Etica senza ontologia

Per l’incontro del MOS – Seminario Permanente di Etica, datato 4 aprile 2017, è stata proposta la critica delle prime quattro lectures dal volumetto Etica senza ontologia, del filosofo americano Hilary Putnam, edito per Mondadori. Riproduco qui il mio elaborato, scritto per l’occasione e pubblicato originariamente sul sito del seminario, come riassunto dei contenuti del mio intervento.

 

Putnam precisa fin dall’introduzione che nella sua critica all’ontologia egli non si riferisce ad essa in senso heideggeriano (ontologia fondamentale), bensì dell’ontologia tradizionale: inflazionista alla Platone, riduzionista-empirica e eliminativista-idealista. L’ontologia, che tratti di enti sovrasensibili in generale (inflazionismo), piuttosto che di una realtà primaria cui ricondurre ogni descrizione (riduzionismo) o di un eliminazione per intero delle descrizioni non primarie (eliminativismo), verrà opposta da Putnam in spirito wittgensteiniano, avvalendosi della nozione di pluralismo pragmatico. Se non è necessario avvalersi di nient’altro fuorché del linguaggio per descrivere cosa esiste, allora il fatto che nel linguaggio vi sia una pluralità d’usi della parola ‘esistere’ garantisce che non possa essere data una definizione univoca di ciò che esiste, rendendo pertanto obsoleto il progetto ontologico in quanto dogmaticamente orientato a definire univocamente il suo campo. Putnam passerà successivamente attraverso la nozione di relatività concettuale per introdurre la possibilità di un’oggettività senza oggetti – il titolo della terza lecture, altro tratto eminentemente wittgensteinano – lambendo la natura delle verità concettuali in campo matematico per poi estendere tale definizione al discorso etico.

 

L’approccio di Putnam interseca trasversalmente la filosofia pragmatista; nelle sue parole, l’approccio pragmatista avrebbe la capacità di abbracciare il fallibilismo senza cadere nella rete dello scetticismo 1)“Pragmatists hold that there are no metaphysical guarantees to be had that even our most firmly-held beliefs will never need revision. That one can be both fallibilistic and antisceptical is perhaps the basic insight of American Pragmatism.” Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism, An Open Question, Blackwell 1995, p.20. Cristopher Hookway riprende Putnam in un interessante articolo dell’Oxford Handbook of Skepticism e rintraccia tale originario carattere nel lavoro di C. S. Peirce, il quale argomenta che “there is no need to justify current beliefs, only changes in belief.” 2)Christopher Hookway, in The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism, Oxford Press 2008 Peirce adotta una prospettiva anti-fondazionalista, indubbiamente caratteristica del pragmatismo, e rifiuta la necessità di una forma di giustificazione per le credenze attuali; ‘the burden of proof’ di dimostrare perché qualcuno dovrebbe cartesianamente rinunciare a un proprio giudizio semplicemente perché vi è la possibilità logica (e non reale) di errore, è quindi a carico dello scettico.

La certezza, in ultima istanza, non dipende dalle ragioni che la sostengono, e non è quindi scossa dall’astratta possibilità scettica. “Perceptual judgements force themselves upon us: we find them irresistible and do not accept them on the basis of conscious reasons. When we accept perceptual judgements, we see no need to raise the primary challenge and ask what reason we have to accept them. […] Doubts need a reason, and reasons for doubt are harder to come by than many epistemologists have supposed.” 3)Hookway, 2008 Poiché è senso comune accettare alcune certezze senza il bisogno che vengano giustificate, qualora esse vengano messe in discussione è necessario verificare se tale dubbio sia motivato; seguendo il criterio di Peirce secondo il quale una possibilità logica di errore non è sufficiente per porre in dubbio le proprie credenze, il dubbio sarà o una soluzione pratica a una certezza precedente (in tal caso la possibilità di errore sarà riconosciuta come reale e produrrà un risultato correttivo) oppure una fantasia che possiamo lasciare da parte.4)In tal proposito, reputo utile l’approfondimento di un paper seminale del lavoro di Peirce, The Fixation of Belief.

Giungiamo ora all’introduzione dell’autore sulla sua concezione dell’etica. Putnam riprende Levinas, il quale esclude che il comportamento etico si dia per semplice simpatia o convenienza. Il fondamento dell’etica si dà nel momento in cui la persona sente il dovere di fare qualcosa per qualcun altro, dove l’Altro, si sa, è perno centrale per la filosofia dell’autore francese. Successivamente, Putnam accosta all’istanza personale del comportamento etico alla Levinas l’universalismo dell’imperativo categorico kantiano, esplicitando come esso sia “empty and formal unless we supply it with content precisely from Aristotelian and Levinasian and yet other directions.” 5)Hilary Putnam, Ethics Without Ontology, Harvard University Press 2005, p.27

Tale incipit rema già contro il contro il riduzionismo presupposto dall’impresa ontologica: che sia quest’ultima a giudicare l’oggettività di una disciplina, della matematica piuttosto che dell’etica, significa ricercare un fondamento eminentemente pre-etico (o pre-matematico), ignorando quella commistione di fatto e valore, di analitico e sintetico, quel “miscuglio” wittgensteiniano già riportato alla ribalta nel panorama analitico da Quine ne I Due Dogmi dell’Empirismo. Proprio Quine col suo On What There Is sarà oggetto della critica putnamiana nella quarta lecture, quale fautore della rinascita ontologica in filosofia analitica.

La vena pragmatista riporta infine a John Dewey, per il quale l’etica si occupa della risoluzione di problemi pratici, di carattere particolare, situazionale. Strigliando la sete di infallibilità tipica del filosofo, Putnam rincara: “The aim of philosophy in general, and ethics in particular, should not be infallibility […] Our task as philosophers isn’t to achieve ‘immortality’” 6)Putnam 2005, p.31. E riesumando Aristotele assieme a Dewey, in un ennesimo attacco al fondazionalismo, ricorda come le ragioni a supporto dell’agire etico non siano evidenti da un punto di vista pre- o non-etico. La metafora finale che descrive l’approccio pluralista dell’autore non è priva di una certa efficacia: “That is how I see ethics: as a table with many legs, which wobbles a lot, but is very hard to turn over.” 7)Putnam 2005, p.28.

