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.