1. A blog about (hopefully liberal) education. 2. A feeble attempt at self-justification.

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2020, July 6
The Ethics of Pursuing Political Power

I.

Suppose I wished to help the global poor. I could go about this as an individual altruist, or as a political actor (not exhaustive).

As an individual altruist, I could volunteer at or contribute money to charities that tackle extreme poverty. This seems to be the approach taken by Effective Altruist types: use RCTs to target localized interventions to do the most good, and fund those interventions.

I think we tend to unproblematically classify people who do this as morally good—provided, of course, that they don't break some other strongly held norm in the process (ie, working an ethically questionable job in order to earn-to-give).

On the other hand, I could ruthlessly seek political power in order to advance policies that I believe will help developing countries. Some of these policies, in my judgment, are pretty low-hanging fruit. Take those outlined in Nathan Nunn's "Helping by not Hurting": it's not terribly hard to figure out how to refrain from imposing retaliatory tariffs on developing economies or stop preventing developing-world immigrants from moving to rich countries for jobs.

Plus, I'm pretty certain that the impact of such policies on the well-being of the global poor would dwarf the impact of development charities. The increase in well-being from billions of people gaining access to rich-country wages would surely be orders of magnitude greater than the well-being created by the entire charity-sector.

Open borders might be an extreme case, but the general principle stands: the lever of political power greatly magnifies the good we can do; with state enforcement, even tiny incremental measures can lead to huge effects if only through the virtue of the sheer number of people affected. The implications are clear: every rational altruist who has the chance to do so effectively should single-mindedly pursue power and influence. If you're not full-time climbing the ladders of power, you're not doing enough good.

Yet few of us believe that ruthless power-seekers are the most morally good people out there. Quite the opposite—we use "power-hungry" as an epithet and toss about phrases like "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."[1] And I can't shake off the feeling that power-seeking, even in order to achieve ends I believe in, is a selfish behavior. Why?

II.

Political power is more or less zero-sum. I can increase my knowledge without anyone else having any less; if someone were to want a new home or a new car, we can build them one so that no-one else has to give up theirs; but if I want political power I have to take it from someone else. Political conflict, then, is a negative-sum activity: we both expend resources, but at the end, the amount of political power doesn't change, only who has it.

Sure, I may want to use political power for a better cause than those that I hope to take it from do. Still, my political opponents likely also believe that their causes are just, and their efforts to advance their causes work against my efforts to advance mine. It seems that if we could agree on a norm that would limit all of our efforts to advance our causes in a proportion that leaves the final outcome the same, we would all be morally better off by our separate criteria: after all, we could each use the time and energy we spent on politicking on doing less controversial acts of good.[2]

Morally, then, it appears we have a duty to respect such a norm, even unilaterally. After all, with respect to lying and cheating and other sorts of wrongs, we don't think that "well, everyone else does it" is much of an excuse, so the lack of an enforceable agreement that can guarantee that our opponents will follow this norm should not be taken to weaken its moral force. In fact, I'd say that we need morality most when Leviathan is absent and a norm cannot otherwise be enforced.

We've derived a strong norm against ruthless political power-seeking. But is it too strong? After all, there's little politics that's not conflict—must a good person refrain from all political participation?

III.

I realize I made a hidden assumption in the previous section: our moral beliefs are stable under political conflict. This is probably a bad assumption. We should probably update our moral beliefs on interaction with people with differing beliefs.

Further, our final object is not to do what we believe to be right, but to do what is right. Let us return to the norm explored in the previous section. Two opponents decide a priori that if both of them campaigned, it would not change the probabilities of their favored policy winning. They conclude that campaigning is a waste of resources and shake on not campaigning. Yet that fact does not mean that campaigning will not change the a priori probability of the morally correct policy winning.

Suppose that, each agent, despite having good evidence for their own position, believes themselves unable to gauge their grasp of the evidence for the opposing position and decides to remain agnostic on the issue barring an unbiased assessment. They decide to adjudicate their dispute in front of a jury, whom they trust to return the correct position if both parties present their case to the best of their abilities. Being agnostic to the question of what the correct position is, each party is also agnostic to the question of which position argument will sway the jury toward. Yet both parties believe a priori that whatever position turns out to be correct, both of them arguing their cases to the jury will make the jury more likely to return that position.

