Food for thought

readingsOur regular Friday diet of readings for the weekend:

You’ve heard of the Effective Altruism movement supported for instance by philosopher Peter Singer. Well, here is an article that argues that, rather than creating an individualized “culture of giving,” we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.

Research shows that healthy mood spreads through social contact, while depression doesn’t. Which means that if you associate with depressed friends, not only you ain’t gonna “catch it,” you will very likely help them out of it.

A disturbing essay, written by an insider, at what it is like to cater to the super-rich in one of New York City’s most exclusive restaurants. Don’t miss the bit about the mom who wishes to leave her baby at the coat check for three hours while she dines…

We don’t know much about the NSA (No Such Agency, as they say), but we do know that they have a “philosopher” (really, a writer with philosophical aspirations) in residence. And boy, is he a troubled soul.

I’m not a huge fan of experimental philosophy, but here is a study that shows that there are no cross-cultural differences in so-called Gettier-style problems regarding what counts as knowledge. People seem to agree that these cases ought not to count. I agree. What say thou?


14 thoughts on “Food for thought

  1. I enjoyed a quiet chuckle when I saw you had been reading a magazine(Jacobin) where the masthead said “Reason in Revolt“. That seems to describe you.

    Life is a cycle of stasis, change and consolidation. We need the revolutionaries to provoke change but yesterday’s revolutionaries become today’s bureaucrats whose mission is to preserve their revolution from further change by a new generation of Young Turks and so a period of stasis sets in. That is because very few revolutionaries have the insight to see beyond their own revolution and so they devote their efforts to consolidation and maintenance.

    There are a few lone revolutionaries who despise the bureaucratic tendencies of consolidation and maintenance that must follow on from revolution. They try to preserve their relevance by working towards the next revolution. The sad fact is very few of them engineer the next revolution. This requires a freshness of vision untainted by earlier revolutions. This is the challenge that perplexes me: how to maintain that freshness and clarity of vision. Can reason stay in revolt?

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  2. Massimo I don’t mind liberalism for the most part — it’s mostly good stuff I think. But this Jacobin article arguing that we must fight capitalist tools like Peter Singer who promote altruism, and given the perceived conflict with socialism… WOW!!!

    There is a sad irony which does seem quite misleading: We are not only selfish naturally (which is to say that personal qualia defines good/bad for each conscious entity), but the human also seems to have a strong empathy dynamic (which makes us feel good/bad based upon our perceptions of others). Therefore it does hurt to watch a child drown, and so we tend to help in order to relieve our associated pain. Starving children who reside outside of our view, however, bring little or no such disturbance, and thus receive less aid. (Of course Peter Singer would like there to be more pain in order to incite more “altruism,” but good luck engineering that!)

    We recently took a short cruise, and ventured away for a few hours into the Mexican port of Ensenada. One kid there struck me particularly, eyes askew and wriggling around in his mother’s lap, mouth soundless but moving in obvious pain. He looked about 5 but surely could have been begging with her for 11 years…

    I do not advocate capitalism that is perfectly free, but if academia continues to deny the nature of good/bad for the conscious entity, what hope do we have of rationally building policy which is able to help? Examples of intellectuals playing around with false altruism and socialism, should be no less troubling to us than this pathetic child.


  3. We don’t know much about the NSA (No Such Agency, as they say), but we do know that they have a “philosopher” (really, a writer with philosophical aspirations) in residence. And boy, is he a troubled soul.

    That story inadvertently reveals the real problem with surveillance activities(apart from their complete lack of ethical framing) and that is the laughable incompetence of the organisations. Did they even know who Socrates was? Appointing a resentful misfit to such a post reflects appalling incompetence. In this case it is good for a laugh but often that incompetence has chilling results.

    Of course the NSA do not have a monopoly on this, as I discovered during my China posting. See this account for some of my experiences:

    We were such trusting souls. We went into those appointments never for one moment suspecting that our lovely, helpful, supportive and ever so compliant interpreters were in fact full time employees of whatever they call their own No Such Agency.

