I’ve previously written about the less commonly examined consequences of believing the life, with all of its dignity and worth, begins at conception. This week, I’d like to examine another common belief that tends to be voiced on the other side of the political spectrum: that we should value everyone, not just people we know or who are similar to us in some way. If I didn’t know better, I’d summarize this by saying “all lives matter,” but somehow that phrase has come to mean something closer to the opposite notion.
Without a convenient handle, I don’t have a relevant survey statistic to cite. Instead, we find this notion in how our country’s first revolutionaries justified their actions:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. (Preamble to the Declaration of Independence)
Beautiful language, which would form the basis of the grand experiment of the US. At the same time, I know some of you are thinking: “Just men? What about women?” Or perhaps you readily think of the already-widespread pattern of slavery and marvel that it took at least another 80 years and a civil war to overcome what some have called America’s original sin. But if your mind is drawn in those directions, it probably means that you think you believe in the equality of humanity even more than the Declaration signatories did.
The only problem is, you don’t act like it. How would we all behave if we actually valued everyone equally?
We would worry a lot less about people paying us back.
One way to formulate this ethic is to say that equal improvements to each others’ lives should get equal priority. If some indivisible good would help one person a lot and another person a little, we should prioritize the person whom it will help more.
In utilitarian terms, this means that we should act in order to maximize the sum of everyone’s personal utilities. Perhaps we should add a slight discount term on other people’s preferences due to our uncertainty about them. Otherwise, we might end up like the proverbial long-married couple who always split a piece of bread opposite to their preferences because they were just trying to be loving and thought the other person shared their preferences. But apart from those lower-order terms, this ethic means that we should be just as satisfied with someone else getting some benefit than ourselves.
This is not how almost anyone I know thinks or at least talks about money at all.
In my social environment, most of us are peers, with similar valuations of money. In other words, we would mostly all appreciate an extra $100 to the same extent; while there are a few people to whom that would mean a bit more or a bit less, none of us are rich enough that we wouldn’t notice losing it, and (I suspect) none of us are poor enough that we’d sell an item of immense personal value to get it.
In this context, then, we should be completely okay freely exchanging money among this network of peers, especially from those with a little bit more to those with a little bit less. We wouldn’t need Venmo; we would all be happy with giving each other money whenever that would collectively save us time and effort. The same freedom and flexibility that married couples get to enjoy would be shared by all.
Beyond making splitting bills a thing of the past, this would also impact the way that we spend our time. If we have the opportunity to help a friend with something that would otherwise take him more than twice as long, that alone would be worth it.
And again, we would be especially comfortable with such donations of time when they occur down gradients of privilege. In my early years at Caltech, I realized that I was especially well-prepared even among students there, and decided that meant I should take a lot of classes and milk it for all its worth. Later, though, I realized that there was a definite diminishing of returns, and I decided to focus my efforts where they could be even more globally valuable: helping my fellow students, most of whom came in less well-prepared.
I’m reminded of something that happened at the annual MIT math department retreat several years ago. The organizers had been confused about which rooms had bunkbeds and which had queen-size beds and had ended up placing enough grad students in a room that two would have had to share a queen-size bed. The last to get his key realized this and was uncomfortable with the prospect, so he had sought to switch rooms. Unfortunately, the only available bunk bed was in a fairly distant room that also had a dog, and he was allergic to dogs.
As he explained this, I realized that the simplest solution would just be to switch rooms with him, since I’m not allergic to dogs. Sure, that would mean I would have to walk a bit farther, but it was certainly better than him not having a place to stay or getting an allergic reaction on top of having to walk farther. From the options available to us, it seemed to be clearly the best.
And yet, he seemed quite surprised that I was willing to switch with him, repeatedly offering to pay me back in various ways. I don’t fault him at all; I just think it goes to illustrate how rarely we actually think of others’ good as equally valuable to ours.
Traffic would be a lot more harmonious.
Selfishness is perhaps nowhere more obvious and prevalent in the weird and uncoordinated way we get places. This isn’t surprising, since it’s the one place that our values are pretty much directly at odds: Either you cross the bridge first or I do; we can’t both cross at the same time. Given driving’s prevalence in sermon illustrations, I have to wonder if a centrally-coordinated transportation system wouldn’t do wonders to reduce sin as well.
