In defense of actually doing stuff

Most good people are kind in an ordinary way, when the intensity of human suffering in the world today calls for heroic kindness. I’ve seen ordinary kindness criticized as “pretending to try”. We go through the motions of humanism, but without significantly inconveniencing ourselves, without straying from our established habits, without violating societal expectations. It’s not that we’re being deliberately deceitful; it’s just that our stated values are in conflict with the lack of urgency revealed in our behaviors. If we want to see real results, we need to put more effort than that into helping others.

The Effective Altruism movement claims to have made some large strides in the direction of “actually trying”, approaching our humanitarian problems with fresh eyes and exerting a serious effort to solve them. But Ben Kuhn has criticized EA for spending more time “pretending to actually try” than “actually trying”. Have we become more heroic in our compassion, or have we just become better at faking moral urgency?

I agree with his criticism, though I’m not sure how large and entrenched the problem is. I bring it up in order to address a reply by Katja Grace. Katja wrote ‘In praise of pretending to really try‘, granting Ben’s criticism but arguing that the phenomenon he’s pointing to is a good thing.

“Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.

“Why is this? Because Effective Altruism is a community, and the thing communities do well is modulating individual behavior through interactions with others in the community. Most actions a person takes as a result of being part of a community are pretty much going to be ‘pretending to try’ by construction. And such actions are worth having.”

If I’m understanding Katja’s argument right, it’s: ‘People who pretend to try are motivated by a desire for esteem. And what binds a community together is in large part this desire for esteem. So we can’t get rid of pretending to try, or we’ll get rid of what makes Effective Altruism a functional community in the first place.’

The main problem here is in the leap from ‘if you pretend to try, then you’re motivated by a desire for esteem’ to ‘if you’re motivated by a desire for esteem, then you’re pretending to try’. Lo:

“A community of people not motivated by others seeing and appreciating their behavior, not concerned for whether they look like a real community member, and not modeling their behavior on the visible aspects of others’ behavior in the community would generally not be much of a community, and I think would do less well at pursuing their shared goals. […]

“If people heed your call to ‘really try’ and do the ‘really trying’ things you suggest, this will have been motivated by your criticisms, so seems more like a better quality of pretending to really try, than really trying itself. Unless your social pressure somehow pressured them to stop being motivated by social pressure.”

The idea of ‘really trying’ isn’t ‘don’t be influenced by social pressure’. It’s closer to ‘whatever, be influenced by social pressure however you want — whatever it takes! — as long as you end up actually working on the tasks that matter’. Signaling (especially honest signaling) and conformity (especially productive conformism) are not the enemy. The enemy is waste, destruction, human misery.

The ‘Altruism’ in ‘Effective Altruism’ is first and foremost a behavior, not a motivation. You can be a perfectly selfish Effective Altruist, as long as you’ve decided that your own interests are tied to others’ welfare. So in questioning whether self-described Effective Altruists are living up to their ideals, we’re primarily questioning whether they’re acting the part. Whether their motives are pure doesn’t really matter, except as a device for explaining why they are or aren’t actively making the world a better place.

“I don’t mean to say that ‘really trying’ is bad, or not a good goal for an individual person. But it is a hard goal for a community to usefully and truthfully have for many of its members, when so much of its power relies on people watching their neighbors and working to fit in.”

To my ear, this sounds like: ‘Being a good fireman is much, much harder than looking like a good fireman. And firemen are important, and their group cohesion and influence depends to a significant extent on their being seen as good firemen. So we shouldn’t chastise firemen who sacrifice being any good at their job for the sake of looking as though they’re good at their job. We should esteem them alongside good firemen, albeit with less enthusiasm.’

I don’t get it. If there are urgent Effective Altruism projects, then surely we should be primarily worried about how much real-world progress is being made on those projects. Building a strong, thriving EA community isn’t particularly valuable if the only major outcome is that we perpetuate EA, thereby allowing us to further perpetuate EA…

I suppose this strategy makes sense if it’s easier to just focus on building the EA movement and waiting for a new agenty altruist to wander in by chance, than it is to increase the agentiness of people currently in EA. But that seems unlikely to me. It’s harder to find ‘natural’ agents than it is to create or enhance them. And if we allow EA to rot from within and become an overt status competition with few aspirations to anything higher, then I’d expect us to end up driving away the real agents and true altruists. The most sustainable way to attract effective humanists is to be genuinely effective and genuinely humanistic, in a visible way.

At some point, the buck has to stop. At some point, someone has to actually do the work of EA. Why not now?

A last point: I think an essential element of ‘pretending to (actually) try’ is being neglected here. If I’m understanding how people think, pretending to try is at least as much about self-deception as it is about signaling to others. It’s a way of persuading yourself that you’re a good person, of building a internal narrative you can be happy with. The alternative is that the pretenders are knowingly deceiving others, which sounds a bit too Machiavellian to me to fit my model of realistic psychology.

But if pretending to try requires self-deception, then what are Katja and Ben doing? They’re both making self-deception a lot harder. They’re both writing posts that will make their EA readers more self-aware and self-critical. On my model, that means that they’re both making it tougher to pretend to try. (As am I.)

But if that’s so, then Ben’s strategy is wiser. Reading Ben’s critique, a pretender is encouraged to switch to actually trying. Reading Katja’s, pretenders are still beset with dissonance, but now without any inspiring call to self-improvement. The clearest way out will then be to give up on pretending to try, and give up on trying.