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  4. Eric,

    well, I don’t think the article was arguing against empathy, or helping people. It was making the (reasonable, I think) point that charity often is an excuse for not questioning more basic assumptions about the system. This doesn’t even need to go as far as rejecting capitalism altogether. I come from a European country where it is assumed that it is the State’s business to take care of the less fortunate, as part of the social contract. Americans, however, loathe to raise taxes for welfare programs, giving instead to charities. Too bad that the money given to charities is a fraction of what is needed. The end result is that a lot of Americans feel good about doing something, while at the same time they refuse to support the sort of larger scale public programs that are needed.

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  5. Massimo while I most certainly do agree that charity is essentially in the business of making people feel good about themselves (often to questionable practical effect otherwise), my point above was a far deeper one that does encompass your observation as well. If there are social ills to deal with, then yes our governments must directly work on them. But my point in full was that if it isn’t yet understood that qualia constitutes good/bad for us (and yes beyond our empathy, which is simply another demonstration of our selfishness), then a democracy should tend to implement more flawed policy. Since even academia hasn’t yet agreed that qualia represents good/bad for the conscious entity, I’d say that we still have something basic to work out regarding the question of how we lead our live and structure our societies.

    You’ve heard this position of mine before, though I also know that we’re each thinking about something else right now. On this eve before “The Two Dans” grasp your baton, we’re all excited to see how their venture will go. I shouldn’t actually worry however. Who brings more assets to the table than they do?


  6. My first reaction on seeing the term ‘effective‘ altruism was ‘yuck’, that should be caring altruism. Calculated, clinically effective altruism would seem to lack that essential ingredient, deep down caring. It is that caring ingredient that seeks out the most desperate need to give succour. It is that caring ingredient that looks into the eyes of the suffering and recognises their humanity. It is that caring ingredient that restores their confidence in themselves so that the final goal of altruism is realised, enabling the suffering to escape the trap of suffering.

    On the other hand, an increasingly secular, consumer and entertainment orientated world is not going to be a deeply compassionate one. And so profit orientated organisations that make it their business to fill this gap become the remaining solution. As businesses they have a marketing arm to motivate and attract contributions. This is the American way and it works, after its own manner.

    Of course one can deny they are profit making organisations(they are nominally non-profit) but even a cursory look at the large remuneration of their executives quickly dispels this illusion. But the illusion avoids taxation and that is a good thing for the recipients. It is, in a manner of speaking, a Faustian compact.

    The problems with ‘effective altruism’ are structural. There is the serious problem of political quietism, that the article mentioned. Send out a regular check and my duty is done, now I can party. It is more than political quietism, it is ethical quietism and this is perhaps the strongest criticism. Then it tends to search out for glamorous problems to solve because they motivate more donations, thus neglecting low profile but equally pressing needs. It fosters band-aid charity without attention to underlying causes of the problems, because that is the quick and easy thing to do. Thus it fosters a dependence culture. It is vulnerable to corruption because the focus is on the giving and not on the useage. Here in Africa charitable corruption has become a venerable institution that sustains a good living for some wily, unprincipled entrepreneurs who are quick to exploit this heaven-sent opportunity.

    The goals of altruism are
    1) to relieve suffering. This is band-aid charity.
    2) to enable the suffering to escape from the trap of suffering. This is effective charity.

    Both must be done. Band-aid charity is a necessary short term measure that buys us time while we address the longer term of problem of structural suffering. That is effective charity. I object to the term ‘effective altruism’ because it confuses these distinctions with the result that we give less attention to the second goal.

    The article draws attention to the moral blindness of capital but it is ethical quietism that enables the moral blindness of capital.


  7. in my last comment my wording was slightly wrong. It should have been

    The goals of altruism are
    1) to relieve suffering. This is band-aid charity.
    2) to enable the suffering to escape from the trap of suffering. This is structural charity.

    The combination of (1) and (2) is effective charity.