 

 

Esistere si dice in molti modi, dicevamo. L’argomento si sviluppa attraverso la filosofia della matematica, partendo dalla seconda l’antinomia kantiana   come esempio di relatività concettuale: i punti geometrici sono realtà autonome esistenti nello spazio, o sono piuttosto da considerare come ‘meri limiti’? Per rispondere a questa domanda, Putnam introduce la mereologia, una disciplina logica inaugurata da Leśniewski definita come “il calcolo delle parti e degli interi”; secondo la mereologia, dato un insieme [a,b,c] potremo considerare oggetti di quell’insieme non solo a, b e c, ma anche ab, bc, ac e abc. La teoria degli insiemi carnapiana, invece, considera come oggetti dell’insieme solamente a, b e c; essa non è disposta a sommare due oggetti qualsiasi e considerare tale somma un nuovo oggetto. Sia Leśniewski che Carnap considerano i propri oggetti logici come esistenti, benché il secondo non accetti come individui le somme merceologiche introdotte dal primo. Il quantificatore esistenziale è usato in maniere diverse, e sarebbe stupido, secondo Putnam, chiedersi se le somme merceologiche esistano veramente: la differenza di significati della parola “esistere” è una differenza di uso, e per quanto tale diversità non sia banale, decidere della “vera” esistenza delle somme mereologiche è una questione di convenzione.

La convenzione, seguendo la definizione di David Lewis, sarebbe una soluzione a un particolare problema di coordinamento, proprio come in alcuni paesi è uso guidare sulla sinistra anziché sulla destra. Scegliere un significato di ‘esistenza’ piuttosto che un altro non è preferibile se non per ragioni formali; ritornando all’antinomia kantiana, scegliere tra le due descrizioni dei punti geometrici non influisce sulla validità degli assiomi e delle derivazioni geometriche. Si tratta dunque di scegliere tra diversi linguaggi opzionali, incompatibili nominalmente ma cognitivamente equivalenti.

Si conclude così la prima critica all’ontologia tradizionale: “The whole idea that the world dictates a unique ‘true’ way of dividing the world into objects, situations, properties, is a piece of philosophical parochialism. But just that parochialism is and always has been behind the subject called ontology.” 8)Putnam 2005, p.51

 

La seconda critica ha nel mirino la connessione tra oggettività e oggetti, il fatto che una descrizione oggettiva si possa dare solamente in presenza di un qualche tipo di oggetto. La mossa dell’autore consiste nel presentare asserti di verità che non descrivono alcun oggetto: gli enunciati logici.

Esempio: non è una caratteristica dei rettili e dei mammiferi a far sì che sia vera la proposizione “Se tutti i rettili sono mammiferi, allora tutto ciò che non è un mammifero non è un rettile”. Possiamo riconoscere distintamente come la relazione logica non sia vera in virtù del fatto che i suoi asserti siano descrizioni di stati di fatto; la relazione rimarrebbe vera anche se scoprissimo che le proprietà dei rettili e dei mammiferi sono diverse.

Se dunque accogliessimo la nozione di oggettività secondo cui la logica sarebbe una descrizione di oggetti intangibili, dovremmo considerare tale nozione una pseudo-spiegazione, un qualcosa cioè che non aggiunge nulla alla comprensione corrente delle leggi logiche, oltre ad essere infalsificabile, priva di significato aggiunto e pertanto superflua (azione del rasoio di Ockham). 9)La questione di oggettività e oggetto si intreccia alla natura linguistica degli enunciati etici, esplorata da Putnam in The Fact/Value Dichotomy, Harvard University Press 2002 : “There are many sorts of statements – bona fide statements, ones amenable to such terms as “correct”, “incorrect”, “true”, “false”, “warranted”, and “unwarranted” – that are not descriptions, but that are under rational control, governed by standards appropriate to their particular functions and contexts.” p.33

 

L’asserto logico messo in luce dall’esempio precedente è una verità concettuale, la quale si dà nel momento in cui “è impossibile attribuire il senso all’asserzione della sua negazione”; la verità concettuale è dunque rivedibile in principio, il dominio dell’analiticità scompare. Il cavallo di battaglia pragmatista della compenetrazione di analitico e sintetico ci porta a considerare la negazione di un asserto come insensata poiché inserita in un contesto di credenze e concetti comunemente accettati. Non si tratta di una negazione insensata in quanto tale, ad infinitum; parlare di triangoli la cui somma degli angoli interni è maggiore di 180º era insensato prima dell’avvento della geometria non-euclidea, così come certe descrizioni fisiche hanno acquisito un senso solamente dopo la formulazione della teoria della relatività. La questione del senso è di particolare rilevanza poiché senza poter dare significato a un certo asserto, non potremmo neppure indagarne le condizioni di conoscenza, e dedicarci conseguentemente alla verifica.

Un ponte concettuale importante nello sviluppo del discorso etico sta nel riconoscere che le verità concettuali sono metodologicamente fondamentali: senza di esse non si può dare alcuna scienza; e tuttavia la prassi scientifica annovera nella propria metodologia anche veri e propri valori, quali la semplicità e la coerenza, per valutare la bontà delle proprie teorie.

“Logical statements and methodological value judgements [simplicity, beauty] could be described as “judgements of reasonable and the unreasonable”. But most ethical judgements are also judgements of the reasonable and unreasonable  – not in the Platonic sense, the sense of what is required by Reason conceived of as a transcendent metaphysical faculty, but in the sense of what is and what is not reasonable given the concerns of the ethical life.” 10)Putnam 2005, p.71 “If ethical statements are, as I urge, forms of reflection that are as fully governed by norms of truth and validity as any other form of cognitive activity, the reason is that reflection on how it is reasonable to act given the overall concerns of the ethical life […] is subject to the same standards of fallibilistic inquiry that all practical reasoning is subject to, and the notions of truth and validity are internal to practical reasoning itself.” 11)Putnam 2005, p.72

In Pragmatism, An Open Question12)Blackwell 1995, p.42 Putnam rintraccia la preminenza della ragion pratica alla strategia kantiana, secondo la quale il fatto di proferire quotidianamente giudizi di valore impegna al fatto che esistano giudizi che siano veri. Per dirla con la filosofia del linguaggio, asserendo p, assumo che p sia vero (⊢p). Frege fu il primo a introdurre la forza assertiva – l’asserire o il giudicare diviene il passaggio dal pensiero al suo valore di verità, la copula perde ogni valore assertivo e il giudizio viene portato al di fuori del contenuto.

 

Ecco la natura del giudizio etico: è eminentemente pratico, segue standard di ragionevolezza come qualsiasi altra forma di attività cognitiva; in linguaggio wittgensteiniano, potremmo dire che il discorso etico è un miscuglio ‘al quadrato’.

