Acting Wholesomely

Overview of essay series

This is the first in a collection of three essays exploring and ultimately defending the idea of choosing what feels wholesome as a heuristic for picking actions which are good for the world. I’m including a summary of the series here, before getting to the essay proper.

The two main generators of my thinking about this were:

  • Reflecting on major mistakes that have been made in EA, and wondering how EA might have been different at a deep level in ways that could have averted those mistakes.

  • Reflecting on and trying to name certain core praiseworthy behaviours of people whom I especially admire.

In the first essay, Acting Wholesomely (= the rest of this post), we see that the regular English concept of acting wholesomely can be action-guiding, especially if taken with a flavour of “paying attention to the whole of things”. In practice this involves leveraging our emotional intelligence to help recognise which actions or effects are (un)wholesome. This is a skill which many people already exercise implicitly; it can be practised, and can help us to avoid moral errors. Unwholesomeness can never be completely eliminated, so we must learn to relate to it wholesomely — rather than ignore it or treat it as toxic, we may do best to relate to it as a wise parent towards a child who is hurting others.

In the second essay, Wholesomeness and Effective Altruism, we will see that there are tensions between wholesome action and a simplistic interpretation of EA. But they can be unified in a “wholesome EA” perspective. Serious pursuit of wholesome action will integrate core EA principles, and serious pursuit of EA will (as I argue in the third essay) integrate a desire for wholesomeness. This might have helped to avert major historical mistakes in EA. There remain challenges to be tackled (when to act carefully vs quickly; when to focus on reducing local unwholesomeness vs more global), but these are just normal challenges in seeking to act wholesomely.

In the third essay, Wholesome Culture, we will ask how much wholesomeness should be an integral part of our culture. We have seen robustness-flavoured benefits in the previous essays. There are also important social effects: it is easier to act wholesomely in wholesome environments, so wholesome action can help to raise the waterline. And a reputation for wholesomeness could be attractive (though care is needed to avoid sounding boring or sanctimonious). While the fetishization of wholesomeness could stifle visionaries, this is a navigable issue. In conclusion, wholesomeness should be an important strand in the foundations of our culture, though it should rarely be the focus of attention.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Adam Bales, Alex Zhu, Jan Kulveit, Nick Beckstead, Rio Popper, and Toby Ord for conversations and/​or comments. In memory of Sebastian Lodemann, whose wholesomeness was an inspiration to those around him.

What does it mean to act wholesomely?

The basic idea

I suspect many readers will already have a sense of what it means to act wholesomely, even if they don’t normally think in these terms. It may be most easily pointed at in negatives: Acting wholesomely means avoiding, and sometimes giving a wide berth to, things that are unwholesome. An extremely non-exhaustive list of unwholesome things:

  • Suppressing public discussion of issues with your charity that donors would want to know about (& that don’t create privacy issues)

  • Skirting the law for convenience, and encouraging your employees to do similarly

  • Manufacturing urgency (even if the urgency is then real!) to put pressure on potential hires to accept offers

  • Disregarding rules for personal benefit

  • Insincere flattery, to get someone to think well of you

Some slightly more subtle cases of unwholesomeness:

  • Gaming systems that others have established, in ways that aren’t aligned with the intent of the creators

  • Fastidious rule-enforcement, in ways that don’t track the purpose of the rules and fail to notice times when it would be better to bend the rules

  • Taking many meetings with people at a conference, and abruptly ending them as soon as it’s apparent that the person can’t help you

  • Not apologizing for things you’ve done wrong, for fear that could open you up to lawsuits

  • Unnecessarily hurting someone’s feelings, out of a refusal to shy away from saying harsh things

  • Using an organization as a vehicle of convenience for something quite different from what people generally understand it to do

(Note that it will sometimes be correct to bite the bullet and accept such subtle unwholesomeness. For now, I just want to be able to look at and acknowledge that there is some unwholesomeness in these things.)

I think this is a pretty normal English use of the word. I asked ChatGPT to explain what it meant to act wholesomely, and it said:

To act wholesomely means to behave in a manner that is morally sound, kind, and considerate towards others and oneself. It involves making choices that reflect integrity, honesty, and a sense of responsibility. Wholesome actions are characterized by their positive impact on individuals and the community, fostering trust, respect, and empathy. This behavior often entails selflessness, putting the well-being of others before one’s own desires. It’s about creating an environment of positivity and support, where actions are guided by a deep sense of ethical values and a commitment to doing what is right, fair, and beneficial for all involved.

So why am I talking about the normal meaning of an English word? First, because I think the concept is a useful one and could bear more attention. Second, because I want to talk about some angles of my understanding of the central concept, having established a baseline so we all know roughly what’s going on.