    The fate of the farm(Ol Donyo Mara, close to Subukia, near Nakuru) where I lived in my childhood illustrates the differences. This extensive farm, that straddled the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, in my childhood produced large amounts of wheat, maize, coffee, milk and butter. We employed a large workforce, we gave them medical care and supplemented their home grown produce with additional food rations. Taken together, all these large farms met the food needs of the population and made Kenya an important food exporter.

    And then we, like the other white farmers, were forced off the land and out of the country, a traumatic experience. We were the first wave of migrants, tens of thousands of us, but no one cared a damn, colonialism was getting its just deserts, they claimed. The country is no longer a food exporter.

    Recently I used Google Maps to look once more at Ol Donyo Mara. The wheat fields, maize fields and coffee plantations are gone. They are replaced by innumerable tiny shambas, each supporting an extended family. This is subsistence farming where people struggle in poverty. It is a trap with no escape. Subsistence farming severely limits education and more importantly it limits the cognitive horizon, thus their hopes and aspirations. It produces only enough for survival.

    Prosperity cannot be found in subsistence farming. It is found in business and industry in towns and cities where energy is used to multiply productivity. It is the use of energy to multiply productivity that produces wealth.

    So what does ‘effective altruism’ do in this case. Typically it digs wells, installs pumps, makes fertiliser and pest control available, donates treated mosquito nets, sets up medical clinics, providing treatment for things like worms and eye infections. All useful things to be sure and they do make life a little more tolerable on the shambas. That is if some of the aid makes its way through the multiple filters imposed by corruption. But all it has done is enable the continuance of the poverty trap.

    The way out of the poverty trap is to develop business and industry in the towns and cities, together with the infrastructure that will support the rural population as it migrates from the farms to the cities. The shambas, as they are vacated by peasants, will once more be consolidated into productive farms. In the towns and cities they will find better employment, better medical facilities and better schooling. They will discover prosperity.

    The real challenge then is
    1) to develop the business and industry that will draw a rural population into the towns and cities.
    2) to develop the infrastructure, administration, houses, roads, services, schools and hospitals that will support a growing population without creating slums.
    3) to consolidate the shambas into farms sufficient to produce food surpluses.
    4) to lessen the cultural shock of the transition from rural to urban life.

    Once seen in this way it can be realised that traditional charitable giving(where Africa is concerned) is a poisoned chalice. It is a sop to a stunted moral conscience that enables the problem it purports to solve.

    Items (1) to (4) are, without doubt, challenging goals but it is achievable and I have seen for myself in China how it can be done.


  8. Eric,

    “my point in full was that if it isn’t yet understood that qualia constitutes good/bad for us (and yes beyond our empathy, which is simply another demonstration of our selfishness), then a democracy should tend to implement more flawed policy”

    I’m sorry but I’m not sure what you mean. I disagree that empathy is a demonstration of selfishness, and I don’t know what you mean by understanding whether qualia are bad or good: they just are. Doesn’t their badness or goodness depend on what qualia we are talking about? Pain, usually bed; pleasure, usually good (depending on how it is gained).


    “The problems with ‘effective altruism’ are structural.”

    Indeed. I don’t think I have anything to disagree with you regarding that analysis, and I do think that’s what the author of the piece was talking about: charity lulls us into quietism about political change.


  9. Massimo,
    I come from a European country where it is assumed that it is the State’s business to take care of the less fortunate, as part of the social contract. Americans, however, loathe to raise taxes for welfare programs, giving instead to charities.

    We need both, as I will illustrate with this real example that in a small way encapsulates the problem.

    I know a mentally handicapped woman who lives in a privately run home for the mentally handicapped. It receives a small state grant that meets only a fraction of its needs. The balance is made up from donations that vary greatly from month to month. It is a precarious, hand to mouth existence. Each resident receives a state disability grant which is also a small fraction of their needs. The woman I know has special medication needs and so she has an even greater need for financial support. The residents need occupational therapy, counselling and physiotherapy in addition to their normal medical needs. They receive none of this.

