#14) Peter Singer on Effective Altruism

singerPeter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, is perhaps the world’s foremost ethicist. He is recognized as the intellectual father of the Animal Liberation movement, and for his advocacy of effective altruism – the idea that people are morally obligated to maximize the impact of their charitable giving. This week we consider a pair of his more recent books, The Life You Can Save (2009) and The Most Good You Can Do (2015).

Eric:

On the second day of each semester I have my public speaking students read Peter Singer’s essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Many of them are in their first year of college, so the timing seems right to challenge their assumptions about what it means to be a good citizen, how we ought to relate to our fellow human beings, and what goals we should set for how we apportion the money we make.

Generally they hate both it and him from the start, and we begin the course with some spirited conversation.

Basically Singer argues that, in order to be ethical, we should be doing the most possible good for the greatest possible number of suffering people, right up to the point where doing any more would create a comparable suffering in ourselves and our families. We can do this by minimizing our expenses and maximizing our donations to reputable relief organizations. Doing so would require a total reorientation of our lives and our priorities and a complete reevaluation of personal success.

For these reasons and more, practically nobody does it.

But Singer’s ethical case for such a life is really strong, and though the students tend to react defensively to his claims, they struggle to persuasively counter them. To me, that’s what makes for a great read. I love it for all the reasons they hate it.

In recent years Singer has expanded upon his initial argument in many books, including The Life You Can Save (2009) and The Most Good You Can Do (2015). Always interested in arguments about better living and better life, I like these books a lot. And I have access to you, my friend, who actually know Peter Singer and have been able to discuss the ideas with the man himself. So tell me, first, what’s your take on effective altruism?

Matt:

I like Peter Singer a lot – he’s a good teacher, a sweet and humble man, and a genuinely caring public figure. His arguments and advocacy have done a lot of good in the world. He’s encouraged a huge number of relatively privileged people to reorient their lives toward giving and sharing, effectively channeling enormous amounts of humanitarian aid to the people who need it most. It seems like a great thing for everyone involved.

That said, I think his utilitarian case is ultimately unfounded. As best I can tell, he thinks we are obligated to relieve as much suffering as we possibly can (until, as you pointed out, doing so creates more). Why? Where does this obligation come from?

I once saw an exchange between Singer and Kwame Anthony Appiah that put Singer’s ethic in a new light for me. Appiah was giving a lecture on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and Singer asked a question from the audience, suggesting that utilitarianism was the most coherent way to make sense of Mill’s claims. Appiah responded with something very much like, “But there are lots of different types of goods.”

I think Singer believes you can ultimately boil all ethical decision-making down to calculations of pleasure and pain (or some semi-equivalents). When you do so, you can make direct comparisons between all possible courses of action and, if you have enough information, choose the best.

But I agree with Appiah – there are lots of different good things in life, and they aren’t all commensurable (much less measurable). Giving to an aid organization to relieve malaria is great. But so is taking your lover out for an ice cream.

A related point: utilitarianism undermines individuality. In many of its guises (including Singer’s, as I understand it), it suggests that we all have the same (or very similar) ethical roles to play. But each of us is different, with different life trajectories and talents and contributions to make. And I tend to think that we’ll be the best versions of ourselves – and perhaps do the most good in the world – if we allow ourselves to be who we really are.

I’m not sure about that last claim. Perhaps it’s just wishful. But I know this – it doesn’t feel dutiful, and that seems like a good thing to me.

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#13) Dave Eggers’ The Circle and Heroes of the Frontier

heroesDave Eggers is the author of ten novels, four short story collections, five works of nonfiction, and three screenplays. His titles include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), What is the What (2006), and both novel and film versions of Where the Wild Things Are (2009).  He is the editorial mind behind The Believer and McSweeney’s. This week we consider two of his more recent novels, The Circle (2013) and Heroes of the Frontier (2016).

Matt:

Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier is about what happens when you try to get away from society. It centers on Josie, a (kind of) single mom who leaves behind her dental practice, takes her kids to Alaska, rents an RV, and drives around avoiding wildfires and flirting with total isolation.

