Neither/nor: The Date Scene

Neither/nor (The Date Scene)

Spotlight turns on to reveal a single bench facing the audience. The young mother runs into view and hurls herself onto the bench. The young father follows her into the spotlight and begins to pace around the bench.

Mother: So this is it! The place where you murder me?

Father: You got it. Not a bad place to die right?

Mother: It is not too shabby, not too shabby mister. Do you take all the girls here?

Father: Oh, you know — a murderer never reveals his secrets. [beat] Well, I guess some of them do. But I don’t. [A second spotlight turns on. The father walks to the centre of the second spotlight. We see a knife in his hands] I’m a man of integrity; a murderer who murders for the love of the murder [he makes stabbing motions] and not for some spotlight. No, not for the money; not for the audience; not for some platform; but for the pure joy I get from—

Mother (interrupting): Ok, I think that’s enough murder jokes for me tonight. 

[Second spotlight off. The father walks into the first spotlight carrying the knife to the same spot he was standing in prior.]

Father: I’m sorry. I overdid the murdering bit.

[He sits down.]

Mother: It’s alright, it happens. Just don’t murder me please.

Father: I’ll try my best [he puts the knife down].

[They look into the audience. We hear distant bird noises.]

Father: You think birds talk?

Mother: Sure they do. They talk, they sing. 

Father: What do they sing about?

Mother: Freedom.

Father: Freedom? I thought it was more like ‘shit, George, get over here, I found  another one of these tiny houses full of seeds!’

Mother: Hey now! Food! Food is … freedom. If I found a tiny house full of pasta, I’d sing too. 

Father: I wish I could sing.

Mother: You can. I’m sure you can. Everyone can sing. Singing is talking set free. Birds are animals set free. Just set yourself free. No bird is beating herself up because she can’t hold a note! Humans are so funny sometimes. We trap ourselves in our heads and then convinces ourselves we are free. We don’t know anything about freedom! 

Father: I mean, sure — I can make some freedom sounds, not sure you’d really call it singing. I can hold this A sharp.

[The father starts and continues to hold a note. The second spotlight turns on. The mother sits down in the centre. She puts her head in her head.]

Mother (speaking over the father): The only way out. To love your cage. To sing for freedom. To sing for life. Find the note, hold it. Hold onto it. No other way. 

[The mother returns to the bench]

Father: Do you believe in fate?

Mother: In what?

Father: Fate. You know, things turning out a certain way. You seem to be so sure about freedom.

Mother: No I don’t believe in fate.

Father: Why not?

Mother: Because I believe in freedom.

Father: Well I believe in both. I’m pretty sure I can’t sing. That’s fate. I’m pretty sure I’m meant to be here with you. That’s fate. But look, check it out: I can move my fingers! That’s freedom.

Mother: You’re sweet. But that doesn’t make you right. 

Father: We’ll see about that.

Mother: Listen, there’s something else I need to tell you.

Father: Uh oh. 

Mother: I like you. I really do. But before this gets any further, you need to know something about me.

Father: If this is about you liking no pulp orange juice, it’ll be tough. But I’m sure we can work on it, maybe we’ll buy both types at first and then eventually you’ll realize the error of your…

Mother: No no, I am not one of those no-pulp heathens. I just don’t want to have kids.

Father: What?

Mother: I don’t want to have children of my own. I’m sorry, if this is a showstopper, I understand.

Father: Well, it’s not.

Mother: Really?

[Second spotlight turns on. The father carries the knife with him to the spotlight. He sits down. He lets out a big sigh. He stands up.]

Father: A tale signifying nothing. A tale signifying nothing. Sound and fury. I knew it.

Mother: Are you alright?

[Father walks back to the bench. He sits down.]

Father: Yes, of course. Is it too much to ask why you don’t want them? 

Mother: I don’t know. I thought I did but I don’t. I just don’t think I’d be a good mother. 

Father: A good mother! How do you know? 

Mother: How does anybody know anything? I know. I’ve decided. I’m sorry — if this is important to you then maybe it’s best we go our separate ways.