I’m all for faking it till you make it. But I think that faking it transitions into making it, and avoids becoming a lost purpose, in part because we continue to pressure people to live lives more consonant with their ideals. We should keep criticizing hypocrisy and sloth. But the criticism should look like ‘we can do so much better!’, not ‘let us hunt down all the Fakers and drive them from our midst!’.

It’s exciting to realize that so much of what we presently do is thoughtless posturing. Not because any of us should be content with ‘pretending to actually try’, but because it means that a small shift in how we do things might have a big impact on how effective we are.

Imagine waking up tomorrow, getting out of bed, and proceeding to do exactly the sorts of things you think are needed to bring about a better world.What would that be like?


5 thoughts on “In defense of actually doing stuff

  1. The trick is to make “looking like you’re trying” correspond as closely as possible with what “actually trying” involves, because sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, even when you’re looking at your own behavior.

  2. I don’t know how to “switch to actually trying,” if, as I’m told, self-deception is my problem. When I think I’m trying hard to actually try, I may be only trying to avoid criticism by appearing to actually try, no? But if all this talk forces me to bring my pretending to try closer into line with actually trying in order to avoid criticism, it seems like a win.

    My take is that I’m allowed to identify with my second-order desires if I want to.

    1. My suggestion is to go a bit less meta. Don’t focus on whether there’s some deep dark secret you’re keeping from yourself. Just focus on figuring out your goals and assessing how well your behavior is furthering them. I suggest goal-factoring. Taking an outside view may help too; imagine giving advice to someone else with similar goals, and then consider whether you should follow your own advice.

      As I wrote above, “The idea of ‘really trying’ isn’t ‘don’t be influenced by social pressure’. It’s closer to ‘whatever, be influenced by social pressure however you want — whatever it takes! — as long as you end up actually working on the tasks that matter’.” The important thing is just to actually help people as much as possible; the path you take to arrive at that destination matters far less.

      1. Sure, and that’s close to what I was getting at. Sorry, I have a bad habit of outlining questions at length and then only gesturing toward where I think the answer is. I blame years of teaching.

        You say that, “Reading Ben’s critique, a pretender is encouraged to switch to actually trying. Reading Katja’s, pretenders are still beset with dissonance, but now without any inspiring call to self-improvement.” I appreciate your putting that so clearly, but I differ with you in thinking that, although a pretender may be encouraged to switch by Ben’s piece, it doesn’t really give them any help with how to do that. So really, both pieces are pretty confusing on the point of now-what.

        “Pretending to try” in the self-deceiving sense is, I’m fully willing to believe, a real thing, but it’s not a thing we can decide to stop doing. We especially can’t decide, in response to the criticism that we are only trying to avoid criticism, that our critics are right and we should stop trying to avoid criticism. That’s all a waste of worry and effort.

        My suggestion is that we back off from all this Hansonian “you say you want X, but your actions are better calculated to accomplish Y” business and take people at their word that they want what they say and believe they want. When someone believes they are trying, they are trying. They may be trying more or less effectively. They may be getting in their own way for complicated signalling reasons, or because they confuse fuzzies and utilons, or because their brain substitutes “How can I do good?” with the easier question “How can I be praiseworthy?” They may be plain old fucking up. But we should proceed by pointing out their errors and telling them how to do better on the object level, not by telling them to stop pretending to try, which is shitty unfollowable advice. And if they argue with us, we should address their arguments, and if they kick and scream, we should assume that they are reacting to criticism as a noxious stimulus as everybody does at one time or another, and empathize with their plight.

        What I meant when I said I identify with my second-order desires is a bit like what Scott says in his “Hansonian Optimism” piece:
        Myself, I’m not so interested in whether people are morally culpable or not, just in how best to handle the situation. My take is that the King and the Vizier are both real, but if you want to fix things you don’t do it by telling the King he’s a figurehead. You tell him you know he’s a good guy, point out how the Vizier is undermining him, and help him become smarter and more powerful. Likewise, when we see people “pretending to try,” we ought to engage with whatever part of them is actually trying.

        1. I agree with you completely! I think most of this ‘are we pretending to try?’ talk is unnecessary. Charitably, the conversation so far has been diagnostic. We got stuck on ‘Here’s what went wrong.’, ‘That’s not a bad thing.’, ‘Yes it is.’ But this doesn’t even begin to address how to fix the problem.

          Ben proposes that the EA movement cultivate a general virtue (self-awareness) to address our general problem. And it might be useful to implement a specific policy with that goal. But for the most part I agree with you that we should focus on more object-level problems.

          Here’s the main problem I have in mind: If EAs are trying to get the most expected value via what they’re purchasing, then they should be spending just about all of it on research, not (yet) on any object-level charity. I can imagine good arguments for a more mixed strategy (e.g., ‘at this stage we mainly need to grow EA and propagate EA ideas’ or ‘we need to cultivate personal commitments to EA using simple heuristics lest we flame out from decision paralysis’). But it’s not obvious to me that most EAs realize that such arguments are needed; so it’s not obvious to me that they’ll switch to funding research as soon as those arguments become less applicable.

          My diagnosis is that we under-emphasize research because EAs are trying to build a good self-narrative, which is best done by conforming to existing standards rather than setting out on one’s own, by satisficing rather than optimizing, and by focusing on concrete visualizable aid rather than airy abstractions. But understanding the cause isn’t very important if it doesn’t tell us how to solve the problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s