Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable

I.

Re­cently spot­ted on Tum­blr:

“This is go­ing to be an un­pop­u­lar opinion but I see stuff about ppl not want­ing to re­blog fer­gu­son things and aware­ness around the world be­cause they do not want nega­tivity in their life plus it will cause them to have anx­iety. They come to tum­blr to es­cape n feel happy which think is a load of bull. There r liter­ally ppl dy­ing who live with the fear of go­ing out­side their homes to be shot and u cant post a fuck­ing pic­ture be­cause it makes u a lit­tle up­set?”

“Can yall maybe take some time away from re­blog­ging fan­dom or hu­mor crap and read up and re­blog pak­istan be­cause the priv­ilege you have of a safe bub­ble is not one shared by oth­ers?”

Ig­nore the ques­tion­able stylis­tic choices and there’s an im­por­tant point here worth con­sid­er­ing. Some­thing like “Yes, the feel­ing of con­stantly be­ing out­raged and mired in the lat­est con­tro­versy is un­pleas­ant. And yes, it would be nice to get to avoid it and spend time with your fam­ily and look at kit­ten pics or some­thing. But when the con­tro­versy is about peo­ple be­ing mur­dered in cold blood, or liv­ing in fear, or some­thing like that – then it’s your duty as a de­cent hu­man be­ing to care. In the best case sce­nario you’ll discharge that duty by or­ga­niz­ing wide­spread protests or some­thing – but the ab­solute least you can do is re­blog a cou­ple of slo­gans.”

I think Cliff Per­voc­racy is try­ing to say some­thing similar in this post. Key ex­cerpt:

When you’ve grown up with mes­sages that you’re in­com­pe­tent to make your own de­ci­sions, that you don’t de­serve any of the things you have, and that you’ll never be good enough, the [con­ser­va­tive] fan­tasy of rugged in­di­vi­d­u­al­ism starts look­ing pretty damn good.

In­tel­lec­tu­ally, I think my cur­rent poli­ti­cal mi­lieu of fem­i­nism/​pro­gres­sivism/​so­cial jus­tice is more cor­rect, far bet­ter for the world in gen­eral, and more helpful to me since I don’t ac­tu­ally live in a perfectly iso­lated cabin.

But god, it’s un­com­fortable. It’s in­ten­tion­ally un­com­fortable—it’s all about get­ting an­gry at in­jus­tice and ques­tion­ing the right­ness of your own ac­tions and be­ing sad so many peo­ple still live such painful lives. In­stead of look­ing at your cabin and declar­ing “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and rec­og­nize that a long se­ries of bru­tal in­jus­tices are re­spon­si­ble for the fact that you have a white-col­lar job that lets you buy a big use­less house in the woods while the origi­nal own­ers of the land have been mur­dered or forced off it.

And you’re never good enough. You can be good—cer­tainly you get ma­jor points for char­ity and ac­tivism and fight­ing the good fight—but not good enough. No mat­ter what you do, you’re still par­ti­ci­pat­ing in plenty of cor­rupt sys­tems that en­force op­pres­sion. Short of bring­ing about a to­tal rev­olu­tion of ev­ery­thing, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

Once again, to be clear, I don’t think this is wrong. I just think it’s a bum­mer.

I don’t know of a solu­tion to this. (Bum­mer again.) I don’t think pro­gres­sivism can ever com­pete with the cozy self-satis­fac­tion of the cabin fan­tasy. I don’t think it should. Change is nec­es­sary in the world, peo­ple don’t change if they’re to­tally happy and com­fortable, there­fore dis­com­fort is nec­es­sary.

I’d like to make what I hope is a friendly amend­ment to Cliff’s post. He thinks he’s talk­ing about pro­gres­sivism ver­sus con­ser­va­tivism, but he isn’t. A con­ser­va­tive happy with his lit­tle cabin and oc­ca­sional hunt­ing ex­cur­sions, and a pro­gres­sive happy with her lit­tle SoHo flat and oc­ca­sional po­etry slams, are psy­cholog­i­cally pretty similar. So are a liberal who aban­dons a cushy life to work as a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer in the in­ner city and fight poverty, and a con­ser­va­tive who aban­dons a cushy life to serve as an in­fantry­man in Afghanistan to fight ter­ror­ism. The dis­tinc­tion Cliff is try­ing to get at here isn’t left-right. It’s ac­tivist ver­sus pas­sivist.