Il disaccordo in materia etica viene ritenuto problematico poiché si assume che un accordo sia sempre possibile, per la natura stessa della questione.

Le questioni etiche tuttavia sono di carattere pratico, e sono pertanto un complesso non di mere valutazioni, ma di concezioni filosofiche, religiose e fattuali; e poiché non è possibile, in generale, verificare empiricamente la bontà di una data scelta etica (così come non è possibile verificare la bontà di una teoria economica se non mettendola in pratica) non possiamo che aspettarci contraddizioni.

Il disaccordo sulle questioni etiche, qualora inducesse a pronunciarsi sull’impossibilità a priori di giustificare gli argomenti oggetto del dibattito, dovrebbe quindi estendersi all’intero sapere filosofico, e buttare a mare qualsiasi pretesa di razionalità.

 

Veniamo in ultima battuta alla critica della quantificazione e dell’impegno ontologico di Quine (critica ripresa da Derek Parfit in una delle sue conferenze13)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTUrwO9-B_I&t=151s, grazie alla quale sono pervenuto al volumetto di Putnam). Quine è, nelle parole dell’autore, un platonista riluttante – pur tentando di liberarsi dal giogo della metafisica, finisce per considerare come esistenti tutte le entità che rendono veri gli enunciati della teoria proposta. Per la filosofia della matematica di Quine, un numero può essere quantificato con una numerazione gödeliana, e successivamente con la teoria degli insiemi; gli insiemi sarebbero dunque qualcosa di esistente. L’obiezione di Putnam consiste nel contrapporre all’univocità della quantificazione quiniana altre formalizzazioni – insiemi come funzioni e formalizzazioni in logica modale – come linguaggi opzionali equivalenti; a questo punto, per analogia con le somme mereologiche, chiedersi se gli insiemi esistano veramente sarà un non-problema.

Inflazionismo quiniano ed eliminativismo (esemplificato dall’eliminativismo materialista di Paul Churchland) tracciano una netta distinzione tra linguaggio scientifico e non, dove solo il primo è un linguaggio di prim’ordine, che si pronuncia cioè sulla verità del mondo. Putnam utilizza un esempio di linguaggio ‘non-scientifico’ per mostrare l’inconvenienza di tale posizione: proferendo “Alcuni passi kantiani sono difficili da interpretare”, ed essendo tale enunciato non-scientifico, il giudizio sui passi kantiani risulta vuoto; non vi sarebbero cioè passi difficili da interpretare.

 

 

In sintesi, ecco l’outline argomentativa del testo:

  • stabilire la nozione di relatività concettuale in matematica e logica
  • criticare la relazione tra oggettività ed esistenza di oggetti in matematica e logica
  • stabilire la nozione di verità concettuale come
    • metodologicamente indispensabile (scienza)
    • e tuttavia fallibile (commistione pragmatista fatto-valore)
  • evidenziare la componente valutativa nella pratica scientifica (bellezza, semplicità)
  • stabilire l’equivalenza cognitiva tra il discorso matematico-scientifico e quello etico (standard di ragionevolezza)
    • dominio della ragione pratica (fallibilismo)
  • salvaguardare la razionalità e l’oggettività del discorso etico in assenza di garanzie ontologiche

References   [ + ]

1. “Pragmatists hold that there are no metaphysical guarantees to be had that even our most firmly-held beliefs will never need revision. That one can be both fallibilistic and antisceptical is perhaps the basic insight of American Pragmatism.” Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism, An Open Question, Blackwell 1995, p.20
2. Christopher Hookway, in The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism, Oxford Press 2008
3. Hookway, 2008
4. In tal proposito, reputo utile l’approfondimento di un paper seminale del lavoro di Peirce, The Fixation of Belief.
5. Hilary Putnam, Ethics Without Ontology, Harvard University Press 2005, p.27
6. Putnam 2005, p.31
7. Putnam 2005, p.28
8. Putnam 2005, p.51
9. La questione di oggettività e oggetto si intreccia alla natura linguistica degli enunciati etici, esplorata da Putnam in The Fact/Value Dichotomy, Harvard University Press 2002 : “There are many sorts of statements – bona fide statements, ones amenable to such terms as “correct”, “incorrect”, “true”, “false”, “warranted”, and “unwarranted” – that are not descriptions, but that are under rational control, governed by standards appropriate to their particular functions and contexts.” p.33
10. Putnam 2005, p.71
11. Putnam 2005, p.72
12. Blackwell 1995, p.42
13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTUrwO9-B_I&t=151s

The Bodhisattva’s Brain

The Bodhisattva's Brain - Buddhism Naturalised by Owen Flanagan philosophy ethics Buddhism Aristotelian ethics

ISBN:978-0262525206

READ: 2016-08-25

AUTHOR: Owen Flanagan, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Duke University


Is there any underlying, testable truth in the claim that Buddhism generates happy people? I lived with Buddhists for several months. They seemed happy. The point is, even patients who take homeopaths report to feel good, and that does not prove homeopaths to be effective. The power of positive belief has to be examined and weighted when tackling such complicate questions about ‘happiness’, even more if we acknowledge that happiness has many facets, and c is at too an early stage to be able to distinguish between different happiness feelings.

Self-deceiving myself and uncovering its mechanisms has ben largely instructive. This is why I judge extremely interesting that Buddhism itself regards false beliefs (moha, delusion) as morally wrong, an obstacle toward enlightenment. The Dalai Lama itself summoned Buddhist epistemology in those terms: “Buddhism accords greatest authority to experience, with reason second, and scripture last”. Such affirmation may give naturalists a legitimate hope to engage in a fruitful conversation with Buddhism. Considering the adaptive nature of religions, it is not crazy at all to sketch out how a Buddhism naturalised ought to be.

There is a caveat, though: karmic causation. Karmic causation can be understood as the set of causations produced by sentient beings, both intrapersonally and interpersonally. Problems with reconciling karmic causation and ordinary causation may emerge when Buddhists, as it seems from both Flanagan’s thorough explanation and widely-known Buddhist concepts, introduce the following theses:

  1. That the emergence of sentience was somehow planned in advance;
  2. That human consciousness is of a different ontological type than natural laws are.

Flanagan generously gives two possible exits from the impasse, a ‘tame’ and an ‘untame’ one: the tame interpretation is to consider the ‘law of karma, by which an intentional act will reap certain fruits’ as a subtype of ordinary causation, pertaining specifically to sentient beings, which would give the conceptual framework of moral sciences.

