Against moral and ideological purity

I just finished reading Stranger’s Drowning (which I would definitely recommend), and couldn’t help but notice the theme of ‘purity’ that played into the thoughts of the ‘do-gooders’ in the book. Clean, simple, and pure moral schema and ideologies are definitely something that are well respected among Effective Altruists – how else can you avoid irrational thinking and hypocrisy? I’m not too convinced though, I think ‘pure’ morality or ideology attempts to oversimplify things that, by nature, are too complex to be simplified, and only put us in a position to feel overconfident in opinions that we believe, often erroneously, to be ‘rational’ (which is similar to the thoughts I touched on briefly in a previous post about ‘first principles’ thinking).

So you’re a staunch consequentelist or deontologist or utilitarian or whatever. Great. What’s this mean for your messy daily life?  Let’s say you found out some dirty little secret, for example, what do you do? How do you know whether it’s right to, say, tell someone’s significant other about their affair? Or call the cops on a friend or relative’s crime? Or attempt to commit an unstable friend or relative? Or how to intervene when someone you know might be the victim of abuse? Note that the uncertainty makes it difficult to use a lot of the clearer-cut moral schema –  how can you rely on consequentialism or utilitarianism when you don’t know for sure what impact your actions or inactions will have?

There are so many different moral schema that can come into play in these situations, some formal, some less so. In the end though, you need to make a value judgment – maybe one moral system says “generally things work out for the best if you let people make their own decisions”, or “generally things work out if transgressors are punished”, or “generally things work out if you protect your own and don’t bring in outsiders”. Each moral schema is right a certain fraction of the time, and it’s up to you to determine which action, informed by these schema, is most likely to be the ‘correct’ action. This judgment is something that we build over time, not something we can quickly learn from a book: no moral schema can lead you in the right situation 100% of the time, especially in cases where uncertainty exists.

So, what does this mean for EA? A lot of the ‘popular’ moral positions in EA might be good for the questions that concern EA, but they don’t really tell us how to be good people to those around us. As a result, I fear that this aspect is undervalued in a lot of EAs, especially younger and more individualistic ones. I’m sorry, but all of the philosophy books in the world are not going to be able to tell you how to be a good significant other, or sibling, or friend, or parent. Strict and pure and clear-cut morals or ideology are antithetical to the messiness involved in being around and interacting with loving other average human beings.

There’s one specific example from Stranger’s Drowning that stood out to me as a clear example of this issue: an animal rights activist who dedicated every possible second to saving lives. When his girlfriend at the time would ask him to help clean up, he would refuse, stating “that time spent washing dishes could be time spent working for animal rights”. From a utilitarian standpoint, this sort of thinking makes sense, but it’s incredibly problematic from human (especially feminist) standpoints. While this is an extreme example, smaller versions of this are incredibly common – blowing off time with friends in family in order to spend more time working included. I worry that something is lost from living this way.

Now, of course, this is where some people will go “but it’s bad to put those close to us on a moral pedestal! All humans are equal, and prioritizing personal relationships distracts from this fact.” This is true in part, but I firmly believe that something is gained through personal relationships that cannot be gained from philosophy or rationality. Understanding the messiness of human interactions is something you have to understand if you are going to effectively work within or alongside human structures and relationships. If all you understand is overly simplistic and clear-cut philosophies and tools, you’re going to have a hard time making any positive change in the world.

Note: After publishing this post, I realized that Nick Bostrom took this topic on in a post from 2009 about the idea of a ‘Moral Parliament‘. For those interested in a different and more formal exploration of solving the ‘moral purity’ issue in EA, it’s definitely worth a look.


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