As part of a move­ment re­cently deemed post­poli­ti­cal, I have to ad­mit I fall more on the pas­sivist side of the spec­trum – at least this par­tic­u­lar con­cep­tion of it. I talk about poli­tics when they in­ter­est me or when I en­joy do­ing so, and I feel an obli­ga­tion not to ac­tively make things worse. But I don’t feel like I need to talk non­stop about what­ever the des­ig­nated Is­sue is un­til it dis­tresses me and my read­ers both.

I’ve heard peo­ple give lots of rea­sons for not want­ing to get into poli­tics. For some, hear­ing about all the evils of the world makes them want to curl into a ball and cry for hours. Still oth­ers feel deep per­sonal guilt about any­thing they hear – an al­most psy­chotic be­lief that if peo­ple are be­ing hurt any­where in the world, it’s their fault for not pre­vent­ing it. A few are chron­i­cally un­cer­tain about which side to take and wor­ried that any­thing they do will cause more harm than good. A cou­ple have trau­matic ex­pe­riences that make them leery of af­fili­at­ing with a par­tic­u­lar side – did you know the pros­e­cu­tor in the Fer­gu­son case was the son of a po­lice officer who was kil­led by a black sus­pect? And still oth­ers are perfectly in­no­cent and just want to re­blog kit­ten pic­tures.

Per­voc­racy ad­mits this, and puts it bet­ter than I do:

But god, it’s un­com­fortable. It’s in­ten­tion­ally un­com­fortable—it’s all about get­ting an­gry at in­jus­tice and ques­tion­ing the right­ness of your own ac­tions and be­ing sad so many peo­ple still live such painful lives. In­stead of look­ing at your cabin and declar­ing “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and rec­og­nize that a long se­ries of bru­tal in­jus­tices are re­spon­si­ble for the fact that you have a white-col­lar job that lets you buy a big use­less house in the woods while the origi­nal own­ers of the land have been mur­dered or forced off it. And you’re never good enough. You can be good—cer­tainly you get ma­jor points for char­ity and ac­tivism and fight­ing the good fight—but not good enough. No mat­ter what you do, you’re still par­ti­ci­pat­ing in plenty of cor­rupt sys­tems that en­force op­pres­sion. Short of bring­ing about a to­tal rev­olu­tion of ev­ery­thing, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

That seems about right. Per­voc­racy ends up with dis­com­fort, and I’m in about the same place. But other, less sta­ble peo­ple end up with self-loathing. Still other peo­ple go fur­ther than that, into Calv­inist-style “per­haps I am a de­spi­ca­ble worm un­wor­thy of ex­is­tence”. motein­thedark’s re­ply to Per­voc­racy gives me the im­pres­sion that she strug­gles with this some­time. For these peo­ple, ab­stain­ing from poli­tics is the only cop­ing tool they have.

But the coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is still that you’ve got a lot of chutz­pah play­ing that card when peo­ple in Pe­shawar or Fer­gu­son or Iraq don’t have ac­cess to this cop­ing tool. You can’t just bring in a doc­tor’s note and say “As per my psy­chi­a­trist, I have a men­tal health is­sue and am ex­cused from ex­pe­rienc­ing con­cern for the less for­tu­nate.”

One op­tion is to deny the obli­ga­tion. I am su­per sym­pa­thetic to this one. The marginal cost of my ex­is­tence on the poor and suffer­ing of the world is zero. In fact, it’s prob­a­bly pos­i­tive. My eco­nomic ac­tivity con­sists mostly of treat­ing pa­tients, buy­ing prod­ucts, and pay­ing taxes. The first treats the poor’s ill­nesses, the sec­ond cre­ates jobs, and the third pays for gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance pro­grams. Ex­actly what am I sup­posed to be apol­o­giz­ing for here? I may benefit from the geno­cide of the In­di­ans in that I live on land that was formerly In­dian-oc­cu­pied. But I also benefit from the as­ter­oid that kil­led the dinosaurs, in that I live on land that was formerly dinosaur-oc­cu­pied. I don’t feel like I’m com­plicit in the as­ter­oid strike; why should I feel com­plicit in the geno­cide?

