for and against effective altruism

Yesterday on my big ramble about "there are too many good fights to be had out there, so you have to pick your battles" Jesse asked `What's that quote? Is it something like "One death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths is a statistic."`

Peter Singer has a thought experiment that asks "would you sacrifice an expensive pair of nice new shoes to wade into a pond and save a child", to which most people answer yes, but then moves on to the zinger "well millions of kids are dying from preventable diseases and not having mosquito nettings, so why aren't you donating more to good charities?"

There's a further study that claims to have data that shows us that our intuitive moral compasses are untrustworthy; like if you see a photo of a malnourished child you're X% likely to be willing to help, but that % goes down if her brother who is also suffering is added to the photo - and down further if you see her whole classroom in the same state. According to common sense and an economist's way of looking at things, our willingness to help should always scale up with the scope of the problem - obviously.

This kind of idea forms of the basis of a movement called "effective altruism". On the main I'd say it's healthier than the libertarian stance that says we all prosper more with "every man for himself" and shunning communal efforts to fix things (especially if there is any coercion involved.) Like at its best, it recommends programs of *automatic* giving (sometimes interestingly akin to tithing) where a percentage of your resources are automatically devoted to known effective causes, thus becoming an ambient expense you don't think of much, and any further giving you do "for the feels" is just a cherry on top. But at its worst - as seems to have happened in the recent Sam Bankman-Fried case - it can be used an excuse to gather as much wealth for yourself as you can, by any means at hand (no matter how scammy) because the percent you sock away for charity will be greater than the worthy charity would have received otherwise.

Thinking back to the example of the photo of the girl, then the siblings, then her classroom - we may well be a little too quick to pivot from "this is an individual tragedy I can help make right" to "this is just the way the world is, I can't really change that, and so I should just tend to my own garden" but my hunch is that the answer isn't everyone becoming as much as a martyr as they can for good charities. But I admit my reasons as to why seem a little weak. Like, I do understand the hedonic treadmill, how most people adapt and return to a semi-fixed happiness setpoint regardless of circumstance, so most suffering isn't as linear and preventable as it might seem. Or maybe I'm too sympathetic to the libertarian idea that "got mine, screw you" actually keeps incentives in line with rewards so leads to good outcomes. But I think a lot of it is a defeatist realism that knows my own capacity to improve the world is dwarfed by the problems it has, and being too driven by wide empathy for people suffering from unsolvable problems is a recipe for personal misery. (Which was basically what I was saying yesterday)

Also, I think relative to some philosophies I associate with "the East", too few Western philosophies recognize moderation as a virtual for its own sake! Like, if something is good, a lot of philosophies say "crank that up to 11!" and if something is bad, crush it without mercy - but in practice you need to find a balance - somewhere between being conservative for status quo's sake (because change is scary) and being able to recognize that everything in the status quo has history and reasons for it. Most people's motivations are towards a good. If that good is too self-directed or greedy or comes too much at a cost for others, then that "good" might be objectively evil - but there's still some kind of subjective positive goal at its heart.
How to work a wall. Your shadow - "don't be afraid, it's your friend"
If we take a breath and sift through the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) literature in which objectivity is negatively characterized, there's disappointingly meager evidence of a diabolical plot to obliterate shared reality, or to force engineers to consider cultural factors when calculating thrust and lift. Rather it appears to be a way to talk about the more modest domain of institutional power relations. In a school or office, "objectivity" can be a pose or performance, a way to claim authority or deny it to those whose behavior doesn't conform. The claim is not that the speed of light depends on how you feel, man, but that certain kinds of affectless social performance are coded as white and used to police non-white people. The opposite of "objective" in this case would be the stereotypical "angry black woman." If you're expected to behave emotionally and "irrationally" you will be forced to adopt a rigorously neutral demeanor or find yourself at a disadvantage compared with others whose objectivity is assumed. In a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Brett Kavanaugh can raise his voice and talk about beer, whereas Kentanji Brown Jackson has to demonstrate angelic calm.
Even in the engineering cases (the "thrust and lift" is referencing a Dawkins quote on how aeronautical engineers obviously work outside the realm of cultural relativity) - I think about how for decades the "crash test dummy" for airbags was set to "typical dude" - your numbers may be objective, but what you chose to gather data on might not be.

I'm not sure if we have good language for charting the middle course between objectivity and subjectivity. There is a shared reality, but we have at the very least poetic proof that certainty of what that reality is is impossible to achieve. And one of the most likely true facets of the Objective Truth is that for individuals, it's the Subjective Truth that really matters.
Radiolab: The Secret to a Long Life My Cathleen sent me this podcast link, saying it reminded her of me :-D

The TL;DR summary is: you can try to filling your life with novelty to try and avoid the way days, weeks, months, years start to run into each other. But that can be stressful and exhausting! You can also try to practice more mindfulness and observation and appreciate the beautiful complexity and newness that is there all around us all the time.

I guess I try to do some of the latter - blogging (and private journaling) daily for over 20 years, doing "One Second Everyday" videos for 10, making a few "Timeline Apps". I'd actually recommend all of that to anyone. It doesn't totally solve the dilemma - all those years still kind of run into each other - but it's nice to have a sem-tangible record and reminder of all the sand that has slipped on through the hourglass.
Low key delightful Sinking Lego Ships - sometimes I wish I had gotten more into gear Lego Technic, rather than just using it to make cool looking spaceships...
Ah yes, the season where the result may be negative for COVID but ALWAYS positive for a lil' nosebleed.