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This is a Draft Amnesty Week draft. It may not be polished, up to my usual standards, fully thought through, or fully fact-checked. 

Commenting and feedback guidelines: 

This post had been sitting in my drafts for a while. It definitely wouldn't be posted without Draft Amnesty. Sections II and III were written pretty hastily to get this out. But feel free to give any kind of feedback/ ask further questions. 

When you take it on yourself to become a good person, the kind of person who listens to the call of morality and takes it seriously—the reality can be overwhelming. I’m especially thinking of consequentialism, which asks us to consider how we could do the most good with our lives. This means a constant process of analysis and readjustment, an awareness that you will forever be falling short. Many other moral systems and religions have this feature, perpetually pushing their acolytes uphill. This push is forceful, and at some point, the question arises ‘when should I dig in my heels?’ Unfortunately, by its very nature, your morality won’t have an answer to this question. 

This is a very real question for people in the effective altruism community. If you take the (broadly consequentialist) philosophy of effective altruism seriously, you become aware that if you pushed yourself, you could help many, many people. If you pushed other values and dreams to the side, you might be able to climb even further up the hill. This moral hill is not one that crests in self-actualisation or a good life for yourself. It has no peak, but for every step, someone, some being, will be spared from suffering, or allowed to live where they otherwise would die. How can you justify slowing down because you are tired, because you want to build a family, or because you have talents you want to pursue which won’t help you advance? 

Julia Wise writes in a blog post that we can think of our goals as different buckets. She calls her moral bucket her ‘efficiency bucket’. She puts a certain, sizable chunk of her time and resources into this bucket. In her ‘personal satisfaction bucket’ she puts the money and time it takes to go for coffee with her friend, but also to donate to the friend’s sick uncle’s fundraiser. The bucket analogy has been useful to effective altruists, the metaphor is often used in conversation. But Wise’s post doesn’t exactly answer the pressing question. She titles the post ‘you have more than one goal and that’s okay’, but ends with the sentence ‘If you also have a goal of improving the world as much as you can, decide how much time and money you want to allocate to that goal, and try to use that as effectively as you can [my emphasis]’ Linger on ‘How much [...] you want to’. If (like Wise, who felt compelled to write this post) you feel your morality pushing you up the hill, what role does what you want have in how far you climb? 

In her popular paper, Moral Saints, the philosopher Susan Wolf argues that we shouldn’t keep climbing the hill– that we should restrain ourselves. She claims that not to do so would be irrational, undesirable, and perhaps even wrong. She does this by forcing us to look at the top of the hill, at the image of the moral saint, the person who has reached the crest. If we see where we are going and realise that when we get there, we won’t be the people we want to be, then perhaps we will see that morality shouldn’t be our only source of aspiration. 

If we buy the idea that moral reasons call to be dominant over other reasons, then the moral saint is a valuable concept. When you are deciding what to do, and which reasons to follow, you are already playing a normative, and hence all too easily moral game. If you care about morality, you’re fighting a losing battle if you try to resist them. As mentioned above, how can we hold what we want or merely prefer up against what is right or good? Other reasons pale. If this is true then the Moral Saint becomes an important concept. The moral saint shows where the lines of the moral reasons converge, and they may, if they are sufficiently undesirable, give you reason to resist the pressure. 

I- The Utilitarian Moral Saint

Perhaps Wolf’s best portrait of a moral saint is the utilitarian. Wolf’s critical picture follows the time-worn path or criticises the utilitarian for promoting an ideal that is intractably or repulsively inhuman. But unlike some other critiques, which push only a little and then declare victory over the utilitarian, Wolf (with the help of the moral saint concept) gets to the dialectical end zone. 


UTILITARIAN: The utilitarian would always do the best thing that they could possibly do, based on the information and resources they have access to. What could be wrong with that?

CRITIC: If they do that, they won’t seem human. They won’t be trustworthy because you would know they may lie to you if the world would benefit from it, they won’t keep promises when they can get more utility elsewhere. They couldn’t be part of friendships or romantic relationships because they would only value them for their utility. 

UTILITARIAN: Ah! But they will need to get on with people to do good work. They will act as if they value friendships and romantic relationships to a degree. 

CRITIC: To a degree? That isn’t enough. Humans value these things unreservedly, that is what it is to love, or to really value something. 

UTILITARIAN: Alright. Suppose I take it to be true that to be human we must value unreservedly in this way, even when it competes with morality. Then I’d allow that the moral saint would do so too, and, to an extent perhaps less than the non-saint, would act on it, prioritising their relationships and any other unavoidable values. To resist them would be to make them less effective at producing utility, so there is no contradiction here. 

CRITIC: Maybe in our current world. But what if we develop technologies, like meditation methods, or brain surgery, that could remove these values from the utilitarian saint? Shouldn’t they jump at the opportunity to have the surgery?

UTILITARIAN: Yes. You’re right that they should. Whether they would, depends on how strong those non-moral values are. 

I call this final point the dialectical endzone because most responses to this kind of critique of the utilitarian end at the previous stage. The utilitarian generally concedes to the critic that a real-life utilitarian would have to value things other than impartial good. This is analogous to the point that Julia Wise’s post ends with, that it is okay to want other things (this is advice humans need to hear). But this dialogue shows that the utilitarian moral saint, the utilitarian who takes their morality most seriously, would end up with the imperative to rid themselves of their non-moral values. 