Yet even before coordinated driverless Uberpools end all traffic, we can apply the ethic of equality to our driving. Assuming equal preferences to get to our destinations sooner rather than later, we should be completely ambivalent about other drivers cutting in front of us, as long as their maneuvers aren’t dangerous. If it’s just a matter of them getting to their destination slightly sooner and us getting there slightly later, it approximately cancels out.
We can also think in this fashion as pedestrians. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who make a loaded bus or shuttle stop at a crosswalk in order for them to cross. I sometimes feel like shouting, “Really? Getting to your destination 5 seconds sooner was worth 5 seconds of 30 people’s time? What makes you think you’re so special?” Especially if I’m one of those 30 people…
As a pedestrian in what seems to me to be overly cautious Boston, I actually frequently try to communicate to drivers that I’m actually not trying to cross the road they’re coming on if no one else is crossing with me. This can take the form of pretending I’m actually going in a direction parallel to the road, or turning around abruptly, or stopping, vaguely looking confused and staring at my phone as if I’m lost. As soon as the line of cars is past me, I equally abruptly appear to change plans and cross the road behind them.
You don’t have to go through all of these shenanigans. Just. Please. Don’t. Make. A. Bus. Stop. To. Let. You. Cross.
Students would be more respectful of university staff.
I’ve been a student for the last two decades, but I imagine a similar sort of lesson also applies to anyone else in the workplace who isn’t along a similar career path. At universities, there is often a distinctive social hierarchy. On top are the faculty (who are themselves often split between all sorts of titles like full professor or associate professor with tenure), then the postdocs, then the graduate students, then the undergrads. And then at the very bottom are the support staff, the academic administrators, event managers, and other career professionals whose main job is to support all of these scholars.
It’s not that they’re servants who always have to do our bidding; sometimes they (especially graduate administrators) have a good deal of power over who gets which TA jobs, for instance. It’s a bit of a different relationship in the hierarchy; professors look down on graduate students, and graduate students definitely look down on undergrads, but everyone doesn’t so much as look down on support staff as barely even acknowledge their existence until they’re needed for something.
Trying to swim in the opposite direction, I’ve attempted to get to know the university staff wherever I’ve gone. Food services staff are the easiest, because serving you food ideally builds a familial sort of relationship. When I managed the Caltech ultimate frisbee team, I made it a point to actually visit the offices of the athletic staff we were interacting with, to reduce misunderstandings and to show them the respect they deserve. In grad school, as I’ve gotten to know the math department staff, I’ve kept the same pattern of intentionally visiting them, especially as I’ve coordinated the MIT Integration Bee. They’re genuinely invested in making traditions like that happen, and appreciated the updates I was able to give them.
Most recently, as I was learning a little bit of web development in order to create my What Should I Wear? web app (blog post about it), I turned to Tom Mullaly, one of the IT administrators in the department, who had recently helped me fix a problem with the cheap laptop I leave at school. Tom eagerly helped me build the web app, suggesting many important components (most prominently, using images to depict the clothing suggestions, and Twitter Bootstrap for the interface) and generally guiding me through the whole process. He was actively interested in how it was coming along and whenever I’d see him in the hallways, we’d chat about it. Beyond helping me make it better and teaching me a bunch of PHP, he definitely seemed to appreciate getting involved with it.
We would be abundantly generous and even take risks to support those in need.
And now we come to the political. But as in the last post like this, I’d again like to emphasize the ways we can personally act rather than relying on the slow, collective action of politics.
Let’s turn back to utility functions. In money (as with most things), we tend to have diminishing returns. Happiness is only a weak proxy for utility, and a famous 2010 study found that people’s day-to-day reported happiness does not go up after a certain point. While there is some debate over where that proper level should be placed, the idea of a strict cutoff is probably just a convenient shorthand for saying that happiness is a concave function of income. That is, each additional dollar matters less and less to your happiness the more you make.
And similarly for utility. One obvious consequence, then, of the ethic of equality is that we should be happy to give to those who don’t have as much as us. After all, their utility will go up more than ours. But the ethic goes beyond donating some of our income; it means that we should spend as if the money would otherwise go to those in need. That’s why we should aim to explicitly keep our standards of living from ballooning out of proportion as our income increases.
