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?

What is a self?

This is a revised version of an IU Philosophical Society blog post.

At the Philosophical Society’s first spring meeting, I opened with a methodological point: Semantics matters. Misunderstanding is everywhere, and it is dangerous. If we don’t clarify what we mean, then we’ll never pinpoint where exactly we non-verbally disagree.

But the importance of semantics doesn’t mean we should fetishize which particular words we use. Just the opposite: In analyzing what we mean, we frequently discover that the world doesn’t neatly break down into the shape of our linguistic categories. We may have one word (“monkey”) where there are really two or three things, or two words (“electricity” and “magnetism”) that pick out the same phenomenon in different guises. Thus we talked about the value of “Tabooing your words”, of trying to find paraphrases and concrete examples for terms whose meaning is unclear or under dispute.

This is of special relevance to discussions of the self. People mean a lot of different things by “self”. Even if in the end those things turn out to be perfectly correlated or outright identical, we need to begin by carefully distinguishing them so that we can ask about their relatedness without prejudging it.

For example: DavidPerry noted that many classical Buddhist texts denied the existence of a self. But what they actually denied was what they called ātman, which some people have translated as “self”. Even had they written in English, for that matter, it wouldn’t necessarily have been obvious which ideas of “self” they had in mind — and, importantly, which they didn’t have in mind.

What are some of the concepts of “self” that we came up with? I lumped them into five broad categories.

1. Thing

EMpyloriWhen we say “That’s an ugly coat of paint, but I like the house itself,” we don’t have the same thing in mind as when we say “I have a self”. It may seem trivial to note that objects in general can themselves be called “selves”; but this has real relevance, for example, to the Buddhist critique of “self”, which really does generalize to all objects — for early Buddhists, humans lack a “self” for much the same reason chariots lack a “self”, because they aren’t things in quite the way we normally take them to be.

Some things, of course, may be more intuitively “selfy” than others. The idea of discrete organic selves, or organisms, is applied to everything from viruses to humans. In this biological sense, I am my body, even though my body can change drastically over time.

Two troubling questions arise here, and they’ll recur for our other ideas of “self”. First, can my concept of myself as an organism be trumped by other (say, more psychological) conceptions? If not, then if my brain were turned into a sentient machine, or if my body perished while my soul lived on, I would not survive! Some ghostly or robotic impersonator would survive, while the “real me” perished with my body. Could that be right? Or is the “real me” something more abstract? And why does the question of which “me” is “real” feel like it matters so much?

2. Persona

By “self” or “person” we sometimes mean the specific things that make you who you are. We mean someone’s personality, character, life-experiences, social roles, and so on. As the Stanford Encyclopedia article on selfhood notes:

We often speak of one’s “personal identity” as what makes one the person one is. Your identity in this sense consists roughly of what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or it is the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life. This individual identity is a property (or set of properties). Presumably it is one you have only contingently: you might have had a different identity from the one you in fact have. It is also a property that you may have only temporarily: you could swap your current individual identity for a new one, or perhaps even get by without any.

3. Subject

png;base646bdd8702569ffd85We may also have a more generic idea in mind — a “self” as a subject of experience. But this too conflates several ideas.

First, there’s the idea of an experiencing subject, an experiencer. At a minimum, this could be whatever directly brings experiences about. But does this causal notion adequately incorporate our intuition of a self that “undergoes” or “has” its experiences? What would we have to add to turn an experience-generator into an unconscious self? And if some brain region or ectoglob can be “me”, where do we draw the line between the parts of the world that are me and the parts that aren’t?

Jonathon, for one, voiced skepticism about there being any fact of the matter about the dividing line between Me and Everything Else. Some philosophers even reject the very idea that a self exists “outside” or “behind” experience:

But even so, there remains the distinct idea of an experienced subject. Our self isn’t just hidden behind our experiences; it’s also indicated within them. Thus we can speak of experiences that are “self-aware”, in different ways and to different extents. This ranges from the self-awareness of explicit thoughts like “I am getting rained on!” to primitive perceptual impressions that a certain hand is Me while a certain chair is Not Me.

At the outer edge of this category, DavidPerry raised the idea of a bare “phenomenological” subject, which I took to be the perspectivalness or subject-object structure in experience. Here our discussion became very murky, and DavidBeard expressed some skepticism about the possibility of disentangling this idea from the very idea of consciousness.

In general, we had a number of difficulties reconciling the philosophical method of phenomenology, or describing how things appear from a first-person perspective, with the method of third-person science. Most basically, Neeraj asked, can the fact of first-person experience itself be accounted for in objective, scientific terms? As Briénne put it: Supposing I were an intelligent zombie or automaton, could you explain to me what this thing you call “consciousness” is? This brought us to another way of conceiving a self — behaviorally.

4. Agent

png;base64f4b49a5756f7bece“Self” can be defined in behavioral terms. We generally say that humans and animals can perform actions and deeds, while beaches and kaleidoscopes, metaphors aside, cannot. So agency is an important way of distinguishing persons from non-persons.

Of course, “action” is a vague category. It’s easiest to tell persons from non-persons apart when we’re dealing with intelligent agency, i.e., behaving in a skillful, adaptive, goal-oriented way. We debated whether intelligent behavior can occur in the absence of conscious thought, and if so how we could ever identify subjects of experience based on how they act. Sam noted that we very readily ascribe agency, and perhaps even awareness, to beings based merely on their superficial resemblance to humans and other animals — suggesting that our agent-detecting intuitions are prone to leading us astray.

We might also distinguish deliberative agency, which makes decisions, from rudimentary animal behaviors that possibly lack real “choice.” Even more narrowly, we can ask what gives deliberative agents (or agents in general) free agency. Does social or political freedom, as Nathaniel suggested, inform our concept of “person”? Does psychological or metaphysical freedom help determine whether something is a self in the first place?

This brought to the forefront the important fact that our idea of “self” is not merely descriptive; it is also prescriptive. What things we call “person” is bound up with our values, preferences, and principles. Thus we have to ask how the above ideas relate to moral agency, a being’s responsibility for its own actions. A storm can make bad things happen, but it’s not the storm’s fault. What sorts of things can be at fault?

5. Patient

png;base643f39801d7f0875daJust as an agent is something that acts, a patient is something that’s acted upon. Thus, along similar lines, we can ask what beings are moral patients — beings that can be harmed or benefitted. And we can ask whether there is a special, narrower category of personal patients — whether, for example, humans or intelligent agents have their own special rights above and beyond those of other sentient beings.

But the normative concepts of self aren’t just about morality. We also need to know what it takes to count as a prudential patient. Or, to ditch the jargon: What does it take for something to be the proper object of my self-interest? What sorts of things can be me, when it comes to my looking out for my own welfare?

The question seems so basic as to be bizarre. But in fact it’s not a trivial matter to figure out why I should care about myself — or, given that I do care about myself, what it takes for a thing to qualify as “me” — or how to go about discovering which things so qualify!

More generally, we can distinguish two questions:

1. What does it take to be a certain kind of self? What makes Bob, say, an agent?

2. What does it take for two things to be the same particular self? What makes Bob at 3:00 am and Bob at 3:45 am the same agent? Why aren’t the two hemispheres of Bob’s brain two different agents?

Thus far, we’ve only even begun to address the first of these two questions. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of the normative concepts of self, and of the relationships between the above concepts of agent, patient, subject, and persona. But we’ve made real progress, and we can use the distinctions we’ve drawn as tools for beginning to make headway on the remaining riddles.

For those interested in further reading on these two questions, I recommend John Perry’s A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality, a rousing and very accessible introduction to the philosophy of self.