Father: I didn’t say that! We can’t just go our separate ways. 

Mother: Well, do you want to have children of your own?

Father: I mean, I don’t not want to have children of my own. It’s certainly occurred to me. I may have picked out a name or two. But I like you. I do.

Mother: I’m sorry. This has happened to me before, I should have told you earlier. 

Father: This is fine. Don’t apologize. We’re fine.  We’re fine, I think. I’m ok with not having children. Maybe we can adopt. 

Mother: I’m not sure I’d want that either. Like I said, I don’t want to be a mother.

Father: At all? Of any kind? What about pets?

Mother: That’s different and you know it.

Father: It’s got parallels. Take them for a walk, feed them, sing them a song. Snuggle at night. 

Mother: I don’t want to be a mother. It’s not in my blood. 

Father: You don’t know that.

Mother: Excuse me?

Father: You don’t. You believe in freedom. Maybe you’ll change your mind. Maybe you’ll sing a different song.

Mother: I won’t. I’m sorry.

[First spotlight off. Second spotlight on. We see a small bird feeder with ‘PASTA’ written on it. We hear birds singing.]


Working title: Neither/nor

— Epigraph —

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.

Soren Kierkegaard (Either/or)

Adventure most unto itself
The soul condemned to be —
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.

Emily Dickinson

— End epigraph —

Dramatis Personae

The father
The son
The mother
The son’s friend

Act One

— the father has important news for the mother — the son asks his father about the world — the mother offers her perspective — the father and mother consider the future — 

Scene I

The living room. Modestly decorated. Two doors, one window, one sofa, one table. Books lie on the floor. The son sits at the table. The father paces between the table, the window, and the sofa.

Son: Dad — I don’t get it.

Father (pacing): Get what? … Where is your mother? 

Son (staring intently at his moving hand): How can I just move them? 

Father: Move what? 

Son: The fingers. 

Father (while looking through the window): Your fingers? Did you hurt them?

Son: No, I didn’t. I mean how can I just… move them?

Father: You move them by thinking.

Son (closing his eyes and wincing): No, that’s not it.

Father: Yes, it is it. You think, you move. Ok did she text you? Look at your phone.

Son: No she didn’t text me.

Father: Look at your phone.

Son (picking up his phone off the table): She texted me. 

Father: Jesus. Can you not lie please? If you don’t know something, just say it. Don’t make stuff up. What did she say?

Son: She says she’s stuck at work and will be home late.

Father: Great. Now what — do we warm up food or what?

The father exits through one of the doors.

Son (looking again at his hand, speaking louder): I don’t think to move it. I just move it. 

The Father returns with bread and peanut butter.

Son: If I think to move it, nothing happens. Watch. (He closes his eyes and winces)

Father: Ok, it’s a different kind of thinking. It’s subconscious.

Son: What does that mean?

Father: It means you don’t think about it. 

Son: But you just said I think about it?

Father: Well you don’t. You do and you don’t. I guess it depends what you mean by you. It’s complicated. 

Son: So when I pick up this slice of bread? Do I think about it?

Father: Yes of course you do. You feel hunger in your belly (he rubs the Son’s belly), you think about it in this big melon of yours (he rubs the Son’s melon), and then you decide to use this clammy hand (he grabs his Son’s hand) to pick up this delicious grub your loving father has provided for ya. Om nom nom.

Son (looking at his phone) : She says she’ll be here in a few minutes and that we shouldn’t be eating peanut butter.

Father: Our Queen commands us! We must resist! 

Son (ignoring him): She also says that we should warm up the pasta from last night. I’ll go put that in the microwave. (He exits)

Father: Forgive me my Queen. (He spoons a big dollop of peanut butter into his mouth, leaving a trace on his cheek.)

The Mother is heard entering the house. The Father moves to meet her at the door.

Mother: Hey. (She throws her purse on the couch)

Father: Hey.

Mother (sitting down): I told you not to eat peanut butter.

Father: I did not eat peanut butter!

Mother: I can see it on your face, no sense in lying.

Father: Well, you didn’t tell me, you told our Son. So, call it even on the lying front.