Eggers’ The Circle is about what happens when you give yourself over to society completely. It centers on Mae, an employee at a Google-type company that insists on constant “engagement” and online interaction (“Sharing is Caring”; “Privacy is Theft”).

I liked both novels, but The Circle touched me more. It’s in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, but it deals with newer phenomena – the social surveillance (and self-surveillance) we experience on social media. I often feel a ton of discomfort on Facebook, etc., but I feel sheepish about saying so – aren’t these just benign tools for connecting with friends and acquaintances? Aren’t I a little spazzy for feeling so claustrophobic? No, says Eggers. There’s way more going on than that. We aren’t built to interact in these ways, and we make ourselves crazy when we spend too much time trying to.

Eric:

It didn’t really occur to me that the books were opposites until you pointed it out. The one is very much about total escape and the other about total integration. Perhaps appropriately, I had the opposite reaction – Heroes resonated with me much more than Circle. There are some things I can say about that, but maybe it’s more interesting to hear first about your Facebook claustrophobia. What’s up?

Matt:

Facebook feels to me like living inside a pinball machine – except all the flippers and blinking lights and spinning balls are the people you know, and Facebook is shouting at you about all of them, all at once. I feel something similar on YouTube; their suggested videos are so well-curated that I literally lose muscle control – my eyes scan hungrily over each of the thumbnails and headlines, pulled along much faster than I’m capable of processing. I don’t even try to stop myself anymore – I just wait until I’ve looked at all the headlines and then try to rip my eyes from the screen and remember why I was there in the first place.

So maybe I described it wrong. I’m not worried about them surveilling me; I don’t have too many secrets. It’s more that these sites are astonishingly good at stealing my self-awareness from me, at getting me to act much faster than I can reflect.

Eric:

I get that. The Circle speaks to that anxiety, and even more to the ways that social media monitors your tastes and uses that data for market research and customization. Also the inane ubiquity of likes, shares, and follows, among other forms of phony connection. That’s the sort of thing that drove me from Twitter, and the sort of thing that soured me on blogging. Maybe it’s also why I didn’t really enjoy the book. If I find this stuff irritating in daily life, why would I want to subject myself to 500 pages of it?

I think I’d rather free myself from all of it, and maybe move to Alaska. I get the attraction, anyway. I’m surprised you weren’t more into Heroes.

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#12) Thinking About Feeling II: The Conquest of Happiness

russellBertrand Russell was one of the world’s great thinkers. A philosopher, critic, activist, and prolific writer, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He published over seventy books in his lifetime, notably including Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), Marriage and Morals (1929), and A History of Western Philosophy (1945). This week we consider The Conquest of Happiness, Russell’s 1930 meditation on why people tend not to enjoy their lives, and how they can go about fixing that problem.

Eric:

I don’t remember exactly how I heard about Conquest of Happiness, but I think it was either through Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety – which is structured similarly – or through Brain Pickings, which I follow on Facebook. In either case, it came to me via a source that I value for little inspirations.

But Russell’s book is more than a little inspiring. An early forerunner to self-help literature, it covers a wide range of causes – first of unhappiness, then of happiness – and treats them with exactly the sort of wise and gentle humor that only a seasoned thinker can channel with conviction. His purpose, he says, is to suggest a cure for ordinary day-to-day unhappiness.

My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable. I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends. These are matters which lie within the power of the individual, and I propose to suggest the change by which his happiness, given average good fortune, may be achieved. (23-24)

A highly quotable guide to deliberate living, this book makes you think about the things that make you feel the way you do. The 2013 print features an introduction by Daniel Dennett, who highlights the book’s many strengths and a few of its anachronisms.

So that’s the gist. Where to begin?

Matt:

One of the many striking things about this book is how…striking it is. You and I have both read a ton of philosophy, some psychology, and a mess of other stuff that addresses questions about how to live well. And yet, I gather that we were both more impressed and engaged by this little volume than by lots of the Kant, Nietzsche, and Foucault we’ve imbibed over the years.

