Beware Far Ethics

Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it. Francois De La Rochefoucauld.
Katja Grace’s translationWe nobly analyse distant things, and in the present do whatever the hell we want.

If you stopped an articulate person who had just passed a homeless bum, and asked why she did not help, she’d probably explain this isn’t a simple question.  She might mention ethics complexities, but she’d probably focus on the complex social context.  Is the bum mentally ill, sick, stupid, lazy, or faking?  Does the bum have family who should help first, did he arrive recently in this area, and who is best placed to know what he needs?

At my Georgetown lecture last night on our robot future, the smart econ students focused their questions almost entirely on ethics.  They seemed to assume they understood enough about the social situation, and were obsessed with the ethical ways for humans to treat robots, robots to treat humans, etc.  I’ll bet they’d also be quick to condemn Roman centurions’ ethics, also figuring they understood enough about their social situation.  But I think they’d need to learn lots more about either of these worlds before they could begin to offer useful ethics advice.

Some of my young idealistic friends like to talk about figuring out what they could do to most help the world, and might go to Burma to see how the really poor live.  I tell them one has to learn lots of details about a place to figure out how to improve it, and they’d do better to try this on a part of the world they understand better.  But that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as saving the whole world all at once.

Humans overwhelmed by the social complexities of helping a bum nearby think they know enough about societies far away, so that ethics becomes the main concern there.  I see the same thing in discussions of future biotech or nanotech – ethics becomes the main frame, even though we only have the faintest ideas of how future societies might integrate those techs.  Beware the easy confidence of advising worlds far from your knowledge or consequence.

Added 29Oct: The obvious way to help poor folk far away without relying on your poor understanding of their world is to rely on the one thing you know best about their world: it is poor.  Invite them to move to your rich world, to share in its riches.  If your neighbors hinder you, use what you know about them to change that.

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  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Concern with ethics is a way of signalling what a fine, moral individual you are – and how much spare time you have to spend on pondering issues which are remote from scraping together your next meal.

    It’s often for much the same reason that people are religious.

  • komponisto
  • Carl Shulman

    Humans overwhelmed by the social complexities of helping a bum nearby think they know enough about societies far away, so that ethics becomes the main concern there.

    There seems to be a sizable straw man element here. People offering post hoc justifications for not handing money over to a particular bum will make up a lot of such explanations, but most of those people don’t go searching hard at other times for people who are “deserving poor.” They’re not overwhelmed by social complexities, they’re engaged in hypocritical signaling.

    For utilitarianish/careful idealistic folk, the complexities of the bum decision are not overwhelming. The reason not to give to an unselected bum is not just uncertainty about the details of the particular case, it’s that we have information about the overall statistical distribution of the homeless and the effects of giving them money, so that we know that giving to a random panhandlers is a bad expected value compared to specific alternatives, e.g. African vaccinations (the delivery and effects of which are easier to measure than most poor country interventions, and have large confirmed benefits).

    I see the same thing in discussions of future biotech or nanotech – ethics becomes the main frame, even though we only have the faintest ideas of how future societies might integrate those techs.

    Agreed on the uselessness of ethics before analysis.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes it is just one example, but I’d say that for the vast majority of decisions we make in our lives, social complexities are more of an issue and ethical complexities. Yet when we consider worlds far away in space or time, it switches, and ethical issues dominate our attention.

  • http://www.rationalmechanism.com richard silliker

    You gotta know when to pick your fights. Build a robust intuition first before you try to save the world. At least you will know where to run when the heats turned up.

  • Vince

    I don’t give money to bums. There’s several reasons why I don’t:

    First, I’m not terribly interested in making an immediate difference in one person’s life that I don’t know personally.

    Second, there’s a good chance that the person asking for my help makes more money by asking people for help than I do by actually doing useful services for people, as I consider myself lucky to make more than $200 in a week.

    Thirdly, I never seem to accosted by people who really seem to need money. They always seem to be people who, if they were as enterprising about finding a job as they were about asking for money from strangers, again, they’d make more money than I do.

    But I’ve broken my rule on occasion, depending on the gregariousness of the beggar.