I have no ob­jec­tion to peo­ple who say this. The prob­lem with it isn’t philo­soph­i­cal, it’s emo­tional. For most peo­ple it won’t be enough. The old say­ing goes “you can’t rea­son your­self out of some­thing you didn’t rea­son your­self into to be­gin with”, and the idea that se­cure and pros­per­ous peo­ple need to “give some­thing back” is a lot older than ac­cu­sa­tions of “be­ing com­plicit in struc­tures of op­pres­sion”. It’s prob­a­bly older than the Bible. Peo­ple feel a deep-seated need to show that they un­der­stand how lucky they are and help those less for­tu­nate than them­selves.

So what do we do with the ar­gu­ment that we are morally obli­gated to be poli­ti­cal ac­tivists, pos­si­bly by re­blog­ging ev­ery­thing about Fer­gu­son that crosses our news feed?

II.

We ask: why the heck are we priv­ileg­ing that par­tic­u­lar sub­sec­tion of the cat­e­gory “im­prov­ing the world”?

Per­voc­racy says that “short of bring­ing about a to­tal rev­olu­tion of ev­ery­thing, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” But he is overly op­ti­mistic. Has your to­tal rev­olu­tion of ev­ery­thing elimi­nated ischaemic heart dis­ease? Cured malaria? Kept el­derly peo­ple out of nurs­ing homes? No? Then you haven’t discharged your in­finite debt yet!

Be­ing a perfect per­son doesn’t just mean par­ti­ci­pat­ing in ev­ery hash­tag cam­paign you hear about. It means spend­ing all your time at soup kitchens, be­com­ing ve­gan, donat­ing ev­ery­thing you have to char­ity, call­ing your grand­mother up ev­ery week, and mar­ry­ing Third World re­fugees who need visas rather than your one true love.

And not all of these things are equally im­por­tant.

Five mil­lion peo­ple par­ti­ci­pated in the #Black­LivesMat­ter Twit­ter cam­paign. Sup­pose that solely as a re­sult of this cam­paign, no cur­rently-serv­ing po­lice officer ever harms an un­armed black per­son ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the av­er­age officer’s ca­reer, for a to­tal of 2000 lives saved, or 1/​2500th of a life saved per cam­paign par­ti­ci­pant. By co­in­ci­dence, 1/​2500th of a life saved hap­pens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion. The round-trip bus fare peo­ple used to make it to their #Black­LivesMat­ter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests them­selves, even given com­pletely ridicu­lous over­es­ti­mates of the protests’ effi­cacy.

The moral of the story is that if you feel an obli­ga­tion to give back to the world, par­ti­ci­pat­ing in ac­tivist poli­tics is one of the worst pos­si­ble ways to do it. Giv­ing even a tiny amount of money to char­ity is hun­dreds or even thou­sands of times more effec­tive than al­most any poli­ti­cal ac­tion you can take. Even if you’re ab­solutely con­vinced a cer­tain poli­ti­cal is­sue is the most im­por­tant thing in the world, you’ll effect more change by donat­ing money to non­prof­its lob­by­ing about it than you will be re­blog­ging any­thing.

There is no rea­son that poli­tics would even come to the at­ten­tion of an un­bi­ased per­son try­ing to “break out of their bub­ble of priv­ilege” or “help peo­ple who are afraid of go­ing out­side of their house”. Any­body say­ing that peo­ple who want to do good need to spread their poli­ti­cal cause is about as cred­ible as a tele­van­ge­list say­ing that peo­ple who want to do good need to give them money to buy a new head­quar­ters. It’s pos­si­ble that tele­van­ge­lists hav­ing beau­tiful head­quar­ters might be slightly bet­ter than them hav­ing hideous head­quar­ters, but it’s not the first thing a rea­son­able per­son try­ing to im­prove the world would think of.

Aver­age num­ber of hits for posts on this blog, by topic<cen­ter>

No­body cares about char­ity. Every­body cares about poli­tics, es­pe­cially race and gen­der. Just as tele­van­ge­lists who are ob­sessed with mov­ing to a sweeter pad may come to think that donat­ing to their build­ing fund is the one true test of a de­cent hu­man be­ing, so our uni­ver­sal ob­ses­sion with poli­tics, race, and gen­der in­cites peo­ple to make con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ments that tak­ing and spread­ing the right po­si­tion on those is­sues is the one true test of a de­cent hu­man be­ing.

