Samuel Hammond accepted my basic premises but asked whether we really need to reject all far concerns entirely.
The law, biology, standard norms, all obligate a man or woman to be the safety net to his or her child, but that does not preclude chasing the highest marginal impact in other domains.
Kristie Eschelman thinks I was too harsh on philanthropists but gets the importance of approaching things from the appropriate scale:
The principle of subsidiarity states that problems should be handled by the smallest, most local, least centralized authority that can effectively manage it. The theory is that the more local the authority, the better it will know how to handle the problem.
That means that if someone is really passionate about solving global hunger, it might be most helpful for them to start this effort in their neighborhood instead of focusing overseas. Instead of going into national politics, it might be best to at least start with local affairs. That being said, we still do need people who are passionate about helping on the large scale, but it is especially important for them to approach their work with a willingness to listen to and learn from the people they are trying to serve.
Hedging aside, the ability to “listen to and learn from” a meaningful proportion of the people you want to help is absolutely constrained by scale.
Eli Horowitz punches the hardest, especially with my delineation of what matters and what does not:
Although it is certainly true that we are only obliged to do those things which we can do, that doesn’t mean that nothing else matters. Even if I “can[‘t] make a difference” about, say, global warming, global warming still matters. In fact, global warming continues to matter even if I lack the proper “context on which to deliberate” about it. My obligations are delimited by the set of things that matter (i.e., the set of real problems); the set of things that matter.
And he really does not like the passage I quoted from the Vulgar Moralist’s post:
But, honestly, are we even supposed to take this seriously? “The small world is what matters”? So genocides, famines, torture – these just plain don’t matter whenever they happen to people we don’t know? Bullshit. Awful, inhumane, flamboyantly irrational bullshit. Again, this makes no moral or even empirical sense. We have tons of easily identifiable real-world examples of people who acted (and/or reasoned) morally about situations outside of their “small world.” Without these people, there would be no such thing as feminism. There would be no such thing as the civil rights movement. Contrary to Gurri’s pessimism, many of us can and indeed must matter outside of our respective “small worlds.”
So where are we to go from here? Does rejecting telescopic morality entail being blasé about genocide? Was telescopic morality a necessary condition for feminism and the civil rights movement? Does rejecting it therefore make me an enemy of what Horowitz calls “large moral projects”? To Hammond and Eschelman’s points, does it mean throwing away charity entirely or even marginal contributions to the far?
Let us start with a consideration of what exactly it is that telescopic morality entails. The question, as the Vulgar Moralist put it, is what the proper sphere is for morality. The telescopic friends and loved ones I have known over the years have obsessed over problems far away, which they were unable to meaningfully influence. Moreover, they were righteous about this, and either implied or outright told those of us with more mundane concerns that we were immoral for ignoring the cosmic injustices occurring around the world on a daily basis. Indeed, by doing so we were perceived as partly culpable for the fact that such things continued to occur.
The claim, in short, is that the proper moral sphere is the whole world and encompasses all of humanity, and focusing primarily only on those things touched by a typical individual’s life is myopic and indistinguishable from egoism.
Most of the time this is merely annoying. People talk big or (as the Vulgar Moralist puts it) attend rock concerts to end hunger, but don’t actually make any meaningful personal sacrifices. My piece last week was largely a response to the combination of this attitude with the perpetual outrage machine that the Internet has been turned into. This combination results in real consequences to the objects of ire regardless of whether or not the outraged people have carefully investigated the context—and I am highly skeptical than any significant proportion of them ever do. The combination of gluttony for righteousness, unquestioning acceptance of the particular context a story is presented in, and entitlement without sacrifice is a recipe unlikely to produce virtue.
I also think the attitude is fundamentally wrong-headed. Our moral sphere should not be stretched beyond the scale appropriate for an individual human life. That does not mean that we are indifferent to suffering outside that scale, nor that there’s something wrong with giving to charity or volunteering. Telescopic as an adjective is meant more pejoratively than categorically; to reject telescopic morality is not to say that our concern for far matters should be reduced to zero, just as rejecting gluttony does not mean that we should stop eating entirely.
If it is impossible to predict, and also impossible to predict the impact your actions will have, then it is luck. If it is impossible to predict and we can have reasonable certainty that your actions will have negligible impact on the outcome, then what you get is also luck.
I believe that the changes of large scale and distant concerns are impossible to predict, and that the impact our actions can have on them is also impossible to predict. I also think that there is a very large very broad set of areas in which we can be reasonably certain that the impact will be negligible. I don’t deny that there are individuals who have an outsized impact on events, but I am more skeptical than most about how pivotal a role such exceptional people play. Telescopic morality is therefore much like beating one’s head against a steel fortress and expecting the latter to be the one to get destroyed. It is the morality of futility.
What, then, is the proper attitude towards the far? To start, as should be obvious, it should rank below the near, where we can play a meaningful role. As the Vulgar Moralist put it:
Morality is personal, and it’s all about action, not talk. I live in a small world of family, friends, work, and community: that is my moral sphere, where my personal behavior has consequences for good or evil. Every day I add to one or the other. Every person I encounter I leave better or worse. My character becomes the sum of those days, those encounters: I can’t evade responsibility by attending a rock concert.
Nevertheless we are connected to the far through the processes that rule human social systems. It may be imprudent and immoral the throw the near out the window in favor of far concerns, but surely there is some way we can interact with the far in a manner that is meaningful and prudent.
I believe that the only healthy relationship one can have with the far is to consider oneself a small part of the whole, and to contemplate your contributions accordingly. The vainglorious writer in me does hope for fame and lasting influence, but writers who have such desires are in high supply and low demand. I write primarily because I value the activity in itself, and because I believe that I am making a small contribution to a much larger whole; participating in a conversation that extends back millenia and will continue for an unknowable duration into the future.
There is nothing wrong with contributing to charity, volunteering, or making arguments about far matters in public or private. But we should do so in the right way, in the right amount, and with the right attitude; all of which obviously varies with particular circumstances and roles. Expecting to change the world is delusional and taken too far it can be self-destructive. In some circumstances, such as the Internet outrage example, it can be destructive to others as well. Far concerns need to be carefully managed, to take account of our basic human limitations and to make sure we don’t poison the well of our near obligations.