some idealized moral version. I’ll just try to learn from the experience and make better decisions in the future.

    On the other hand, I can personally confirm that whatever amount of virtue that I’ve been able to develop or enhance, is very much their own reward. Much more rewarding than I would have expected. This has the nice side effect that I don’t need to look for external approval for them, and leaves me completely uninterested in activism of any sort.

    Even more so, for me it’s more rewarding and important to try to make my interactions with other people turn out positive for all sides (“win-win”, as they say nowadays), than to evaluate them on moral principles such as fairness.

  28. JohnBuridan says:

    When we consider moral evil in daily life, Scott has a weakness that does not permit him to be vegetarian. He knows his weakness and has found a solution in that’s in the right direction. This strikes me as morally praiseworthy. “Better to eat a fish than gag and die,” 1 Cor. 7:9.

    The moral evil of other people is either caused by a weakness, a lack of knowledge, or both. We should interpret the abominable beliefs of our coworkers as either caused by a weakness (perhaps fear) or a lack of knowledge (immigrants won’t actually take your job) not maliciousness. Malice is not something we can see inside of a person. If you want to know about malice, you can only look inside yourself.

    So what should you aim for? Self-knowledge and self-control, I believe, can be practiced although not perfected. We also should try to know and take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and the evils we are complicit in when doing them.

    Unfortunately, we are always to some extent connected to every evil in society. Sometimes our actions very close contribute to the evil action, other times our actions/inaction only very remotely contribute.
    For a long time slavery was part of society, no one fathomed a way to have civilization without it. In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” some people are walkers and some are stayers. I’m a stayer.

    I don’t know what to think of how people boycott stores based upon that store’s charitable giving practices, or use of low-wage labor, or incentivizing of blood diamonds, or use of metal from Congo, but I would rather there be these evils to address than walk away from society all together.

  29. jw says:

    This post really pisses me off. How about instead of measuring how ‘moral’ I am, you just leave me the hell alone and let me judge for myself!!!

    You couch this post in talking about what WE should do and what should be OUR policy on eating meat and driving SUVs, and then quickly, naturally, move on to what the talking about what the real goal is, “How do we FORCE people to do what we want!” I don’t care one wit about what vegans do or what they eat or how they act UNTIL they decide it is a freaking MORAL imperative for them to label me EVIL. Just leave me the heck alone!!! I don’t care about your morals around eating meat. Then you mention racism, and yeah racism is evil, but you know what, we did a damn good job of using persuasion and communication to teach people not to be racist. Our society is not perfect, but its massively less racist than it was 60 years ago. But like you say in your article we’ve moved past judging people for being blatantly racist to screaming at them about their Halloween costumes. What’s next, judging people to be racist because their skin color is the same as some of those racist people in the past? Oh, wait, too late.

    You want to know how to eliminate immoral evil, how to stop people from doing all the “bad things” look in the damn mirror! The actual ultimate evil is imposing your moral code on another who does not want it to be imposed on them. And as CS Lewis says: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” In this post you’re waving your hands saying “yes, yes, me, me, I’ll be your moral busybody, I so want to suppress others for their own good!”

    The left is just chomping at the bit to punish all those with the “wrong” morals. Funny the one moral failing neither you nor any other leftist mention is the failing of “killing unborn humans”. Yeah that’s totally not a moral quandary, because abortion is totally a right, right? Please note that hardcore 2nd amendment believers do not miss the fact that the left is totally fine will killing millions of children, so we may not really believe you when you say you have to take our guns “because of the children”. Oh and as for you getting bent out of shape about me meat eating or driving an SUV? Pound sand.

    The left is getting obsessed with punishing all those who don’t tic all the “correct” moral checkboxes. Your preening post on “how can we get them to change” disgusts me. Because in the end if the left gets enough power to enforce these moral goals, it will become easy to judge who the true moral people are and which people are truly immoral. The left already relishes and cheers scaring, terrorizing, and destroying the lives of those who disagree with their “morals”, it won’t take much for them to move to hurting and killing those who disagree. And they’ll be hurting people “for their own good” and have a clear conscience. If that’s not the real face of evil, I don’t know what is.

    This is why the core value of Christianity is so important. And the core of Christianity is NOT the charity that you spend a good bit of the article pumping your chest out to signal, the core of Christianity is forgiveness. Forgiveness is under a total unrelenting onslaught these days. Allowing another to do something you think is not moral, and yet forgiving them, and having them do likewise for your failings is THE ONLY way for us to live on this world together in harmony. Accepting others at they are, and based on who they choose to be (and its none of your damned business if I want to eat meat or drive an SUV!!) is the only way we keep ourselves from falling into destructive, chaotic, bloody conflict.

    Your best post ever was about how the left was running around shouting that everyone who didn’t agree with them was a murderer and deserved to be killed. In this post, your worst ever, you play the part of the murderist.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      This was a great screed and accurately reflects how many people I know feel. Other readers should know the above post is not a weird anomaly.

      @jw You seem to want two different things: harmony through forgiveness and being left alone. I think your Christian beliefs drive the former, and fear drives the latter. On the one hand you want evil to stopped through calm conversation, on the other hand you don’t want to talk to the “evil babykiller leftists.” Forgive the libs and talk with ’em OR accuse them of hypocrisy and force pro-life legislation.

      • jw says:

        Sorry, I was a little harsh on the abortion point to drive home the dichotomy of demanding I stop eating meat while ignoring someone who says stop killing the unborn.

        My actual stance on abortion is that I consider all conscious abortion (where the woman knows she’s pregnant) a sin. I would like to see less sin, BUT I am not willing to legislate my morality to make it so. If someone doesn’t believe it to be a sin, so be it, but I’ll forgive them and ask God to forgive them anyway.

        With respect to what society should do about abortion, my position comes down to this. Once the fetus has a slim chance of surviving outside the mother’s womb, I consider her taking action to abort that fetus to be much much closer to a concept of murder. So my stance is that abortion should be illegal after 20 weeks (outside of medical emergencies where doctor’s discretion at what can be done to save mother and child should be paramount), and legal before 20 weeks. This ends the horrendous IMHO immoral practice of partial birth abortions, but yet still provides women choice. It is in my opinion a very middle ground position. Its also one the left is fighting against allowing happen tooth and nail.

        And yet, all I’ll do is say we should do that and elect representatives who would support that. I’m not gonna march, I’m not gonna shame people, I’m not going to scream in women who’ve had abortions faces. I’m just going to as God to forgive their sin an pray for them, and I’m going to want counselors to council them if they come to doubt their choice.

        This is the real point I was trying to make. Change their morals through love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace and not through fear and force. And if they don’t want to change, just live your life and let them live theirs.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Change their morals through love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace and not through fear and force. And if they don’t want to change, just live your life and let them live theirs.

          This is a great reminder. Thank you. We need to have a lot more love, compassion, and grace. Even aside from being morally good in its own right, that’ll win longer-lasting victories than any we might get by force.

          Regarding your specific example, on the other hand – do you approve of murder (in the prototypical sense) being illegal? If we were in Hypotheticalistan where it was legal, would you want to elect representatives to outlaw it? Where do you draw the line between that and abortion? Myself, I draw a line on the other side, placing abortion in the small category of sins-that-should-be-outlawed.

          • jw says:

            I’m a pragmatist. One step at a time, and hopefully if abortions got banned at 20 weeks, women would think longer and harder about doing them before then as well.

            Ideally the best case is no laws against abortion, and yet no abortions happening. I know many adoptive parents, and truly believe that mothers of unwanted children should realize that there are a lot of good people out there that would love to raise their child.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Sure, in the ideal world, there’ll be no laws or taxes or police, and also no murder or abortion or theft. I don’t expect that to happen anytime before Christ returns and gives us all perfectly-sanctified hearts. I agree we can reduce abortion a lot, but pragmatically, I don’t think we can ever bring it down to zero (with or without laws against it, but outlawing it on top of doing all the other methods would get it closer.)

          • PeterDonis says:

            @jw:
            I know many adoptive parents, and truly believe that mothers of unwanted children should realize that there are a lot of good people out there that would love to raise their child.

            This is an important point to make in conjunction with your stance on abortion (which I think is very reasonable).

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      >and its none of your damned business if I want to eat meat or drive an SUV!!

      But most Christian sects condone (even advocate) forceful intervention (even violence) to prevent certain acts seen as sufficiently great evils. Maybe you’re a Shaker truly dedicated to non-violence in all circumstances (which I think would lead more to dying a martyr than actually living a peaceful life if it were not a small minority belief in a larger society willing to do violence). But the average Christian would use force to, for example, prevent you from killing humans for food. I would use force to prevent you from killing animals for food, if I had the power. What’s the difference there?

      Edit: for the record, my personal belief is that having a low threshold for resorting to violence is of course in itself very dangerous and often leads to great evils, so it is better to tolerate some evils than to lower that threshold. But which evils are evil enough to justify a violent response is not obvious.

      • jw says:

        NAP believer. I’m not going to do anything to hurt you unless you come at me. And then as a Christian I’ll feel bad about it and ask God for forgiveness. But I’m not Christlike enough to let people come for me an mine without a fight.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      Effective animal advocates do not want to murder omnivores. A huge amount of effort has been placed in developing alternatives to animal products– from the Impossible Burger to eggless mayo to (someday) clean meat– so that even the most committed omnivore will find that they have a better alternative to eating meat. We want to reach out to the conflicted omnivore and help them to reduce their animal product consumption; we don’t want to terrorize people or destroy their lives. (Sorry about PETA. If it helps, I was recently at a conference where someone mentioned that a charity thought that we had any control over PETA, and then the entire room was silent for a few minutes as we contemplated how wonderful it would be if we could get PETA to Stop.)

      Honestly, it is somewhat concerning to me that you view “thinks someone is doing something morally wrong” as equivalent to “wants to murder the person”– particularly since you think I’m doing something morally wrong! 🙂

      • arbitraryvalue says:

        >Effective animal advocates do not want to murder omnivores.

        What is your definition of “want” here? I agree that the tactics that you describe are the ones currently most effective for reducing meat consumption, but I don’t think that means that’s what an effective animal advocate must necessarily want any more than I want to sit in traffic when I am sitting in traffic in order to drive to my destination.

        So while in practice I find that quietly setting a good example is in most cases the best extant way to reduce other people’s meat consumption, if I had the power to make meat eating illegal I would do it. (That’s not “murdering” but it is the use of force.)

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          I would too, but if I had a “lab meat tomorrow” button I would also press it, and if I had both a “lab meat tomorrow” and a “make meat illegal tomorrow” button and could only press one I would press the former.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            But I guess JW is right to be cautious of animal advocates like us – we don’t coerce him because we can’t, not because we are fundamentally opposed to coercion.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            In the sense that you’re cautious of everyone who isn’t an anarchist, yes? Most people support violent coercion about something. I generally support a below-average level of violent coercion, I feel.

          • jw says:

            Honestly, I would fight you tooth and nail if you pressed the “make meat illegal tomorrow” button and if you created “lab meat tomorrow”, I’m way to curious not to at least try it and see what it tastes like.

          • PeterDonis says:

            @Ozy Frantz:
            Most people support violent coercion about something. I generally support a below-average level of violent coercion, I feel.

            I don’t think the issue is “what level of coercion do you support”, but “what kinds of things do you think warrant coercion”? Or perhaps a better way of putting it is, “How high a confidence do you need to have that a thing is just plain wrong, before you feel justified in using coercion to prevent it”?

      • jw says:

        Then you better be on hand to help cleanup when the deer population gets out of control and blight wipes out half the population. Our you could just let hunters keep the population in check.

        • arbitraryvalue says:

          That’s not really fair: there are other ways to deal with out-of-control populations. (I don’t think we’ll have open season on humans, for example.)

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            Or, for that matter, on animals that hunters don’t want to hunt!

            That said, I worked until recently in wild-animal welfare and I suspect that the ideal wildlife management program, from the perspective of wild-animal welfare, would probably involve a nonzero amount of stalking. (Although not hunting with dogs, helicopters, etc.) Hunting is a money-earner for a wildlife manager, and choosing hunting over wildlife contraception to manage populations would save money that could be used for vaccination programs, etc.

            That said, hunters often advocate for animal populations to be unsustainably high, to the detriment of their welfare and of ecosystems as a whole, so that they can hunt more animals. It is far from clear that hunters have a positive effect on deer overpopulation!

          • JohnBuridan says:

            Ozy, I’m interested in link or resources for more on the topic of hunting, ecosystems, and “the hunting lobby.”

      • oppressedminority says:

        The hard part will be reaching out to those immoral meat-eating tigers, lions, wolves, bears, cheetahs, leopards, etc. and educating them about how eating meat is problematic.