Exploring the concept

So far I’ve been pointing to the concept of acting wholesomely via examples or general descriptions rather than trying to define it explicitly. If I had to venture an explicit definition, it would be something like:

Acting wholesomely means paying attention to the whole system around us, and contributing well as a part of that whole without introducing unnecessary friction or pain points.

My notion of the “whole system” is inspired in part by Christopher Alexander’s books on architecture[1]. He discusses how buildings will be better if they are made in ways where they are as a whole, and in each part, sympathetic to and supportive of what already exists around them. Based on my understanding of that theory, here’s a cartoon of two ways you might look to add a purple building near an existing black building:

… or …

Here the version on the top is sympathetic to what’s there, and the buildings — and the spaces between the buildings — support each other. This is not true in the version on the bottom, where the buildings kind of clash unharmoniously, and leave the nearby outdoor spaces more strained (this may be a subtle effect, but I do think that if people spend a while dwelling on the two layouts they will fairly reliably prefer the one on the top). But the shape of the purple building is identical in the two cases; so this information was not accessible by considering just the new building in isolation.

Taking broader actions in the world we won’t have such simple geometric principles guiding us. But I feel that there is often something spiritually similar going on. Acting wholesomely means striving for harmony in relation to other parts of the system. This especially means with respect to other parts of the system one has strong interactions with, but in its deepest form it also means attending to important potential interactions.

Looking again at my examples of acting unwholesomely, they all involve creating some tension or feeling-of-imbalance in part of the system, e.g.

  • “Manufacturing urgency to put pressure on potential hires to accept offers”

    • … means that the people considering offers will be making decisions while stressed, which is generally not conducive to good decision-making.

  • “Suppressing public discussion of issues with your charity that donors would want to know about”

    • … means that there will be a mismatch between what donors know and what they “ought” to know, so:

      • The donors’ decisions may not align with what they’d most endorse

      • Your employees will feel a pressure on their own communications to maintain the narrative

  • “Insincere flattery, to get someone to think well of you”

    • … means that there is a mismatch between what you think, and what they think you think, so:

      • You’re implicitly pressuring yourself to keep up the illusion, in ways that constrain your future actions

      • You’re damaging their world models, and may result in less wise actions from them than absent the flattery

In contrast, the word “wholesome” evokes a sense of things being in balance and straightforwardly good. Parts of the whole are well-adapted to their positions. This is approximately the same as the absence of unwholesomeness.[2] When something is unwholesome there’s some part of the system which is bearing an awkward/​incorrect cost or strain.

Linking this back with regular usage, here’s the Cambridge dictionary definition of “wholesome”:

good for you, and likely to improve your life either physically, morally, or emotionally

The sense of “acting wholesomely” I have in mind can be understood as a metaphor: taking actions which are likely to improve the (metaphorical) health of the systems around us.

What I’m pointing to here is under-specified. I’m indicating the class of things to pay attention to, but I’m not saying exactly how different degrees of unwholesomeness in which places should trade off against each other. In practice, of course, a lot of the substance of making good judgements will depend on those details. A full account of that is much deeper than I can go in these essays, and should be the subject of many conversations and life-long learning. In presenting the idea of “acting wholesomely”, I’m not trying to pin down what that means in every situation, but to offer a high-level frame and orientation that I hope will be helpful for people learning to make robustly good decisions.

Virtue ethics

Acting wholesomely overlaps with virtue ethics, in that many unwholesome actions will feel unvirtuous — and that some virtues (e.g. honesty) are specifically about avoiding certain kinds of unwholesomeness. Compared with virtue ethics, acting wholesomely puts more emphasis on understanding the impacts of one’s actions on others. It also doesn’t centre the virtues — with some hope that this could avoid cases where people focus single-mindedly on excelling at one virtue while ignoring other issues.


Consequentialist perspectives provide axiologies — accounts of which states of the world is good. The idea of acting wholesomely does not provide such an axiology, but just heuristics for good actions. Like consequentialism, it is significantly concerned with the impacts of our actions. But it is sceptical of our ability to explicitly reason about what those impacts will be, and therefore recommends trusting one’s holistic feeling about what is wholesome (while still often being in favour of attempts to explicitly reason about impacts).

Pre-theoretic deontology

Wholesomeness overlaps with deontology — especially an intuitive, pre-theoretical deontology — in focusing on avoiding certain things that are felt to be bad. But whereas deontological intuitions often have a flavour of “nothing could justify this wrong”, and flinching away from toxic bads, acting wholesomely more treats them as major costs to be weighed, but sometimes wholeheartedly accepted (and grieved for) without feeling that one is thereby doing wrong. Wholesomeness also has an element of caring about doing an excellent job of contributing to the system around, rather than just dictating certain things to be avoided.

