Tuesday, 18 July 2017

William MacAskill is Nice Guy, but Morally Confused

I wrote recently about Sam Harris and William MacAskill's discussion in Harris' podcast Being Good and Doing Good.  During that discussion, MacAskill revealed himself to be an ostentatious altruist, which is little surprise since he is the author of Doing Good Better - Effective Altruism And a Radical Way to Make a Difference.  MacAskill gives away a large proportion of his earnings and he actively encourages others to do so (also here).  He reports feeling rewarded by his carefully targeted altruism and there's nothing particularly wrong with his largesse, in itself.  I don't however see him as "morally superior".  In fact, I see him as morally confused.

One thing that I aimed to explain with the notion of an ethical structure was the broad range of morality, from people who are obsessed with doing the right thing at all times to those who simply don't give a toss about the rules, but more importantly those of us somewhere in the middle who are generally good but, given the right circumstances, can be tempted to do wrong (i.e. when we think that no-one is watching or that we might just get away with it).  In the Morality as Playing Games series, I concluded that every one of us is the descendant of a person who, when it became necessary, abandoned their morality and betrayed others in order to survive - but, to have been successful, this ancestor of ours didn't abandon their morality before it was necessary, at least not to the extent that they were deemed dangerous and unsuitable members of society before they could produce at least one child.

In order to be able to survive tough times, each of us must strike a delicate balance between the imperative to fit into our society (and be moral) and the capacity to betray our fellows at precisely the right time - not too early and not too late.  We seek a balance between the impulse to cooperate in a group and need to react appropriately when it is time to defect from that group.  In the modern western world, the times we live in are not particularly tough, even among the more disadvantaged (gone are the days when we might break a window to steal a loaf of bread in order to heroically save our starving nieces and nephews).

In good times, we are biased towards morality and we now have huge industries built around punishing defectors.  Given our increased wealth, it could be argued that the modern western person is less likely to defect than someone from, say, 200 years ago (which would explain the decline of violence).  This certainly has positive sides, but it can go too far to the extent to which our "morality" leads to self-harm, especially when we factor lost opportunity into the harm calculus.

MacAskill, I suggest, verges on self-harm when he carves away at the economic margin between modern comfort and survival.  By doing so, he pushes himself towards a situation in which he would not survive should his conditions deteriorate.  The rational approach is to look towards increasing your economic margin, while taking into account other relevant factors - for example, for the purposes of survival there comes a point at which being richer just increases the risk that you will be killed for your wealth.  As an academic, unless his books are spectacularly successful, MacAskill will not be in a situation in which his wealth is so huge as to be unconducive to his on-going survival.

So, on the surface, what I read into his unbounded willingness to aid others is an indication that his morality is poorly calibrated for survival in extremis.  He does talk about preserving yourself so as to not burn out too quickly (as an altruist) and to maximise your longer-term altruism, for example an expensive suit might prevent money being donated to worthy causes if you bought it today, but your ownership of it may permit you to secure a well-paying job thus allowing you to donate much more in the future. 

MacAskill is saved from actual self-harm in a couple of ways.  Firstly, there is the framing of his legacy survival.  Who MacAskill is and how he behaves is an essential part of his legacy and therefore children (should he have any) would not necessarily be his sole method of ensuring legacy survival.  Others who follow his example, however, and who won't have their names and legacy attached to the organisations that MacAskill has created would likely be self-harming should they donate as much of their earnings as he seeks to - if that level of donation puts their other legacy survival efforts at risk.

The other way he is protected from self-harm is that he would be building up a certain amount of good will, should times turn tough and he finds himself in financial straits he could likely cash in that good will and make it through - but only so long as he hasn't convinced all his friends and colleagues to ruin themselves financially.

Aside from self-harm, there is another concern that I have with his efforts, involving the concept of moral self-licensing.  It is a known feature (some might say a bug) of psychology that when we have done something good, particularly something very good, we may feel entitled to either do something bad or forego doing something else that is good.  Alcohol advertising, for example, highlights this idea when it is suggested that by having put in a full day's work or prevailed in some sporting event, you have somehow earned the right to get drunk (in moderation).

My concern is two-fold.  Firstly, this altruism movement may trigger bad behaviour and act as an enabler for ongoing bad behaviour.  The idea that large numbers of people might feel entitled to behave poorly due to their altruism is worrisome.

Secondly, there is the issue of perception.  We are naturally inclined to see others as largely neutral (mythical saints aside) and so, if people were as ostentatiously "good" as MacAskill strives to be, the more cynical among us would wonder what they were compensating for.  Therefore, if altruism were to go too far, it could paradoxically lead to reduced trust within our societies.

I don't think that MacAskill is covering up some moral culpability, merely that he is morally confused.  His approach is a very nice idea, in the hypothetical, and one that, in the hypothetical, we should all strive for (meaning that it is beneficial to persuade others that, in the hypothetical, such ostentatiously good people are what we would want to be).  In practice, however, such ascetic extremes of goodness are a bit weird, relatively few of us could comfortably approach emulating them and we are left with an impression that the person involved is, at best, somewhat na├»ve.

It is this naivety that is possibly most problematic, when we consider MacAskill's zeal in spreading the word.  All traits which have survival implications have a range of expression in the relevant population.  There are benefits in being big and strong and there are benefits in being small and flexible, depending on the conditions.  If a population became entirely big and strong due to the prevailing conditions and those conditions changed, then the entire population could fail.  We are protected from this by a sort of regression to and variance around a mean, so that the small flexible still exist in times that are best for the big and strong and when being big and strong is no longer optimal, the small and flexible take over (while not dominating entirely so that a swing back doesn't wipe out the population).

The same applies to variations in morality.  Today, in relatively good times, we have people who are more inclined to steal and kill than we are willing to accept and we punish them.  But under extreme conditions, these are precisely the sort of people who would ensure the continuation of our clans while people who are too touchy-feely starve to death or are slaughtered in their beds.


To be able to survive, which I argue is what morality is really all about, we have to be able to be bad when conditions call for it.  We need to be able to look out for ourselves and while doing maximum good in the world, simply for its own sake, sounds like a brilliant idea in principle, turning our minds to this sort of thing in practice risks disarming us at the very moment when we are most vulnerable, making us miss the signs that conditions have changed for the worst and we may soon be required to reap the benefit of our morality – or be erased from the Earth.

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