CategoryKarma and Charity

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.

Arbitrary Conviction

Karma optimization has a built in crassness to it’s connotation. It feels a bit gross to maximize, optimize, perfect the goal-centred, utilitarian approach that Dev and the Church of the Karma Bureau demand from us. It feels robotic. It feels algorithmic. Like you said, there aren’t just a finite set of problems that we can identify, quantify, and conquer that’ll bring us to this utopic land where Dev and the Bureau can retire to the back 9 and a life of beer by the beach. This perfect world impossibility is a reality we need to actively confront when embarking on any sort of ethical discussion. In the past, this kind of realization has left me in a gridlock of moral paralysis. If I am to optimize my karma, and even in the best case scenario, the whole world optimizes together, this utopic sustainable land will remain a fabricated dreamscape. So I’d ask myself the ever circular, almost annoying nihilistic adolescent question, what’s the point? Why even bother? How do I navigate this seemingly impossible ethical world, somehow balancing my selfish interests, without condemning myself to complete self sacrifice, all managed with no easy black and white moral compass to direct my behaviour? The short answer to that question is I don’t know. But, it’s more of a “I don’t think it’s possible to know for certain”, type of I-don’t-know. Before I spring off the diving board to a deeper conclusion to that question, I feel a bit obligated to say that I was definitely oversimplifying the moral duty to charity in my first post. It was a good exercise to try and understand the extreme side of the consequentialist perspective of charitable duty.

Now why I say it’s not possible to know for certain lies in a sad realization about our friends Dev and Slav. Whether you’re inspired by a form of empathetic guilt, or enriched by the euphoric bubbles of altruistic compassion, or are striving to be a “good guy”, there isn’t a real Karma bureau accounting for your efforts. There isn’t a Dev, the Accountant, or a Slav, the Auditor out there. Taking a deep dive into some cinematic cheese, there is, however, a Dev and Slav inside your heart. And that internal Dev and Slav should be consulted upon to figure out the calibration for the compass, to figure out what makes you feel good ultimately when it comes to charity.

But how do we actually end up acting on this internal reflection? The deontological perspective, as you brought up in your post, may help us find some answers here. What’s rooted in this perspective is an embracement of a series of human evolutionary tendencies when it comes to morality. There’s a natural admiration of the virtuous individual, with an empathetic ear,  with a strong sense of duty, with a conviction of yes and no answers to difficult questions. There’s a reassurance to the finality and clarity that it gives people. And apart from this role model “good person” ideal that’s easy and natural to strive to, the deontological perspective gives clear answers to people to make decisions and act on them. As for the world of the morally grey, they’re stuck in a gridlock of indecision with no exit in sight. Even if the truth is actually grey, how do you become operational and stay out of the purgatory of moral paralysis of analysis? My answer here is to embrace the arbitrariness of the moral grey by making a new rule. The “Time-Sensitive-Aribitrary-Deadline-Decision-Making” rule. TSADDM. The name is still a work in progress. But what this means is that I fix some arbitrary deadline, “one week from today”, spend time having the continued analysis that I’ve been having, then after the deadline arrives, make a decision, and follow through with it. Period.


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.

Dev, Karma Accountant

Meet Dev. Dev is an accountant. He doesn’t work at KPMG, or for the Canada Revenue Agency. Dev doesn’t work at a traditional accounting firm at all. He is a karma accountant. He keeps track of all conscious moral agent’s behaviours and their moral tallies. You use the right shoulder lane to pass other people -1, you give a homeless guy the change in your pocket +17, you adopt a kitten +38, you spend $3337 of your disposable income on a TV and don’t spend it on saving a child’s life in Africa -1000.

You get your Karma report at the end of the month, and see this giant negative integer staring at your emotional gut. You don’t feel like a bad person, but yet your purchasing history tells you otherwise. You submit a formal Karma Claim to Dev. Dev responds:

“A moral act now is different than it was when you were developing as a moral agent. Perhaps 100 000 years ago, caring for your local human community with compassion and kindness was enough, but with the current accessibility of a global currency, and honest charitable organizations, we, here at the Karma Bureau, expect more of you.”

Morality doesn’t scale well. Our evolutionary history, as Dev described, programmed us in a limited capacity to naturally extend our care to small numbers of people, often in your local social group. Guided by our empathetic compass, we often reach out when we can try and put ourselves in the person’s position. It’s easier to help someone you see suffering, feel their pain viscerally, and then relish the high when you assist in alleviating that pain. Who starts cancer charities? A loved one that lost someone to cancer, or a survivor of the disease.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, argues against the use of empathy in our approach to charity. Apart from it’s inherent biases of empathizing with people that you share similar characteristics with, Bloom argues that an empathetic guide to kindness can be debilitating. Feeling another’s pain, really living through the emotional exhaustion of the experience of their world, is exactly what it sounds like, painful. And after a certain point, it becomes difficult to keep up with the kindness. Selfish mental health control mechanisms, which are often unconscious, overtake and end up halting the empathy kindness train. What Professor Bloom suggests otherwise is compassion based kindness. A kindness that extends by feeling positive about the act of helping, without the need to emotionally empathize. And this approach, produces better long term results, while not discriminating who to help, regardless of relatability or physical distance to oneself.

As you alluded to, the consequentialist perspective, may be the correct ideal to work towards.  With results at the focus, and using the active tool of compassion based altruism, optimizing your monthly karma report is not only possible, but has selfish positive feelings at its core. And while charity isn’t natural, and helping a child drowning in a one foot pond of water 1000 miles away isn’t either, as Dev described, the human being as a moral agent needs to graduate and move past what’s natural, and move into what’s logical, effective, and morally responsible.


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.