Mother: Did you get it?

Father: It’s a long story. They said I’m a good fit, but I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ll take it even if they offer it to me.

Mother: What? We just talked about this. 

Father: Yeah, well things changed. I just… I just don’t think it’s the right decision.

Mother (laughing): Are you serious?

Father: Yes. Maybe I should just quit this whole field.

Mother: Yes, quit the field. That sounds reasonable. What is wrong with you? 

The son enters with a big bowl of pasta in his hands. He puts the pasta on the table.

Son: Yeah, Dad, what’s wrong with you. 

Father: Nothing is wrong with me. I am an adult. I have to make decisions carefully. I can’t just take this job and then get stuck there working on things I don’t like with people I don’t like.

Mother: Adults make decisions, and they live with the consequences. Don’t be a donkey. If it’s not this it’s that.

Father: What’s wrong with being a donkey? They’re honourable animals.

Mother: I didn’t marry a donkey. 

The Mother and Father freeze. The stage goes dark. Spotlight on the son.

Son (aloud): I can get pasta, but I can’t move my fingers. Why can’t I move them? Move fingers. Move fingers. Move! Move! Why won’t you move! Why can’t I make you move! I decide. I do.

A second spotlight turns on. We see a donkey. 

Son (grabbing a wrist with the opposite hand): Move! Move! Move!

The donkey doesn’t move. Both spotlights turn off.

Scene II

The bed room

Act Two


— twelve years earlier — the mother meets the father — they fall in love — 

Act Three


— the son celebrates his 18th birthday — the mother debates telling the son the truth — the son meets an old friend — the donkey dance 

The Scientific Meridian

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Kurt Vonnegut

I have to be honest, Rachit, I wrote the original post in April. I showed it to someone, and they said: ‘sounds like an extended Twitter rant’. So I tucked it away in the back of my mind, hoping that whatever it was that I was feeling would eventually fade as it was exposed to the light of reason and the indirect scrutiny of more nuanced takes. But the intuition didn’t fade. It only grew stronger. So, I posted my extended Twitter rant, for better or for worse.

I will attempt to answer your W’s in a second. But first, let me paint with an extremely broad brush and say the following: my intuition is that the lionization of Scientists and Science develops in the fertile ground left behind by the secularization of society. Humankind needs something to believe in, something to answer the question ‘why?’, and maybe most importantly something to paint the world into the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Why? As the ‘judge’ says in Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian:

It makes no difference what men think of war… War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

And so we fight, because it is our nature. We wage ‘battles’, we have ‘front-line heroes’, and we have the innocent casualties. And just like in wars, we look to the generals for directions. The scientific experts are, for some, the generals on the ‘good’ side. The idolatry I am pointing to is the cultural force that disproportionately heeds the advice of the generals, without due deliberation by the broader public. It is the force that makes people say things like ‘I am with science,’ ‘defend science’ or ‘listen to the experts.’ If this was a truism, then it would not be worth saying. I think it points to a much deeper feeling of unquestioned idolization of ‘science’ that is not warranted. How do I know it is unwarranted? Well I am, in theory, a ‘practicing scientist’ of sorts; I have seen how the sausage is made and I feel a duty to call these things out.

Now to your questions:

Who is idolizing the ‘experts’?
Some specific examples:

  • California Governor Gavin Newsom: “The West Coast is—and will continue to be—guided by SCIENCE.” (Of course you are, what does this even mean if not some sort of idolization or pandering?)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden: “Follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you.” (Self explanatory)
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the crisis “a giant experiment in whether the world will listen to scientists, now and going forward.” (Paints the scientists as the ones with the answers)
  • Greta Thunberg: ‘We take it for granted, that we listen to the current, best available, UNITED science’ (To say science is united is to miss the point of science)

Are people who aren’t experts allowed to weigh in? You say.. ‘of course’.
According to a Pew research poll, 44% of the U.S. public disagrees with you.

A majority of U.S. adults (54%, including equal shares of Democrats and Republicans) believe the public should play an important role in guiding policy decisions on scientific issues; 44% say public opinion should not play an important role because the issues are too complex for the average person to understand.