    I wonder why anyone gives money to beggars. It doesn’t seem to do anything but increase the number of people begging. I think the ethics of the situation should take a backseat to scientific study. We can’t really discuss ethics until we know what we’re really doing when we hand over those loose coins.

    Speaking of other countries, I’m told that travelers shouldn’t give money to beggars either unless they see locals doing it. When I was in Colombia for two months, I maybe gave money twice.

  • Constant

    Maybe I didn’t give the bum any money, but I didn’t kick him or spit on him either.

    we know that giving to a random panhandlers is a bad expected value compared to specific alternatives, e.g. African vaccinations

    Do we know that these help on balance? They stand apart from aid to Africa generally? I’ve seen arguments that aid to Africa is one of the causes of its problems, because the aid is captured by corrupt government and used to cement its hold on power, and Africa’s core problem, the root of its other problems including its economic and health problems, is bad government.

  • http://princeton.edu/~sinsoc PeterW

    At least among my college-age friends, such “service” trips are usually at least half tourism, with a generous helping of status signaling.

  • Carl Shulman

    Constant, yes much that is labelled as “aid” has negative or nil benefits. But the evidence for targeted health interventions verified by randomized trials is relatively good, which is why I gave the vaccination example, as there are many vaccines with such thorough evidence supporting their benefits relative to costs. Cash aid to governments, and ‘development aid’ nominally intended to bolster economic growth has the worst record, and is stolen/bolsters corruption much more than vaccines. Check out GiveWell.org and the Copenhagen Consensus, etc for info.

    The hypocrisy argument also still stands, as these arguments are often invoked as a reason to dismiss aid entirely, rather than as an indicator of the high value of information likely to be gained by some research.

  • Michael Turner

    Sometimes distance lends a needed simplification. If I were teleported into the middle of a Sudanese refugee camp, and was approached by a young man for my canteen of clean water, the problem might seem very complex because it was complex. Was he really the most in need? Perhaps the very energy and boldness with which he might plead with me would be a sign of quite the opposite: he doesn’t need the water as much as somebody who no longer had the energy to compete for my attention. Or it might be a sign that someone in his family is truly desperate? Figuring out the individual predicament might be very difficult and time-consuming.

    Whether the refugee camp as a whole needs a bulk supply of clean water, however, might actually be a very simple question by comparison. Some number N of babies dying of contaminated water per day? Get these people some clean water.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Let me suggest that the simplification of distance is an illusion – there are many issues such as who is to give the camp water, how is it obtained and delivered, do they distribute that water, what incentives does such aid create for problems later, and so on.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I think it can be helpful to think about more distant situations sometimes. I think Eliezer was right to prefer discussing Louis XIV to contemporary politics. Situations involving, say, Hitler, are not as helpful because he has been such a memetically successful individual around whom we have shaped our consciousness. Better to discuss king Narmer. Even better is to think about the dynamics of animal population or collapsing sandpiles which we find apolitical/amoral and then apply such insights to that part of nature which humanity makes up.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Well it might feel more helpful to think about distant situations, because our feelings are more confident about their distant conclusions, but how can we check if that feeling is accurate?

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        I think the point TGGP was making is that it is easier to be more rational about distant situations, because our emotions aren’t engaged from the beginning as in discussing current affairs or Hitler. The complexities are still there (although many details are usually lost in the distance) but the emotional distractions are less.

      • TGGP

        billswift is correct about the point I was trying to make.

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        There are many other causes of bias besides excessive emotional engagement.

  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

    Often far thinking provides clarity because we don’t have to find fake excuses for our selfishness. To see yourself as you really are, I say take a far look at yourself. Whether we’ll act on any conclusions we draw is another matter.

    While valuable insight might require large levels of knowledge, it’s arguable that wealthy developed functioning states aren’t where big gains in welfare are to be found (and they already have many people analysing them as they have more educated people), and if so that’s a reason to look elsewhere for problems to research.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      We have reasons to make excuses for ourselves both near and far, but our far excuses are less constrained by our data and actions. Yes poor folks have more marginal utility to gain, but I think the knowledge effect is much larger than this effect – you can’t help things you don’t understand.