Clean /​ traditional living

Working a normal respectable job, going to church on Sundays, staying sober and off drugs, avoiding sexual promiscuity or strange counterculture — these are all kinds of “clean” living that might sometimes be called “wholesome”.

Often they will also be somewhat wholesome on my concept. Over-indulgence in general, and addiction in particular, are unwholesome as they ground in an imbalanced sense of priorities. And, all else equal, there is something wholesome about comporting with the culture around us. However, all else is not always equal. There’s something wholesome about letting people do the things they’re drawn to, and unwholesome about puritanically suppressing that. Moreover, there’s something important and wholesome about people experimenting — both for their own learning, and ultimately to find better ways for things to be.


Carlsmith’s notion of ‘sincerity’ (or Habryka’s notion of ‘integrity’) captures an important dimension of what could be thought of as “internal wholesomeness” or “being true to yourself”. My concept of wholesomeness could be understood as sincerity combined with something like the opposite of sociopathy — a true tracking of, and caring about, the impacts your actions have on people and structures around you. In some cases this could mean not leaning all the way into sincerity (e.g. it can be wholesome to decline to bring up political views you know will cause friction at a family dinner, even if asked).

The internal motions of wholesome action

For now I’m going to set aside the question of whether one should try to act wholesomely (I think it’s a good idea, but I’ll go deeper into this in the subsequent essays), and instead ask how one can act wholesomely. What kind of mental motions can be involved, and which are most effective? What are the pitfalls, where one is most likely to slip away from unwholesome action?

If you come in with an optimising mindset, a natural approach might be to say “OK, this is about making the systems around us healthy? Well then let’s think explicitly about the health of the systems and take moves which will optimise for that.”.

I think this is usually the wrong approach. This isn’t to say that it isn’t worth thinking about the health of the systems (indeed I think it can be quite important to do so), but that it is an error for the final step in decision-making to be an attempt to optimise.

Instead I think that the core motion for wholesome action is:

Think about things from various angles, and then take the action that feels to you to be wholesome.

Why am I putting feeling at the heart of this?

Leveraging emotional intelligence to track downsides

If something doesn’t feel altogether wholesome to me, this usually means there’s some issue somewhere. I may not know exactly what it is — my feeling could be sparked by a sense of things not lining up correctly in a way that is indicative of a problem rather than seeing the problem directly — and even if I know where the issue is I may not yet know how to articulate it.

This is a strength of paying attention to my feeling[3] about whether something is wholesome. It can let me notice issues before they’re part of my explicit models. (And can also therefore, in conjunction with something like focusing, be used to articulate issues and add them to my explicit models.)

I think what’s going on here is just that feelings are relatively good at tuning in to things holistically — they don’t require frames or comprehension to let us know whether things seem good, or if there are niggling issues. There’s an analogy here with noticing confusion (in the sense of Yudkowsky). Noticing confusion helps with identifying concrete epistemic errors. Noticing unwholesomeness helps with identifying concrete moral errors.

Identifying wholesomeness as a skill

As I’m describing it here, noticing whether something feels wholesome or unwholesome is a skill. It’s one that I think most people (almost everyone?) has to some degree, and in many cases I think it can beat our explicit reasoning (we may feel that something is wrong without having a story about why). But I think it’s something one can be better or worse at.

Believing there’s a skill here doesn’t require buying into some abstract notion of wholesomeness. The skill could just be thought of as “having your intuitive feeling about something do a good job of tracking the endorsed judgement you’d reach if you had a lot more information, and spent a long time thinking it through”.

As a skill, it can be practiced, and I strongly suspect it can be trained. I don’t really know how to train it. I’m giving some pointers here to how I think about the skill; I can offer my thoughts about what’s wholesome in specific situations; and I can generate generic advice like “practice deliberately, and then reflect on how you did”. But I wonder if one can go deeper than this, and I think it might be very valuable if someone worked out how to do an excellent job of training the skill.

Making space for good judgements

If we haven’t thought about something very much, it can be easy to not appreciate important facets of the whole. If we make decisions at this point, they’re more likely to be incorrect, and perhaps in some way unwholesome. That isn’t to say that this isn’t sometimes the correct move — we have limited time and attention to spend, and we can’t afford to give enough to reach excellent judgements on everything. But it’s a factor which can get in the way of wholesome action.

Similarly when we are stressed or otherwise emotionally distracted, I think that we can lose touch with our sense of the whole of things. I think there’s a lot to the metaphor of strong emotions acting like a cloud, in which we are no longer able to perceive our subtler emotional reactions to things.