    • DragonMilk says:

      jw, Here‘s something to cheer you up perhaps!

    • Anonymous` says:

      Such a great comment. (Even though I’m an atheist and think that pre-brain-activity abortion is definitely not murder, and whether early-brain-activity abortion is murder is ambiguous with our current level of science.)

    • Bamboozle says:

      So what do we do about situations where each individual acts according to their own will but indirectly acts against the collective’s best interests? Say you just want us to leave you alone so you can keep eating polar bears, but the rest of us want you to stop eating polar bears. Would you bow to the whims of the majority, or would you say F@#K you i do what I want?

      All i’m getting from this is you shouting “I’m a conflict theorist, bring it on let’s fight”.

      • Skivverus says:

        Empirically speaking, what happens is “the rest of us” pass a law to make eating polar bears illegal.
        As for whether that’s moral or not, well, that’s the question under consideration in the first place, no? “How many people do it” isn’t a matter of morality*, but of practicality. If everyone except one person loves eating polar bears, and that last person views it an abomination and wants everyone else to stop, that doesn’t actually change the moral valence of polar bear eating.

        *Arguments over relativism notwithstanding

  30. srconstantin says:

    Wow, this is incredibly not how I think about my own personal moral improvement, and I think my way is better, so at the risk of sounding self-centered I think I’ll explain how I think about things.

    I ask myself, at regular intervals, “what’s the biggest negative impact I’m having on other people through my current behavior?” And then I try to get rid of that. And, meanwhile, I try to feel good.

    As far as I can tell, for most of my life, the biggest negative impacts I have are on the people immediately around me, through being insensitive or careless or needing too much help. I’m basically having a negligible effect, personally, on social ills like racism or global warming. And my best bet at improving any global-scale problem is picking one or maybe a few, and dedicating my skills to working on them — and I’m doing that, with the problem I’m most personally interested in.

    The target for “feeling okay” is, in my opinion, “am I working on the most important problem,” not “are all my problems solved.” I am doing pretty much nothing to combat racism and I’m okay with that; it’s low priority, since I don’t think I do a lot of harm racism-wise, and I also am not really able to do much good given my present strengths and weaknesses.

    If you think in these terms, you’ll inevitably find that the most important problems are kind of self-improvement-ish — there are *huge* benefits and harm reductions from improving mental health, for example. Or developing new skills to use for good.

    I think most of us reading this blog are actually in a meaningfully different position from an antebellum Southern plantation owner with regard to morality. He could “make a difference” for hundreds of human beings with a decision that was entirely up to him — he could free his slaves. Most of us don’t have hundreds of human beings whose quality of life depends directly on whether or not we sign a piece of paper. I’m not saying that our society doesn’t have problems as bad as slavery or that we’re more virtuous than slaveowners, but that we’re not in positions of direct power with opportunities to do as much large-scale good or evil personally as they were. We mostly affect our friends and families, and we affect the odds that we’ll do something big in the future.

    • srconstantin says:

      By far my biggest source of (justified) guilt right now is insufficient productivity at work, followed closely by not doing enough parenting stuff. It sometimes nags at me that I don’t give enough to charity (which is basically a consequence of not having my personal-finance/frugality act together; giving 10% to charity would make me richer in the long run, I’m just kind of bad at budgeting.) I occasionally feel concern that I haven’t done my own calculations about what I even think about the moral value of animals, but that’s kind of lower on the list.

      I care exactly zero about my impact on global warming, because I *did* try to run the numbers back in college, and environmental economists have found that there’s basically *no* way to make restricting emissions through regulation look like a good buy in cost-benefit terms, and certainly no way that personal asceticism matters at all. (There may be a better utilitarian case for regulation to reduce industrial use of toxins, but once again, personal consumption choices can’t really affect that.)

    • strangepoop says:

      As far as I can tell, for most of my life, the biggest negative impacts I have are on the people immediately around me, through being insensitive or careless

      I think most of us reading this blog are actually in a meaningfully different position from an antebellum Southern plantation owner with regard to morality. He could “make a difference” for hundreds of human beings with a decision that was entirely up to him — he could free his slaves. Most of us don’t have hundreds of human beings whose quality of life depends directly on whether or not we sign a piece of paper.

      Huh? I don’t know how much you make, but this is exactly the power that money gives you. And the 100x effect makes it likely that you’re probably “compliciting” a lot more horrible things to unknown strangers than your friends and family. Unless you’re starving them or letting them die of diseases, surely your apathy is not hitting your loved ones that bad?

    • Ghillie Dhu says:

      He could “make a difference” for hundreds of human beings with a decision that was entirely up to him — he could free his slaves.

      Not super the point, but I recently learned that at least at some times & places in the antebellum South manumission wasn’t a simple matter of signing a document; there were often legal & financial restrictions on the act such that some owners literally couldn’t perform it.

  31. quitelikelyblog says:

    I usually hear the “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” in the context of “therefore stop bothering me with this latest outrage we’re supposed to start a consumer boycott over.” The theory, put in these terms, is that the time and effort put into doing all the necessary calculations of the kind described in this post is better put towards something more productive.

  32. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    I really wish that Jim Donald was still here, because this is exactly his concept of the leftist singularity / purity spiral.

    If you try to optimize purity, to maximize righteousness, you predictably end up alone in a desolated wasteland putting up monuments like this:

    天生萬物以養人
    人無一善以報天
    殺殺殺殺殺殺殺

    Heaven brings forth innumerable things to nurture man.
    Man has nothing good with which to recompense Heaven.
    Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.

    People need to hold to a few extremely basic standards of decency and behavior. To satisfise goodness, so that they can get along with their sinful lives and make the unrighteous world around them that much more livable. A respected saint living out in the desert isn’t a danger to that project, and saints should be strongly encouraged to make themselves more holy far far out in the wilderness.

  33. Aging Loser says:

    The most Effectively Altruistic thing that commenters here who don’t yet have children can do is to have children. (This is a nice thing that I’ve just said, not a mean thing, and I truly like you all.)

    • Faza (TCM) says:

      It may be the most Effectively Altruistic, but it would also mean condemning someone I don’t even know to a life of suffering and death – and a child at that!

      I think I’ll pass.

      • jw says:

        Wow. The stunning epic moral preening and pretentiousness of the childless against parents never ceases to amaze me.

        Children are a gift from God, miracles.

      • professorgerm says:

        Alternatively, you’re denying someone a life filled with richness and beauty and joy, and possibly denying the rest of the world one of its great lights (unless you have good reason to think your child would be a monster, I suppose).

        Much like most free will debates, the emphasis of this community on a vague definition of suffering baffles me.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          The problem with that line of thought is twofold:
          1. There would have to be someone to deny first and until such a person exists, it’s kinda hard to find the victim,

          2. I cannot guarantee richness, beauty or joy. The sickness, suffering, loss and death are guaranteed and within my full knowledge. As for the rest of the world – I don’t believe I owe them any “great lights”, nor would I put such a responsibility on the shoulders of anyone (let alone someone I cannot ask if they would like to bear it).

          Aside: My definition of suffering is anything but vague: pain, fever, nausea, loss of loved ones, stress, frustration, violence, dealing with rude or stupid people, etc., etc. Y’know, the kind of stuff you and I and everyone in existence has to develop coping mechanisms for.

          If any of this seems abstract to you, count yourself luckier than everyone else.

      • Watchman says:

        I’d suggest you review your sanctions for misbehaviour. They seem rather extreme.

    • Evan Þ says:

      I’d like to have children someday, but certain prerequisites aren’t yet in place. Perhaps an even more Effectively Altruistic thing would be to start a matchmaking service?

      (And now that I say that, I’m reminded of the principle of comparative advantage and how I’m not signed up for the perhaps-marginally-less-effective services already in place. Oh well; maybe after I get my next two $Projects done.)

    • skaladom says:

      How is that altruistic? Given that humans are quickly whacking the planet to the point of facing probable drastic decreases in life quality, if not the real possibility of extinction, and given that our collective footprint grows with human population, which is still growing steadily, bringing an extra child to the world does not prima facie look to me like a net positive.

      • jw says:

        I’m an active rejector of Malthusian predictions of despair and destruction. Doomsayers have been wrong so many times and humanity has so many times found solutions to hard problems.

        Your prediction of doom is no different form Malthus’, or Erlich’s, or Hansen’s and yet THIS time, you’re certain that you’re correct. 20 years ago, climate alarmists said where I live would now be in a continuous severe drought. Last year had record rainfall. Doom sells, I get it.

        My real fear is that one day the doomsayers are going to ban the technological advance that would save us. Who knows, the climate alarmists absolute misguided zeal to not use nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions may have already done us in. I often wonder, if the left could have stopped the green revolution and gotten the famines they warned about, would have done it just so their doom prediction could be right for once?

      • professorgerm says:

        If you think intelligence and tendency towards altruism are even slightly heritable, then by not having children (and I mean the committed antinatalists) are dooming the future of humanity to people that are less intelligent and less altruistic than them.

        Frankly, I think many antinatalists are using it as an intellectual veneer for hedonism, but that’s just my thoughts.

        And perhaps, in the long view, it will be better for humanity if self-identified rationalists don’t have kids. Technologically-advanced people will slowly die out, eventually the Amish inherit the Earth and live in an agrarian paradise forevermore, Amen.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          If you think intelligence and tendency towards altruism are even slightly heritable, then by not having children (and I mean the committed antinatalists) are dooming the future of humanity to people that are less intelligent and less altruistic than them.

          If this is the case, then I believe the punishment is self-inflicted (i.e. if future people ruin their own lives, they only have themselves to blame).

        • dionisos says:

          If you think intelligence and tendency towards altruism are even slightly heritable, then by not having children (and I mean the committed antinatalists) are dooming the future of humanity to people that are less intelligent and less altruistic than them.

          It seems like a long term concern given how many generations a slight influence will need to spread.

          When not having children, free you a lot of time and money you could use to influence the world much more strongly and in short-term and middle-term. (have influence on the non-heritable part, modify society structure, help with some FAI problems, etc…)

  34. jamienyc says:

    The basic problem with this analysis is that it takes all people’s claims at face value. There was this woman with the chest of a 12-year old boy screeching at Trump in Pittsburgh: “We welcome everyone here! We are so tolerant! You are NOT welcome here!” Looking at her on TV, it’s obvious she’s a head case – why would we have to parse her word salad for deep meaning? I believe it’s the same with most strident environmentalists, animal rights advocates, etc.

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      How is the woman’s bust size relevant? What’s your motivation for mentioning it?

    • Aftagley says:

      1. Mentioning physical features in your post raises my prior that you’re coming at this from a skewed perspective.

      2. What about her statement at Face Value implies she’s a head case of that her words need to be parsed for deeper meaning? She’s laying out what seems like a fairly simple argument.

    • christopher hodge says:

      What is the definition of welcomeness in a place? Presumably in Pittsburgh there are a million people who say “orange man BAD” and a million people who say “MAGA”; and the former do not welcome Trump, and the latter do? How out of balance do those numbers have to be before one “is not welcome” in Pittsburgh in an unqualified sense? Is such baseless universalization a uniquely left-wing phenomenon or do working class rural whites also display a tendency to move implicitly from “my demographic doesn’t like this” to “this thing is unqualifiedly bad”? These are all questions you have provoked in me, in addition to wondering whether bust size and political leaning are correlated, though that’s less important.

  35. deciusbrutus says:

    “Good people” are those that are above-average (or 1Σ above average, or whatever compared to the average.

    A good person is a source of virtue.

    The total virtue of the world is based on the number of good people in it.

    I can make the world more virtuous either by procreating wildly and leaving the distribution of goodness the same, or efficiently.

    To efficiently make the world virtueous I must become Evils Georg, and singlehandedly shift the average by many percentile. And enough people must do likewise that we are not outliers.

    This, the Tbird Reich was born.

  36. HeelBearCub says:

    A few, perhaps interrelated, points.

    The first is that the whole post starts from a premise that makes very little sense, which is that one can only be in the binary state of good/bad. One is either unequivocally good or unequivocally bad. Ironically, the title, and the apparent conclusion that has been derived, attempt to eschew the premise, but the application seems to me to only serve to reinforce the basic idea. For example:

    And part of what holds me back is that I let myself feel like I am being good and helping save animals and have the right to feel proud when I keep my rule, and I beat myself up and feel bad and blameworthy when I break it.

    I have repeatedly made the contention that moral axioms in a system need to be assessed based on the ways in which they are in tension with each other. Attempting to move to close to any one pool necessarily increases tension on others. Necessarily we then need to assess behavior on an analogue rather than binary scale. This should not lead to the conclusion that one or the other of the axioms should be abandoned. Failure to understand that we can always “disprove” certain axioms by simply showing a monstrous outcome for adhering too closely to a single moral principle is a mistake.

