Adam Gurri’s piece on rejecting what he calls “Telescopic morality” (also see here and here) has been on my mind a lot lately. I happened to come across this writing at a time when life was already forcing a near-mode orientation onto me (so on the outside view, this philosophy is rather self-serving). I will join in calling the philosophical/practical orientation under discussion “vulgar morality”.
What does it entail? In a nutshell: your ethical life would improve if you focussed your attention on local (i.e., close to you in time/space/relationship) & concrete questions, at the expense of global & abstract questions.
- Study basic personal finance before debating macroeconomics.
- Join your condo board and change their pet policy before weighing in on geopolitics.
- Help out a relative with their leaky toilet before trying to solve The Middle East.
- Get out of the habit of snapping at your spouse before pontificating about optimal gender relations.
- Make something someone is actually willing to pay you for, before saving the world for free.
One obvious question is: why does this even need to be said? People don’t usually need reminders to be partial to their own interests & those of their family. I am not sure of the answer, although part of it must be that whenever people go into ultra-far mode, politics is usually involved, and politics is catnip for chimps . Also, expensive knowledge about abstract, global issues is the way people of a certain upbringing signal their intelligence and righteousness to each other. Gurri thinks that there is something pathological in all of this.
Obviously, I am very sympathetic. What interests me today is what can be said against this view.
Objection #1: “Vulgar morality” is just another weapon to whack political opponents over the head with. (Compare “confirmation bias”, of which about 8/10 tokens are garden-variety hackery.) Thus the usual special pleading formula: he is a ridiculous telescopic moralist; you should focus on local issues; I have a special connection with Ukraine. If you are to avoid this charge, I had better not catch you opining on the same global, distant, abstract issues you chide others for talking about.
Objection #2: There aren’t really any significant attention tradeoffs here. Reading Paul Krugman’s blog doesn’t prevent me from learning about index funds or budgeting. I do the former out of sheer interest, and it’s perfectly fine for people to have interests that are “far mode” (anyway, could anything possibly be *more* far-mode than theorizing about far mode and near mode?). Those who don’t have any such interests are sometimes called “parochial” or “ignorant”, and in my experience they are rather boring.
Objection #3: In practice, this idea counsels defection in various important social coordination games. For example, the surveillance state creeps into our lives more and more because few have a concentrated, salient interest in opposing it. But given the small impact of surveillance on you, and the expected small impact at the margin of making your voice heard, inaction is rational by the lights of “vulgar morality”. This is just another name for disengagement with important issues, in favour of unapologetic selfishness and short-run orientation (all this talk of “family, friends and community” sounds like a whitewash).
Objection #4: So-called telescopic morality is actually underrated. Part of the reason for this is that the local problems of rich, educated westerners are really expensive to improve (despite better local knowledge etc.) as compared with many “telescopic” causes. For example, GiveWell gave the expected cost per death averted for the Against Malaria Foundation in 2012 as approximately $2300. The same sum spent in the developed world would probably not buy so much low-hanging fruit (I invite you to consider how much money it would take to accomplish something really significant in your life or that of a relative or friend). Telescopic morality is leveraged by differences in marginal utility into something that can be quite powerful.
Can you think of any other unique objections to the vulgar morality/local ethics/bourgeois virtue framework?
As an aside, it appears Rev is about to discuss roughly the same topic. Sorry for budging.