On Moral Superheroism

On Moral Superheroism October 28, 2015

I have thoughts about this essay in the Guardian about extreme altruism, seen through the life of an atheist named Julia Wise:

Julia believed that because each person was equally valuable, she was not entitled to care more for herself than for anyone else; she believed that she was therefore obliged to spend much of her life working for the benefit of others… She reduced her expenses to the absolute minimum so she could give away 50% of what she earned. She felt that nearly every penny she spent on herself should have gone to someone else who needed it more.

The proponents of this view (including the philosopher Peter Singer) argue that those of us with the good fortune to be born in the West lead comfortable and privileged lives, compared to the millions around the world who suffer the deprivations of extreme poverty. This is true. It also makes the point that the cost of saving a life, to most of us, is relatively small. This is also true. The logical conclusion, they argue, is that you should give away as much of your income as you possibly can to charitable causes that help the poorest. Julia Wise, for example, gives away 100% of her income to charities like Oxfam, and her husband gives 50%, saving the remainder for the two of them to live on.

Put so simply, it seems hard to dispute. How can you argue with such clean moral math? But I think there are factors that complicate this noble goal.

First of all, not every problem can be solved by throwing money at it. For example, you might donate to pay for vaccines, but if religious fanatics murder aid workers who come to vaccinate the people, it won’t do any good. Charitable donations also tend to fall short if they buy expensive technology which no one local knows how to use or maintain. And charitable giving alone can’t build stable civic institutions or responsive, democratic governments, which are arguably the most important ingredients in vanquishing poverty in the long term. In fact, it’s possible that an excessive flow of aid dollars will foster corruption rather than curb it.

None of this, to be clear, is an argument against charitable giving! The point is that it’s fiendishly difficult to tell which causes are the most worthwhile and which charities are the most effective. And the more money you give over a lifetime, the larger this problem looms. There’s no reason to believe that the amount of good you accomplish will necessarily scale with the amount of money you give. It’s plausible, even likely, that giving away huge amounts of money will hit a wall of diminishing returns.

Even if we knew perfectly where to direct our giving, there are other hurdles. One is that, practically speaking, we have to work with what we have: Morality is by and for human beings, and some ideas, however rational or well-intentioned, will butt up against human nature. A moral system that asks more of people than they can deliver is no moral system at all.

If everyone was an extreme altruist, we could solve some problems overnight. But that’s the same as saying that, if no one was selfish or lazy and everyone was inclined to cooperate, we could have a harmonious communist utopia. A few individuals might meet that standard, but in general, that kind of society would only work if human nature was other than it is.

I think a similar argument can be made about extreme altruism. Whatever its merits, it’s just a fact that very few people are willing or able to devote their lives to an abstract goal in such a single-minded way. Telling them that they have a moral obligation to turn over the lion’s share of their income is a proposal they’re likely to reject out of hand. There may be some individuals who are willing to do this, but they should recognize themselves for the rare exceptions that they are. They’re the moral superheroes, the ones who can do something that most people never could.

This clash with human nature is sharpest when it comes to your own friends and family. Julia explains why it didn’t change her thinking when her husband’s mother got ovarian cancer:

“I wondered if I would feel differently if someone I loved were sick. But it really doesn’t change my thinking about giving or cost-effectiveness at all. I love Suzie, and I hate that she’s sick; and other people love their mothers and hate that they’re sick. And if 10 families or one family can be spared that experience, even if the one family is mine, I’ll go with the 10 families every time. I don’t want to go through this, but neither do they.”

Again, there may be some people with Vulcan-like powers of moral detachment, who are perfectly willing to forego helping a friend or relative in favor of ten strangers who can be helped more cheaply. But no one can be expected to care about the welfare of anonymous strangers over themselves and their loved ones. That’s just not how human nature works. The vast majority of people would angrily reject any suggestion that they act this way. If we want others to participate in giving, we have to tell them that it’s OK to find your place in the world, make it peaceful and secure, then do what you can to help others less fortunate.

Even in those who adopt this philosophy, there’s a real and constant tension. If taken to its extreme, altruism can be a perpetual source of guilt and self-flagellation. After all, if you spend even a dollar on yourself, you’re selfishly squandering money that could have been used to help somone else. Thinking like this all the time is bound to lead to a psychological breakdown. The Guardian article showcases this problem:

With her selfish, ridiculous desire for a candy apple, she might have deprived a family of an anti-malarial bed net or deworming medicine that might have saved the life of one of its children. The more she thought about this, the more horrific and unbearable it seemed to her, and she started to cry. She cried for a long time, and it got so bad that Jeff started to cry, too, which he almost never did. He cried because, more than anything, he wanted Julia to be happy, but how could she be happy if she went through life seeing malarial children everywhere, dying before her eyes for want of a bed net?

Again, I’m not opposed to charitable giving. If anything, I think most people should do more of it. I also believe that those who have greater privilege and a greater ability to help have a proportionally greater obligation to help. But there comes a point where you have to recognize that not every problem is yours to solve. No one can bear the weight of the whole world on their shoulders.

My philosophy has always been that you should figure out how much it would take to fix the world if everyone did their part, and then do that much yourself. This fulfills the moral obligation we all incur as human beings, without putting unbearable stress on your psyche that could lead to burnout, depression and self-harm. It distributes the burden of altruism more fairly, without sparing those who’d feel relieved of their duty to help others knowing that extreme altruists will be there to pick up the slack for them.

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