For me, I think it has something to do with Russell’s straightforwardness. You described his writing really well above – wise, gentle, seasoned. In college, I probably would have found Russell’s style simple to the point of suspicion. I liked my philosophers angry and obscure, because I wanted proof of my own passion and sophistication. Now I just want the goods.

But maybe we can dive into some of his actual diagnoses and prescriptions. What struck you?

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#11) Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels

gileadMarilynne Robinson achieved her first literary success with the novel Housekeeping (1980), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Then more than two decades would elapse before the release of Gilead (2004), which won the Pulitzer. It was followed by Home (2008) and Lila (2014). These three “Gilead novels” follow the interior lives of three separate characters as they interact with each other contemporaneously in the mid-20th century town of Gilead, Iowa.

Eric:

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels are not action-packed books. They are set in a very small town in a very boring state at a time when there was even less happening there than there would likely be today. And yet I knocked out all three of them in under a week. For me they have the same appeal as John Williams’ Stoner in that they tell a simple story beautifully. I love these books for reasons that are a little difficult to explain and that I don’t expect others to share and that I could ramble about if you let me. But maybe it would be helpful to ration them out.

First, I love the formality of the characters’ faith. There is something very comforting – to me – about a pair of aging preachers like John Ames and Robert Boughton sitting on the porch and speaking to each other about the promise of grace and the nature of perdition. These are men for whom life and afterlife are very serious matters, and by whom nothing is trivialized. Their dialogue is very finely crafted, and whatever stuffiness or sternness they exhibit is tempered by their advanced age. They’re old guys, so they can say what they want.

In Gilead, this good-natured seriousness is heightened by the form of the narrative – the book is one long extended letter from the aging Ames to his young son, written in the belief that death will separate them before they can get to know each other properly. In Home, a similar dynamic frames the relationship between the increasingly decrepit Boughton and his middle-aged prodigal. In Lila both characters appear at their most patient and deferential.

This is the sort of religiosity I remember from childhood, and I remember finding it mostly unbearable at the time. But as an adult it all feels very appropriate. I’m old enough now to recall when my church made the switch from formal chapel services with a man in a suit behind a pulpit to an auditorium setting with a loudmouth in a Hawaiian shirt pacing the stage and sweating. Hymnals were replaced with projected text, organs with worship bands, God the Father with God your Pal. I carried a Bible with lots of loud neon lettering on the cover.

All this to say that, at some point in the 1990s, faith became a little too casual. Though I appreciated it at the time – I was a kid, after all – I can’t say I much care for it anymore. There is something nostalgic about the version practiced by Robinson’s characters. In my agnostic adulthood I’ve become a King James Version kinda man.

Matt:

I feel you – there is something attractive in that formality, in Ames’ and Boughton’s slow, rocking-chair conversations. And when I interpret it all as a knowing game between old friends (the learned references to the Bible, secondary texts, and theological disputes), it all feels pretty cool – a high-minded but purely metaphorical way of talking about human quandaries.

But these characters mean it. They really think there’s a god up there. They think theology is a meaningful process for discerning that god’s will. They think that if an idea appears in the Bible (or Calvin, or wherever), it has extra moral authority.

These beliefs are baseless. Now, if these beliefs were idle, maybe it wouldn’t matter. But Ames and Boughton use these beliefs as tools to deal with the central challenges in their lives. (And as leaders of two of the town’s major congregations, they try to convince everyone else to do so, too.)

The trouble is that the tools aren’t up to the task. Sometimes, in fact, they’re the very source of the tension the characters feel.

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#10) The Campus Novel: Lucky Jim, Stoner, and Wonder Boys

stonerThe college campus is a small and unusual world-within-worlds, abiding by a different sort of conventions and rules and home to an abnormally diverse cast of characters. The students and faculty who live and work in these strange environments provide material to the campus novel, a genre that focuses on their interactions – usually from the faculty perspective. This week we consider three prominent examples – Lucky Jim (1954), Stoner (1965), and Wonder Boys (1995).

Matt:

It’s strange that the “campus novel” genre exists. After all, there’s no such thing as a “farm novel” or a “firehouse novel” or a “military base novel,” even if plenty of novels take place in those settings.