Where has it gone wrong? What are the consequences?
The broad consequences is that democracy devolves into oligarchy — the ruling of the few over the many. The 20th century is rife with examples where the idolization of ‘science’ has gone wrong. Eugenics, atom bombs, Chernobyl. The list is long.
If unchecked, this idolization bleeds into academia itself where “recognizable scientists receive disproportionate credit, and therefore trust, in a repeating cycle” in something called the ‘Matthew Effect’. You say that peer review can help rid science. That may be true in an ideal world, but it is not true when certain facts or persons are beyond question and can cause a reviewer their career. There are large parts of science that do not follow a double-blind process and a reviewer’s identity is almost always visible to the editors.

I admit that much of my qualms may be made worse by certain types of media coverage. For example, take this article on the wildfires in California that has the headline ‘Trump Again Rejects Science’. What Trump said was that he thinks  ‘science doesn’t know’ what caused the latest fires. This is of course obviously true: there are a number of factors , including climate change. But instead of going for a nuanced rebuttal, the NYT goes for war. Trump vs. Science: round one million and two.

Finally, I raised the notion of aesthetic beauty to make a point about ‘evidence’. Science is not always about observation — there are many things in science that are chosen arbitrarily: out of fashion, politics, and aesthetics. Something that passes peer review has been reviewed by peers that may have the same fashions, the same politics, and the same sense of aesthetics.

In this lovely article called ‘Why trust science?’, Naomi Oreskes (a professor in the history of science at Harvard, but who’s checking — lets not idolize experts here) says that the fundamental reason to trust science is not the ‘scientific method’ (which is rarely how actual ‘science’ is done), but that there is a culture of sustained scrutiny in a form of ‘transformative interrogation’.

Interrogation can be transformative, this blog being a case-in-point. But interrogation is a process that transcends and ultimately supersedes ‘science’. The  interrogation of established dogma in the protestant reformation perhaps gave rise to modern science. Thus, we should be happy to see people questioning established facts (no matter how ‘obvious’ they may seem), and refusing to take the ‘experts’ opinion as gospel.  When done in good faith, this scrutiny is not ‘anti science’, it is the very essence of science.

The Cult of Experts


We are all in some bubble of information these days. In my bubble, one understandable but troubling trend has manifested itself: an incessant insistence by the popular press that only ‘experts’ (i.e., academically-trained researchers) have any right to speak on issues that concern things of import (health, prosperity, etc.).

It is a truism to say that people who have dedicated significant time to studying a particular phenomena should be given ample time and influence when the public-at-large must decide how to respond to that phenomena. If I have an issue with my plumbing, I call a plumber. But this doesn’t mean that an arbitrary plumber that picks up the phone may know all that there is to know about plumbing, that a plumber is immune to other influences which may affect his or her advice, or that I should I fix my plumbing without considering other effects that the plumber may be agnostic to (e.g., should I drain my child’s education savings account to fix a plumbing issue?).

Much of the same issues that affect plumbing affect science, but sometimes more acutely. First, who decides who has the credentials to work as a scientist? Largely, other scientists. A plumber is judged by their technical prowess, by their creativity, and by the longevity of their work. The ultimate arbiter are the facts-of-the-matter: was the leak stopped? how expensive was the work? A scientist is no different except in one important aspect: the ultimate arbiters of science are, in the short term, other scientists.

To avoid becoming a self-justifying cult of truth, the modern academic system rests on the ability of ‘experts’ to avoid, as much as possible, allegiances to a particular truth. Instead, the system is built on the meta-truth of an honest pursuit of Truth. Through this ethic, science remains open to new ideas, and rids itself of theories that calcify into unquestionable gospel without an overwhelming amount of evidence. Even then, we can speak of theories that have predictive power, but little aesthetic appeal. We should be suspicious of scientists who (1) present any particular model as beyond questioning, and (2) apply science as an all-encompassing explanatory system. The question of whether or not all phenomena can be studied through scientific means is itself not scientific.