The less tame interpretation is to consider karmic causation as ontologically independent, the metaphysical force that frees the stream of consciousness from the body and produces future, morally-charged causes; doing so constitutes a soteriological theory of rebirth. It strengthens Buddhist ethics, providing a hint of ‘hidden causality’ behind the randomness of Darwinian evolution and related potential threats to the meaning of life; it cannot although be supported within a scientific framework.

Buddhism wants to keep open an ontological question of consciousness, although scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against such hypotheses.

So far, so good. To reach the point of what Buddhism can teach us about happiness, a thorough examination would point out how Buddhism is essentially eudaemonic.According to Flanagan, following Buddhist moral principles might, not necessarily, cause happiness, specifically a kind of happiness which is rightly pointed out as happiness[Buddha], to distinguish it from happiness of the [happy-happy/joy-joy/click-your heels] or [hedonistic] sort.

The most interesting claim from Buddhism is that its metaphysics would necessarily imply a set of moral values, and that by working around those values, the eudaeimon would reach content and happiness. The metaphysics revolves around a narrative of ontological impermanence, both of the natural world and the alleged ‘self’. Such Heraclitean universe would imply a non-strict concept of personal identity, much as Locke has asserted. How does such conception contribute to reduce suffering (dukkha, the impossibility of satisfying all desires)? Recognising impermanence of things could make me feel better about losing a loved one; embracing the impermanence of self may come in hand to let go of afflictions buy seeing that they don’t belong to me anymore, because I am now a somewhat different person that I was when I originated them. This is the Buddhist receipt, to be discovered through wisdom (scripture) and experience (meditation), for alleviating suffering.

Buddhism proves to be a useful therapeutic mean. But Flanagan rightly argues that there is no logical connection between gaining the wisdom of being a selfless person and being moral. Plato himself wasn’t able to explain why a man who managed to exit the cave should go back and rescue his peers, instead of rejoicing his conquered virtues. True, Buddhism is a deep psychology that aims at changing human behaviour from the very roots, it is a practical set of moral principles stemmed from metaphysical laws to overcome earthly suffering; its metaphysical foundations are nevertheless clueless in providing moral outcomes by logical arguments. Thinking of oneself as selfless could equally likely produce a selfish, take-all attitude. To act selflessly in a generous way, one would therefore be motivated to the degree that a precedent inclination to link ontological selflessness and unselfishness was in place.

Again, if a selfless ontology may at most provide some psychologically fertile ground for the flourishing of morality, happiness is not a logical consequence. Rooting Buddhist eudaemonia in wisdom, virtue and mindfulness  – none of which are exclusively normative – doesn’t imply happiness as a necessary outcome. A normative exclusionary clause is further needed: happiness is worthy and ‘true’ only if it is attained through moral principles, and not by taking a magic pill, for example.

Buddhism is very useful in prospecting a rich eudaemonistic theory, characterised by compassion and focused on individual flourishing, which would positively affect cascade-like interpersonal relationships. In such view, selflessness prospects flourishing only to those who embrace a nonindifferent attitude and choose to make life a worthwhile, fulfilling project.

There is more. Following the eudaemonistic path, and accepting that virtue is the sole source of happiness with the exclusionary clause previously mentioned, Buddhism is not the only available option. How can we tell which virtue is the right one? It is widely recognised that virtues are psychologically useful and therefore real, but are nevertheless inclinations, not independent things. Virtues are ecologically sensible, so it is important to recognise that virtues could be evaluated only if we somehow define a broad and general concept of ‘True Happiness’ and proceed to examine different virtue variables. Furthermore, anachronism and ethnocentrism are somehow unavoidable, so any presented conception would be biased in this way, and can never be addressed as from “the point of view of nowhere”.

Liberal commonsense morality is extremely cautious from deliberating any shared vision of what a good life should be. It is so much simpler and less demanding than Aristotelian ethics. Aristotelian ethics is equally eudaemonistic, and claims that empirically, virtue is a reliable cause of happiness. Such reasoning would be valid if we insert the previous exclusionary clause, and say that happiness would not be valid if it stems from false beliefs or shortcuts, with a further warning toward self-indulgent talk of morally chauvinistic nature.

Aristotle is more inclined toward justice, reason and right action, whereas Buddhism places paramount importance to compassion and loving-kindness. Both morals address the fellow-feeling aspects of human nature as necessary – which were now in turn recently availed by evolutionary research – with Buddhism being much more emphatic on feelings of compassion and magnanimity. Buddhism advances that jealous rage, for example, although efficacious in evolutionary terms, should nevertheless be tamed, for when expressed it influences one’s mental state in a stressful way, with possible counterproductive outcomes. As this last example illustrates, Buddhism could be considered as slightly more demanding than Aristotelian ethics, but still feasible.

Ethics cannot produce a single, undoubtable theorem for living a good life. It has never done so, and it probably never will. Nevertheless, any attempt at deconstructing different morals is fruitful, for it brings new elements to the ethical draft we are constantly called upon sketching. Buddhism as such does not extinguish the rationally thirsty of why, given the impermanence of everything, compassion should be preferable to hedonism. A cosmopolitan view of the matter doesn’t allow us to settle for any single traditional way of living a good life; it does however enjoy the process of looking into ancient wisdoms for useful advances in the project of human flourishing. The very fact that there is no true answer, is at least a clear hint of Buddhist style.

Consilience

Consilience - The Unity of Knowledge by Edward Wilson

 

ISBN: 978-0679768678

READ: 2016-08-24

AUTHOR: Edward O. Wilson

 


 

Consilience is one of the four cardinal principles of the scientific method: theories which prove to conform with established knowledge from other disciplines have shown greater profitability in prediction and experimental evidence than those which don’t. Others, by authors’ canons, are parsimony, generality, and predictiveness.

Wilson advocates the search for consilience between natural and human sciences, and centres his argument around the emerging field of genetics and culture – gene-culture coevolution – back in the end Nineties. At the time he writes, rift between those who stood for a genetic account of culture and postmodernists loomed large, but both biological and psychological discoveries led to the emergence of new fields, such as sociobiology and behavioural genetics. If such enterprise could be achieved, it would just help us understand the world more profoundly, and impose a sense of even greater order to the chaotic resemblance of the universe.

I could not understand how a theory of human behaviour could be approached without help from biology and the natural sciences in general. Although I believe this obstacle has been largely overcome already, the present work offers all the obstacles that have been lied down amidst the endeavour. Other allegedly considered sciences – such as economics – have a long way to include the whole biological equipment in it theories, and prove therefore to be more sound and empirically practical.