When we care about making good judgements, therefore, especially if we’re concerned about accidentally choosing unwholesomely, I think it can be best to try to give ourselves space. Sometimes I find it effective to sit in the bath or go on a walk, turning things over. Sometimes I realise there’s a facet of things it would be good to talk over with someone. At the end of this process I can, sometimes, reach a sense of confidence in my decisions, grounded in a sense of the whole around them.

Wholesome vs virtuous vs right?

OK, but even if we’re making use of our feelings to track things, why is “what is wholesome” a contender for how we should make decisions, rather than “what is virtuous” or “what is right”?

Getting deeply into what is the correct choice will be a subject for a subsequent essay, but for now I want to note that it’s easier to justify actions with large costs with a frame of “what is virtuous” or “what is right”, because the costs may be overwhelmed by projected benefits. Of course sometimes it will be correct to bite the bullet and incur costs (discussed in the next section, as well as subsequent essays), but unwholesomeness is uncomfortable and there’s often a significant temptation to look away from it. If there is a justification for it as “virtuous” it can become easier to stop giving it attention altogether. [4]

That stopping-giving-it-attention is a looking-away-from-the-whole-of-things. It cuts one off from the ability to recognise what is wholesome. Perhaps a bullet was worth biting in one case, but if it’s learned just as “that was the right thing to do”, we may come to forget that there was a bullet to be bitten there at all, and start biting it at times when it’s decidedly wrong to do so.

I think if we keep on asking ourselves “what is wholesome?” rather than “what is right?”, we are less likely to fall into this trap of not looking at big swathes of issues. Another question that might work is “what is good and right and comfortable?”. We may feel that something unwholesome is right, but it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable about that. When we truly feel ourselves to be acting wholesomely, we are aligned — both internally, and with the whole we are a part of.

Meta-level wholesomeness

Nothing is fully wholesome

Try to imagine a system where people have managed to get rid of all of the unwholesomeness — everything is always done for the right reasons, nobody is ever meaningfully under-informed, etc. Maybe just for a moment close your eyes and try to conjure it up; not (of course) all of the details, but just a holistic sense of what a system might be like, and what you would feel about it.

When I try to picture this, I get a feeling of unease — although locally wholesome, it feels like the system as a whole must somehow be sickly. It’s too perfect. I think I’m implicitly realizing that a tremendous amount of effort would be required to eradicate every last trace of unwholesomeness … which is either the wrong call as a question of resource allocation, or more likely a sign that the unwholesomeness is being hidden rather than removed (which would be pretty unwholesome).

Perhaps this is simply a failure of my imagination. But at least relative to our current society, and things in its near vicinity, it is not. We already saw that making good wholesome decisions takes time and space, and sometimes the tradeoffs won’t make spending that time the right decision. Moreover any system which is trying to do anything in the world will create vortices of friction and unwholesomeness as it goes. e.g. some people will operate on partially misguided assumptions; some decision processes won’t have access to all the information they should, and make suboptimal choices as a result. Proper management will reduce these frictions, and avoid ones above a certain magnitude, but it will not eradicate them.

I mention this not as apologetica for EA. I don’t think the importance of our work gives us licence to be less wholesome than other parts of society — in fact, I think we should strive to be more wholesome, as I’ll explain in later essays. Rather, I mention this because I think there will as a matter of fact be some degree of unwholesomeness in every system we create or interact with, and we can relate to that in more or less healthy ways.

Failure modes in relating to unwholesomeness

Before looking at what I think healthy ways to relate to unwholesomeness are, I’ll discuss what I see as frequent but ultimately unhealthy approaches. These apply to unwholesomeness which is in ourselves or in systems that we regard ourselves as part of.

Pretending it isn’t there

Unwholesomeness is uncomfortable, and we often don’t like looking at uncomfortable things. If we can just … not see the issue, or pretend to ourselves that it’s fine, that’s a simple way to not engage with the uncomfortableness. This can be quite subtle; since we don’t like conceiving of ourselves as people who would look away from issues, we won’t turn away very directly, we’ll just subtly downplay it, and not get around to investigations that might turn something up.

This is not a strategy that is conducive to resolving the unwholesomeness. On the contrary it compounds the issue: there’s something unhealthy (in ourselves) about refusing to admit problems, and it’s worse if gets socially projected (so that other people feel pressure to believe it’s not an issue).

Treating it as toxic

When we regard something as toxic we want it changed or gone, but we don’t want to engage with the details. This is another way of not engaging with the uncomfortableness.