      • Carl Shulman

        “Yes poor folks have more marginal utility to gain, but I think the knowledge effect is much larger than this effect – you can’t help things you don’t understand.”

        This is a fairly incredible claim, the difference in costs between rich and poor countries is orders of magnitude. The U.S. government does cost-benefit analysis using a statistical value of life in the millions of dollars, 2-3 orders of magnitude more than the cost of saving an African life.
        Seeing-eye dogs cost $50,000 to raise and train, enough to cure at least a hundred cases of blindness in the developing world.

      • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

        I’m with Carl – that doesn’t seem to be obviously true. Perhaps true that you can’t have insights that are new to the world without much research, but you can surely have insights that are new to you and help you know what to do.

        And how do you know this starry eyed college student, whoever he or she is, plans to only do brief and scanty research of such situations? Also I hear Burma has some lovely temples…

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  • http://kburke.org Kevin Burke

    The Economist blog Democracy in America had a nice example of near vs. far bias a while ago. They compared Afghanistan and Mexico and wondered why we think we can make a difference in Afghanistan when virtually no one thinks we can solve Mexico’s problems.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes, it is a great example. To quote:

      We recognise this because Mexico is right next door. The place feels real to us; it’s not some kind of abstraction we can remake in our optimistic fantasies.

    • Constant

      we think we can make a difference in Afghanistan when virtually no one thinks we can solve Mexico’s problems.

      But remember that we really did “make a difference” – an important differerence – in both Japan and Germany. I don’t mean we improved the lives of Japanese. I mean we made specific changes to Japan and Germany, changes that “took”.

      So we can make a difference. The problem in Afghanistan may be three-fold:

      1) Our goal is different.

      2) Our methods are different.

      3) Afghanistan is different in some way in which Japan and Germany are both the same.

      A lot of people focus on (3). But if (3) is the case, then I don’t think the comparison with Mexico is apt, since Mexico is more like Germany and Japan than like Afghanistan in the way in which Afghanistan is alleged to be different from Germany and Japan.

      But as a matter of fact I think that (1) is the main problem, and (2) is the secondary problem. Japan and Germany were aggressors and we “made a difference” by ending their aggression. We were extremely successful. But Mexico is not invading its neighbors or attacking their harbors. Mexico is already at the endpoint that we were trying to move Japan and Germany toward. If we were to try to do to Mexico what we did to Japan and Germany – make it non-aggressive – we might well succeed, provided it were aggressive to begin with. Of course, it isn’t. If we try to “make a difference” in Mexico now it will have to be some different sort of difference.

      Afghanistan did, of course, harbor aggressors. But that is not the same thing as being an aggressor.

      There is also the secondary problem (2). We were willing to use much greater force against Germany and Japan than we are against Afghanistan. The nuking of Hiroshima wasn’t by any means the only time we accepted massive civilian casualties in the enemy’s territory. That is unacceptable in Afghanistan, and so necessarily our methods are very different.

  • Jess Riedel

    Some of my young idealistic friends like to talk about figuring out what they could do to most help the world, and might go to Burma to see how the really poor live. I tell them one has to learn lots of details about a place to figure out how to improve it, and they’d do better to try this on a part of the world they understand better.

    I think that for almost everyone who lives in the industrialized world, any insight they may have in problems close to home is far outweighed by the fact that the problems facing people in the industrialized world have a lower cost-to-benefit ratio for fixing–by many orders of magnitude–than problems in developing countries. Yes, I may be more ignorant of the complexities of the problems facing Burma than in Washington, D.C. But the solution is to find people who aren’t as ignorant and give them resources to do good in Burma where my dollar can reduce far more human suffering.

  • DW

    I read this with an emphasis on needing to educate oneself deeply about a local environment before trying to help the people, rather than a pessimistic message of the impossibility of helping people, period (if you can’t help the bum, why are you trying to help anyone?).

    Westerners can walk into a foreign, poor country and wield a fair amount of social and financial power, certainly relative to what they can wield back home. This fact makes it much easier for an individual to become an agent of change. Is this good? Not everyone has good intentions. Maybe there are some for whom this power trip is the primary motivation for embarking on this kind of adventure?