So now we have an an­gle of at­tack against our origi­nal ques­tion. “Am I a bad per­son for not car­ing more about poli­tics?” Well, ev­ery other way of do­ing good, es­pe­cially char­ity, is more im­por­tant than poli­tics. So this ques­tion is strictly su­per­seded by “Am I a bad per­son for not en­gag­ing in ev­ery other way of do­ing good, es­pe­cially char­ity?” And then once we an­swer that, we can ask “Also, how­ever much sin I have for not en­gag­ing in char­ity, should we add an­other mass of sin, about 1% as large, for my ad­di­tional failure to en­gage in poli­tics?”

And Cliff Per­voc­racy’s con­cern of “Even if I do a lot of poli­tics, am I still a bad per­son for not do­ing all the poli­tics?” is su­per­seded by “Even if I give a lot of char­ity, am I a bad per­son for not do­ing all the char­ity? And then a bad per­son in an ad­di­tional way, about 1% as large, for not do­ing all the poli­tics as well?”

There’s no good an­swer to this ques­tion. If you want to feel anx­iety and self-loathing for not giv­ing 100% of your in­come, minus liv­ing ex­penses, to char­ity, then no one can stop you.

I, on the other hand, would pre­fer to call that “not be­ing perfect”. I would pre­fer to say that if you feel like you will live in anx­iety and self-loathing un­til you have given a cer­tain amount of money to char­ity, you should make that cer­tain amount ten per­cent.

Why ten per­cent?

It’s ten per­cent be­cause that’s the stan­dard de­creed by Giv­ing What We Can and the effec­tive al­tru­ist com­mu­nity. Why should we be­lieve their stan­dard? I think we should be­lieve it be­cause if we re­ject it in fa­vor of “No, you are a bad per­son un­less you give all of it,” then ev­ery­one will just sit around feel­ing very guilty and do­ing noth­ing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten per­cent or more,” then many peo­ple will give ten per­cent or more. The most im­por­tant thing is hav­ing a Schel­ling point, and ten per­cent is nice, round, di­v­inely or­dained, and – cru­cially – the Schel­ling point upon which we have already set­tled. It is an ac­tive Schel­ling point. If you give ten per­cent, you can have your name on a nice list and get ac­cess to a se­cret fo­rum on the Giv­ing What We Can site which is ac­tu­ally pretty bor­ing.

It’s ten per­cent be­cause defi­ni­tions were made for Man, not Man for defi­ni­tions, and if we define “good per­son” in a way such that ev­ery­one is sit­ting around mis­er­able be­cause they can’t reach an un­ob­tain­able stan­dard, we are stupid defi­ni­tion-mak­ers. If we are smart defi­ni­tion-mak­ers, we will define it in whichever way which makes it the most effec­tive tool to con­vince peo­ple to give at least that much.

Fi­nally, it’s ten per­cent be­cause if you be­lieve in some­thing like uni­ver­sal­iz­abil­ity as a foun­da­tion for moral­ity, a world in which ev­ery­body gives ten per­cent of their in­come to char­ity is a world where about seven trillion dol­lars go to char­ity a year. Solv­ing global poverty for­ever is es­ti­mated to cost about $100 billion a year for the cou­ple-decade length of the pro­ject. That’s about two per­cent of the money that would sud­denly be­come available. If char­ity got seven trillion dol­lars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, elimi­nate all treat­able dis­eases, fund re­search into the un­treat­able ones for ap­prox­i­mately the next for­ever, ed­u­cate any­body who needs ed­u­cat­ing, feed any­body who needs feed­ing, fund an un­par­alleled re­nais­sance in the arts, per­ma­mently save ev­ery rain­for­est in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six differ­ent manned mis­sions to Mars. That would be the first year. Good­ness only knows what would hap­pen in Year 2.

(by con­trast, if ev­ery­body in the world retweeted the lat­est hash­tag cam­paign, Twit­ter would break.)