    The answer is a layered approach where:

    1. The state supplies the foundational needs. This is in the form of grants sufficient to cover their operational expenses such as rates, food, salaries, utility bills and transport. This level supplies stability, certainty of continued operation and freedom from fear. This is the kind of impersonal level that the state does well.

    2. Charitable organisations provide donations that meet special needs. These can be books, television sets, recreational equipment, gifts to individuals, birthday parties, excursions, etc. Charitable organisations can flexibly cater to special needs in a way that state organisations cannot.

    3. Charitable individuals provide volunteer services such as free/low cost medical treatment, psycho-therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, etc. It can take the form of visits, outings, maintenance work, etc. These services attend to the residents’ human needs for care, contact, recognition and love.

    Effective altruism(as I define it) is then not a matter of finding the best organisation. It is instead a balanced approach where the state provides foundational needs, organisations attend to special needs and individuals attend to human needs. Effective altruism is local and thus recognises local needs. Effective altruism is personal and thus recognises individual needs. Effective altruism is exposed to suffering and thus sensitised to its needs.


  10. Hi Massimo,

    Yes I suppose we do have some crossed wires above. I may be referred to as a “total utilitarian,” though I’d modify this by adding the term “subjective” in front. One reason that utilitarianism hasn’t yet succeeded, I think, is because of sloppy subject identification. I believe that every unit of positive qualia is good for a given subject, with the negative being the opposite. This permits me to delete your “depending upon how it’s gained” clause regarding what’s good. If one entity does horrible things to others for personal happiness, then this will still be good for it, and to the exact magnitude of its promoted qualia. But then if we define the subject as the entire affected group’s qualia, then the larger summation will accurately demonstrate the tremendous harm associated with this unique subject. Governments obviously must help limit such social negatives given our natural selfishness. If we were instead similar to ants however, then we obviously wouldn’t need such governing.

    You also wondered why I consider our empathy to be another demonstration of our selfishness? Empathy is strange since it’s the perceived qualia of OTHERS that causes the perceiver to experience a corresponding qualia. Thus if you see a child drowning, the experience does tend to feel negative. So in order to relieve this negative qualia, one might “selfishly” attempt to help the child.

    My general position is that without an accepted understanding that qualia is the basic unit of good/bad for the conscious entity, our mental and behavioral sciences should remain quite primitive. I believe that once this business does get sorted out, the field of ethics will then become the science which founds newly effective mental/behavioral sciences.

    Hi Labnut,

    I do remember seeing news reports when Kenya was “repatriating” your lands, and I knew full well how much general harm this would do the country. At the time I wondered if many of you were surprised, since it seemed quite logical to me given the governing circumstances. But then you were also surprised to find that your Chinese translator was a government spy, while I think that I’d have expected this. Regardless, perhaps your prank put you in far more danger than you realize. Isn’t it possible that Chen chose to spare you once again, and at great personal risk, given her empathy for this charming but hopelessly naive foreigner? And then as for your extreme liberalism regarding those in need — right now I also feel a bit like Chen. Might I help this charming but hopelessly naive liberal? Of course you’d like to enlighten me no less, so perhaps not.

    “Effective Altruism” for me would be a general acknowledgement that personal sensations mark the positive/negative value of any given conscious entity (or society of them), and thus that “altruism” doesn’t truly exist. I’d like us to acknowledge our naturally selfish nature (and even given our empathy) so that we might rationally deal with it. Instead I see attempts to fight our nature, and with predictably dismal results.


  11. Eric,
    put you in far more danger
    We, so-called ‘foreign experts’, were privileged and were afforded special status. In any case the standard response is to increase surveillance so that co-conspirators can be unmasked.