Treating unwholesomeness as toxic can be effective at removing the unwholesomeness, but it’s not a very wholesome way of doing it. Because it doesn’t engage with the details, it can miss more effective or proper ways to address the issue. Worse, it can function as a screen to enable us to pretend that unwholesomeness in our response isn’t there. At times this can lead to a response that’s more unwholesome than the original issue.

Wholesomely relating to unwholesomeness?

The model which feels most salient to me as good handling of unwholesomeness is a wise parent dealing with a child who is hurting others. The parent doesn’t look away from the harm that is being caused; nor do they freak out. They are firm, and seek to understand the issue and address the root cause.

If the unwholesomeness is in something which is under our control, I think that the appropriate attitude is similar. Look openly and honestly at what’s going on. Try to name the unwholesomeness. Then try to think honestly through what to do about it. If it should be addressed, address it soberly. Don’t hide it, or the way you’ve addressed it, from others.

In some cases unwholesomeness shouldn’t be addressed. It should be accepted as a necessary cost. But it’s still worth looking straight at it, and grieving for not having found a better way, which avoids it. Bearing a cost without grieving for it is unwholesome for having a missing mood.

Moreover I think people should be somewhat slow to move to acceptance. Sometimes there is no immediate apparent fix for unwholesomeness; or rather the fixes seem more costly than accepting it to stay. But if people keep attention on the ways in which it’s unsatisfactory, they will devote some energy to working out how to do the things they valued in other ways. It will often be that this process uncovers a solution which is better than the original, even if that possibility wasn’t apparent at the start.

In other cases when noticing unwholesomeness it may not be properly in our gift to address it. The unwholesomeness lives in some system we are engaging with, but not in control of. I still think that something of the parent’s stance is, if we can access it, usually a good idea. Don’t look away from the unwholesomeness. When the time is right, draw others’ attention to it, patiently but firmly. If the unwholesomeness has spread into the social domain, such that people are socially punished for drawing attention to it, then gently but firmly, draw attention to that. Don’t imply that the whole system is bad, and don’t necessarily make a big deal out of the badness that’s there (it can be graceful to turn the other cheek), but don’t submit to a narrative where the badness isn’t bad.

Note that this isn’t supposed to mean that you make everything about rooting out unwholesomeness. You could think some things were somewhat unwholesome — and speak openly about that when it comes up — while still not wanting to make that your priority.

In some cases we may not feel we have the power to safely do this. I grieve for that, while not wanting to put the responsibility on the powerless. If you personally have more of a safety net (this could mean financial or social, depending on the consequences you are concerned about), I believe you have extra responsibility to try to recognise and name unwholesomeness.

More posture than goal?

Carlsmith has a nice articulation of a distinction between yin — being receptive to the will of others, and yang — projecting your will into the world. Acting wholesomely is about marrying the yin and yang correctly. Not so yang that you ignore the wills and desires of others, but not so yin that you accept things as they are without seeking to improve them[5].

In seeking to act wholesomely, I think we can let either of these steer, and if they’re properly integrated it shouldn’t ultimately matter which is on top. We soften our yang, letting it be receptive to what we perceive — but not losing touch with its heart. Then when we act from the yang, it already contains the yin. Or we can steer with yin, trying to be receptive to the wholeness we perceive — but this includes the yang-within, our sense of how things should be. So acting from the yin encapsulates the yang.

In this way, I feel that acting wholesomely may be best understood as a posture. It can give rise to goals, but it isn’t fundamentally goal-oriented. And wholesome action for different actors often looks a little different as they perceive different facets of things. Nor is it in any way necessary for wholesome action to conceive of itself as such. A lot of what I’m doing in this essay is just trying to pull out and articulate things I have at some level known for many years.

Is it a good posture to adopt? I believe it is, but I’ll leave the principal discussion of that question for the third essay.

  1. ^

    Especially volumes 1 and 2 of The Nature of Order. He sketches some mathematics underlying his concept of ‘wholeness’, but it’s only realistic to calculate in very simple cases; in realistic cases it will rely on people making assessments.

  2. ^

    I think there’s a bit more to wholesomeness than just the absence of unwholesomeness; I’ll revisit this in the third essay.

  3. ^

    I don’t mean “strong emotion”, but something more like “felt sense”; as opposed to “explicit model”.

  4. ^

    This justification can also create norms that valourize unwholesomeness, e.g. coming to think there’s something courageous/​impressively agentic in trying to sneakily manipulate one’s way around laws.

  5. ^

    I haven’t read enough Eastern philosophy to know how much the things I’m saying here are just recapitulating standard advice, but I wouldn’t be shocked.

Crossposted from EA Forum (26 points, 15 comments)