    The second, interrelated point is that this black and white, binary thinking seems like a hallmark of Scott’s general outlook. Attempting to derive conclusions as if this outlook is universal seems to me to be a “typical mind” blindspot of his. Put simply, most people don’t actually think this way, even though the binary language we have might make it seem that way.

    • jw says:

      I’m just willing to be light gray.

      First, because its impossible to be pristine white, and second because all the scrubbing to try and be truly white will stain your soul with darkness.

  37. Do unto others 20% better than you would expect them to do unto you, to correct for subjective error..

    – Linus Pauling

    Telling people to be better than average won’t work because more than half of people think that they’re more moral than average. But there’s probably some threshold where that would work.

  38. stationarywaves says:

    This seems preposterous:

    But if I am right that this is the strictest rule I can keep, then I’m not sure who it benefits to remind me that I am scum. Deny me the right to feel okay when I do my half-assed attempt at virtue, and I will just make no attempt at virtue, and this will be worse for me and worse for animals.

    It might work for ethical vegetarianism, but it doesn’t work for basic moral sentiments like “Don’t beat your wife.” Imagine if you tried to make that argument: I only beat my wife twice a weak. If this is the strictest rule I can keep, then I’m not sure who benefits to remind me that I am scum. Deny me the right to feel okay when I do my half-assed attempt at virtue, and I will just make no attempt at virtue…

    But in reality, this is an easy problem to address, and I’m surprised you missed it. There are two kinds of moral obligations: (1) Doing better, and (2) Not being evil.

    (1) consists of making the world a better place in whatever way you can. This encompasses charitable donations, polite personal interactions, moral theorizing, and so on.

    (2) consists of avoiding reprehensible acts, like domestic abuse, human rights violations, sadism, machiavellianism, and so on.

    Clearly no moral theory that does not encompass both (1) and (2) is worth very much at all. Some very strict moralists try to make everything into (2), and some lackadaisical moral frou-frou-ists try to make everything into (1). But neither approach is a complete moral system because it ignores the important moral work done by the category they’re ignoring.

    You need both things.

    • Statismagician says:

      I don’t see how a systematic attempt at morality can avoid collapsing (1) into (2) or vice-versa; if a thing makes the world a better place then it is reprehensible not to do to the extent I can; not doing a reprehensible thing given the opportunity makes the world a better place. It’s trivial which one I think is primary, at the systems level; this is only a distinction at the implicit individual-action level, to my mind.

      • stationarywaves says:

        I’m curious as to why you feel that the two concepts must be collapsed. “I want to give 1% more to charity this year relative to last year” definitely need not collapse into “It is a moral travesty that anyone does not increase their charitable contributions by at least 1%!!!”

        And you can pull any other example you like. “I want to spend more time with my family” is a very different statement than “It is unethical to spend less than 48 minutes per evening with my family!!!”

        There is absolutely no need to collapse one thing into another. (1) is an attempt to live a better life by improving existing conditions; (2) is an attempt to set a minimum acceptable standard for all interactions.

        But now I’m just repeating myself when I should be asking you to flesh out your ideas more fully, instead. If you don’t mind, that is.

        • Statismagician says:

          Certainly. I want to specify that you’re clearly right about how people actually consider moral questions in the wild, as it were; my disagreement is with the idea that this applies to complete moral systems as well.

          The subject matter of morality is potentially the set of all interactions among onesself and the world. A system is complete if its conclusions are completely deducible from first principles. Therefore, a complete moral system needs to be able to speak on any potential question of morality such that it never returns ‘missing’ by accident – something like which flavor of gum to by can be a-moral in the sense of ‘does not rise to the level of moral significance’, but your system is not complete if, for example, it ever declines to provide an answer on whether or not it’s okay to kill somebody (as an example of the class of things which are definitely morally significant).

          Suppose a computer running KantianEthicsv101, which simulates freshman philosophy students’ understanding of the categorical imperative. This is a complete (if simplistic) moral system in that it really does take a position on everything. An action is universalizable or it isn’t. The computer’s position on any moral question is binary, moral or immoral as defined by the categorical imperative. Given sufficient data, even things like which flavor of chewing gum flag as moral or immoral; maybe the dye used in Wintergreen flavor turns out to be contributing to cardiovascular diseases in some tiny way so we should all buy moral un-dyed Mint, or maybe if everybody does that it’ll crash the economy. I don’t know, but give the computer enough information and it will return a value of moral or immoral, on any question which is subject to the axiom ‘do only that which you can, as you do it, will it to become a universal law.’

          Obviously there are weights involved. If I ask the computer to rank the set of immoral things by the degree to which they should be condemned, it will probably put ‘buying Wintergreen/Mint gum’ lower on the list than e.g. releasing a genetically-modified superplague. But these are both the same category of thing, ‘that-which-has-moral-significance,’ the category which a complete moral system must be able to handle completely.

          The system is still complete if it excludes certain types of question from moral consideration. Lots of hypothetical ethics programs probably have in their variable-definitions section something like ‘if input question is about gum flavoring and not really weird then delete and scold user.’ It’s predictable from first principles that the system declines to take a position on this subject; gum is defined as not-a-thing-which-has-moral-significance.

          For any member of the class ‘thing-which-has-moral-significance’ under your moral system, the system recommends taking the moral path as defined by that system. My position is that, while it’s certainly fine* to use the ‘make the world a better place’ system as well as the ‘don’t be evil’ system and essentially everyone does this, we’re using the two as a kludge solution to the problem posed by our lack of a complete system. By definition, each system fails to operate on at least some things which we clearly consider to be in the class of things-which-have-moral-significance, since they’re in the other system’s subject matter. Furthermore there will be weird edge cases where the two overlap (when all philosophical dilemmas; Utilitarianism e.g. has no trolley problem given sufficient data, nor does Kant).

          Similarly, there are degrees of morality/immorality in any system more complex than the simplified-Kant one above; a thing less than perfectly moral without tripping the system’s ‘you are now immoral, fix it immediately and feel bad about yourself’ flag (not giving more money to charity). This is genereally a composite value including how much money you’re giving to charity right now, how much money you have, etc, but, as this is a thing-of-moral-significance, it is moral or immoral to some degree depending on the system. It’s unimportant if that judgement comes from the equivalent of a whitelist filter (all of these are good things to do; your make the world a better place system) or a blacklist filter (these are evil; your don’t be evil system). A complete moral system can deal with both equally (even if it’s by excluding them from consideration; something awful and solipsistic defines everything in the don’t-be-evil system as not morally significant, for example).

          TL;DR: The reason why something is moral isn’t important; it is or it isn’t moral (to some degree). A complete moral system returns judgments on all things of moral significance by definition, therefore either ‘don’t be evil’ should end up included in the set of ways you should be making the world a better place, ‘make the world a better place when you can’ should end up included in the list of ways you shouldn’t be evil, you’re actually using a moral system which has both of these as subroutines (unlikely because they do clash sometimes, see e.g. the Trolley Problem), or neither is a complete system. Which is fine*; I don’t think anybody ever claimed that humans are naturally perfect exemplars of moral reasoning. I’m certainly not, at least.

          *It’s probably immoral in a complete system, but the meta-ethics of moral model selection are too much for this post.

          • stationarywaves says:

            This is a good comment, and very interesting. I’m left with the impression that you consider a complete moral system to be outside the capabilities of moral agents, ie. human beings. Do I have that right?

          • Statismagician says:

            Not exactly – I think it’s very important to be clear on what we mean by morality, and that the colloquial usage (which I think maps to something like ‘seems Good at the snap-judgement biocultural programming level,’ and the rigorous, etymological usage ‘in accordance with tradition/custom/rules,’ from the Latin mores don’t mean anything like the same thing. The upshot is that we call ‘moral’ a lot of things which conflict with what I suspect we’d claim are our moral precepts; e.g. if I’m a proper Utilitarian a donation to the Humane Society presumably produces less utils than one to the AMF, and is therefore not a moral act in the strict sense (note: not actually a proper Utilitarian and may be wrong about how obviously-less-than-maximally-effective actions are processed).

            It’s not logically-impossible, just practically very hard. And I suspect, given the degree to which we all lie to ourselves a bit about our actual motivations and underlying decision-making processes, a truly moral person probably looks somewhat unpredictable and more than a bit unsettling.

      • arlie says:

        I think the missing axiom you’ve added (without stating it) is that moral considerations are primary – i.e. the purpose of life is to maximize moral value.

        Given that axiom, it is reprehensible not to act to make the world a better place to the extent you can, including many things most moral intuitions would reject (e.g. committing suicide and/or mass murder, to reduce the impact of humans on the environment by getting rid of some of them). You can fudge any specific one, by adding not doing that to your list of things required to make the world a better place. But you’ll end up with an ever growing laundry list that rarely supports decision making.

        That lack of decision support can then be addressed by trying to rank moral goals – and then you have a mess far more complex than the one caused by distinguishing positive and negative moral commandments in the first place.

        Meanwhile, you’ve converted people who act on your theory into paperclip maximizers for morality. IMO, that’s the real problem with your theory – maximizing morality isn’t in fact the only/highest good, and actually successfully doing so seems unlikely to have good results.

        • stationarywaves says:

          +1 this sounds right to me.

        • Statismagician says:

          Alternatively, and c.f. ridiculously long post above, choose better terminal values and check your moral system is actually complete. Repugnant conclusions are generally the result of lacking data or incomplete axiom ennumeration.

          Also, if you’re going to claim to be operating under a moral system… sorry, you’ve already defined the moral as better than the immoral and vice-versa. How you choose to prioritize actually being moral is up to you, but the moral judgement was already there the moment you set out your principles – there’s no metaphysical force stopping a (straw) pacifist from killing a man in self-defense, but he himself said he believed as a terminal value that it was never acceptable to use violence and will have to square with that somehow.

      • PeterDonis says:

        I don’t see how a systematic attempt at morality can avoid collapsing (1) into (2) or vice-versa; if a thing makes the world a better place then it is reprehensible not to do to the extent I can; not doing a reprehensible thing given the opportunity makes the world a better place.

        The difference is that “making the world a better place” is open-ended, abstract, and hard to translate into specific concrete things. “Don’t do reprehensible acts”, by contrast, is clear and easy to translate into specific concrete things. It’s true that, logically, both kinds of things make the world a better place than it would have been if you didn’t do them, and both kinds of things involve a sort of obligation; but conceptually, they are very different and require different approaches, so it seems to me that any morality that wanted to be at all practical would do well to treat them separately.

    • Michael Handy says:

      But this is more or less how moral progress on “Beating your Wife” was made. first prohibition on murder, then restrictions on how the severity and type of the beating, then propaganda like Taming of the Shrew, showing that you could control your wife without beating her even ONCE! As each became a norm and thus “Easy” the moral line was pushed forwards.

      • stationarywaves says:

        You mean moral progress at the social level, right? Certainly no individual came to a conclusion against wife-beating by first accepting that murder was wrong, and then accepting restrictions on the severity of wife-beating, and then etc, etc.

        I explicitly and deliberately refuse to think of morality as a social endeavor. Morality describes my attempt to live my own best kind of life. It in no way describes how consistent I am with prevailing social norms. I realize that makes me an odd duck, but I’ve always been an odd duck and do not want to change.

      • Statismagician says:

        I don’t think anybody can plausibly claim that human society is operating under a complete moral system. This is moreover orthogonal to the question of how individual morality works/ought to work, as stationarywaves points out.

    • arlie says:

      Yes! After reading this thread, I was thinking about posting a comment about how I don’t think I do morals at all. This is a chunk of why the thread seems to be saying that “morality” has nothing much to do with anything in my life.

      I don’t see “becoming a better person” as a relevant goal. If someone’s doing that because they want social approval (rather than for its own sake), it’s almost certainly easier to fake it than really do it. Teenagers seem to go through a phase where such a goal is emotionally relevant, but I’m old enough to potentially have teenaged great grandchildren, assuming unrealistic (but physically possible) early breeding for multiple generations.

      I try to avoid (2) and use selection policies of type (1) when all else is equal, which it rarely is. I’m not running around making huge ostentatious personal sacrifices that aren’t coordinated with my neighbours – and not doing the same thing privately either. As far as I can tell, the amount of effect can personally have that way is less than I could theoretically have by voting – which is regularly argued to be a waste of time and effort.

      I cannot make a living without working for people I know to be liars, and telling lies of my own. Of course being on the autistic cpectrum, I have a very strict definition of lying, that many non-autistic people wouldn’t agree with; they mostly act as if the lies involved are totally on the false-but-not-really-lies part of the honesty spectrum, except when they don’t even recognize the falsehoods for what they are.