    Chen chose to spare you
    Interesting interpretation that I never considered, for two reasons. First, she was a devoted and intensely loyal Communist. Second, it was too dangerous for her to defend me. The system is extraordinarily harsh. There is no forgiveness, no second chances, no latitude, no understanding and no tolerance. Screw up just once and you are toast.

    extreme liberalism regarding those in need
    I think that altruism is orthogonal to the political dimension of liberalism-conservatism.

    personal sensations mark the positive/negative value of any given conscious entity (or society of them), and thus that “altruism” doesn’t truly exist. I’d like us to acknowledge our naturally selfish nature

    This is a recurrent theme in your comments and I think it is mistaken. To explain I must do a very brief survey of human history. The great majority of our history as a species predated the birth of language and thus our rational cognition. In that time we would have been much like any other mammal with our behaviour controlled largely by instinctual responses. Thus our behaviour would have been Darwinian where the only value was survival. We did what it took to survive. If we wanted something and were strong enough to take it, we would take it, violently. This is how my dogs behave and we would have been no different.

    Then, about 60,000 years ago, we acquired language(how is not known). This likely ignited the rapid growth of higher cognitive powers in our brain. With cognition and language came a unique facility that no other species had, the power to conceive of the future and therefore the power to anticipate and understand the future consequences of our actions. This was a remarkable development that greatly expanded our chances of survival because we could now plan for anticipated unfavourable future events. It had another result. We could conceive of better and worse future outcomes. This was the birth of normativity and therefore the birth of our moral thinking.

    But, we were still in thrall to our Darwinian, instinctual drives when this remarkable development took place. Thus was born the competing forces in our mind that we still experience today. However, over time our Darwinian, instinctual drives have lessened their grip on our behaviour and our moral faculty has gained increasing control over our behaviour. We are on a trajectory from our Darwinian past to a moral future. We are an imperfect work in progress and our history is the record of our halting trajectory.

    What is undeniable is that we have made huge progress. What is undeniable is that we are capable of great good. What is also undeniable is that we are greatly flawed. But we have grounds for hope because our history has shown us we are capable of great good and our society is moving on a trajectory towards greater good as we progressively overcome our flaws.

    Therefore I cannot accept your dismal view of our species. While I acknowledge that we are possessed by conflicting drives I am sustained by the belief in what we can be and the belief in what we can become.

    Massimo, as the expert on matters biological and evolutionary, may well have a very different understanding to mine. I am open to being corrected.


  12. Eric, labnut,

    I think it’s pretty clear that human nature — meaning our biological instincts affecting our behavior — provides a combination of “selfish” (meaning, self-regarding) and “altruist” (meaning, pro-social) tendencies. It is on that mixture that we build all our relations and societies, and I agree with labnut that we have made considerable progress via cultural evolution.

    For instance, while we are naturally pro-social toward members of our own group, we also tend to be naturally xenophobic. And yet many human societies have (imperfectly, for sure!) accepted foreigners in their midst, and even passed laws to protect them.


  13. Okay labnut, it is good to know that your beliefs do happen to be founded upon a rational position. I suppose that this goes back to the “blank slate” concept that we discussed weeks ago at SciSal. I’m learning so much! But perhaps science, which really is only a few centuries old, will indeed figure stuff like this out soon enough, whether in your direction, mine, or a different one? Each of us should be able to agree that the related sciences must still remain quite primitive, given that neither of our theories have remotely become accepted yet, nor an alternative. Furthermore philosophers don’t seem to be helping us to establish any basic ethical principals from which to work right now, which surely compounds our difficulties. I’d hope for you to earnestly compete with me for the tremendous prize of helping science make such an advancement. The more of us who are attempting to help these primitive sciences gain accepted understandings in this regard, the greater the potential for someone to finally succeed. But if we continue to act like there’s nothing wrong, then these fields should just continue to coast along as they have since the ambitious but failed time of Sigmund Freud.


  14. Massimo, I agree at least in part, that the likes of Singer, if they’re saying *just* do charity, if you can’t change the system that much, rather than also ramping up the fight, are wrong.

    And, wow on the NSA. (And why has no other commenter talked about that?) I Tweeted First Look, chiding it for not revealing him. Said it went a bit to its own credibility.


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