But the issue looms still large within ethics, and it resides in the rivalry between transcendentalists and empiricists. It signals that there still is much disagreement about where human nature should be traced, whereas transcendentalists fundamentally deny consilience by excluding epigenetic causes to human behaviour, and posits the existence of human laws as impermanent, and just to be discovered “as they truly are”.
The proposed transition from genes to ethics has been widely challenged by the ought-is objection, namely that what it is (epigenetic rules) cannot shape what ought to be (ethical behaviour), also named the naturalistic fallacy. Wilson argues that transcendentalists conversely posit an unlikely independent truth which would determine everything humans ought to do: which of the two alternatives is more likely? By empiricists’ explanation, ought simply derives from material processes.

Wilson doubts that transcendental positions, especially in their religious forms, would ever disappear, for they are part of the very genetic equipment that made humans fit until now. He manages however to draw precisely how that would need to interacts with empiricism to remain alive:

“Science faces in ethics and religion its most interest- ing and possibly humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility. Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge.” (p.290)

What waits ahead of us is the possibility to “decommission natural selection, the force that made us”. Wilson predicts that we will embrace a genetic conservatism: we are not equipped to change anything beyond genes which are eventually responsible for diseases, for we would recognise any other intervention as driving us away from what is considered to be human.
How would we make use of our superpowers? Humans have become a force comparable to asteroids and tectonics: we are shaping the planet in unprecedented ways. The environmental issue posits the next big threat to our very existence, and it should be tackled by both those who believe in human boundless technological abilities which would allow him to live on Mars, and by those cautious environmentalists who see how complex Earth mechanisms are, and that reproducing them might not be so easy as depicted.

Being an acclaimed biologist, Wilson supports the conservative part, that “The only way to save the Creation with existing knowledge is to maintain it in natural ecosystems.” (p.324) Technology will be of great support to tame the demographical problem, but let’s not forget that each technological prothesis makes us, and the world which sustains us, more fragile.

The Big Picture

cover6-297

 

ISBN:978-0525954828

READ: 2016-08-05

AUTHOR: Sean Carroll

 


 

Pretending to draw a Big Picture could be seen as somehow pretentious. Still, Carroll accomplishes to put together a quite detailed state-of-art of what science can currently tell us about who we are.
Carroll defines his system of thought “poetic naturalism”: a picture of the universe that doesn’t need anything but physics to explain its functioning, and yet comprehensive of multiple levels of understanding as “useful ways of explaining how things work” for different domains.

The author shifts through basic cosmology, theory of evolution and thermodynamics, including the most modern views on the origins of life. He places the foundations of his work on quantum mechanics and the Core Theory, the most successful – until now – physical way of explaining how particles become the matter we see in our lives. Embracing the tool of Bayesian reasoning, the Occam’s Razor and the arrow of time, he proceeds from what physics laws tell us to rule out theism, re-examining the old cartesian dualism.

He then tackles the problem of consciousness and free will – again, poetic naturalism labels these phenomena real, as they are emergent properties of the basic quantum fields that make up everything we see. So “life” and “consciousness” are properties of a particular set of particles. We might never be able to calculate the exact quantum field of that set because of the inaccuracy of the data we would be able to gather, but the theory undoubtedly rules out any supernatural cause.

Given all that, the burdensome concern regards morality and meaning. How could we draw purpose from a universe that is purposeless? Is the very fact of us choosing and feeling and striving and desiring a mere illusion?
Carroll proposes a poetic view on the topic: “The universe doesn’t care about us, but we care about the universe. That’s what makes us special”. Desire becomes a useful way of describing the behaviour of a particular physical set called human being – and it is absolutely real. And if human beings are a special category of matter, then neither morality has any inherent, objective truth. Each of us has her own set of believes and values. This view goes under the name of moral constructivism. “The fact that morals are constructed doesn’t mean that they are arbitrary”, remarks Carroll – that being a strong objection against constructivism. Still, there are no ready-made answers. Morals is much of a conversational process, and progress is mostly made on the foundations of commonly shared values. Poetic naturalism gives no answers, because it is up to us to set the rules of the game.
I find the distinction between objective morality and constructivism fundamental, although resting on such an undefined ground is no less than scaring. We shouldn’t reject a theory because it doesn’t provide emotionally positive answers. Searching for the truth has rewarded us with enormous advantages, and there is no reason to doubt that it will be the same with morality as well.

Doing Good Better

the cover of Effective Altruism leading textbook, Doing Good Better, written by Oxford professor William MacAskill

 

ISBN: 978-1592409105

READ: 2016-03-10

AUTHOR: William MacAskill

Doing Good Better is the manifesto of the rising Effective Altruism Movement, which applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.

 

Here you have some counterintuitive lessons from the book:

  • buying goods which were produced in sweatshops is actually better than boycotting them;
  • buying local and fair-trade goods is less effective than you might expect;
  • the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to pay someone else to keep the forrest alive;
  • donating to dedicated charities reduces animal suffering more than going vegan;
  • ethical consumerism could be even harmful for the world;
  • “follow your passion” is actually bad career advice;
  • shifting your impact from 1x to 100x is easier than you may expect.

The book is quite technical, and completing notes with charts and figures would have resulted as too heavy. I suggest you use the following excerpts to inspire yourself and buy the book, and eventually use them as proper directives. 


 

Introduction

 

When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective. p.9

 

We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could,

mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavour robs the act of virtue.

And that means we pass up opportunities to make a tremendous difference. p.10

 

Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. p.11

As I use the term, altruism simply means improving the lives of others. […] The second part is effectiveness, by which I mean doing the most good with whatever resources you have. p.12

 


 

 

You are the 1 percent

 

If you earn more than $52,000 per year, then, speaking globally, you are the one percent. If you earn at least $28,000 […] you are in the richest five percent of the world’s population. p.18

 

The fact that we’ve found ourselves at the top of the heap, globally speaking, provides us with a tremendous opportunity to make a difference. Because we are comparatively so rich,

the amount by which we can benefit others is vastly greater than the amount by which we can benefit ourselves.

We can therefore do a huge amount of good at relatively little cost.

It’s a basic rule of economics that money is less valuable to you the more you have of it. p.20

 

What the conclusions from the economic studies [Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, American Economic Review 103, n.3 May 2013] suggest is that

the benefit you get from having your salary doubled is the same as the benefit an extremely poor farmer gets from having his salary doubled.

If you’re on the typical US wage of $28,000 per year, the benefit you’d get from an additional $28,000 in income is the same as the benefit a poor indian farmer would get from an additional $220. p.22

This gives us a good theoretical reason for thinking that

the same amount of money can do one hundred times as much to benefit the very poorest people in the world as it can to benefit typical citizens of the United States.

