Friday, April 1, 2016

Selflessness/Selfishness Attuned To Fortune/Misfortune

  • Ethical Altruism is notoriously self-disregarding; striving to fulfill others' (strangers') interests even if it's done at the expense of oneself. An act is morally admissible if its consequences carry more benefits (over harms) to everyone except the agent.

  • Ethical Egoism is notoriously self-obsessive; striving to fulfill one's own interests even when doing so comes at the expense of everyone else. An act is morally admissible if its consequences carry more benefits (over harms) only to the agent.

  • Utilitarianism is self-inclusive and other-regarding. Everyone's interests have equal weightiness in proportion to their respective situation. Agents impacting a certain state of affairs don't rule themselves out and freely accommodate their own interests into the final harms/benefits distribution.

But you know all this. Or at least you should.

Ethicists seeking to settle on the most sensible of the three overwhelmingly end up with some sort of utilitarian calculus. Nothing surprising about that, considering the competition. Moral masochism vs. moral sadism vs. moral impartialism. Not exactly the hardest choice in the world. Impartiality all the way.

Neophytes hear this and conjure a utility-minded agent who must approach each and every case as A New Beginning with antecedent factors treated as though they're divorced from normative considerations. Lately I've been running into this misconception, and have maybe even contributed to it through last year's enthused endorsements of moral particularism... so here I'll explain why antecedent-undermining decisional-procedures have the potential to be counterproductive to concrete utilitarian ends. This holds no matter the specific flavor and sub-flavor of utilitarianism being adhered to. If a decision-procedure is heavily contemporaneous and minimally anterior, it goes on to be lopsided in its assessment of the breadth of each individual life. In doing so, it feasibly overlooks individualistic wholeness; a cardinal component of impartial-concern. Realizing this, the prudential utilitarian can frequently proceed with altruistic or egoistic precepts and still minimize disutility (or maximize utility, if you're into that sort of thing) without falling into the moral quicksand of self-disregard or self-absorption. Call this lenience situational altruism and situational egoism, contra refractory altruism and refractory egoism.

Hang on, how can altruism or egoism, as characterized above, ever be conducive to negative (or positive) utilitarian tenets? Moreover, wouldn't admitting as much spell doom for the intellectual blueprints behind the Effective Altruism movement? Quite the contrary, once you envision the agent as partaking in a situational but panoramic game of tug-of-war.

Suppose you're stuck in an elevator at your workplace. There are four people stuck in the same elevator with you. All four of them are from a different department. The emergency callout button isn't working. Cursed installers. The weekend just started, and no one's in the building as the firm encourages employees to leave early on Fridays. Something about Corporate Culture pop-research indicating that it boosts morale. At any rate, each of you forgot to recharge your respective gadgetry throughout the day, so everyone's phone is battery-depleted and useless at this point. You yelled. You screamed. You pounded on the elevator's door, its floor and its ceiling. You tried ripping apart the ceiling to make your way to the roof. All of it for naught. Seems like you're all spending the next 48 to 72 in this dusky elevator. Worryingly huddled up together. You do your best to start thinking less melodramatically; 72 hours does sound like a stretch. 48 to 60 seems about right. To be sure, there's not a snowball's chance in hell of this resulting in a tragedy, just severe annoyance, stress and an irredeemable waste of a perfectly good weekend.

It's been an hour. The five of you are already hungry. Noon's lunch break seems like a lifetime ago for all of you. You discuss this amongst yourselves. As luck would have it, you're carrying five slices of pizza, having bought a full pizza for takeout during lunch. You only had three slices then, planning to have the rest over the weekend. Now it appears you'll be having the rest of it tonight, considering your lack of non-pizza options. Lucky you. But how many slices should you have? The only person with any food in the elevator is yourself. Your co-captives travel light, which begs the question; who had the biggest lunch? Was it you with the three slices? Was it George from Corporate? How about Jim from Corporate? Or maybe it was April from Corporate? Now that you think of it, it was probably Bill from Corporate. He's the fattest, so he must've had the biggest meal.

Next thing you know, questions of this manner find their way into the conversation. Turns out all four of them had meals indistinguishable in size and calories from your three slices. Every indicator points to the five of you being equally hungry at present. Each of you pulled a long day at the office and it's well past 1900 hrs now. George, Jim, April and Bill have money on them and are happy + eager to compensate you for the four equally-sized slices.