But it makes sense, too: university campuses are weird places, and often worlds unto themselves. At their best, they’re intellectual and scientific laboratories, as well as venues for teaching. But they’re also arenas for the expression of values that don’t get as much respect elsewhere, and even refuges for certain kinds of people. There are thousands of colleges spread all across the United States, and many of them have way more in common with each other than with the towns or cities that surround them.

You work at one of these places, and we just read a spate of campus novels – Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, John Williams’ Stoner, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. What jumped out at you?

Eric:

I don’t think it had occurred to me (prior to your suggestion) that a genre of “campus novels” actually exists. But clearly it does, because the best of lists are readily available.

The reasons are probably intuitive – most authors go to college, they often have formative experiences during their stay, and they come away from this strange, exceptional time of life feeling nostalgic. They may suspect that these were the best or most interesting years they are likely to have, and so feel excited to write about them. Those who succeed will likely be the ones who do so early, before the weight of the world has crushed their ambitions or driven them on to new subject matter.

From there, they may go on to get MFAs, or teach in English departments, and their material may come out of that routine. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about whether creative writing can be taught, or whether creative writing programs are actually making things worse.

There is also a wide variety of plot material on a college campus, ranging from the love- and sex-lives of beautiful people in the prime of their youth to the quirky personalities, enormous egos, and departmental politics of the faculty.

You can find all of this stuff and more in the titles we’ve considered. Lucky Jim and Stoner are largely faculty-focused, but with some romance and scandal, while Wonder Boys has everything for everyone. That one, in particular, gets me. I first came upon it when I was a writerly college student in Pittsburgh. Somehow it seems to me that, as long as that book exists, that version of me will always exist and stand before a dozen possible futures. Which is probably why there’s a genre.

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#9) I Will Follow You Into the Dark – with Jackson Foshay

bloodJackson Foshay is a teacher, writer, and generally excellent dude. In fact, Matt spends a lot of time trying not to think about the ways that Jackson out-mans him. Jackson is 24, and he grew up on a ranch – probably wrangling cattle – in Central California. At UCLA, he wrote short fiction and performed in a rap group called Infinite Influence. They once performed a neighborhood show backed by a full instrumental band, and that shit got shut down by the cops. Checkmate.

Matt:

Jackson and I were talking tonight about Cormac McCarthy and Thom Jones, two of the most consistently dark writers out there. These guys find the depths of human misery and set up shop. I was complaining about that a bit – that sometimes, it feels like they’ve got a thumb on the scales, that they refuse to allow anything good to happen. (Jones especially – I loved some of the stories in The Pugilist at Rest, Cold Snap, and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, but my god does he beat the shit out of his characters.) Anyway, Jackson had a really interesting response; I’ll let him share it.

Jackson:

When we were having this conversation, I started to feel self-concious of my love of McCarthy, the way he sucks you down into the arcane and labrynthine mire of human struggle. I was nearing the tail end of Suttree, a story of a fisherman in Knoxville, Tennessee who undergoes a brutal series of vagaries. Every spark of hope is met with a disproportionately crushing doom: a mudslide buries the love interest, the plucky vagrant ends up back in jail, and everyone dies alone and destitute. I finished the book last week feeling quite drained.

But I’m sure I’ll be back to McCarthy soon enough. His power lies in his language. Even though McCarthy’s stories can be relentlessly cruel, the writing itself expresses a deep belief in the power of words. His books, especially the stellar Blood Meridian, can certainly leave me feeling all types of dark and moody, but the depth and quality of expression leave me inspired just as often. The redemption in his writing isn’t found in the character arc or plot, but instead in the profoundly beautiful prose.

It’s not just about the display of technical skill. That is moving in its own right, but McCarthy (and his long line of precedents, from Dostoevsky to Goya to Poe) imbues me with a sense that if he can capture the darkness powerfully enough, face the abyss and wrangle it onto the page (or canvas, then he will have done enough. It’s not like we will ever be free of our evils and demons. But to face them fully, and not shy away, takes a certain bravery that will always draw me back to such art. It confirms my belief in the power of the written word.