      I cannot get to my workpace without significantly contributing to pollution and energy costs … 30 years ago, I could have walked, at immense costs in time spent, but I’m not that young and healthy any more. (And bicycles are not an option – I’ve never been competent enough to ride safely beside/in automobile traffic.) Also, currently the local air quality is bad enough that walking – or even being outdoors – is being discouraged. (And as climate change progresses, this will be a more frequent occurance.)

      I continue to eat meat. I dislike cooking, and in my local area, prepared foods not involving meat are usually loaded with “flavour” in forms that will predictably give me indigestion. That’s unfortunate, since I actually enjoy vegetarian food, or did before the “must have peppers to keep it from being boring” fad completely took over. Back when I had time/energy/wiilingness to cook, I cooked a lot of vegetarian food myself – that wasn’t loaded with problematic flavour enhancers, and actually tasted good.

      Realizing that both of those are probably praiseworthy, by some political-tribal standards, I’m struggling to find something that I do that both I and supporters of that tribe would agree was problematic, and failing. The best I can come up with is donating a negligible amount to charity, in spite of being better off than most people in this country – or the world, for that matter. I’m not rich, but I’m comortable – and comfortable in a notably expensive metropoltain area. And my donations to charities have, if anything, dropped over time, as they’ve resulted in mailboxes full of solicitations to donate still more, from all kinds of random charities that may or may not be outright scamsters, not just those I’d actually vetted.

      • stationarywaves says:

        I don’t see “becoming a better person” as a relevant goal. If someone’s doing that because they want social approval (rather than for its own sake), it’s almost certainly easier to fake it than really do it.

        In your comment, you don’t discuss the other “if,” ie. if someone is doing it for its own sake. Have you genuinely considered such a possibility? Are you familiar with, for example, the Aristotelian virtues? Many people endeavor to live such virtues, not as a social signaling process, but because they genuinely believe, as Aristotle did, that living in a manner consistent with those virtues improves one’s quality of life.

        As far as I can tell, the amount of effect can personally have that way is less than I could theoretically have by voting

        Again, have you considered a more practical approach to personal morality? Have you considered the possibility that living in accordance with your own choice of ethical virtues may in fact improve your quality of life on a personal level? Or is morality, in your opinion, always and everywhere about making a change in society as a whole?

        I cannot make a living without working for people I know to be liars

        Is working with a liar unethical, in your opinion? I see no reason why I am ethically prohibited from working with a liar so long as I don’t tell lies myself.

        I cannot get to my workpace without significantly contributing to pollution and energy costs

        You surely don’t mean significance in the statistical sense, right? Because I can guarantee you that your contribution to both pollution and energy costs is not statistically significant. Thus, I wonder in what other sense your contribution could be considered “significant?”

        I continue to eat meat.

        Me, too. It’s delicious. There’s nothing in my personal code of ethics that prevents me from eating meat. I am aware of the objections, and I find them unconvincing. That’s my decision. I think it’s a shame if your diet causes you moral conflict; but I also believe that any moral tenet that causes one’s everyday life to be a source of sadness is something worth revisiting.

        Any morality worth living ought to make our individual lives better, not worse; or so I believe.

        • JubileeJones says:

          “Any morality worth living ought to make our individual lives better, not worse” – I’m not sure how this works. Lots of things that would make your individual life better seem pretty immoral. Stealing small valuables in situations where you’re sure you won’t get caught. Supporting the harvest of organs from third-world countries. Keeping members of a racial group that you don’t belong to as slaves.

          Is there a difference between “Any morality worth living ought to make our lives better” and “if it makes our lives better, it must be moral”? It feels like I’m implicitly accusing you of, I dunno, affirming the consequent or something. My problem is, for any immoral thing which improves your life, I can imagine a hypothetical world where THAT is the status quo, and in that world, a version of you would be resisting any change to the status quo, saying “any morality worth living ought to make our lives better.”

          Maybe you’ll come back with “well, no, those things are evil; I would feel so bad about doing any of those things that my life wouldn’t really be better.” But consider: if we WERE living in slaveowning times, and arlie came to you and expressed concern that maybe keeping his slaves was immoral, but he wasn’t in a financial position to free them, wouldn’t antebellum!stationarywaves tell them that “any moral tenet that causes one’s everyday life to be a source of sadness is something worth revisiting”?

          • Salem says:

            I never know how seriously to take these claims. Do you really think you’d be better off if you stole in situations where you were sure you won’t get caught? Even though people are often “sure” about things, and turn out to be wrong? Even though it would mean having to assess lots of situations for the possibility of getting caught, which would itself make you look less trustworthy? I don’t steal, and I don’t think that this is some act of renunciation which enriches my soul but harms my wallet, compared to opportunistic thieves. Similarly, “honesty is the best policy.”

          • JubileeJones says:

            @Salem, That’s not really the point, at all. Weaken the example to “steal items of sufficient value, in situations with sufficiently low chances of getting caught”, and it’s still an immoral thing which would improve your life. You can even factor in the probability of getting caught, and use that to offset the value, if you like. As I said: not the point.

          • Salem says:

            It may not be your point, but it is at least part of Ryan’s point. Go read his (excellent) blog. Attractive morality does look a lot like enlightened self-interest. Unattractive, Jellyby-like morality looks like when enlightened self-interest has been lost.

            If you really think that morality and self-interest collide, you should be able to give a clear example. The fact that your examples show no such collision is revealing. And note that it needs to be something that Ryan would find immoral, not you.

            I repeat my earlier challenge – do you really think following the rule “steal items of sufficient value, in situations with sufficiently low chances of getting caught” would make you happier than a general policy of “don’t steal”? I don’t. I mean, we can always imagine weird corner cases where it might make me happier to steal (“Would you steal bread to feed your starving family?”) but those are exactly the same corner cases where we might not think it was immoral anyway.

    • muskwalker says:

      But in reality, this is an easy problem to address, and I’m surprised you missed it. There are two kinds of moral obligations: (1) Doing better, and (2) Not being evil.

      (1) consists of making the world a better place in whatever way you can. This encompasses charitable donations, polite personal interactions, moral theorizing, and so on.

      (2) consists of avoiding reprehensible acts, like domestic abuse, human rights violations, sadism, machiavellianism, and so on.

      Yes. This post and this comment reminded me a lot of the part in Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within You where he makes a contrast between an ideal of infinite goodness (“The divine perfection is the asymptote of human life to which it is always striving, and always approaching, though it can only be reached in infinity.”) and the minimum bar set by particular precepts (which “must and will be followed by higher and higher precepts”) “showing the level below which we cannot fall in the attainment of this ideal”.

      The infinite ideal looks like your #1, the particular precepts your #2, and the kind of goodness discussed here would be adhering to the precepts and being oriented towards generally approaching the ideal—at least, assuming we’ve already decided what the ideals should be, and where that minimum bar of reprehensibility currently lies within our group… which may make the question circular.

      • stationarywaves says:

        I’m a Tolstoy fan, so I’m pleased to read your comment. I probably acquired this idea through Tolstoy-osmosis of some kind. Thanks for elaborating. 🙂

  39. blacktrance says:

    The root problem is the presumption of altruistic morality – none of these are issues for egoists. If your judgments are mostly based on what you do for others, infinite obligation is the natural conclusion, and you have to add some questionable epicycles if you don’t want to bite the bullet. But if you fall morally short within egoism, you are the primary victim and already suffer the consequences, so there’s no reason to feel additionally bad.

    I understand that some people believe that morality is external to them and requires them to be altruists. But if you aren’t a substantive moral realist, don’t impose this torturous view of goodness upon yourself.

  40. arbitraryvalue says:

    Consider the case of those horrifying children’s stories where all animals have human-like intelligence and share a common language, but predators still have a need to consume flesh. Maybe you could reduce suffering in that world by lauding those predators who only eat the minimum needed for survival as “moral” but would they actually *be* moral? I would argue that they are less immoral that their more gluttonous brethren, but only in the sense that someone who kicks one puppy is less immoral than someone who kicks two puppies. Telling them that they are moral could be one of those lies-for-the-sake-of-good that Kant disapproved of, but it would still be a lie.

    The reason I use a fundamental biological requirement for life as the cause of immorality in my example is that I think humans are also biologically incapable of truly moral behavior. Evolution saw to that. I would say that extinction is our moral duty (we have the technology already, but it might be better to wait until we can really cook the planet all the way through to prevent intelligent life from evolving again) but actually I’m optimistic that we will be able to create truly moral artificial intelligence. I guess then we’ll find out if God will be the forgiving sort, but I can’t say we don’t deserve smiting.

    • jw says:

      Wow, your post is almost off the scale nihilist.

      As for me, I want us to follow the Golden Path (see Dune) and push for Humanity’s eternal survival.

      • arbitraryvalue says:

        Is my philosophy nihilist? I thought a nihilist would deny the existence of morality as a meaningful concept rather than accepting the concept of morality but denying that humans can be moral. I suppose when I’m in a good mood I’m a nihilist, since then I might think that moral impulses should be treated no differently than other essentially arbitrary preferences: I would risk everything to protect my friends and family the same way I like broccoli; I don’t donate a penny to charity the same way I don’t like carrots. But at heart I don’t believe that.

        Edit: also what is “NAP”?

    • Mr. Doolittle says:

      Please excuse this question if you don’t want to answer, but I rarely find myself the opportunity to ask someone with a very different worldview this kind of question.

      What moral good would an empty world produce, that is not produced by a world with life in it? As in, what does the universe care if the molecules in it form “organic” compounds or remain as rocks and dust and gas? The harm we cause one another? Without some alternate basis for morality, “harm” and “pain” are but brain signals no more relevant to the universe than hydrogen atoms combining in a star or gravity forcing sediments into rocks. If nothing is there to care, what makes something morally better?

      • arbitraryvalue says:

        I don’t think morality is real in any physical sense. To quote myself from elsewhere in the comments:

        Altruistic behavior towards one’s family and one’s tribe is what our moral sense evolved to encourage. Altruistic behavior towards total strangers on the other side of the world is a sort of memetic cancer; an idea that grows beyond naturally-selected constraints and reduces evolutionary fitness.

        So I don’t think the universe cares in any way about our existence or our suffering. But I accept the existence of my moral sense, and my moral sense tells me things like “it is wrong not to care when another person dies”. Yet another person dies about three times a second, and therefore I am not moral by my own definition of morality. Meanwhile I can imagine a being which is moral by that same definition.

        Or are you asking why I would prefer an empty universe to a universe with good in it, even if there was also evil there. I haven’t come to a conclusion on this issue. If we were talking about creating a new universe with life from nothing, I would be aghast. But destroying the life that already exists does seem quite different. But is that perception of difference just due to my selfishness?

        • jw says:

          If you’re arguing against the existence of the universe, I gotta stick with my ultimate nihilist comment! 😉

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          Or are you asking why I would prefer an empty universe to a universe with good in it, even if there was also evil there.

          Yes, this was more the question I am asking.

          If we were talking about creating a new universe with life from nothing, I would be aghast.

          If you can say this and mean it, then your last question almost certainly has to be answered Yes? We can imagine better and worse ways for all life to cease existing, such that one creates more suffering than another. If there were a way that all life ends with no distinct suffering, then that seems morally quite close to refusing to create a universe with life. Because of the timescale involved, even removing all life in a very painful and horrible manner would be a tiny blip and then blessed nothingness.

          Now, if your perspective was closer to “mildly against” than “aghast” then there’s more room for nuance about whether your preference for current life over potential life is selfish.

          What’s your perspective on the relative levels of good and evil in the world? 50/50, 90/10 either way? Do you think that a higher level of good or less evil would change your opinion about creating a new universe with life in it?

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            I see what you’re getting at, but I’m one of those people who believes (or at least suspects) that there is a moral difference between actively doing something and passively allowing something to happen (or not happen). It’s not usually a very interesting difference – allowing something bad to happen through inaction is less bad than actively doing that bad thing, but still bad. But it gets more complicated than I’ve been able to figure out to my satisfaction when talking about creating or failing to create new beings. Obviously killing a baby is much much worse than simply choosing not to reproduce…

    • JohnBuridan says:

      http://library.uniteddiversity.coop/Cooperatives/A_Cooperative_Species-Human_Reciprocity_and_Its_Evolution.pdf

      1. There is no evidence that non-tribal altruism reduces fitness in a modern context. See chapter 8 of the above.

      2. The fact that tribal-altruism has evolved into existence means that it does exist in a biological way.

      3. I believe you are right that scarcity and the finitude of the physical world is the source of most of our immorality. Because we are finite and biological, we are limited in knowledge, competitive with resources, and lacking in self-control.