Is this everything readers need to know in order to conclude that it would be unethical of you to refuse to sell four (of your five) slices to the individuals stuck in this elevator with you? In a nutshell, no. There's plenty more for readers to ask.

What you do know is that George, Jim, April and Bill work in corporate. All of them make good bank. They enjoy what they do, and the sky's the limit. You, on the other hand, have been stuck in the mailroom for over a decade now. You work hard. You're punctual. You have an upbeat attitude. Great customer service skills. And yet, no promotion in sight. You were there when George, Jim, April and Bill started in the mailroom, and you were there when they left for bigger and better things in the same company. Was it simple meritocracy? Maybe, for April and Jim at least. George and Bill, meanwhile, got ahead thanks to Nepotism 101.

Unlike them, you have no friends in any of the right places, and resultantly never develop a habit for sliding your image into the good graces of the right people, even though you see the CEO on a daily basis. He always greets you with niceness, but you know that's no reason to slimily contrive extended conversations and shoehorn self-bolstering add-ons into said talks. Chatter only, no manoeuvring. No occupational boosts, but you wake up every day and like who you see in the mirror. Is that reward enough though, as folk parables would have it? Not exactly. You're tired of the mailroom. You're tired of the chump change. Your purchase power is at an all time low. You need a raise. You deserve a raise. George, Jim, April and Bill keep getting raises. Like clockwork. New shiny cars and clothes every year, shortly after each new promotion. It's obvious.

It's past time for some unabashed bluntness; you're bitter. You have a right to be, and not just a "in the privacy of my own mind, I'm calling foul" type of a right, but a full-blown Cognitive Right. The sort of right you applaud vanguards and iconoclasts with. You are bitter as fuck, and it's justified. Set aside amateur psychology's puerile attempts to delineate benign vs. non-benign envy. You're not envious in the first place, you're silently outraged and have been skirting around admitting it to yourself. It's been a decade long slow-burn, culminating in tonight's predicament. Fears of falling into the Ressentiment defense-mechanism bias is probably why you shied away from recognizing it for so long. Now it dawns on you; just as people understand that "It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you" it's also not Ressentiment if you've really been screwed over with fuck-all in the way of justification.

No longer will you allow western ethos to senselessly bitter-shame you out of your justly held appall. Starting now, you're letting yourself feel that bitterness. Embrace that contempt. You seem to have done everything right, but have nothing to show for it except occupational ossification. Impartial observers might even say you've worked harder and smarter than all four of your co-captives, and would've made for a better corporate candidate.

Worse yet, George, Jim, April and Bill all seem to have fulfilling personal lives, while your social circle has gradually shrunk into next-to-nothingness. It's virtually non-existent these days. You are, by all accounts, a more interesting person than the four of them. You're knee-deep into the most captivating subcultures. You discuss big ideas and propose feasible solutions to some of the most grievous problems facing the world. They enthusiastically discuss their workout routines, good vs. bad restaurants, clubs, bars, the local scene in general, Top 40 Radio, Reality TV, various soaps and sitcoms with post-pavolvian laugh-tracks. They genuinely enjoy this, and it reinforces their extroverted Social Butterfly inanities.

And so, on reflection of all these non-stuck-in-elevator inequities where your cohorts tower over you, shall I repose the original question? Should you sell them the four slices? If you do, you're left with the one slice; one measly slice which you'll eat at some point tonight because you're all worked up and sleep is just not in the cards for you. There's no way you're not eating at least one of your five slices tonight. It's quite the hunger now. The type of hunger that makes time pass slowly, the last thing you need. Same goes for your fellow captives though, and they tell you as much. They want the four slices and are all but waving $20 bills at you. You keep telling them you'll have to think about it. You truly don't want to be left sliceless after tonight and spend all of Saturday and Sunday hungry... very hungry... starving perhaps. Why should you? More importantly, why should they be entitled to your good fortune? For once, the Cosmic Misfortune ratios steered less toward you and more toward them. For once, you have an opportunity to capitalize on blind forces.

Oh, but what of utilitarian decisional-procedures? It's not a trick question. What of them? Understand that there is no anti-utilitarian gotcha to this setup. The pro-utility, anti-disutility answer is here to be found, and it circles back to a recounting of cosmic slights to see how they stack up during the course of everyone's lifetime. Once you privilege the farsighted backlog over the nearsighted backlog, you as the hopeful maximizer of axiological goodness and minimizer axiological badness are within reason to act in accordance to all that history. Bring yourself up as much as possible, because you'll still wind up further the red than the four of them stand to.

