Wholehearted choices and “morality as taxes”
Last updated: 12.14.2020
Published: 12.12.2020

Wholehearted choices and “morality as taxes”

In Peter Singer’s classic thought experiment, you can save a drowning child, but only by ruining your clothes. Singer’s argument is that (a) you’re obligated to save the child, and that (b) many modern humans are in a morally analogous relationship to the world’s needy. (Note that on GiveWell’s numbers, the clothes in question need to cost thousands of dollars; but the numbers aren’t my point at present).

I was first exposed to arguments like this in high school, and they left a lasting impression on me, as they do on many. But I also think they tend to leave some people with a reluctant, defensive, and quasi-adversarial relationship to the omnipresence of Singerian decisions of this kind, once this omnipresence is made clear. See, for example, the large literature on moral “demandingness,” which focuses heavily on the question of what costs you “have” to pay to help others, and what you are “allowed” not to pay.

Morality, in this conception, is sort of like taxes; it invades your personal domain — the place where you make choices based on what you want and care about — and then takes some amount of stuff for its own ends. One hopes it isn’t too much; one wonders how little one can get away with paying, without breaking “the rules.”

I’m not going to evaluate this conception directly here. But here’s a version of Singer’s thought experiment that I sometimes imagine, which lands in a different register in my mind (your mileage may vary).

Suppose that I am setting off to walk in the forest on a crisp fall afternoon — something I’ve been looking forward to all week. As I near the forest, I notice, far away, what looks like some sort of commotion down by the river, off of my walking route, though I can’t see very clearly. I consider going to see what’s going on, but the light is fading, so I decide to continue on my way.

I learn later that while I was walking, a man in his early forties drowned in that river. He was pinned under some sort of machinery. Five other people were there, including his wife and son, but they weren’t strong enough to lift the machinery by themselves. One extra person might have made the difference.

(Here I try to imagine vividly what it was like trying to save him — his wife desperate, weeping, pulling at him, his own eyes frantic, the fear and chaos, the eventual despair– and the pain of his absence afterwards; and the counterfactual world in which instead, another person arrived in time to help, and he lives.)

The intuition this pumps for me is: I wish I’d gone to the river. Importantly, though, at least for me, the case leaves the focus of attention on the drowned man himself, and the clear sense in which a beautiful walk would be worth trading, cancelling, disappearing, to grant him multiple decades of life, and his family multiple decades of time together. The question of whether my choice to continue walking was wrong, though not entirely absent, is less salient. That is, for me (at least as a thought experiment — who knows how I’d feel if something like this really happened), the case touches most centrally into a feeling of regret, rather than guilt. I wish I could go back, and create a world where I had one fewer beautiful walk, and he lived.

Really, the cases here aren’t very different. But I like the way this one feels less oriented towards, as it were, calling someone an asshole (which isn’t to say that it’s not possible to be an asshole), even though it still makes a specific choice and trade-off salient. I think this avoids triggering some defenses around fearing reproach and wrongdoing, and hones in on the values that animate regret, sadness, and a desire to make things better. As a result, the emotional reaction feels to me somehow more wholehearted and internal. In weighing the walk vs. his life, I’m not asking whether or not I “have” to give up the walk, or whether I am allowed” to keep it. I want to give it up; I wish I could; the choice feels clear, and continuous with other choices I make in weighing what matters to me most.

(I also like this version because it’s clearer and more immediate to me how I value long walks on fall afternoons than it is how I value e.g. money. Indeed, the fact that walks are a substantively meaningful good in my life — as opposed to something with stronger connotations of shallowness and frivolity, like an expensive suit — also makes me feel more like I’m in connection with the fact that giving it up is a genuine loss — albeit, a clearly worthwhile one.)

Notice the possibility, on a “morality as taxes” approach, of being glad that e.g. you weren’t able to see more clearly what was happening at the river. For perhaps, if it was clear to you that a man was drowning, then this would’ve triggered an obligation to give up your walk, and you would’ve “had” to do it, on pain of having been bad, wrong, worthy of reproach, etc. That is, on this view, what you care about is the walk; but sometimes, unfortunately for you, morality demands that you give up what you care about. You may well obey dutifully in such situations; but from the perspective of what you care about, you’re glad to avoid encounters with morality. And indeed, since morality is partly a matter of how you act in response to what you believe is happening, or to what is salient to you, you’re incentivized, subtly or not-so-subtly, to avoid forming certain kinds of beliefs, or making certain kinds of things salient. Thus a pull towards self-deception (though of course, self-deception in these respects will be condemned by morality as well).

None of this is particularly new (see, for example, Nate Soares on harmful uses of “should”; and comments from various effective altruists who prefer to avoid Singerian “obligation” framings of altruism). And there’s much more to say. In particular, I’m not here claiming that a conception of morality as something in some sense external to or constraining of what you care about is without basis, or that more wholehearted approaches resolve all questions about demandingness. But the difference between wholehearted approaches to Singerian decision-making and “morality as taxes” approaches is an important one in my world, and I try, where possible, to stay rooted in the former.