Broadly speaking, a Ph.D. means that one has demonstrated the skills to present and investigate some theory and communicate one’s conclusions in a cogent manner. However, the overwhelming majority of ‘theories’ are not made ex-nihilo, but are the product of a scientific milieu which has fashions, dogma, and political undercurrents (wherever there are gatekeepers, there is politics).

Second, science, in so far as it relies on this hypothetico-deductive model, is not designed to provide positive answers. It is designed to reject false theories. Out of the theories which are clearly not ‘false’, which one best reflects reality? That question is generally not in the purview of science. For example, there are alternative theories to general relativity that explain relativistic gravity. However, general relativity is considered to be the most appealing because it is the simplest. This appeal to Occam’s razor is an aesthetic judgement; but why should it be true? It itself cannot be rejected by science. Further still, there are almost certainly theories or parts of theories which may be true but are simply unfashionable to even reject. They are below consideration, but may not be below ‘truth’.

In light of this, it is particularly troubling to see the scientist idolized as a kind of philosopher-king. I love science, I love academia, but I do not love idolatry. To the extent possible, academics are trained to be free from political inclinations, to not be affected by trends and fashions, and to seek ‘truth’ for the benefit of all humankind. But they are trained in a very specific sense, almost always specializing in a narrow slice of ‘truth’, and with conflicting and pernicious mantra (publish or perish!).

The history of science, philosophy, and medicine is rife with examples where ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-experts’ fought, often in vain, for heterodox opinions that were rejected by the ‘scientific consensus’ at the time but which we now take for granted. Not everyone with a heterodox opinion is Copernicus, but neither must they be an ignorant crackpot who wishes to poison the populace.

The reality, for scientists and for all people, is that we are all trying our best to interpret the phenomena we see before us. Given sufficient patience and diligence, science can help us contextualize phenomena and reject theories that do not explain new evidence. But science is not, and will never be, free of politics, dogma and fashionable ways to conceive of the world. Even if this was the case, we must not fool ourselves into believing that a concrete understanding of the world will make our decisions as simple as consulting the experts on the matter.

As David Hume wrote, we cannot get an ought from an is. Ultimately, what society ought to do is the choice of the society itself, of which the ‘experts’ on any particular issue are but one part.

Yours in pulp,

NFC Podcast #16 – The Corona Persona

We’re back! A special episode of NFC during the worldwide COVID-19 quarantine where we discuss the film Persona (1966) written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Show notes

Louis CK (Starting Shows)

Norm MacDonald Jokes (Best of)

An Epidemic of False Confidence Related to COVID-19

In Praise of Phone Calls (New Yorker)

Persona (1966) – Free YouTube Edition

Heroes and Villains: The Wes Mantooth Philosophy

In the wake of an embarrassing game 3 playoff loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Lowry was asked about what it is that makes the Cavaliers a great team. He replied, “they’ve got LeBron James and no one can close the gap on him.”

Now, LeBron is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But Kyle is trying to beat LeBron, and many people who heard these words (including yours truly) interpreted them as a sign that Kyle, and many of the Raptors, were mentally checked out. Defeated before the series is even over. After all, if “no one can close the gap on [LeBron]”, what’s the point of even playing?

This got me thinking. What is a good way of approaching your role models, those people that you admire, the ones you dare call your ‘heroes’? How do you maintain a healthy respect for their skills, without deifying them into an unreachable realm that makes you prone to excusing your own deficiencies?

I often hear the phrase ‘never meet your heroes,’ used in common parlance. Presumably this is meant to prevent the disappointing realization that one’s heroes are just people, with real emotions, real flaws and potentially very little to say to a star-struck fan. But why is this bad? Shouldn’t this realization be a beacon of hope that we too, someday, can accomplish the same things we admire in our role models, while still grappling with our own messy humanity? Shouldn’t Kyle look at LeBron on the court and say, he’s just another guy shooting hoops, drinking water, missing free throws. He’s not a God, he’s just a genetically gifted athlete with a Versa-climber.

