Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Reading 27

 Franz Kafka, "The Metamorphosis" (Part 3), The Collected Works of Kafka

Gregor as beetle still has the apple stuck in his back. He's weak, can barely get around, doesn't want to eat. His father who threw the apple now keeps the young man's door open in the daytime so he can see into the living and dining room. Gregor listens as they talk.

Gregor's father is still working for the bank but now his mother has taken a job sewing women's undergarments. The parents have also taken in boarders to make money and have moved the excess furniture to Gregor's room, which is now being used as a spare bedroom, despite his presence. Meanwhile, Gregor's sister still brings Gregor the family's leftovers. Sick as he is from the damage to his back, he mainly nibbles at the food and spits it out, then the sister comes and sweets everything up

The sister is learning how to play violin splendidly. One night, she plays for the boarders during their meal. Gregor is so entranced by the music he crawls from his room into the living room. The boarders freak, say they refuse to pay rent unless the living conditions are made cleaner. Gregor's sister becomes enraged. She tells her father this beetle isn't really Gregor and that he has to go. The father says he guesses so, nothing can be done.

A little time passes and after one night into the next day the cleaning lady is doing her work over the house. She comes into Gregor's room and finds him, a dried-up, flattened insect. Gregor's father crosses himself and says, "Thank God."

The whole family goes for a walk. They go out to a park. The parents pen their resignation letters to the company. They make plans to move to a smaller appointment. They observe their daughter, how grown-up she is becoming. They plan to marry her off as soon as possible.

And that's the end of the story.

Percy Shelley, "How Eloquent Are Eyes!," Selected Poetry and Prose

Love is in the eyes.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus, "Do Better," The New Yorker, August 15, 2022

This is an article about the effective altruism movement, which over the past 10 or so years has been able to attract the attention of several leading intellectuals and most recently a public figure like Elon Musk, who endorsed the movement. The thesis of EA is that you should try to do the most good for the most people. It's essentially utilitarianism rebranded for the tech startup generation.

EA as a brand has its roots in the work of the Oxford University philosopher Peter Singer. In 1973, he released a groundbreaking paper called "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," in which he proposed the following thought experiment.

Imagine you are walking past a lake and see a drowning child. With near-certainty, you know if you don't rescue this child, he'll die. Also with near-certainty, you're able to, without any harm to yourself except for the fact that wading into the water will ruin your $200 shoes.

Singer argues in this situation, it would be a no-brainer. We'd hop into the water and save the child, no matter the damage to the shoes.

Next, Singer proposes the following question. In the world we live in, where most of the global population could get by on $2 a day but just don't haven't any money, aren't all those people, the planet over, very much like those drowning children? And aren't we privileged Westerners very much like the man who has the opportunity to forego the price of a luxury good to provide for all those who are drowning?

Within the paper, Singer proposed something like a tithe. We ought to do our best to give a proportion of our income to effective charities that will reduce global poverty and save the most lives.

It is these sorts of things that we see going on EA today. Elon Musk recently stated, "This is the philosophy most aligned with my own."

As far as some of these particular tactics like donating to particular charities, there would seem to be no problem. The troubling stuff comes with the details of some of the specific EA philosophy, namely those details which tend to preclude some options in favor of others and to overlook other options altogether.

Let's unpack this.

In EA philosophy, the idea is to do the most good you can do. To do the most good is going to make some options better than others. For instance, donating money to buy bed nets shipped to Africa will be a more effective use of money and time than serving food at a soup kitchen, because overall more people will be saved in the former case than in the latter. This is just simple arithmetic. EA would say you could do the latter if you want but don't fool yourself that it might be taking time away from doing something more effective.

The more evangelical EA folk would even tell you that it would be better to become a stock trader than it would be to help rebuild homes as part of hurricane relief. In fact, don't even bother with the rebuilding when you could make all that money on trades and reinvest that money wherever you want and help way more people.

EA is subject to the same criticism than all utilitarian variants is. This kind of philosophy "makes no distinction between persons." To save a life in Bangladesh is more important than helping a neighbor rebuild after a natural disaster because there's a difference between alive and dead. At least the person with the damaged home is still alive. The goal is to save the most lives. To want to help the number and forego the goal would be to engage in a local prejudice. So would that be the case were you to save the life of one American as opposed to 10 Iraqis. If it's only numbers and communities and nation-states are irrelevant, then saving fewer people closer to home goes against the principle.

Let's return to the thought-experiment that kicked all this off. If we do, we will see how imperfect the analogy is. The world we live in is not akin to one in which there is a single lake and a single passerby, me, who can forego a luxury good to save the person in that drowning lake. Our world is a world of many lakes, many drowning people, many passersby, and some of those passersby are members of countries whose governments are responsible for the drowning people... And it's even more complicated than that. Some of those lakes are nearer, some farther, some you have more of a claim to, some of them you don't...

If we take this picture seriously, we see that the coordination to save people is not so simple. Notice, for instance, how the philosophy of EA, apart from saying "Sure, try to become a millionaire and give all that money away," doesn't even bother to deal with institutions that perpetuate the miseries. The drowning-people world is not a one-off. There are serious institutional reforms and revolutions that could take place at the political and economic level which could knock off all that drowning stuff altogether. Interestingly, none of the major proponents of EA indict capitalist economies or the world's largest superpower or encourage advocacy against them in favor of reform or revolution, which if successful would have a greater long-term effect for the greatest number of people, wouldn't it?

Apart from the serious do-gooders, the EA philosophy just becomes another means for people with tepid political convictions to feel good about themselves for giving to poor people, which oddly enough continue to stay poor. It's almost as though a lot of the major work being done here just perpetuates these inhumane systems. In fact, it's just like that.

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