This isn’t to say that income is all that matters to well-being – of course other factors like safety and political freedom are involved. But income certainly plays a critical role in how enjoyable, long, and healthy your life is. Looking at how much we can benefit people via increasing their income gives us a particularly robust way of assessing how much we can benefit others compared to ourselves. p.23

 

The 100x Multiplier

You should expect to be able to do at least one hundred times as much to benefit other people as you can to benefit yourself. p.23

 


 

 

Hard trade-offs

 

In order to make comparisons between actions, we need to ask: How many people benefit, and by how much?

This is the first key question of effective altruism. p.32

 

The difficulty of comparing different sorts of altruistic activity is therefore ultimately due to a lack of knowledge about how different activities translate into improvements to people’s lives.

It’s not that different sorts of benefit are in principle incomparable. p.40

 

By all means, we should harness the sadness we feel at the loss of a loved one in order to make the world a better place. But we should focus that motivation on preventing death and improving lives, rather than preventing death and improving lives in one very specific way. Any other decision would be unfair to those whom we could have helped more. p.42

 


 

 

How you can save thousands of lives

 

When evaluating whether aid has worked on average, it’s not enough to look at typical cases of aid; you also need to look at the best cases.

In the context of doing good, this is vital, because the best activities are often far superior to typical ones, which can make the average benefits of aid spending very high, even if typical benefits are small. p.47

 

In the context of helping others, the difference between a good use of money is huge. We shouldn’t just ask: Is this program a good use of money? We need to ask: Is this program the best use of money? p.51

Thinking carefully about how you can do the most to benefit others doesn’t just allow you to do a bit more good – it enables you to do vastly more than you might have done otherwise. p.53

 


 

 

Why you shouldn’t donate to disaster relief

 

If we want to do as much good as we can, we’ve also got to ask which cause to focus on. The law of diminishing returns provides a useful rule of thumb for comparing causes.

If a specific area has already received a great deal of funding and attention, then we should expect it to be difficult for us to do a lot of good by devoting additional resources to that area.

In contrast, within causes that are comparatively neglected, the most effective opportunities for doing good have probably not been taken. p.58

 

Our response to natural disasters is one of the clearest cases of how, when it comes to charity, most people follow their gut and respond to new events rather than ongoing problems. […] We forget there is an emergency happening all the time, because we’ve grown accustomed to everyday emergencies like disease and poverty and oppression. Because disasters are new and dramatic events, they inspire deeper and more urgent emotions, causing our subconscious to mistakenly assess them as more important or worthy of attention.

Ironically, the law of diminishing returns suggest that, if you feel a strong emotional reaction to a story and want to help, you should probably resist this inclination because there are probably many others like you who are also donating. p.60

Diminishing returns also provides a powerful argument for focusing your altruistic efforts on people in poor countries rather than those in rich countries. p.61

 

Asking “Is this area neglected?” and trying to focus only on those areas that truly are neglected can be counterintuitive. It means that the most popular areas are, precisely for that reason, the ones where it will be difficult to have a big impact. p.66

 


 

 

The best person who ever lived is an unknown Ukrainian man

 

In 1958, Zhdanov was a deputy minister of health for the Soviet Union. In May of that year, at the Eleventh World Health Assembly meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the Soviet Union’s first appearance in the assembly after a nine-year absence, Zhdanov described a visionary plan to eradicate smallpox. […] He conveyed his message with passion, conviction, and optimism, boldly suggesting that the disease could be eradicated with ten years. […] He pointed to the Soviet Union’s success at eliminating smallpox, despite its vast territory and poor transportation networks. […]

By the force of his arguments, Zhdanov was successful. For the riots time in his history, the WHO agreed to forma a campaign to completely eradicate a disease.

To assess how much good Zhdanov did, we should bear in mind that, even if he had not lobbied the WHO, smallpox would probably have been eradicated anyway. Many of those 120 million lives that have been saved by smallpox eradication would have therefore have been saved anyway. But there would probably have been a considerable delay in the smallpox eradication campaign. Suppose, therefore, that Zhdanov moved forward the eradication of smallpox by a decade. If so, then he alone prevented between 10 and 20 million deaths – about as much as if he’d achieved three decades of world peace. p.69

 

We don’t usually think of achievements in term of what would have happened otherwise, but we should.

What matters is not who does good but whether good is done; and the measure of how much good you achieve is the difference between what happens as a result of your actions and what would have happened anyway. p.70

 

The good I do is not a matter of the direct benefits I cause. Rather, is the difference I make. p.70

 

Our default attitude should be that, if a social program is going to be rolled out on a large scale, then it should have been proven to be effective first. p.74

 

Earning to give means exactly what it sounds like: rather than trying to maximise the direct impact you have with your job, you instead try to increase your earnings so you can donate more, improving people’s lives through your giving rather than your day-to-day work. […] Time and money are normally interchangeable – money can pay for people’s time, and your time can be used o earn money – so there’s no reason to assume the best careers are only those that benefit people directly through the work itself.

If we are serious about doing good, earning to give is a path we should consider. p.76

Earning to give probably makes the biggest difference, unless yo are some sort of a genius and discover good practices that no one would have never known about.

 


 

 

Why voting is like donating thousands of dollars to charity

 

We shouldn’t dismiss more speculative or high-risk activities out of hand, […] because when successful, they can have an enormous impact.

We therefore need a way to compare higher-risk but higher-upside actions with actions that are certain to have an impact.

Within economics and decision theory the standard way to do this is to look at an action’s expected value. p.80

 

Thinking explicitly about expected value is important because humans are often terrible at assessing lo-probability high-value events. Psychologists have found that people ether give too much weight to low-probability events (as, perhaps, when people choose to play the lottery), or they simply ignore them all together. p.83

When trying to do good, we need to be sensitive both to the likelihood of success and to the value of that success.

This means that low-probability high-payoff activities can take priority over sure bets of more modest impact. It also shows that people are often confused when they say that “one person can’t make a difference.” p.84

 

On many issues, I find that people hold the following two views:

  • If many people did this thing, then change would happen.

  • But any individual person doesn’t make a difference.

Holding that combination of views is usually a mistake when we consider expected value. p.87

 

If you decline to buy some chicken breast, then most f the time you’ll make no difference: the supermarket will buy the same amount of chicken in the future. Sometimes, however, you will make a difference. Occasionally, the manager of he store will assess the number of chicken breasts bought by consumers and decide to decrease their intake of stock, even thought they wouldn’t have done so had the number of chicken breasts bought been one higher. (Perhaps they follow a rule like: “If fewer than five thousand chicken breasts were bought this month, decrease stock intake.”)

