Act of Charity

(Cross-posted from my blog)

The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood. Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.


Act I.

Carl walked through the downtown. He came across a charity stall. The charity worker at the stall called out, “Food for the Africans. Helps with local autonomy and environmental sustainability. Have a heart and help them out.” Carl glanced at the stall’s poster. Along with pictures of emaciated children, it displayed infographics about how global warming would cause problems for African communities’ food production, and numbers about how easy it is to help out with money. But something caught Carl’s eye. In the top left, in bold font, the poster read, “IT IS ALL AN ACT. ASK FOR DETAILS.”

Carl: “It’s all an act, huh? What do you mean?”

Worker: “All of it. This charity stall. The information on the poster. The charity itself. All the other charities like us. The whole Western idea of charity, really.”

Carl: “Care to clarify?”

Worker: “Sure. This poster contains some correct information. But a lot of it is presented in a misleading fashion, and a lot of it is just lies. We designed the poster this way because it fits with people’s idea is of a good charity they should give money to. It’s a prop in the act.”

Carl: “Wait, the stuff about global warming and food production is a lie?”

Worker: “No, that part is actually true. But in context we’re presenting it as some kind of imminent crisis that requires an immediate infusion of resources, when really it’s a very long-term problem that will require gradual adjustment of agricultural techniques, locations, and policies.”

Carl: “Okay, that doesn’t actually sound like more of a lie than most charities tell.”

Worker: “Exactly! It’s all an act.”

Carl: “So why don’t you tell the truth anyway?”

Worker: “Like I said before, we’re trying to fit with people’s idea of what a charity they should give money to looks like. More to the point, we want them to feel compelled to give us money. And they are compelled by some acts, but not by others. The idea of an immediate food crisis creates more moral and social pressure towards immediate action, than the idea that there will be long-term agricultural problems that require adjustments.

Carl: “That sounds...kind of scammy?”

Worker: “Yes, you’re starting to get it! The act is about violence! It’s all violence!”

Carl: “Now hold on, that seems like a false equivalence. Even if they were scammed by you, they still gave you money of their own free will.”

Worker: “Most people, at some level, know we’re lying to them. Their eyes glaze over ‘IT IS ALL AN ACT’ as if it were just a regulatory requirement to put this on charity posters. So why would they give money to a charity that lies to them? Why do you think?”

Carl: “I’m not nearly as sure as you that they know this! Anyway, even if they know at some level it’s a lie, that doesn’t mean they consciously know, so to their conscious mind it seems like being completely heartless.”

Worker: “Exactly, it’s emotional blackmail. I even say ‘Have a heart and help them out’. So if they don’t give us money, there’s a really convenient story that says they’re heartless, and a lot of them will even start thinking about themselves that way. Having that story told about them opens them up to violence.”

Carl: “How?”

Worker: “Remember Martin Shkreli?”

Carl: “Yeah, that asshole who jacked up the Daraprim prices.”

Worker: “Right. He ended up going to prison. Nominally, it was for securities fraud. But it’s not actually clear that whatever security fraud he did was worse than what others in his industry were doing. Rather, it seems likely that he was especially targeted because he was a heartless asshole.”

Carl: “But he still broke the law!”

Worker: “How long would you be in jail if you got punished for every time you had broken the law?”

Carl: “Well, I’ve done a few different types of illegal drugs, so… a lot of years.”

Worker: “Exactly. Almost everyone is breaking the law. So it’s really, really easy for the law to be enforced selectively, to punish just about anyone. And the people who get punished the most are those who are villains in the act.”

Carl: “Hold on. I don’t think someone would actually get sent to prison because they didn’t give you money.”

Worker: “Yeah, that’s pretty unlikely. But things like it will happen. People are more likely to give if they’re walking with other people. I infer that they believe they will be abandoned if they do not give.”

Carl: “That’s a far cry from violence.”

Worker: “Think about the context. When you were a baby, you relied on your parents to provide for you, and abandonment by them would have meant certain death. In the environment of evolutionary adaptation, being abandoned by your band would have been close to a death sentence. This isn’t true in the modern world, but people’s brains mostly don’t really distinguish abandonment from violence, and we exploit that.”

Carl: “That makes some sense. I still object to calling it violence, if only because we need a consistent definition of ‘violence’ to coordinate, well, violence against those that are violent. Anyway, I get that this poster is an act, and the things you say to people walking down the street are an act, but what about the charity itself? Do you actually do the things you say you do?”

Worker: “Well, kind of. We actually do give these people cows and stuff, like the poster says. But that isn’t our main focus, and the main reason we do it is, again, because of the act.”

Carl: “Because of the act? Don’t you care about these people?”

Worker: “Kind of. I mean, I do care about them, but I care about myself and my friends more; that’s just how humans work. And if it doesn’t cost me much, I will help them. But I won’t help them if it puts our charity in a significantly worse position.”

Carl: “So you’re the heartless one.”

Worker: “Yes, and so is everyone else. Because the standard you’re set for ‘not heartless’ is not one that any human actually achieves. They just deceive themselves about how much they care about random strangers; the part of their brain that inserts these self-deceptions into their conscious narratives is definitely not especially altruistic!”

Carl: “According to your own poster, there’s going to be famine, though! Is the famine all an act to you?”

Worker: “No! Famine isn’t an act, but most of our activities in relation to it are. We give people cows because that’s one of the standard things charities like ours are supposed to do, and it looks like we’re giving these people local autonomy and stuff.”

Carl: “Looks like? So this is all just optics?”

Worker: “Yes! Exactly!”

Carl: “I’m actually really angry right now. You are a terrible person, and your charity is terrible, and you should die in a fire.”