      • arbitraryvalue says:

        That book looks interesting but I don’t understand what aspects of my post your points are addressing.

        I think that humans (and many other animals) can, to some extent, act altruistically, and that this was selected for by evolution. Therefore I agree with your point (2).

        I have no opinion either way on point (1) before I read that chapter. It may certainly be the case that the levels of non-tribal altruism which we in fact observe do not reduce fitness. I claim only that truly perfect altruism, the sort that values every other human exactly as much as the self, would reduce fitness; such a perfect altruist would never take the time to reproduce when he could have been helping others instead. (I suppose a perfectly altruistic AI that could copy its “mind” might take the time to self-replicate as a means to increase the good it does over the long term, but that isn’t really relevant to humans.)

    • dionisos says:

      I would say that extinction is our moral duty (we have the technology already, but it might be better to wait until we can really cook the planet all the way through to prevent intelligent life from evolving again)

      It seems very dangerous to me, I don’t think the “planet boiling” will stay very long boiling and that it will be perfectly complete, and so life could re-spread pretty quickly and we have to wait some billions of years again before having some rational agents with these kind of goals.

      I prefer the AI path.

  41. Benjamin Arthur Schwab says:

    Everybody gets angry at price discrimination??? I’ve been treated at several sliding scale health clinics and while I have occasionally gotten angry at the treatment given me (or attempted treatment), I’ve never been angry at the pricing structure. I’ve also stayed at sliding scale lodging and didn’t get angry (I was in the second most expensive of four categories).

    I do think that if a company or whatever tries to be sneaky about price discrimination and fails that this will piss people off. I suspect it’s the dishonesty though. I think if a company or whatever is open and honest about doing price discrimination and it can show some minimal level of reasonableness that there will be many people (even in the highest price bracket) that will accept it. Some may even feel good about themselves.

    • Statismagician says:

      I agree, but mostly as a function of really strong selection effects. Lots of people, I presume, are/would be so bothered by this sort of thing that they don’t use the service.

      I agree without qualification that trying to be sneaky about it will be generally abhorred.

      • Statismagician says:

        Just occurred to me; if you accept that haggling is basically informal price discrimination, people being willing to just not participate even at direct and serious costs to themselves is some large part of the male-female wage gap.

        • arlie says:

          One of the fun things about haggling, is that hagglers get to take shameless advantage of those who don’t know the rules of the game. When a haggler meets someone who’s accustomed to fixed prices, either there’s no transaction at all (lose-lose), or the haggler takes advantage of the naif’s ignorance. Serious pro-capitalist types would say that the fact that the naif was willing to pay the exorbitant-starting-offer price proves that the transaction was fair. But even monkeys get violently angry when they see another monkey getting a better reward for the same effort/task. Humans do too.

          Naifs that discover themselves to have been ‘taken’ in this way either despise themselves or hate the vendor – most likely both. They also mend their ways.

          This is also true for semi-naifs, who know that haggling is required, but suspect they lack the knowledge/skill to get the best possible deal. Most people I know despise/hate both car salesman and the process of shopping for a car. Many women are irate about assymetrical information/differential socialization tending to result in people like them earning statistically less for the same quality of work at the same job.

          And just about any company strongly discourages employees sharing compensation information. I’d always thought that was just because the lower paid would all demand raises, but I’ve recently read some research showing that if you discover peer(s) paid more than you, your effort and results tend (statistically) to decrease, while your sick days etc. increase – at least for the population studied. (Discovering how much those above you are paid, OTOH, tended to increase effort etc.)

          As far as I can tell, price discrimination is accepted (by the purchasers) in one of two conditions:
          – they don’t believe the goods are actually the same.
          – they regard those getting the better deal as deserving it, generally on grounds of need, as in the case of sliding scales.

          The former covers the airline-ticket-with-ten-bazillion-conditions vs the spur-of-the-moment-and-exactly-the-flight-I-want difference between tourist and business seats, before they began also making business seats slightly less miserably uncomfortable. It also covers different tiers of seating in stadiums and conference halls.

          Nothing legitimate covers paying Joe-who-haggles-well better than Jane-who-doesn’t-know-to-haggle, and if Jane even suspects this is happening, she’s going to be an exceptionally disloyal (and lazy) employee – likewise with genders reversed.

          IMO, most customers regard most forms of price discrimination as cheating, and the people practicing them as cheaters, unless one of the above conditions apply.

          • Naifs that discover themselves to have been ‘taken’ in this way either despise themselves or hate the vendor – most likely both.

            Not my experience, although it was the less extreme case of haggling not very well.

            My wife and I were in the Old City of Jerusalem, looking at some very attractive rugs. We ended up buying two of them at a price that still seemed high, but was much lower than the starting price. After we did so, the seller offered to throw in a third one of the same sort at a substantially lower price.

            The obvious conclusion was that his reservation price was at or below that, so we should have gotten him farther down. I neither despised myself nor hated him. He was good at what he was doing, I had no god given right to get the rugs for the lowest price at which he was willing to sell them.

            On the more general issue of price discrimination, one of the most common forms moderns encounter is financial aid by universities for students. Some of it is going to help poor students, and I don’t expect many people to object. But much of it going to persuade students who the school wants and are not poor to go to that school instead of another.

            University faculty members don’t, in my experience, show much sign of moral repulsion at doing that, and I haven’t noticed students who pay full fare acting as if they feel cheated, although I have less exposure to them and so might miss it.

  42. Zack M. Davis says:

    No time to work out the theorem now, but I suspect that with some assumptions, you could show that there’s an appropriate sense in which the 50% bar is information-theoretically optimal, in analogy to how, when playing Twenty Questions, you want to ask questions that you’re fifty/fifty on. (Because if you ask a question for which you already think the answer is probably “Yes”, then you don’t gain much new information if you’re right, and while you do get a lot of information if the answer is “No”, it’s not enough to make up for the prior improbability of “No”: p*lg(1/p) + (1-p)*lg(1/(1-p)) is maximized when p = 0.5.)

    • en says:

      I see it as being incredibly implausible that information theory, independent of any properties of human psychology, social dynamics, etc, can give such a simplistic answer to this question. This is not a math problem.

  43. Another Throw says:

    Morality is much simpler when you realize that we are nothing but deterministic meat machines programed to tile the universe in proteins.

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      I’m not a meat machine; I’m a complex flow of information that happens to be incarnated in a meat machine. And that meat machine’s programming has bugs, so that while I am certainly influenced by the process of natural selection that created my meat machine, my behavior diverges quite significantly (and often quite hilariously) from that which natural selection selects for.

    • dionisos says:

      I am a deterministic meat machine. (or maybe a process incarnated my this meat machine, or maybe a epiphenomenon of it, I am unsure).

      But I am sure I am not programmed to tile the universe with proteins.

  44. John Schilling says:

    Maybe trying to hold the average person to high standards usually backfires, but everyone would be able to successfully gang up on exceptional people to enforce high standards for them.

    It seems to me that exceptional people would be, among other things, exceptionally good at standing up to gangs. Or beating them down. So I’d be kind of worried about the backfire effect here. Certainly in my own experience as a person with an above-average capacity for good or evil, repeatedly hearing “because of your abilities, we are holding you to not just a higher standard but a disproportionately higher standard, now go do nice things for people we tell you are deserving”, yeah, that has a really high potential for backfiring. “We’re all in this together” has moral force behind it in a way that “you should do nice things for us” does not.

    And I see you’ve answered elsewhere that you maybe want this to be done by positive rather than negative reinforcement. First, “gang up on” is a really bad choice of phrasing for this. Second, is this even a realistic prospect, particularly in the environment that inspired your post? The ethical consumption/late capitalism quote generates memes and T-shirts that you observe on a regular basis. When I google Bill Gates T-shirts or Bill Gates memes, I get an awful lot of negativity (e.g. Bill Gates mug shot T-shirts), some stuff that maybe sees his raw wealth and power as aspirational goals, and almost nothing about his philanthropy.

    Maybe “we’re all in this together” and “try to be above average” are reasonable messages here. I don’t think ganging up on the exceptional, for either positive or negative versions of ganging up, is going to work very well.

  45. watsonbladd says:

    The quote that starts this post is apparently from Adorno (have not been able to dig up exact cite) and he means something quite different by it. What he means is our social unfreedom is itself a moral wrong which permeates the way we live.

  46. bobbingandweaving says:

    Arrows Impossibility Theorem

  47. AbuTulip says:

    Scott:
    You’re going back to your roots! See Maimonides, Gifts to the poor 7:5

    https://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah%2C_Gifts_to_the_Poor.7?lang=bi

    and Repentance 3:1,4

    https://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah%2C_Repentance.3?lang=bi

  48. John Schilling says:

    So, the cited examples of moral behavior are a curious list. I get, veganism and animal rights, recycling and environmentalism, labor rights, historical abolitionism, and implicitly from the opening quite, anticaptialism. Did I miss anything? Because, without objecting to the fact that these are mostly moral behaviors, they are moral behaviors very conspicuously drawn from the political left’s list of moral behaviors that it charges the political right with rapaciously violating on account of their evilness.

    The political right has its own list, of course, with abortion front and center and backed up by a fair bit of explicitly Christian morality along with some generic social and economic conservatism. And even the libertarians can get obonxiously holier-than-thou about being even more Non-Aggressive than the next guy.

    But there’s also a whole lot of apolitically uncontroversial morality, like raising your own children well and, if you can, adopting orphans for more of the same. Being a volunteer firefighter and saving people from burning buildings. Building houses for the homeless, Habitat for Humanity style. There’s maybe a passing mention or two for that sort of morality here, but mostly it’s the explicitly political stuff.

    And that’s not a coincidence, because it’s mostly political morality that leads to people adopting standards where not being exceptionally good mean being called out as evil. Any of the uncontroversially moral issues, well, it’s possible to get your neighbors to call you out as a bad person for your inadequate child-raising, but the standard for that is usually several standard deviations past “below average”.

    So let’s cut to the chase: Where political morality is concerned, almost nobody is trying to pursue a pragmatic economic policy that incentivizes the greatest possible amount of good behavior. Mostly, they’re trying to feel good about themselves by feeling like they are part of a community of Good People, at minimum possible effort. And the easiest way to do that, is to set the baseline such that almost everything that people do – average or exceptional – is Not Good Enough and therefore Evil.

    If you do that, then being a slactivist who does nothing at all (and thus no evil) but hangs out with other slacktivists haranguing either the evil people on the other side of the political spectrum or the insufficiently virtuous (and thus evil) members of their own tribe. If you can convince yourself that the haranguing works for changing other peoples’ behavior, and there will be plenty of people in your team supporting you on that, then this is the path of virtue.

    If you’re one of the minority trying to figure out how to actually incentivize good works and so calculate the optimal cutoff for the haranguing, then it sucks to be you but you’ll probably face less active opposition if you focus on the apolitically uncontroversial moral questions and examples.

  49. Protagoras says:

    I have always disliked the “do you want a fucking cookie?” attitude. Sure, it’s problematic to feel entitled to cookies, but the people who say that sort of thing often seem to be condemning the whole process of distributing and receiving cookies rather than focusing narrowly on the entitlement problem. And getting cookies is nice, and giving them is kind of nice too; people should be encouraged (though certainly not required) to give them.

    • Kestrellius says:

      *scoffs* You think people deserve credit for basic human decency like giving other people cookies? What, do you think they should get cupcakes or something?

      Oh, and let me guess. You want to be the person giving them the cupcakes, because you think if you do then you’ll deserve a cinnamon roll.

      And if you get a cinnamon roll, then for giving it to you I get a jelly doughnut, right? I bet you think that’s really tempting. Well, I’m not falling for it! At — at least not until I’m hungrier.

      But if somebody did give me a rightly-deserved jelly doughnut, who would it be? It would be Scott, obviously. And for that act of virtue/unimpressive decency, he would deserve/feel entitled to a chocolate brownie.

      And the only person capable of providing such a thing is Mark Zuckerberg. Which means he would in turn be considered worthy of a raspberry tart, baked personally by Kanye West. Q.E.D.

      …which estimable rapper would then, of course, quite reasonably expect a single, exquisitely-prepared square of Korean rainbow rice cake.

      But! Who could possibly furnish such exotic confectionery? Why, none other than Kim Jong Un, because that’s how nationalities work, right?

      And in return, Kim Jong Un receives a generous slice of strudel, flavored with ripe apricots and poppy seeds grown in the opium farms of Bengal.

      The only possible source of strudel for third-world dictactors is, naturally, Bill Clinton. And the only suitable reward for this service is a slice of American birthday cake.