Maybe not. Maybe really what we’re scared of is this very realization. The fact that our heroes are not Gods, and yet they still do what they do. How can you be that athletic, at that height, for so long?

Plato’s realm of ideal forms comes to mind. There are no perfect spheres in this world, but all spheres are an imperfect realization of the ideal Sphere. Is it better to keep imagining the ideal basketball player, or meet an imperfect (but damn close) manifestation of that ideal? What motivates you to improve? Despite Plato’s ideal realm, much of Greek mythology has distinctly anthropomorphic Gods, with human flaws. Presumably, the Greeks felt this made the Gods more relatable, and made their myths more effective. Yet, many modern Gods are undoubtedly much more abstract, and unhuman. (A clear exception to this is many sects of Christianity which accept the holy trinity, a resolution that combines aspects of both the ideal, and the human aspects of God).

Setting aside heroes, what about our enemies, our ‘villains’? Should we humanize them (exposing our common humanity, and holding hands to sing Kumbaya), but keep our heroes sterile, unsullied by the humbling reality of being a real, shitting, sneezing, tax-paying human being?

I think this unification is in many ways futile. It makes it harder for us to fight for any cause and traps us in a pit of nuance and indecision. It is much easier to hate the Bogeyman than it is to fight a man on the toilet (shout out to Tyrion for still getting it done).

Perhaps a reasonable approach is a good, healthy amount of respectful hatred for both our heroes and our villains. Perhaps what I really wanted Kyle to do was quote Wes Mantooth from Anchorman: “from deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, [LeBron] do I respect you!”

What say you, Rachit?

NFC Podcast #15 – Philanthropy, Deontology, and Effective Altruism: Mo money, mo problems?

The 15th NeverFromConcentrate podcast about philanthropy, charity and how best to express one’s ‘love for mankind’. We talk about Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Yuval Noah Harari.

Slav, the Karma Auditor

Ok, so what exactly is ‘logical, effective, and morally responsible’? It’s nice to conclude this, but is it just highfalutin equivocation to make us feel better without actually doing much?

Even if we accept that we don’t need to burden ourselves with ‘empathy’, how do we know when our compassion is enough to please Dev? How exactly do we reconcile all of the different ways to account for our karma? Does Dev use GAAP or IFRS? Do we need ‘charity advisors’ that spend years analyzing different strategies towards maximizing our ROK (Return on Karma)?

Bloom’s argument seems logical – compassion is like empathy infused with the B word. We stay clear of the emotional pits of despair, while trying our best to solve the root problems that ail the people we are trying to help. Yet, of course, even the B word needs its own B word (it’s B word recursion!). Bloom himself agrees that empathy is still very useful in relationships: the trope of the man who is always trying to solve problems instead of just ‘listening’ is the first thing that I thought of when I read about his new book. Further, while empathy may not, like Bloom argues, scale well, it is nevertheless an incredible motivator. I remember more about the girl in Schindler’s List and Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan than any of my high school lessons on WW2.

Let me put on my deontological hat. What if a world filled with compassion leads to insidious side effects that a world with empathy does not? Perhaps we are a species that needs to empathize with stories on the level of the individual to truly be motivated to help? If everyone, in an act of true compassion, simply set a single recurring payment of $4000 a year to their favourite vetted charity – would that lead to a better world? Maybe in the short term, but is this really what we imagine when we think of ‘charity’ (the love of humanity)? Is the world really just filled with a finite set of problems to be solved, which upon being solved, will lead to some sort of utopia? I say no. We will always have problems, and we need empathy to constantly motivate us to help others solve their problems. Being compassionate may make us ‘feel better’ about just the act of helping, but being empathetic makes the human condition worthwhile.

A few weeks before he died in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher McCandless underlined a line from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: “an unshared happiness is not happiness.” I think the same applies to despair in the human race. We are comforted by knowing that other people understand our own condition. Take medicine: Bloom mentions that what we want from doctors is compassion, not empathy. But is it really? Or do patients ‘crave empathy’ and the compassion is actually perceived in a negative light?

