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On Telescopic Morality

October 26, 2015

A response to this article:

I posted this as a comment, but got some error, so I’m reposting it here as well. Maybe it will eventually show up there, maybe not.

I’m really ambivalent about this whole approach. I think that every child is a local moralist. Your instincts are attuned to it, Dunbar’s number, xenophobia, all that jazz. To some degree social scientists should recognize that local morality is the default state of humanity and any policy recommendation or comment on morality should take into effect what humans are actually capable of. It’s like war plans. If your war plan requires two trains be in the same space at the same time, or that troops march 60 miles a day, it’s not a real plan, it’s a fantasy. If your system of morality requires that humans don’t act like humans, it’s not going to work. So, from that perspective, local morality is what people are designed to do, it’s what we do naturally. It’s Kahneman’s “System 1” of morality.

The advantage of local morality is local knowledge and harmony with human nature, but the advantage of telescopic morality is its potential for greatness. It’s the big risk big reward side of altruism. And a lot of great things have been achieved by universalists – the green revolution, numerous medical advancements, the international humanitarian aid movement, for all its flaws. Yeah, most people are motivated by doing a favor for their neighbor Bob down the street whose kids are on your kid’s little league team, but you can’t deny the appeal of yearning to do great things for all of humanity. To be a part of something much greater than themselves, to solve a problem which is huge in both magnitude and scope. I still remember when I was a baby economist and I dreamt of working at the World Bank and solving all poverty forever by thinking of some great theory or whatever. And the rush that brought. Oh man, good times.

Welfare is super lumpy geograpically. If the world was spread out between Hong Kong and Greece, I’d say “fine, local morality is good enough”, but it’s not at all. The level of poverty in some countries is staggering and hard to even imagine. I’m not saying I donate every last dollar to starving children, but given the diminishing returns that people in the 1st world face, it’s really counter productive to try to discourage them from sending a hundred bucks every now and then to GiveWell’s recommendation du jour.

Part of being a social scientist is learning the foibles of humanity and trying to overcome them. If we can’t say you should give some money to super-poor people because it’s against human nature to care about those outside our immediate vicinity, should doctors tell their patients to eat donuts because it’s human nature to eat high fat high sugar foods?

As in any movement, I think proponents of telescopic morality do get carried away, but I still see it as fundamentally a good thing.

Upon rereading the article, it’s really reasonable. Look at this:
“All I ask is that the calls for generosity respect our ideal of living an ordinary life, rather than demanding that it be sacrificed on behalf of a great cause. Ideally, our generosity should help serve to spread flourishing to people in difficult situations, rather than simply serving as an instrument for puritans to guilt us over our own flourishing.”
RRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH how can anyone disagree with this crap? But when you write an article against telescopic morality, you are making value judgement that it’s a bad thing that people should do less of. That’s the point, otherwise you’d write on a different topic. We can infer Adam’s preferences by what he chooses to spend time writing about (although it could just be this is a fun topic, which it is). Effective altruism is a tiny tiny percent of overall charity. When I listened to this Econtalk, I thought this guy goes a bit far, and I think the same of Peter Singer, for example. But on the margin, I would like more people to be more telescopic.


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