      But whose birthday is it, today? Why, it’s Burgess Meredith’s birthday, of course! And so good old Burgess hands a slice of his cake to Bill. “But, Kestre!” you exclaim. “Burgess Meredith died in 1997! How can he be celebrating a posthumous birthday, let alone personally gifting pieces of his cake to former presidents?” Well, this improbable but self-evidently existence occurrence can only be explained by an acausal bargain involving a puff pastry lined with the tail-feathers of a young phoenix.

      And so only one question remains. Who? Who could possibly have access to phoenix feathers, and be in the habit of handing out sweets — and be accustomed to meticulous post-mortem scheming? Why, there’s only one answer.

      Albus Dumbledore. Albus Dumbledore resurrected Burgess Meredith with a pastry in the service of compensatory ethics, and that’s why he had to die. Because Death will not be denied its victim.

      So I hope you’ve learned your lesson, you murderer of kindly old mentors. This is why you shouldn’t expect a cupcake for basic acts of human kindness like giving people cookies.

      this post brought to you by sleep deprivation

    • moscanarius says:

      What I mostly dislike about the “this is just being a decent person, no cookies for you” is that, very often, the behaviour considered to be the minimum standard is not minimum at all. It may be a microcultural thing: they extrapolate from their own… privileged… background to the whole socitey, and find the efforts of the lesser to be subpar.

  50. Nevertaken says:

    On meat eating: perhaps you should donate to or invest in the development of synthetic meats. I think it’s likely that, one day, synthetic meat will overtake natural meat in quality and cost. At that point humanity will essentially stop killing animals for food. Hastening that day will do more to prevent us killing animals than altering your own personal dietary behaviors.

    On setting the bar above average and where that leads: yes, in theory it could lead to universal sainthood; in practice we all know that would not happen. But what could happen is a society of oppressive puritans. It seems to me that the fundamental difference between a society universally made of saints and one of oppressive puritans is that the people in the saints society would all be concerned about their own individual moral behavior, while the puritans are concerned with each other’s moral behavior. The fact that one of these is a theoretical Utopian fiction and the other is a type that pops up in history, which almost certainly will pop up again, and that we all have experiences with sub-cultures that resemble it in our current society now, should tell us quite a lot about how projects to improve human morality are likely to fail.

    Based on that, while we should certainly encourage one another in our moral efforts, each one of us should be primarily concerned with our own self when it comes to moral behavior. And when I consider my own self and morality, at this current moment in our public intellectual life, I cannot ignore Kevin Simpler’s and Robin Hanson’s thesis in their book Elephant in the Brain that what I (and you) think of as ‘myself’ is actually more like a ‘press secretary’ – apologizing, spinning, rationalizing – than the executive – decision making, and essentially selfish – part of the human organism. If that thesis is true, then – unless I can undertake some process of self-improvement to either make my selfish subconscious less-selfish, or to have my conscious (conscience?) somehow seize executive power – whatever set of moral rules I settle on will inevitably seem good and right to ‘me’, regardless of what they may be objectively or to anyone else.

    This seems to me to be a pretty big problem.

  51. oppressedminority says:

    Iterate that process over ten or so generations, and you reach the point where you’ve got to run your Halloween costume past your Chief Diversity Officer.

    Far from being a positive development, this is an abomination.

    All the examples of “super good people”, the super-vegan, super-environmentalist, super-anti-racist, super-anti-sexist… are in fact horrible people. They are engaged in a holiness spiral to obtain status by positioning themselves as the holiest priests of the progressive religion. They behave like this today, and when their ancestral analogs lived in the middle ages, they positioned themselves as the holiest priests of Christianity.

    Not to mention that the super vegan’s organic quinoa and tofu salad caused the death of 1000s of insects, small reptiles and small mammals when the combine harvester came and went over their home.

    How about this for morality: dont be a burden on others. Get a good job, have some kids, raise them right, dont bother others with your evangelical veganism.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      This.

      I live and work with a lot of very progressivs people* and they are among the worst human beings I have ever met. They have no sense of loyalty or respect even for their supposed friends and immediate family members.

      I’m not a great person myself, I often fall short of my responsibilities. But I refuse to believe that people who shamelessly and routinely ignore their own responsibilities are in any way my moral betters.

      *East coast, so less veganism and hallucinogens, but still very far left.

      • oppressedminority says:

        If I were a sociologist I would do a study to test the hypothesis that the greater the outward display of apparent morality, the more immoral a person truly is.

        Male feminists assaulting women? Check.
        Religious anti-LGBT campaigners hiring male hookers? Check.
        Global warming preachers flying on their private jets? Check.
        Leftists agitating for more taxes hiding their fortunes in a tax haven? Check.

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          I would be extraordinarily surprised if religious anti-LGBT campaigners were more likely to hire male hookers than the average out gay man.

          • oppressedminority says:

            Perhaps but it’s a common enough phenomenon. This is an article that provides a list of anti-gay Republican politicians who were caught being gay. I dont know how many male hookers the average gay man hires, but being stridently anti-gay as a way to hide one’s own gayness is certainly a thing.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @ Ozy

            Given the other examples, I read that as “known failures of hyper-displaying individuals within the given cause.”

            Alternately, not all male feminists assault women, and I doubt more do than non-feminists (though I’d be interested if their were literature on that). I’d be very surprised if most global warming activists flew in private planes – or even would if given the option.

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            oppressedminority: I would be even more surprised if being vocally anti-LGBT caused you to have more gay sex than being vocally pro-LGBT. I think vocally anti-LGBT people have less gay sex than vocally pro-LGBT people. I would bet at 10,000 : 1 odds that this is the case.

            Mr. Doolittle: I don’t think “people ever do things that go against their stated ethical beliefs, but people are less likely to do things they think are wrong than things they think are morally neutral or actively good” is an interesting phenomenon worthy of explanation. It’s called ‘human weakness’ and we’ve known about it since about five minutes after morality evolved.

          • oppressedminority says:

            @Ozy:

            Im not sure what point you’re trying to make with your various accounting of gay sex between average gays and anti-LGBT campaigners.

            The phenomenon Im alluding too is quite common and well known, it even has a special term for it that I cant seem to recall at the moment. Basically some people with a certain characteristic (which is typically seen as a flaw by at least some people) argue the most vociferously against this characteristic as a way to hide what they perceive as their own moral failings.

            It doesnt mean that an anti-gay republican has more gay sex than a gay orgy. But if I had to guess who was secretly gay between an average socially conservative republican and a stridently anti-gay republican, I would pick the stridently anti-gay one every time.

          • JubileeJones says:

            @Ozy: This is totally tangential to whatever point oppressedminority is trying to make [and I’m not QUITE sure what it is, but their use of the word “leftists” raises my hackles], but I’d be reasonably willing to bet that “religious anti-LGBT campaigners [are] more likely to hire male hookers than the average out gay man.” For most of the country, there’s still some amount of stigma surrounding sex work, both those who provide it and those who employ them, so it seems likely that the “average out gay man” would probably seek a partner or failing that, a hookup before hiring an actual hooker. If I’m a gay religious anti-LGBT campaigner, on the other hand, I HAVE to keep my liaisons secret, and a tryst with a professional feels more discreet and less risky than cruising for a hookup. I’m not sure if it seems less risky than making an advance on someone I believe is also gay, and then pursuing a hidden relationship with them, but that category seems likely to be limited by opportunity – I’d be surprised if more than, say, 1 in 20 secretly gay politicians were in regular contact with someone they suspected with high certainty was both gay and discreet, who also happened to be sexually attractive to them.

        • LesHapablap says:

          Male feminists assaulting women? Check.
          Religious anti-LGBT campaigners hiring male hookers? Check.
          Global warming preachers flying on their private jets? Check.
          Leftists agitating for more taxes hiding their fortunes in a tax haven? Check.

          These are all examples of hypocrisy, whereas I think Nabil was speaking more generally about immoral behavior (irresponsibility, lack of integrity, disloyalty, laziness). Hypocrisy by itself doesn’t really make you a horrible person.

        • arlie says:

          I think this is practically a tautology, if rephrased in terms of hypocricy. It’s hard to be blatantly hypocritical if you aren’t also outspoken about what you consider to be bad.

          But there’s also another phenomenon: people loudly against X seem to have elevated odds of being/doing X, compared to people quietly against X .. for most values of X. They probably won’t have/do more X than those in favour of it. But (speaking charitably) whatever sin someone preaches against the most is probably also the one they personally struggle with the most. And speaking uncharitably, plenty of people take on public persona at odds with their actual behaviour, specifically to conceal/avoid punishment for that behaviour.

      • Zephalinda says:

        they are among the worst human beings I have ever met

        That’s really interesting, Nabil. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to coherently model for myself the moral instincts in the circles you describe. Based on the universal appeals to “caring about ______” as a grounding ethical principle, plus recent stuff speaking to the high-contextualizer/ low-decoupler makeup of such groups, I’d assumed that the central adherents must be very emotionally-oriented people who experience overwhelmingly visceral feelings of sympathetic protection, care and indignation while imagining the plight of e.g. hurt animals and sad homeless people. If so, then it would make sense that more abstract reasoning from impartial principles and data, or appeals to proportionate response and charity for those who disagree, would fall away before a totalizing impulse to care (about this particular object) more and more.

        On the other hand, I’d also expect a very emotional, very “caring” person with strong sympathy reactions to be conspicuously loving, generous, helpful and forgiving to those around them, including friends and relatives. If that’s not how it works, then I definitely need to update my model, but I’m intrigued to know more about where it goes wrong. Are there particular aspects of basic kindness and good faith that characteristically fail in such groups, in your experience? Are there any that really do stay more robust than average?

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          I think that the type of person Nabil describes has very different moral intuitions; they see individual suffering as fundamentally unimportant, and have strong impulses to “fix” things on a systemic rather than instantial level. Mostly by throwing money at experts who claim to be able to solve the problem.

          That said, I’m tickled a bit by the fact that Nabil leads off with “worst people I’ve ever met” and then goes straight into “no loyalty or respect.” I think that reveals more about their moral intuitions than the leftists’.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          See the problem here is that you believe that “caring about ____” involves caring about actual people at any point.

          We live and work in Manhattan. If you care about people, you don’t have to walk more than two blocks before you find a homeless person panhandling. The place where my girlfriend and I used to do our morning runs is one of the spots where they sleep. NYC is like a paradise for caring: if you want to alleviate human suffering, then you have opportunities to do so literally every single day without ever having to step out of your daily routine.

          The people who I’m talking about walk right past the homeless just like I and 8 million other New Yorkers do. That doesn’t make them bad people in my view, but it puts the lie to the idea that their progressivism has anything to do with compassion or a desire to help people. They steadfastly refuse to make any sacrifice themselves; their whole concept of morality is based on forcing other people to sacrifice for their beliefs and then belittling them for it.

          Anyway, getting into all of the reasons why they’re horrible people would be a post of its own. The two main things that stick out to me are a complete absence of shame and breathtaking untrustworthiness. They act like textbook sociopaths and I don’t use the term lightly. They genuinely think that they’re good altruistic people but in any situation you can predict what they’re going to do by asking yourself “what is the most selfish thing they could possibly do?”

          • Guy in TN says:

            Maybe there’s reason to think giving money to panhandlers isn’t a particularly effective way to help them? Drug addicts, scam artists, ect.

            There’s also the issue of the ethic of “helping others” still being a good one that people (including progressives ) try to live by, even if they don’t maximize it to 100% at all times. So your experience of seeing people walk past a panhandlers doesn’t necessarily invalidate the entire realm of compassionate human behavior.

          • baconbits9 says:

            If you care about people, you don’t have to walk more than two blocks before you find a homeless person panhandling. The place where my girlfriend and I used to do our morning runs is one of the spots where they sleep. NYC is like a paradise for caring: if you want to alleviate human suffering, then you have opportunities to do so literally every single day without ever having to step out of your daily routine.

            Its a pretty large assumption that giving money to panhandlers alleviates human suffering.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Its a pretty large assumption that giving money to panhandlers alleviates human suffering.

            Indeed. I would actually argue giving to panhandlers increases overall human suffering. It is a tragedy of the commons scenario. Each individual passerby is annoyed by the panhandler, but they also can get a dopamine hit by giving him a dollar. Their individual hit is lower than the overall misery caused by the panhandler continuing to panhandle, which he would not do if he got $0/day doing it, but they dont feel all the misery. Thus, a commons.

          • moscanarius says:

            Being uncharitable, it sometimes looks like their tirades against prejudice and donations to charities and Twitter hashtags are a way of claiming sainthood without having to do a saint’s work. “Loving thy neighbour” can be tougher than saying you love strangers that live far away.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            I think that my example may have distracted from the point that I was trying to make.