This isn’t just a theoretical argument. Economists have studied this issue and worked out how, on average, a consumer affects the number of animal products supplied by declining to buy that product. They estimate that, on average, if you give up one egg, total production ultimately falls by 0.91 eggs; if you give up one gallon on milk, total production ultimately falls by 0.56 gallons. p.88

The same reasoning can be applied when considering the value of participating in political rallies. p.89

 

For our purposes, the most important use of expected value reasoning is in comparing concrete, measurable ways of doing good with more speculative but potentially higher-payoff strategies. p.89

 

As well as assessing careers, the concept of expected value can be used to assess efforts to effect political change. Donating to highly effective charities provides a comparatively concrete, reliable and measurable way of doing good. But the potential gains of systemic change are even greater: if you can find the right area, funding or participating in political campaigns could potentially do even more good.

The point is simply that long shots can be worth it if the payoff is big enough.

When assessing a potential course of action, one should therefore not dismiss it as ineffective by saying “that’ll never happen”. p.94

 

Even if scientists had not already shown that man-made climate change is happening, the mere fact that man-made climate change might be happening is enough to warrant action. p.95

 

Just as most of the value from aid programs comes from the best aid programs, it’s often the case that most of the expected harm from disaster come from the very worst disasters. p.98

 


 

 

Overhead costs, CEO pay, and other confusions

 

One popular way of evaluating a charity is to look at financial information regarding how the charity spends it money. How much does the charity spend on administration? How much is its CEO paid? What percentage of donations are put directly to the charity’s main program? p.105

You certainly wouldn’t think about how much Apple and Microsoft each spend on administration, and you wouldn’t think about how much their respective CEOs are paid. Why would you? As a consumer you only care about the product you get with the money you spend.

If we don’t care about financial information when we buy products for ourselves, why should we care about financial information when we buy products for other people? p.107

 

Here are the five questions I think every donor should ask before deciding where to give. They are based on the criteria used by the charity evaluator GiveWell.

  • What does this charity do? How many different types of programs does it run? For each of these programs, what exactly is it that this charity does? If it runs more than one program, why is that?
  • How cost-effective is each program area? Is the charity focused on one of the most important causes? How cost-effective does the evidence suggest the program to be?
  • How robust is the evidence behind each program? What is the evidence behind the programs that the charity runs? Are there trials showing that the program is effective? Does the charity rigorously monitor and evaluate the success of its programs?
  • How well is each program implemented? Do the leaders of the charity have demonstrated success in other areas? Is the charity highly transparent? Does it acknowledge mistakes that has made in the past? What are the alternative charities you should give to? Are there good reasons for supposing that this charity is better than others?
  • Does the charity need additional funds? What would additional funding be used to do? Why haven’t other donors already funded the charity to the point it can’t use extra money? p.109

 

Because cash transfers is such a simple program, and because the evidence in favour of them is so robust, we could think about them as like the “index funds” of giving. […]

It’s only worth it to donate to charitable programs rather than simply transfer cash directly to the poor if the other programs provide a benefit great enough to outweigh the additional costs incurred in implementing them. p.115

 

This is a common difficulty we face when trying to do good: When should you pursue an activity with more robust evidence of more limited impact, versus an activity with much weaker evidence of potentially much greater impact? p.119

 


 

 

The moral case for sweatshop goods

 

Those who protest sweatshops by refusing to buy goods produced in them are making [the] mistake of failing to consider what would happen otherwise. […]

In developing countries, sweatshop jobs are the good jobs. p.130

Because sweatshops are good for poor countries, if we boycott them we make people in poor countries worse off. p.131

 

If we’re thinking about buying fair-trade ourselves, we need to ask how much we’re actually benefitting people in poor countries by shelling out a few extra dollars for fair-trade versus regular coffee. The evidence suggests that the answer is “disappointingly little”. This is for three reasons.

First, when you buy fair-trade, you usually aren’t giving money to the poorest people in the world. Fair-trade standards are difficult to meet, which means that those in the poorest countries typically can’t afford to get Fairtrade certification. […] We saw how fast money diminishes in value and how extreme global inequality is. That means that even if buying fair-trade was a good way of paying farmers more, you might make a bigger difference by buying non-fair-trade goods that are produced in the poorest countries rather than fair-trade goods that are produced in richer countries. p.133

Second, of the additional money that is spent on fair-trade, only a very small portion ends up in the hands of the farmers who earn that money. Middlemen take the rest. […]

Finally, even the small fraction that ultimately reaches the producers does not necessarily translate into higher wages. It guarantees a higher price for goods from Fairtrade-certified organisations, but that higher price don’t guarantee a higher price for the farmers who work for those organisations. p.134

Though the evidence is limited (which is itself worrying), the consistent finding among the the studies that have been performed is that

Fairtrade certification does not improve the lives of agricultural workers. p.135

 

Similarly, the focus on buying locally produced goods is overhyped: only 10 percent of the carbon footprint of food comes from transportation, whereas 80 percent comes from production, so what type of food you buy is much more important than whether that old is produced locally or internationally.

Cutting out red meat and dairy for one day a week achieves a greater reduction in your carbon footprint than buying entirely locally based food. p.136

 

The most effective ways to cut down your emissions are to reduce your intake of meat (especially beef), […] to reduce the amount you travel, […] and to use less electricity and gas in the home. p.136

However, there is an even more effective way to reduce your emissions. It’s called offsetting:

rather than reducing your own greenhouse gas emissions, you pay for projects that reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. p.137

Cool Earth is claimed to be the most effective charity in the offsetting field. Check them out!

 

If you care about animal suffering, yo should certainly alter your diet, either by cutting out the most harmful products (at least eggs, chicken and pork), or by becoming vegetarian or vegan. However, there is no reason to stop there.

In terms of making a difference to the lives of animals, the impact you can have through your donations seems even greater than the impact you can have by changing your own behaviour.

According to Animal Charity Evaluators, […] by donating to charities like Mercy For Animals on the Humane League, which distributes leaflets on vegetarianism, it costs about one hundred dollars to convince one person to stop eating meat for one year. p.143

On reflection, we should expect it to be this way.

By donating, you can ensure that your money is spent only on the most effective activities.

Given the difference between the best activities and merely very good activities, this is a big deal. In contrast, spending more in order to buy more “ethical” produce is not a very targeted way of doing good.