Annoyingly, some view this as a conflation on my part as pertains to utilitarian vs. egalitarian metrics, so let me be clear; I'm unsympathetic to any form of egalitarian (comparative) analysis of value/disvalue. The face value inference pointing in egalitarian directions only registers if you're ignorant of, or if you underestimate the effect of, Diminishing Marginal Utility. Adjusted to a farsighted grasp of general life satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction, in lieu of Specific Product Consumption, DMU has it that not only would you do well to retain the five slices, doing so would benefit the overall state of affairs you're connected to on account of you playing axiological catch-up. No one will starve to death because you capitalized on this one opportunity. No one is going to be stuck in that elevator for weeks or months. Everyone will be out by Monday, and of the five of you, you are the last one who needs additional hardship in the grand scheme of things. You're more deserving of a break, and hunger does not a break make. So diminished marginal utility, under this configuration and subcontext, offers inegalitarian reasons that are egalitarian-seeming to the uninitiated, because it surfacely seems like you're engaging in comparative metrics and reaching conclusions atop that overview. But it's more to do with a game of corporate musical chairs. They got all the corporate marbles and levelled you down in the process, generating net harm. So, if nothing else, hang on to your Pizza In Elevator bronze-prize. It's nontrivially yours, even if it drags them down.

After all, were you ever entitled to Bill's or April's or Jim's or George's seemingly neverending bouts of fortuitousness? Did they ever think to ask? Did it even occur to them to try putting in a good word for you? Y'know, even out the fortune-to-misfortune ratios a bit? Nope, they just went about their business; their narrow-minded, uninteresting, mind-numbing verbal-cockroach type business... and now they expect your help; your slices; your tinge of unearned fortune. You're roughly the same age as them and your utility score is well below theirs. It's nonnegotiable. They can afford to be levelled down a tincture. You can't. So soak up this relatively lucky break.

Utility, in cases like these, relies on the agent's outright refusal to be a moral chump. It entails a willingness to fight fire with fire via an egoist-seeming decision-procedure. In an environment where your contemporaries play by "You gotta look out for number one!" cultural maxims, your failure to adapt to their rules will only inflate global disutility. Panoramic disutility.

"...Well, there's five slices, and five of us, so... it's only fair, right?" says Bill, ever so meekly.

You say nothing in return and indulge some thought-mode insults "Go fuck yourself Bill, you parasitic nepotistic inconsiderate shitstain of a human being!".

Felt good. Maybe you'll say it out loud if he keeps pestering you.

It's now Sunday afternoon and you've just had your fifth and final slice. Finger licking good! You'll be out in less than 16 hours, if the upcoming Monday is anything like a normal Monday, which by all accounts will be the case. You now look over at them... they're disappointed in you, but too starved to verbally condemn you for hording the slices. Monday morning comes soon enough, and you're all freed on cue. They try giving you the silent treatment for a few days, but it all blows over before you know it. 

A year goes by. You receive a promotion, having played by a somewhat more self-interested set of rules ever since the elevator-entrapment tipping point. All of a sudden, you have money to spare. Additional promotions follow, as you've only become more cutthroat in your dealings with competitor colleagues; effectively elbowing out some of them from being promoted.

Another year passes, and you're swimming in spare cash by this stage. You make it a point not to donate any of it to the locals, for they are still recipients of western fortuitousness. No, you will instead spend the remainder of your working life donating a handsome percentage of your annual income to the global poor via EA, for they are still victims of Cosmic Unfortunateness. You select reliably cure-minded charities over bandaids-for-more-bandaids ones.

You are now the situational altruist, the situational egoist, and the ultimate methodological utilitarian all rolled into one. The surest way to pull it off, in a society where your competitors are socialized to craftily look out for number one, is to indulge in the same against them. Neglect them and their interests. Your non-competitors will thank you for it.


Disclaimer: Of course, no one is limited to choosing between the above three consequentialist calculi. There are non-altruist, non-egoist, and non-utilitarian alternatives available on the telic menu. One-dimensional consequentialists may find this trivial, and that's precisely why everyone should shun one-dimensional consequentialism in favour of multi-dimensional consequentialism so that no agent ends up glued to a utilitarian calculus in outlier-type configurations where a distinctly prioritarian calculus suffices in bringing about a more humane result.

More on Prioritarianism in future posts.