Perhaps we humans need to imagine living the life of a Harambe or a Tilikum in order to actually do anything about animal captivity. Perhaps it’s exactly why there are laws against publishing images from factory farms (whereas there are no laws against publishing the statistics). The human species is built on empathy, and maybe, despite its faults, we need to work with it instead of trying to simply remove it from the equation.

So, after Dev is done with the Karma paperwork, make sure he consults Slav, the karma auditor and freelance karma collection consultant. I hear he knows exactly the right balance of compassion and empathy that gives you the best 5 year ROK.

Charity: The Slave Morality?

Here’s a thought experiment: a man is shopping on Black Friday and stumbles across an unbelievable deal on a 4K TV: $3337 off the sticker price! Unfortunately, there are only 10 units remaining, and the man sees a few people in line with more streaming in. Nearby the TV sale, the man also sees a small child playing close to a water fountain. Suddenly, the child loses balances, knocks their head on the concrete wall of the fountain, and falls into the water. No one seems to notice this fall except the man. From a moral perspective, is it ok for the man to ignore the child (knowing full well that he or she may die) in exchange for securing his spot for the TV?

It seems that for most people, in this scenario, the decision to save $3337 over the life of a human being is not a very difficult one. Of course the man should save the child.

Yet, we live in world where donating $3337 can save a life ( estimates that a donation of $3337.06 to the ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ will save a life in Africa.) So why don’t we feel morally obligated to donate as much as we can of our income for the benefit of other human beings?

This is the crux of the argument put forward by the effective altruism movement lead by Peter Singer, William MacAskill (both philosophy professors) and others. On Sam Harris’ podcast a few weeks ago, MacAskill talked about how he is now donating close to 40% of his income to charities and has been donating significant amounts ever since he was a PhD student (which gives me no excuse).

On the surface, I think I agree with this general movement, but have yet to put my money where my thoughts are. What’s your experience with charity, Rachit? Before you answer, let me note a few more thoughts that are applicable to charity in general (and not just effective altruism).

First, the modern concept of ‘charity’ feels bogged down by its ties to the distribution of abstract money (which then carries with it all the connotations of an Italian mob boss casually slipping an envelope into your suit pocket). The word itself seems to be originally free from such connections, originating in its modern form from the King James’ bible (as one of the Christian triplets ‘faith, hope and charity’) as the English translation of the French translation of the Latin translation of the Greek ‘agape’ (an unconditional love for others). The more high-brow term ‘philanthropy’ literally means ‘the love of humanity.’ Unfortunately it seems that we are ruled by the economic systems we create, and our language has now morphed these two words to be much more closely linked to monetary distribution, rather than their original abstract meaning. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing tendency to associate ‘philanthropic acts’ with a certain class of people, and rarely think about ways in which everyone can express their love.

Second: motivations. Does it matter whether you are driven to donate money out of a selfish need to parade your virtuosity to others or out of a genuine concern for the well-being of others? A consequentialist would probably say no. A deontologist would probably say yes, definitely. I would probably say, ‘it depends on the type of philanthropy.’ Does a child in Burkina Faso care whether their anti-malaria bed net was paid for by someone who then immediately shared their donation on Facebook? I don’t think so. But perhaps the motivations of a volunteer at a soup kitchen or an employee of a non-profit do matter.

Finally, charity as meaning. Christian theology has charity as one of its core tenets (as evidenced by the very etymology of the word). This may sound obvious from our current Western ideology, but is it? Although I haven’t read much of his work, Nietzsche called this approach a fundamentally weak ‘slave morality.’ By-and-large, nature does not have charity. Nature favours the most fit to survive, and uses instances of animals as mere cogs in the grand goal of creating a stronger species. Perhaps we are still struggling to reconcile older Christian theology, with many of the Nietzsche-an components of the 21st century world. It’s up to us to define what it means to be ‘charitable’, and whether we should all strive to be philanthropists.

NFC Podcast #14 – Politics, Writing and Trump

The 14th NeverFromConcentrate podcast with our guest, Hershal. We talk about politics, fame, and narcissism (and of course, digress into the subject of Donald Trump, and the role of the internet on our current ideology).