If they couldn’t bring themselves too, those values would still be regrettable. Wolf thinks this is the most damning aspect of her critique, because to value something, she believes, you must value it unreservedly. 

II- non-moral values

From now on this is going to get a bit draft-ier. I don’t have time to reread the relevant papers, and these are the parts which have been left undrafted for months. I’m using draft-amnesty to free myself of these constraints. Bear that in mind. 

Why are unreserved valuations of non-moral goods so important? Why can’t we just value family, our hobbies, beauty in the world etc… because they make us happy, and because that happiness is necessary for a life which leads us to doing the most good that we can? 

One, characteristically glib response is Bernard Williams’ ‘one reason too many’ argument. He asks us to imagine a man who has to choose between saving his wife or a stranger from drowning. If asked to give a reason for why he saved his wife rather than the stranger, it wouldn’t be acceptable for him to say “because it would make me happier”, or “because I know she enjoys her life more than average” or even “because I would be guilty if she died”. The acceptable answer, to Williams, is something more like “because she is my wife, because she is her, because I love her”. To give another answer would be to give “one thought too many” to the decision. 

A consequentialist moral saint must always be giving “one thought too many” to all of the things which they value apart from their moral ends. If they continue to value them, they don’t value them, don’t truly love them, if the value always rests on a separate moral end, and might be cut off, or devalued, if that end takes precedent. 

I mention ‘love’ here because of the influence of Iris Murdoch, a philosopher who cares deeply about morality, but also incorporates many non-moral values into her picture of the world. She writes a lot about perception, about acts of perception which cut through our “fat relentless egos” and let us see with clarity. Some examples:

  • She writes a vignette about someone who is caught up in personal troubles and obsessions, ignoring the world around them. Then, the person looks up and sees a Kite (bird) circling above. The beauty of the kite cuts through, and they are taken up with it, the churning of their ego is halted. 
  • When we learn a language, we come into contact with something which is solid, and outside of ourselves. We can be wrong, we can come to know it, but it isn’t in us.
  • She asks us to imagine a mother in law, M, and a daughter in law, D. M thinks of D as not worthy of marrying her son, as simple, and frivolous. Then, after D moves away, never to return, after the mother has no hope of seeing her again, she looks at the situation with more love, more clarity, and sees that truthfully, D is a good person. Murdoch thinks that a valuable moral transformation has happened here, even if it is completely unconnected (by hypothesis) from any rectifying action that M could make. 

These points might seem a bit unrelated. But they helped evoke, to me, the idea that there are non-moral values other than the impartial good. That there are times when we can perceive something as being valuable, for its own sake. 

III- No solution

Solving the problem of this post would be to tell us how to split our resources between our efficiency buckets (broadly, our consequentialism) and our other non-moral values. But, as far as I’ve realised, there is no grounded solution. 

If we let all our values be subordinated to morality, then we cannot value them in a pure way. We will always have one thought too many, we won’t be able to perceive them with clarity. 

But how can we not allow our other values to be subordinated to morality? I can’t think of a principled way. 

Wolf’s own solution is a non-solution. She clearly struggles to find a satisfactory answer to the question “If we shouldn’t be a moral saint, then how far should we take morality?” She ends by advancing the idea that we should think non-hierarchically, i.e. not put one value over others. An idea which, if followed, would up-end her whole argument and way of thinking, and ignore the trade-offs which motivate the essay. 

Ultimately, this might not be a problem for us. We are in fact humans who have many values, and currently, we can’t help that. Perhaps we should just reflect and decide how much we want to allocate to each bucket. But, without some more principled solution, this will always be an uneasy compromise. 






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Executive summary: There is no principled way to balance the demands of morality against other values we hold, leaving us with an uneasy compromise in how we allocate our resources between them.

Key points:

  1. Consequentialist morality can demand ever more from us, with no clear stopping point. Effective altruists feel this acutely.
  2. The concept of a "moral saint" who pursues morality to the exclusion of other values illustrates the undesirability of taking morality to its logical conclusion.
  3. A true utilitarian saint would want to rid themselves of competing non-moral values if possible, which seems to undermine the authenticity of those values.
  4. There are important non-moral values, like love and beauty, that we perceive as intrinsically valuable, not just instrumentally useful for morality.
  5. The author sees no principled solution for how to balance moral and non-moral values, leaving only an uneasy, unprincipled compromise.



This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

Thanks SummaryBot! Looks good to me :)

I'm glad you posted this! I like it :) 

I hadn't heard of the moral saint thought experiment or the "one reason too many"—both of these are interesting.

I think this problem is just a special case of the complexity of life, in the sense of having multiple goals and even multiple available actions for almost any particular goal.

However, there might be a way to conceptually simplify this problem. If long-term thinking about all the buckets is too demanding, why not think short-term, using a simple algorithm that will still produce long-term work? Such as this:

  1. Detect the most important thing you can do right now.
  2. Make a move in that direction, however small.
  3. Go back to step 1.

Of course, step 1 is vague - what is the most important thing right now? - but many little tasks and opportunities will naturally present itself. It will often be something very mundane, like "it's really time to clean this desk", and sometimes it might involve spending money on a hedonistic pleasure if you intuitively judge it to be worthwhile. You don't have to think each and every time - that would be exhausting and counter-productive. But, crucially, sometimes you will think, which will enable you to do long-term moral things that you might otherwise neglect. Of course, the best balance remains unknown, but the algorithm might satisfy the meta-balance of not being too demanding of oneself while still doing a lot of good.

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