Worker: “Hey, let’s actually think through this ethical question together. There’s a charity pretty similar to ours that’s set up a stall a couple blocks from here. Have you seen it?”

Carl: “Yes. They do something with water filtering in Africa.”

Worker: “Well, do you think their poster is more or less accurate than ours?”

Carl: “Well, I know yours is a lie, so...”

Worker: “Hold on. This is Gell-Mann amnesia. You know ours is a lie because I told you. This should adjust your model of how charities work in general.”

Carl: “Well, it’s still plausible that they are effective, so I can’t condemn—”

Worker: “Stop. In talking of plausibility rather than probability, you are uncritically participating in the act. You are taking symbols at face value, unless there is clear disproof of them. So you will act like you believe any claim that’s ‘plausible’, in other words one that can’t be disproven from within the act. You have never, at any point, checked whether either charity is doing anything in the actual, material world.”

Carl: ”...I suppose so. What’s your point, anyway?”

Worker: “You’re shooting the messenger. All or nearly all of these charities are scams. Believe me, we’ve spent time visiting these other organizations, and they’re universally fraudulent, they just have less self-awareness about it. You’re only morally outraged at the ones that don’t hide it. So your moral outrage optimizes against your own information. By being morally outraged at us, you are asking to be lied to.”

Carl: “Way to blame the victim. You’re the one lying.”

Worker: “We’re part of the same ecosystem. By rewarding a behavior, you cause more of it. By punishing it, you cause less of it. You reward lies that have plausible deniability and punish truth, when that truth is told by sinners. You’re actively encouraging more of the thing that is destroying your own information!”

Carl: “It still seems pretty strange to think that they’re all scams. Like, some of my classmates from college went into the charity sector. And giving cows to people who have food problems actually seems pretty reasonable.”

Worker: “It’s well known by development economists that aid generally creates dependence, that in giving cows to people we disrupt their local economy’s cow market, reducing the incentive to raise cattle. And in theory it could still be worth it, but our preliminary calculations indicate that it probably isn’t.”

Carl: “Hold on. You actually ran the calculation, found that your intervention was net harmful, and then kept doing it?”

Worker: “Yes. Again, it is all—”

Carl: “What the fuck, seriously? You’re a terrible person.”

Worker: “Do you think any charity other than us would have run the calculation we did, and then actually believe the result? Or would they have fudged the numbers here and there, and when even a calculation with fudged numbers indicated that the intervention was ineffective, come up with a reason to discredit this calculation and replace it with a different one that got the result they wanted?”

Carl: “Maybe a few… but I see your point. But there’s a big difference between acting immorally because you deceived yourself, and acting immorally with a clear picture of what you’re doing.”

Worker: “Yes, the second one is much less bad!”

Carl: “What?”

Worker: “All else being equal, it’s better to have clearer beliefs than muddier ones, right?”

Carl: “Yes. But in this case, it’s very clear that the person with the clear picture is acting immorally, while the self-deceiver, uhh..”

Worker: ”...has plausible deniability. Their stories are plausible even though they are false, so they have more privilege within the act. They gain privilege by muddying the waters, or in other words, destroying information.”

Carl: “Wait, are you saying self-deception is a choice?”

Worker: “Yes! It’s called ‘motivated cognition’ for a reason. Your brain runs something like a utility-maximization algorithm to tell when and how you should deceive yourself. It’s epistemically correct to take the intentional stance towards this process.”

Carl: “But I don’t have any control over this process!”

Worker: “Not consciously, no. But you can notice the situation you’re in, think about what pressures there are on you to self-deceive, and think about modifying your situation to reduce these pressures. And you can do this to other people, too.”

Carl: “Are you saying everyone is morally obligated to do this?”

Worker: “No, but it might be in your interest, since it increases your capabilities.”

Carl: “Why don’t you just run a more effective charity, and advertise on that? Then you can outcompete the other charities.”

Worker: “That’s not fashionable anymore. The ‘effectiveness’ branding has been tried before; donors are tired of it by now. Perhaps this is partially because there aren’t functional systems that actually check which organizations are effective and which aren’t, so scam charities branding themselves as effective end up outcompeting the actually effective ones. And there are organizations claiming to evaluate charities’ effectiveness, but they’ve largely also become scams by now, for exactly the same reasons. The fashionable branding now is environmentalism.”

Carl: “This is completely disgusting. Fashion doesn’t help people. Your entire sector is morally depraved.”

Worker: “You are entirely correct to be disgusted. This moral depravity is a result of dysfunctional institutions. You can see it outside charity too; schools are authoritarian prisons that don’t even help students learn, courts put people in cages for not spending enough on a lawyer, the US military blows up civilians unnecessarily, and so on. But you already knew all that, and ranting about these things is itself a trope. It is difficult to talk about how broken the systems are without this talking itself being interpreted as merely a cynical act. That’s how deep this goes. Please actually update on this rather than having your eyes glaze over!”

Carl: “How do you even deal with this?”

Worker: “It’s already the reality you’ve lived in your whole life. The only adjustment is to realize it, and be able to talk about it, without this destroying your ability to participate in the act when it’s necessary to do so. Maybe functional information-processing institutions will be built someday, but we are stuck with this situation for now, and we’ll have no hope of building functional institutions if we don’t understand our current situation.”

Carl: “You are wasting so much potential! With your ability to see social reality, you could be doing all kinds of things! If everyone who were as insightful as you were as pathetically lazy as you, there would be no way out of this mess!”

Worker: “Yeah, you’re right about that, and I might do something more ambitious someday, but I don’t really want to right now. So here I am. Anyway… food for the Africans. Helps with local autonomy and environmental sustainability. Have a heart and help them out.”

Carl sighed, fished a 10 dollar bill from his wallet, and gave it to the charity worker.