Now, unfortunately, some of you might be inclined to take this too far and look at every time you spend on yourselves as evil. Next, you’ll find such a philosophy completely unworkable and decide just to live as selfishly as you had before. So there are some important caveats that have helped me avoid that extreme and understand what’s truly worth investing in.
First, spending money as an investment (e.g. paying rent in a convenient location or buying healthy food which will keep you productive) is ultimately a winning proposition, so you shouldn’t worry about that. Some purchases are also just too small to worry about; you have to take into account the time you spend puzzling it out.
It can also be awkward to just give people money, even if they ask — what will they use it on? I’ve written before about my habit of buying gift cards to places like McDonald’s to give to homeless people I come across rather than cash. This time, I want to offer a new suggestion: Tip generously. Tipping is one of the most accepted ways to give to people who likely make less than you, and many service professionals value generous tips on an emotional level far more than the feeling we have of seeing slightly less money in our bank accounts the next time we check. Think about how many articles you’ve seen online about how a large tip made someone feel.
Finally, valuing everyone equally means we should even be willing to make personal sacrifices for their well-being. Yes, this means that we should welcome refugees to the US, because the benefit to us is worth the slight increase in the terror risk. But it also means that we should be willing to live and work in “unsafe” neighborhoods if we can be a benefit to the community, or more willing to spend our time with those who might end up depending on us in what might otherwise seem like parasitic ways.
As I think you can tell, actually living up to the ethic of equality is hard. It requires us to keep such a loose hold on the things we own that we literally don’t care if someone steals it from us, assuming they’d put it to good use. It requires us to forego our own sense of what we “deserve”, whether it’s being paid back or getting to cross the bridge first. It requires us to think about everyone we interact with as a human being worthy of respect, not just the people we can easily empathize with. And yes, it requires us to think about the good that we could do with a little more money or a little more time, rather than spending it on ourselves.
This post is also in a way part of my response to this provocative essay that was circulating around social media a couple months ago. In it, Dillon Brown, a graduate student in economics at Cambridge, describes how in the process of applying to graduate school and various fellowships, he found that his advisors and interviewers were incredulous about his effective altruist motivations for studying development economics:
In addition to asking how I can use my money, I’ve thought a lot about how to use my time – that is, what career will allow me to do the most good. For similar reasons, I concluded that work in development economics was one of the highest-impact careers I could pursue. Almost from the moment I came to this conclusion, I began taking classes in economics with the eventual goal of researching and implementing projects aimed at alleviating global poverty.
This brings me to today, where I’m now studying economics as a graduate student at Cambridge.
When I would show these drafts to my writing fellows or scholarship advisors, the first question they would ask, almost unanimously, was but why do you care about extreme poverty?
Well, because there’s no single problem on earth responsible for more suffering or needless waste of human life, I would respond.
Yes, but why do you care about extreme poverty?
What on earth did they mean? A number of them followed up by asking if I had witnessed anyone living in extreme poverty. No, I hadn’t. Had I or anyone I know ever contracted malaria or a neglected tropical disease? No. Did I feel I had a responsibility to the developing world as a beneficiary of colonialism? Not particularly. How did my privilege and my identity as a White Westerner contribute to my decision to focus on extreme poverty? It didn’t.
Now, my intention is not to defend his advisors and interviewers, who frequently seemed to suggest identity politics as the only reliable motivating factor. Instead, I’d offer that what they likely wanted, more than just some story that fit their preconceived notions, was a picture of Dillon as a whole person, who had fully integrated this care for people who are very different from himself into a part of his identity. They were looking for some personal details to flesh out his answers and convince them that this desire to alleviate global poverty is more than just a passing interest, especially given the inherent difficulties in the field.
To be honest, for many of us in this movement called Effective Altruism, the only real difference this membership makes is getting us to donate to effective charities. While money is a sensitive topic for many, that’s still a fairly surface-level change, and I think many have yet to fully incorporate its lessons into our everyday lives.
As I hope you’ve gotten a glimpse of, actually living as an effective altruist on the character level is hard. It requires us to think altruistically as well as effectively, which means that we actually value others as much as we value ourselves, our friends, or those we are most similar to. And that’s an area that we all need to keep growing in.