            There are a million little things that an ordinary person can do to alleviate suffering around them. Not in a life-changing or systemic way but just making the people around you that much happier or more comfortable. Like visiting an elderly person and talking to them for an hour a day, or helping a recent immigrant from your country learn English, or helping someone who fell over on the sidewalk.

            That’s what compassion looks like. You see someone in pain and you reach out to help them. And when you don’t reach out to help, on some level you feel ashamed because you know that you had the opportunity to do the right thing and failed.

            Again, being callous to suffering around you doesn’t make you a bad person. Neither does hypocritically boasting about your compassion when your behavior proves that you’re as callous as everyone around you. But it is proof that whatever your motives are, they aren’t compassionate.

          • LesHapablap says:

            Nabil, I’d be interested in hearing some examples

        • Mabuse7 says:

          Be advised that Nabil has a very rigid, traditionalist view of personal morality, for example he doesn’t think people can be ethically non-monogamist or have a good reason for estranging themselves from their families and views such behaviour simply as “selfishness”.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            I think it’s funny that you’re using rigid morality this way, because I’ve never heard anyone say that someone has “flexible morals” as a compliment.

            To clarify, I don’t think that it’s possible to be ethically non-monogamous. I do think that under some exceptional circumstances, like abuse* or neglect, it’s possible to ethically be estranged from your family but that it’s a high bar.

            *Abuse as in beatings or molestation, not as in refusing to happily support you in your terrible decision making.

          • Mabuse7 says:

            But you would not deny that your sense of morality is shaped by a view of the good life that is; by the standards of modern western society, narrow and based strongly in traditionalist norms, correct? That is all I meant. I may personally consider your view of the good life far too narrow and your subsequent estimation of others’ motivations horrifically warped, but that was not the intent of my choice of words.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            Yes, by those standards I’m a huge square.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Nabil ad Dajjal:
            I am not really interested in your own personal moral views (“you do you”, as they say); but I do believe that flexible morals are, to some extent, a good thing. To use an exaggerated example, if your morality is utterly rigid; and if one of your moral precepts is “thou shalt not kill”; then you could never kill a crazed maniac who is about to shoot you and your entire family. IMO this is a worse outcome than the one you could achieve by compromising your moral views on this one special occasion.

          • Zephalinda says:

            In all fairness, re: the accusations of rigidity and traditionalism:
            a. Everybody is more rigid the closer you get to their primary moral values. By contrast, it’s very easy to see the importance of flexibility and toleration about moral principles you don’t happen to believe in. (h/t: Chesterton said this better, somewhere.) Other people‘s ethical principles are “rigid.” My own are just too important to admit of much compromise.

            b. Every single moral norm we’ve been discussing, progressive-flavored ones included, admits of potential exceptions based on circumstances. We can certainly ask whether we really have a duty not to abandon the sort of parents who considerately allowed us interludes of cigarette burns between the beatings. We could equally well ask whether we really have a duty to use our last gallon of gas to drop off the recycling at the center, instead of taking our sick kid to the hospital. In both cases, bickering over the other person’s edge-cases is less interesting than trying in good faith to determine whether and why people really do hold two different sets of values.

            c. Calling old-style beliefs “traditional” is a subtle strawman in exactly the same way that calling new beliefs “fashionable” would be. Not a great move, either way.

          • To clarify, I don’t think that it’s possible to be ethically non-monogamous.

            That’s an odd claim, given how many societies have had polygamy of one sort or another. If a man is living with two women or a woman with two men, why is that inherently unethical?

            For a fictional example, if you happen to be a Bujold fan, consider the family in which the brother and sister who are central figures in the recent Penric novels grew up.

            Good stories, by the way.

        • Nootropic cormorant says:

          My model tells me that people who experience the greatest feelings of compassion (but not people who experience heightened feelings of compassion in general) have maladjusted emotional systems and might also be prone to narcissistic injury or analogous processes that result in acting like an asshole.

          ETA: Depending on how cynical I’m feeling, I might even doubt the sincerity of these feelings.

      • moscanarius says:

        In my circle, the most vocal, strident, and obnoxious progressive types have been either:

        1) Unhappy (often depressive) people lashing out on others. Social Justice is one of the few outlets acceptable for intelligent middle class people to do this.

        2) Trying to please the unhappy people they are dating.

        3) The occasional cruel person who just delights in attacking random people, and loves that the cause’s holiness gives them an excuse for that.

    • Randy M says:

      you reach the point where you’ve got to run your Halloween costume past your Chief Diversity Officer.

      I’m not sure that was intended to be read as praiseworthy.

  52. deluks917 says:

    I don’t eat anymore vegetables than before I went vegan. I get most of my calories from pasta and legumes. A normal meal is just pasta and beans. I also eat a lot o peanut butter.

  53. DragonMilk says:

    This post reminds me of the concept of disordered loves. People go awry when they take what are the many good things in life and prioritize them suboptimally. Consequences vary from misery to sanctimony.

    A goal to minimize meat-eating is a good thing, career is a good thing, family is a good thing.
    If you are at work all the time and neglect your children, that may eventually jeopardize your career the day your kid rebels and you have to deal with a pregnant teenager.
    If you are sanctimonious about meat-eating at work, co-workers may find reason to keep you unpromoted or you may lose your job. and you will be in a worse financial position to espouse lower meat consumption.

    There are plenty of perfectly moral, legal choices in life. But not all of them are wise. Many other posters have also pointed out that the priorities listed here appear to arise from what I consider to be an unhealthy liberal bubble that features elevation of people’s feelings, environmentalism, and veganism over social justice initiatives that are more bipartisan – prison reform, reliable public transportation that benefit low income workers, and more of a safety net for workers and their children falling ill.

    If a choice has to be made, I’ll take a carnivorous, water-bottle guzzling autist who is pushing for criminal justice, healthcare, and infrastructure reform any day over the most well-spoken hippie.

  54. johnswentworth says:

    For the kinds of examples here – avoiding meat, minimizing your carbon footprint, etc – it doesn’t seem like they need to have anything to do with morality at all, at least consequentialist morality. Most have them have approximately-zero impact on an individual basis. In actual practice, they’re mostly about signalling.

    It may be true that “nobody is good” in terms of actually significantly reducing carbon output. Among my (many) friends who identify as environmentalists, I doubt that a single one has actually spent a full hour thinking about and researching the most effective way for them personally to reduce carbon emissions – not just their own, but carbon emissions overall. But that’s missing the point. Agonizing over carbon emissions is about signalling, so salience and visibility are what matter, not effectiveness. Going to marches and rallies is way better signalling than spending ten years researching new battery technology. If you’re spending resources on signalling, then buy the cheap high-purity stuff.

    So I guess my point is: buy utils separately. People want to signal, so let them signal. Set the “good person” threshold so that people can get their good-person-signalling done with minimum resource burn, and get back to whatever else they’re doing.

    • Guy in TN says:

      For the kinds of examples here – avoiding meat, minimizing your carbon footprint, etc – it doesn’t seem like they need to have anything to do with morality at all, at least consequentialist morality. Most have them have approximately-zero impact on an individual basis.

      Take any issue that is caused by the aggregate of humanity, divide it by the number of humans on the planet, and you will discover that each individual human contributes “near zero” to the problem.

      Say you have a vault of 10 billion dollars. Each human on the planet sneaks in and steals only one dollar from the vault- a very small amount, percentage-wise. If your goal is to keep the vault from being depleted, a very bad strategy would be to say “taking a dollar from the vault doesn’t matter, in terms of consequences, because each act of dollar-taking has a very small impact on the number of dollars in the vault”.

      • Statismagician says:

        Which is fine insofar as it goes, but the current policy looks a lot like going to the home of each individual person who took only one dollar and punching them, then inviting a guy with moving van stuff it with $200 million in crisp singles and waving at him as he drives off. See e.g. California’s list of personal-use water restrictions and agricultural policy, or [everything about Federal subsidies].

      • johnswentworth says:

        Being concerned about your own impact is pretty dumb (from a consequentialist point of view) if you can reduce total emissions far more for the same amount of effort some other way. In the vault analogy, you could steal $100k, pay somebody to guard the vault for a year, have far more impact on vault depletion than merely not stealing $1, and still walk away with a healthy profit.

        For pretty much any issue caused by the aggregate of humanity, focusing on only your own contribution is wildly inefficient.

        • Guy in TN says:

          It’s true that being solely concerned about your own impacts is pretty dumb- and that’s why environmentalists also spend time and energy on changing the larger political and economic institutions where these problems arose.

          For instance, by organizing marches and rallies, as you mentioned…

  55. raj says:

    > If someone else is much richer in willpower, or just likes vegetables more, society should charge them more.

    If you tax something, you’ll get less of it…

  56. John Richards says:

    You can’t win the court of public opinion. Follow your only fish at home rule and while you may be afraid of being called scum by hard core vegans, you’ll similarly be considered scum by meat-eaters who consider you pathetically vulnerable to the emotional appeals of lunatic greens.

    The thing to do is to train yourself to listen to your conscience. Morality is not some quantitative game that you play and try to accrue as many virtue points as possible before the end. Rather, it is about aligning oneself to a spirit of virtue, a spirit of truth, and an ever increasing attention to that spirit which resides within us, from without us, which we endeavor to grow towards asymptotically.

  57. MereComments says:

    I’m not claiming [good] objectively exists. I can’t prove anything about ethics objectively exists. And even if there were objective ethical truths about what was right or wrong, that wouldn’t imply that there was an objective ethical truth about how much of the right stuff you have to do before you can go around calling yourself “good”.

    I’m not sure why a post that contains this sentiment goes on for almost 3,000 words, with the word “good” appearing 42 times. Unless that was the intent!

    • JubileeJones says:

      Because even if he’s not claiming “good” objectively exists, he can still use the word to gesture vaguely at a cloud of things in thingspace that hover in a certain area? We might not agree which ones, exactly, are being pointed at, but we [almost] all agree on the rough direction he is pointing.

  58. L. says:

    I wrote a really long post about uncanny similarity between the basic postulates of Christianity and modern Left-wing activism when it comes to guilt and redemption, and what it might imply for modern Left-wing, but then I realized I can express the gist of my opinion much, much better using the wisdom of Warhammer 40k.

    When without any exaggeration or twisting of words, a quote from Warhammer 40k video game can accurately describe your philosophy, you fuck up somewhere, I don’t know where or how, but you did.

    “There is no such thing as innocence only degrees of guilt.”

    • Walter says:

      When I read 3 Felonies A Day I remembered thinking that I’d read the basic idea before, the notion that you can destroy the rule of law by just making more and more laws, such that everyone is guilty. Then you just prosecute your enemies and ignore your allies, and voila, the rule of man has returned, with a threadbare cloak of law to shield it from any commiemutanttraitors who might question.

      It was in Ayn Rand, to my embarrassment. It would be easier to mock authors for introducing straw villainous philosophies to batter down if the world didn’t so often dust them off and institute them.

      • John Schilling says:

        It was in Ayn Rand, to my embarrassment. It would be easier to mock authors for introducing straw villainous philosophies to batter down if the world didn’t so often dust them off and institute them.

        The common mistake is to think that Rand’s villains are unrealistic caricatures. That honor goes to her heroes; spending her formative years in Soviet Russia’s formative years gave her a sneak preview of real villainies to come, and she invented fantastic heroes to combat them.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Yes, and “Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment”.

  59. the verbiage ecstatic says:

    Somewhat tangential, but I don’t think this is true at all:

    “Companies rarely try price discrimination except in the sneakiest and most covert ways, because it’s hard to do well and it makes everybody angry. ”

    Haggling, which is price-discrimination in its purest form, predates fixed prices. And even in economies where fixed prices are the norm, haggling is still common for high-value transactions like buying a house or a car, or setting an employee salary.

    The reason that fixed prices are common in industrial societies isn’t because people hate price discrimination, it’s because of transaction costs: for high-volume, low-cost goods, the efficiencies gained by commoditizing the buying experience (and not having to incentivize an agent that can haggle on your behalf) outweigh the advantages of finding the true clearing price of a good.

    And companies have responded to this by finding forms of price discrimination that trade granularity for scalability. These are basically everywhere:

    – Differentiated branding for similar products
    – Coupons
    – Student / elderly discounts
    – Different prices via different sales channels
    – Geographic restrictions
    – … and probably a bunch more that I’m not thinking of off the top of my head

    I’ll let someone else draw the analogy back to the original thesis of this post…

  60. Slicer says:

    Thank you, Scott. I have never before seen such a categorically insightful article on why what the New Secular Religion is calling morality ought to be ditched. And, given what else you said, I can now say this completely seriously and with a straight face:

    Join the dark side. We have cookies.