What are your thoughts on this?

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#8) Thinking About Feeling: On Love and How to Think More About Sex

adbDepending on who you ask, Alain de Botton is a philosopher-therapist, a self-help guru, or a moron. The authors of this blog, for what it’s worth, like him. In the past two decades, de Botton has published over a dozen books, including The Consolations of Philosophy (2000), Status Anxiety (2005), and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2010). Here we consider a pair of his books in tandem, On Love: A Novel (2006), and How to Think More About Sex (2012), the latter released through “The School of Life,” a series of books dedicated to exploring life’s great questions.

Eric:

I considered subtitling this post, “men talking about their feelings,” which, incidentally, is the same subtitle I have picked out for ESPN’s Sportscenter. There is this popular notion that most men don’t talk about their feelings, or can’t or won’t, and that this isolates them from women and from anyone else outside of a sort of unspoken, telekinetic manly intimacy – the type best given and received in a garage or a man-cave, during a sporting event, and over cold light beer.

This is dumb, of course, and one of the things that I appreciate about AdB is that he thinks about feelings, and then talks about his thoughts. Thinking about feeling is something of a higher order than simply talking about it, and I respect this even if people laugh at it from time to time.

This week we are considering two AdB titles, On Love and How to Think More About Sex, and I’m curious to hear what you have to say about them since I can think of no one (excepting, maybe, AdB) who thinks more carefully about feelings.

On Love is the account of a romantic relationship between an unnamed English architect (the first-person narrator) and Chloe, a young English woman he meets on a flight from Paris to London. Though the story is marketed as a novel, each chapter appears essay-style, as a series of enumerated points. The narrative follows the pair from their first meeting through the growth of their relationship, documenting and examining relative highs and lows along the way, before descending into a late period of insurmountable problems and their aftermath.

How to Think More About Sex, on the other hand, is explicitly essayistic and overtly self-helpy. The title plays on the popular notion that people (especially men) think about sex too much, replacing it with the more sober suggestion that they don’t think about sex so much as fantasize about it, and that these are two pretty dissimilar things. Because sex is a complicated and potentially anxious activity – or if not sex itself then certainly the interpersonal relations upon which it depends – there are many things to think about before you subject yourself to them.

Before we get into the specifics, maybe we can start with your take on AdB and his contributions – if any – to your thinking about love and its attendant emotions.

Matt:

I went through a big AdB phase about six months ago, reading half his titles in a row. I think the thing that I appreciate most about him is his ambivalence. Take any domain of human life (work, philosophy, architecture, sex), and he’ll observe something subtly beautiful about it – but he’ll also talk about the ways that it doesn’t live up to its promise.

Out of that mix comes a pragmatic approach to things. His take on marriage at the end of …More About Sex is a perfect case in point. He talks about marriage the way Churchill talked about democracy. (“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”)

For AdB, there’s something irredeemably sad about marriage, because it means permanently giving up the freedoms and pleasures of single life. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s against marriage; he just thinks that given the kinds of beings many of us are – in particular, the ways we’re built for partnership – it’s the best available option. And he thinks people should go into marriage with exactly that attitude – openly acknowledging that they’re making an imperfect choice among a series of underwhelming options.

I don’t see my own marriage that way. I’m aware of what’s off the table now, of course, but I don’t spend much time worrying about it. Nor do I feel resigned. I like this life. If it’s compromised, it’s only compromised in the same way that everything is – which is to say that there are lots of great things in life, and you can’t have them all at the same time.

On one hand, then, I appreciate AdB’s honesty. He devotes a lot of energy to reassuring people that whatever they’re feeling is okay – including doubts about their partners or their jobs or their gods. And I like that – everyone deserves permission to feel what they really feel, and not just what’s been advertised. How else are we gonna get to know ourselves?

On the other hand, there’s no reason that a real engagement with our feelings will necessarily lead us to spend lots of time in a wistful, if-only state of mind. As best I can tell, though, AdB seems to.

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