  • N Jack

    I had a particularly uncomfortable recently with regards to a homeless person… but I think my attitude is largely that of Vince’s. I rarely give money to people in the street – something like a blanket rule. As soon as you start making exceptions you start entering this difficult area of brain activity that is simply not practical for getting by on a daily basis, unless perhaps you’re a philosopher.
    One exception I made some time ago, it was a horrible night, wet and cold, and the guy, I had some familiarity with, was wasted. I’d gone some way past him but (but gradually I went over the tipping point) I went back and gave him some money. He could barely acknowledge me, very sad, just a young guy who I haven’t seen for some time, maybe he’s dead.

    My mind, my conscience, is basically always doing a sounding, comparing myself to others and instinctively reckoning my duty to others on that basis. How do I do relative to my social context? – not so bad I think. Some aspects of my lifestyle are too much to expect of others as a standard and some almost certainly too little. I think the main thing is to get market mechanisms to reflect as best as possible the true costs of products, like GoodGuide – that should do a lot of my ‘sounding’ for me.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Robin,

    Did you bring up Burma because of the behavior of that clown who swam across the lake to “save” their home-imprisoned dissident leader, causing her to get an extended sentence, only to declare that he would “do it again,” if he had the chance? Talk about misguided “ethical” conduct.

  • http://threethingsblog.wordpress.com/ j r

    is it possible for the average college student to engage in anything other than far ethical thinking?

  • SimonJM

    Doe sanyone here think they are morally cogntively adept than past generations to see past their own personal and social biases?

    That future generations won’t -with the benefit of hindsight- point to things that many here wouldn’t bat an eyelid at, as good examples of things people can have a severe cognitive bias about, and are not able to have the slightest inkling that they are biased?

  • SimonJM

    Pls slip in the missing ‘more’

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I’m just waiting for the Holodeck.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    I just added to this post.

    • Dog of Justice

      This ignores the question of “why is it poor?”

      It is far from obvious that inviting them en masse to the rich world provides greater overall utility than teaching them to create their own rich world (which has worked out quite well in East Asia over the last half century). If there was some reason that absolutely prevented them from creating a rich world locally, common sense stipulates that the same reason, ceteris paribus, would cause importation of them to (i) lower the well-being of your neighbors, and (ii) plausibly lower reasonable measures of global utility (look at the asymptotics of the situation, not just the immediate first derivative).

      Open borders advocates will constantly run into “hindering neighbors” for the foreseeable future, for the very good reason that they have never satisfactorily addressed the concerns above. Their disinterest in increasing their home’s culture’s ability to assimilate — the one thing most likely to break the ceteris paribus assumption above and make 3rd world immigration a win-win — is particularly damning.

    • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

      You really think that campaigning for increased immigration is the best way to help the poor? I don’t doubt immigration is one of the best ways to help the poor, but it’s not obvious that a marginal campaigner on that issue will have much effect.

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  • Unnamed

    Eyal, Liberman, and Trope (2008) have a paper (pdf) applying near-far theory (aka construal level theory) to morality. The abstract:

    We propose that people judge immoral acts as more offensive and moral acts as more virtuous when the acts are psychologically distant than near. This is because people construe more distant situations in terms of moral principles, rather than attenuating situation-specific considerations. Results of four studies support these predictions. Study 1 shows that more temporally distant transgressions (e.g., eating one’s dead dog) are construed in terms of moral principles rather than contextual information. Studies 2 and 3 further show that morally offensive actions are judged more severely when imagined from a more distant temporal (Study 2) or social (Study 3) perspective. Finally, Study 4 shows that moral acts (e.g., adopting a disabled child) are judged more positively from temporal distance. The findings suggest that people more readily apply their moral principles to distant rather than proximal behaviors.

  • ChrisA

    I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but if you take the view that “morality” or ethics are just attempts to rationalize genetic based group cooperation strategies, then you should not expect to be able to perform calculus with morality – it is not a logical construct, it is simply feelings. Any attempt to perform moral calculations (I should help this person rather than this other person) is doomed to fail if approached analytically. Go with your feelings, if you want to help A rather than B, then do so.

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