Things may even be worse than that, however.

There’s some reason to think that the rise in ethical consumerism could even be harmful for the world, on balance.

Psychologists have discovered a phenomenon that they call moral licensing, which describes how people who perform one good action often compensate by doing fewer good actions in the future. p.144

Amazingly, even just saying you’d do something good can cause the moral licensing effect. p.145

 

Moral licensing shows that people are often more concerned about looking good or feeling good rather than actually doing good. […]

If we encourage people to do a small action but frame the request a s a first step toward a larger commitment, then the moral licensing effect may not occur.

Where it becomes crucial, however, is when people are encouraged to do fairly ineffective acts of altruism and, as a result, are less likely to perform effective ones later. p.145

 


 

Don’t “Follow your passion”

 

For the large majority of people who don’t have work-related passions, the advice to “follow your passion” might merely prompt anxious soul-searching and send them into the wrong careers. p.150

 

Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work, which can be broken down into five factors:

  1. Independence – To what extent do you have control over how you go about your work?
  2. Sense of completion – To what extent does the job involve completing a whole piece of work so that your contribution to the end product is easily visible, rather than being merely a small part of a much larger product?
  3. Variety – To which extent does the job require you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents?
  4. Feedback from the job – How easy is it to know whether you’re performing well or badly?
  5. Contribution – To what extent does your work “make a difference”, as defined by positive contributions to the well-being of other people? p.151

 

The evidence therefore suggests that following your passion is a poor way to determine whether a given career path will make you happy. Rather,

passion grows out of work that has the right features. p.152

 

What about following your heart, your gut, or your itch to find work you love? The evidence suggests that won’t work, either, since we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy. p.152

 

In general, we recommend people think of three primary routes by which they can have impact on the job. The first is through the labor you provide. […] The second is the money you can give. The third is the influence you can have on other people.

Next, you need to assess how effective the causes or organisations to which you can direct these resources are.

The fourth and most important reason why “work in the social sector” might be bad advice is that if you are just starting out, it’s much more important to build skills and credentials than it is to have an impact on the job. p.156

Spending a few years building your abilities now, therefore, can pay off with increased impact over a much longer period. In addition, the most senior people within a field generally have a disproportionate amount of influence and impact within that field. p.157

 

Think of career decisions like an entrepreneur would think about starting a company.

In both career choice and entrepreneurship, you start out with a tiny amount of relevant information, but you have to use that information to cope with a huge number of variables. Moreover, as things progress, these variables shift: you are constantly gaining new information; ad new, often entirely unexpected, opportunities and problems arise. Because of this, armchair reasoning about what will and won’t happen isn’t very useful. p.159

 

Think like a scientist, testing hypothesis.

First, […] think of your career as a work in progress. […] It’s better to have a bad plan than no plan, but only if you are open to changing it.

Second, find out where you’re uncertain, then reduce that uncertainty. […] Ask yourself: What is the single most important piece of information that would be most useful for my career decision? Now, what can I do in order to gain that information?

Third, test yourself in different paths. p.160

 

One way in which you can asses whether an organization is money-constrained or talent-constrained is simply to ask the organization if they would prefer you donate to them or work for them. p.162

 

In general, jobs that require social skills (like public relations), creativity (like fashion design), or precise perception and manipulation (like boilermaking) are the least likely to become automated. Jobs that require physical proximity or high levels of training are also unlikely to be outsourced. p.165

 

If the beneficiaries of your action don’t participate fully in markets and aren’t governed by a well-functioning state, then there is a clear need for philanthropy. p.169

Properly-working markets already provide people the right opportunities to scale the social rankings. Well functioning states already have in place major welfare policies for allotting resources to people in financial need.

 

Like innovative entrepreneurship, research is an area that is drastically undersupplied by the market because the benefits are open to everyone, and because much of the benefit of research occurs decades into the future. Governments try to fix this problem to some extent through state-funded research, but academic research is very often not as high-impact as it could be – the incentive facing many academics is work on the most theoretically interesting questions rather than the most socially important questions. This means that, by deliberately pursuing research that has a large impact, one could make a significant difference that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. p.172

One good way to have impact within research is to combine fields.

[…] Research at the intersection of two disciplines is often particularly neglected and can for that reason be very high-impact. p.173

 

As a volunteer, you re often not trained in the area in which you are helping, which means the benefit you provide might be limited. At the same time, you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you are volunteering for. […] This means

you should try to volunteer only in ways that cost an organization relatively little. p.175

However, you don’t need to limit yourself to this. Instead, I’d encourage you to think about volunteering primarily in terms of the skills and experiences you’ll gain, which will enable you to have a greater impact later in your life. Because the total time you spend volunteering will be only a tiny fraction of the total time you spend on your career,

the impact volunteering has on other areas of your life will generally be much greater than the impact you have via the volunteering itself. p.176

It might feel a little odd to volunteer simply because it benefits you, but I think that, as long as you think of volunteering as the first step toward generally moving your life in the direction of making a difference, there’s nothing problematic about this. p.176

 


 

 

Poverty versus climate change versus…

 

On the framework I propose, you can compare causes by assessing them on how well they do on each of the following three dimensions:

  • scale. What’s the magnitude of this problem? How much does it affect lives in the short run and long run?
  • neglectedness. How many resources are already being dedicated to tackle this problem? Ho well allocated are the resources that are currently being educated to the problem? Is there reason to expect this problem can’t be solved by markets or governments?
  • tractability. How easy is it to make progress on this problem, and how easy is it to tell if you’re making progress? Do interventions within the cause exist, and how strong is the evidence behind those interventions? Do you expect to be able to discover new promising interventions within this cause?

If we are thinking about contributions of time rather than just money, then there is a fourth important dimension:

  • personal fit. Given your skills, resources, knowledge, connections, and passions, how likely are you to make a large difference in this area? p.181

 

All other things being equal, the larger the problem, the higher priority the cause should be. p.181

 

The scale of a problem also determines how long we should expect the problem to persist. […] If the problem is very big, then it will take a large amount of resources before the most effective opportunities are used up. p.182

 

Even if a problem is hugely important and highly neglected, that doesn’t mean it’s an important cause to focus on. There might simply be very little we can do about it. p.182

 

Because of diminishing returns, all things being equal,

the more resources that have been invested in a specific cause, the more difficult it will be to make progress within that cause with a given amount of resources, because typically many of the most cost-effective opportunities will have already been taken. p.183

The causes we hear the most about are precisely those where it will be harder to make a big difference; the causes that get less attention are those where we may be able to have a massive impact. p.184