Char­ity is in some sense the perfect un­in­cen­tivized ac­tion. If you think the most im­por­tant thing to do is to cure malaria, then a char­i­ta­ble dona­tion is de­liber­ately throw­ing the power of your brain and mus­cle be­hind the cause of cur­ing malaria. If, as I’ve ar­gued, the rea­son we can’t solve world poverty and dis­ease and so on is the cap­ture of our fi­nan­cial re­sources by the undi­rected dance of in­cen­tives, then what bet­ter way to fight back than by say­ing “Thanks but no thanks, I’m tak­ing this ab­stract rep­re­sen­ta­tion of my re­sources and us­ing it ex­actly how I think it should most be used”?

If you give 10% per year, you have done your part in mak­ing that world a re­al­ity. You can hon­estly say “Well, it’s not my fault that ev­ery­one else is still drag­ging their feet.”

III.

Once the level is fixed at ten per­cent, we get a bet­ter idea how to an­swer the origi­nal ques­tion: “If I want to be a good per­son who gives back to the com­mu­nity, but I am trig­gered by poli­tics, what do I do?” You do good in a way that doesn’t trig­ger you. Another good thing about hav­ing less than 100% obli­ga­tion is that it gives you the op­por­tu­nity to bud­get and trade-off. If you make $30,000 and you ac­cept 10% as a good stan­dard you want to live up to, you can ei­ther donate $3000 to char­ity, or par­ti­ci­pate in poli­ti­cal protests un­til your num­ber of lives or dol­lars or DALYs saved is equiv­a­lent to that.

No­body is perfect. This gives us li­cense not to be perfect ei­ther. In­stead of aiming for an im­pos­si­ble goal, fal­ling short, and not do­ing any­thing at all, we set an ar­bi­trary but achiev­able goal de­signed to en­courage the most peo­ple to do as much as pos­si­ble. That goal is ten per­cent.

Every­thing is com­men­su­rable. This gives us li­cense to de­ter­mine ex­actly how we fulfill that ten per­cent goal. Some peo­ple are trig­gered and ter­rified by poli­tics. Other peo­ple are too sick to vol­un­teer. Still oth­ers are poor and can­not give very much money. But money is a con­stant re­minder that ev­ery­thing goes into the same pot, and that you can fulfill obli­ga­tions in mul­ti­ple equiv­a­lent ways. Some peo­ple will not be able to give ten per­cent of their in­come with­out ex­ces­sive mis­ery, but I bet think­ing about their con­tri­bu­tion in terms of a fun­gible good will help them de­cide how much vol­un­teer­ing or ac­tivism they need to reach the equiv­a­lent.

Cliff Per­voc­racy says “Your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” This seems like a recipe for – at best – undi­rected mis­ery, stew­ing in self-loathing, and to­tal defense­less­ness against the first par­a­sitic meme to come along and tell them to en­gage in the lat­est con­flict or else they’re trash. At worst, it au­to­cat­alyzes an op­po­si­tion of ego­ists who laugh at the idea of helping oth­ers.

On the other hand, Je­sus says “Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my bur­den is light.” This seems like a recipe for get­ting peo­ple to say “Okay, I’ll take your yoke upon me! Thanks for the offer!”

Per­sian poet Omar Khayyam, con­sid­er­ing the con­flict be­tween the strict laws of Is­lam and his own de­sire to en­joy life, set­tles upon the fol­low­ing rule:

Heed not the Sunna, nor the law di­v­ine;
If to the poor their por­tion you as­sign,
And never in­jure one, nor yet abuse,
I guaran­tee you heaven, as well as wine!

I’m not say­ing that donat­ing 10% of your money to char­ity makes you a great per­son who is there­fore freed of ev­ery other moral obli­ga­tion. I’m not say­ing that any­one who chooses not to do it is there­fore a bad per­son. I’m just say­ing that if you feel a need to discharge some feel­ing of a moral de­mand upon you to help oth­ers, and you want to do it in­tel­li­gently, it beats most of the al­ter­na­tives.

This month is the mem­ber­ship drive for Giv­ing What We Can, the or­ga­ni­za­tion of peo­ple who have promised to give 10% of their earn­ings to char­ity. I am a mem­ber. Ozy is an as­piring mem­ber who plans to join once they are mak­ing a salary. Many of the com­menters here are mem­bers – I rec­og­nize for ex­am­ple Tay­mon Beal’s name on their list. Some well-known moral philoso­phers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfit are mem­bers. Seven hun­dred other peo­ple are also mem­bers.

I would recom­mend giv­ing them a look.