    • oppressedminority says:

      Are those cookies vegan, ethically sourced, and locally produced by PoC, wymyn, and trans folk?

      Because if not, you can shove your nazi white male patriarchal cookies where the sun dont shine!

      PS: This is obvious satire, but this being the Internet some genius will think I am serious. I am not.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        That’s folx you alt-right monster! /s

        • Statismagician says:

          Are we not allowed to use the letter ‘k’ now? I didn’t xnow about that one; must have missed the memo.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            I’ve never heard a good explanation for why but somehow folx is supposed to be more gender neutral than folks.

            It’s a trans* shibboleth, like the asterisks after trans.

      • AG says:

        Can we stop with this kind of drive-by snark?

        Scott’s post wasn’t about any of this. This is y’all bringing your axes in to grind for no good reason.

        • oppressedminority says:

          Yes, Scott’s post was about this. Specifically it was about how holier-than-thou vegans are dumb (i’m paraphrasing).

          I have heard this sentiment raised by animal rights activists. The average meat-eater isn’t even on the scale. The average vegetarian still eats milk and cheese, and so is barely even trying. Even most vegans probably use some medical product with gelatin, or something tested on lab rats, or are just benefitting from animal suffering in some indirect way.

          Also, every decent human being has a duty to mock and ridicule SJWism until it returns to the deepest pits of hell, from whence it came.

          Also, your tone policing, in bold no less, was even more violent than ALL CAPS. As a person of minority, I was massively triggered.

  61. mobile says:

    Genesis 18: the city of Sodom could have been saved if there were but 10 righteous people there.

  62. greghb says:

    I don’t know how thoroughly you tried different approaches to vegetarianism, but given your story I hope you didn’t take the name too literally: you don’t have to eat so many “stereotypical” vegetables. I don’t eat animals, and I mostly eat variations of wheat+dairy (pizza, grilled cheese, yogurt+granola, pasta), fruit, grains and legumes (rice, beans, corn, various preparations of tofu and potatoes) and omeletes. I also eat some vegetables, but really it’s a small portion overall. Maybe the same portion as many omnivores.

    This reminds me a little of how you say “I don’t like math” and everyone is all, “no you totally would if you did it right” and that’s annoying. So sorry if this is like that. But just in case you went overboard on the etymology of “vegetarian” … it doesn’t mean you have to eat a ton of broccoli or anything!

    • JubileeJones says:

      This was helpful – I am not currently vegetarian, but am interested in it for both lifestyle and moral reasons, and your listing specific foods made me realize that I already eat a fair amount of those, so it might be doable with less inconvenience than I feared.

  63. and the marginal cost of production is zero

    Why do you assume that? You need some mechanism to determine who should be admired or despised, praised or criticized. The informational cost is zero if the rule implies that everyone is bad (or good). Other criteria will have other costs.

  64. [Thing] says:

    I am not aware of any ancient Egyptians who were against slavery.

    I bet a lot of the slaves were against it.

    OTOH, there’s a difference between being against slavery, and being against being a slave, so it’s hard to say for sure. And I’d be surprised if there’s much of a historical record of the opinions of ancient Egyptian slaves.

  65. Squirrel of Doom says:

    The horrible, self hating miserable morals described in the beginning of this post makes me so happy to be a libertarian.

    To us, it’s easy to be a good person. Just don’t hurt anyone else, and you’re OK. 100% of the population can be good, and if they are, history shows society is very likely to flourish in all sorts of ways.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Arguably, it is just as difficult to “just not hurt anyone else”. Sure, it might be pretty easy if you live in since cabin in the woods and never see other people. But what if you live in a densely populated city, and you have a dog that you dearly love… and your dog’s incessant barking keeps your neighbor up at night ?

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        Isn’t the whole point of owning a dog that they’re trainable?

        Anyway, there are a lot of good objections to the NAP but noise complaints are exactly the sort of thing that a libertarian society should be able to sort out in about ten seconds. For one thing, if your neighbors in the city can even hear a barking dog over ambient street noise they’re probably tenants in the same building and can just call the building superintendent if you’re keeping them up at night.

        A better counterexample would be air pollution from a factory, where the hypothesized libertarian solutions are extremely unconvincing.

        • Ghillie Dhu says:

          Are you thinking of solutions other than Pigovian taxes? The math there seems pretty solid.

          • Ghillie Dhu says:

            @DavidFriedman,

            Thanks for pointing that out; I was aware of Coase but, as (at best) an amateur economist didn’t know he was responding to Pigou.

            I’ve recently considered Pigou’s results in the context of a (now-defeated) initiative in WA to implement a state-level carbon tax.

            Assuming arguendo that the social cost of carbon is a knowable value and that, since the atmosphere is global, those impacted by emissions cannot (yet; hurry up Elon) move away to mitigate the harm, would Pigou’s primary result hold?

            If still not, assuming some government action against carbon emissions is inevitable, is a carbon tax is less distortionary than the alternatives (e.g., cap & trade)?

      • Squirrel of Doom says:

        I’ll grant you that we have some grey zones, and noise complaints are one of them. Our own David Friedman has written some of the best libertarian texts about it.

        Without digging into details, I think it’s clear that while the grey zones are real and can get hairy, they’re very minor compared to the horrific “every breath I take is evil” moral dumpster fire schools of thoughts much of the competition has to offer.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Well, in this case, consider Nabil ad Dajjal’s comment about air pollution from a factory — or maybe mercury pollution in a river. Your factory might be very prosperous, but every widget you make there increases the risk of cancer and birth defects in the surrounding population by a small amount. Did you violate NAP, or didn’t you ? You’re not targeting anyone with violence, you are making a ton of money, so is that still a problem ?

          Before you answer “yes”, consider another example: what if you don’t make your own widgets, but import them from China, where they are made by starving children working 16-hour days ?

          I could take this example even further, e.g. what if your factory produces ad billboards with unrealistically beautiful supermodels on them who (according to some sociologists) warp people’s minds with their unattainable standards of beauty ? And I haven’t even touched on religion yet…

          My point is not that these problems have some sort of an easy solution, or that libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism makes them worse somehow; but rather, that libertarianism is not some sort of a silver bullet that automatically resolves moral issues.

          • baconbits9 says:

            My point is not that these problems have some sort of an easy solution, or that libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism makes them worse somehow; but rather, that libertarianism is not some sort of a silver bullet that automatically resolves moral issues.

            Libertarianism generally doesn’t purport that it is a silver bullet against such things, but points out that it is the only system that puts the moral agent (the individual) at the center of making these decisions.

          • Guy in TN says:

            Doesn’t absolute monarchism also vest all decision making power in an individual?

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ GinT (I spelled the in so it wouldn’t read @GiT, of course it would have been less effort to spell the whole name than the abbreviation and then the explanation)

            I don’t think so. Under even extreme forms of monarchy the subjects would still be capable of immoral acts. Forms of dictatorships set the scene for a centralized setting of rules and a decentralized acting out of the rules by the moral agents, not a centralized setting and acting out of the rules.

          • Guy in TN says:

            I guess I’m confused by what you initially meant. Are you saying that libertarianism is the only system where no one can make a rule that someone else is forced to abide by?

            Doesn’t the authority of property ownership give people this very power?

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            These are extremely well known problems. The standard libertarian solutions are also well known, as are their debatable flaws. We don’t need to repeat them for this discussion.

            I’m comparing this to the systems Scott bring up:

            He starts out with

            “There is no ethical consumption under late capitalism”. “The average meat-eater isn’t even on the scale”, “We shouldn’t immediately dismiss the idea that nobody is good” etc.

            He then reasons his way to generously being able to only condemn half of humanity as evil, and eventually, maybe, forgive himself for only torturing himself to the edge of the self sacrifice he can bear.

            Compared to that family of self hating ethics, I’m saying libertarians have a much saner outlook. You’re OK by default, until you do something bad to someone else.

            You correctly point out we have some problematic areas, but from my perspective you’re claiming a mountain is the same as a molehill.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @Squirrel of Doom:

            You’re OK by default, until you do something bad to someone else

            My point is that all of Scott’s moral concerns (which, I do agree, are overblown) fall into the “do something bad to someone else” category. For example, buying iPhones (arguably) hurts the Chinese kids who have to work in sweatshops; driving a car hurts literally everyone on Earth due to carbon emissions; etc.

            Your solution seems to be “just don’t worry about it”, and that’s fine; but it is completely orthogonal to libertarianism (and arguably to any other economic model).

          • baconbits9 says:

            I guess I’m confused by what you initially meant. Are you saying that libertarianism is the only system where no one can make a rule that someone else is forced to abide by?

            No, I am saying that libertarianism is the philosophy where an individuals rights and an individual’s responsibilities most closely intersect. Other systems define either legality or morality outside of the frame of the moral actor and then shoves the moral actor into that framework.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @baconbits9
            It’s all too abstract for me still, but I’m okay just leaving the conversation at that for now (probably not the best thread to do a deep-dive on libertarianism).

          • Squirrel of Doom says:

            @Bugmaster:

            > My point is that all of Scott’s moral concerns (which, I do agree, are overblown) fall into the “do something bad to someone else” category

            I think we found our disagreement!

            Some of them, of course. But surely that’s not why he’s giving away 10% of his income? Or why he’s considering classifying half the world as evil as a good idea?

            I think he’s operating from some utilitarian idea that says if someone else would need my money more than me, it is my moral obligation to give it to them, whether I caused the problems that money would solve or not.

          • Guy in TN says:

            @Squirrel of Doom

            I think he’s operating from some utilitarian idea that says if someone else would need my money more than me, it is my moral obligation to give it to them, whether I caused the problems that money would solve or not.

            If you, by the act of enforcing your ownership, prevent someone from accessing a resource, then I would say that you are a contributing-cause to whatever problems arise due to their lack of access to the resource.

            You are correct that Scott is a utilitarian (and I’m a utilitarian), so this question of “responsibility” isn’t really as important to either of us as compared to the question of outcomes. I’m just pointing out that if your morality is “I’m only responsible for things I affect”, and you are trying to merge that with standard-issue deontological libertarianism, you are going to run headlong into the problem of property enforcement.

            “Just don’t hurt anyone else” is too simple to work: even the internal logic of libertarianism must make exceptions for it.

      • L. says:

        Even as we are speaking liberals are worrying if they are doing enough to restructure the entire society to include every label under the sun equally in everything in order to be considered a good person, feminists are on the lookout for evil patriarchal thoughts lest they make them into a handmaiden, utilitarians are grappling with the guilt over buying a candy bar while there are starving orphans in Africa, socialists are dealing with their own very existence in the light of the fact that there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism, conservatives are wondering how much time in purgatory would wanking to that one trans (another word was supposed to be used, but that one made my post go away) porn video get them, fascist are deliberating quitting video games because they think it makes them a deteriorated (I’m assuming this one would do the same) beta,…etc., and your example of why it’s just as hard to be a good person under libertarian morality is a barking dog?

  66. These kind of moral paradox questions usually go in a circle. Start with your moral priors. Then reason from some principles which sound reasonable on the surface, such as utilitarianism. With these, you find some “counter-intuitive” or “paradoxical” conclusion. Then you find various logical or practical problems with the conclusion, and thus reason until you arrive at a more “workable” or”practical” morality, which ends up being essentially a restatement of your moral priors.

  67. emmag says:

    How do you know this isn’t splitting in the way a borderline would?

    What if all frames that ascribe discontinuous shifts in valence are splitting/memetic-weapons?

    One might respond that in some situations instrumental rationality clearly requires this sort of ontological-discretness/discontinuous-valence-shift but that we must deal with them does not mean we must be enslaved to them.

  68. baconbits9 says:

    But if you believe in something like universalizability or the categorical imperative, “act in such a way that you are morally better than average” is a really interesting maxim! If everyone is just trying to be in the moral upper half of the population, the population average morality goes up. And up. And up. There’s no equilibrium other than universal sainthood.

    It doesn’t work. Three things happen with people: when compared with a group they typically overrate themselves, more than 50% of people think that they are above average drivers, making the self critical X% better drivers will decrease accidents, and add more fuel to the over confident group’s delusion. A large part of this post is like minding, most people aren’t nearly as self critical as the host here is, and there are two typical outcomes first is to look around and overrate yourself and think “I’m doing pretty good”. The second is to be confronted with so much evidence that you are below average that you are overwhelmed and come out bitter that the system has screwed them so much. You have basically set a Sisyphean task for those who start out near the bottom in morality, they can’t climb to above average without extreme amounts of discomfort, so why not just hang out on the bottom (or better yet win the immorality Olympics).

    <