What makes it possible for political conflict to be positive-sum then? We still can't create more political power. But in this case, political conflict creates information valuable for deciding whether our positions are sound.

Certainly many sorts of political activity creates epistemic benefits—most things that fall under the umbrella of deliberation, e.g. But our norm specifies that it is only the epistemic benefits that morally justify political activity, not the gains in political power for one's cause. This means that this norm justifies spending fewer resources on political conflict as a norm that believes that gains in political power are themselves good does.

Let us call this norm the conflict-averse norm. I've argued that altruists should be conflict-averse, but I also think that many people are naively conflict-averse. I have many friends with a distaste for politics, and my sense is that these people tend to view politics as zero-sum power seeking. I doubt that anything I say about the importance of this or that political cause will change their minds about their choice to opt-out, for the nature of politics itself has determined their choice. My best hope, then, would be if I could convince them that politics is in fact positive-sum, that is, that there are epistemic benefits and that they are worth the cost of political participation.

And for me to make that case, it's necessary that our political processes themselves provide a good ratio of epistemic benefits to participation costs. If there's a takeaway from this thought-exercise, it's that making sure of that is a valuable project. We have to insist that our political processes live up to their full epistemic potential, and we have to insist that political participation is as easy as it can be. Otherwise, the conflict-averse will continue to opt-out of the political process, which is probably not the best for our ability to reach political consensus. Plus, if moral agents have additional reason to be conflict-averse, then our political system will be drained of good people most of all. We should avoid that.


1. Lord Acton, "Letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton 18 Apr. 1887"

2. Toby Ord explores more of these situations, where two agents have the opportunity to make positive-sum agreements starting from different moral beliefs, in his paper "Moral Trade."


2020, April 05
Against Being Busy

This blog is an attempt to avoid being busy. You might wonder what I have against being busy and why I think writing a blog might be an antidote to that.

My quarrel isn’t with having pressing things to do. My quarrel is with the slide from the claim that “my work’s important” to the claim that “I’m important” that happens when we say, “I’m busy.” And it’s a slide that we often use as a means of shrugging off moral responsibility for our actions.

We make that slide because implicit in our claim that we’re busy are two other claims: first, that our time is (more) important and, second, that we have no choice but to be busy—after all what makes us busy is that we have work that we simply have to do. What this easily becomes, then, is a claim to a higher status coupled with a claim that we’re not fully in control of, and therefore not fully responsible for, our choices. And that claim sits uncomfortably with me—after all, if we have to assign status distinctions, I’d hope that we’d reward making morally responsible choices, not moral irresponsibility.

(Plus, I think, we tend to accept that people become worse at moral decision-making when under stress. Stress leads to short fuses, after all. Claims that one’s busy can intend to exploit this acceptance by pre-emptively asking people to expect and forgive one’s stress-induced moral lapses.)

This claim of irresponsibility also seems incompatible with the pursuit of a liberal education. After all, a liberal education purports to be self-motivated and usually purports to build moral character. I don’t see how one can square the claim that one’s pursuing one’s studies out of one’s own volition with the claim that one simply has no choice but to do what one does or how one can build moral character by waiving away moral responsibility. One might choose to have a lot of things to do in the pursuit of a liberal education, then, but claiming that doing so makes one busy seems to say that the education that one’s pursuing isn’t really a liberal one.

Since I claim to be in the business of pursuing a liberal education, it little suits me to be busy—even though I often find that I am busy. And part of the antidote to being busy, I think, is taking on the work of justification. If I’m correct in thinking that being busy consists of a claim to importance backing an assertion that one’s not responsible for what one does, then the cure lies in justifying what I’m doing to an audience that has no need to think that I’m anyone important. If being busy lies, as Pliny the Younger claimed, in “how [the books] don’t agree” when someone asks you “what did you do today?,”[1] then letting the books lie open for inspection is the best prophylactic. And that’s why I hope this blog will help me avoid being busy.

Part of the task of self-justification is asking what’s worth learning, and this blog will try to give an answer to that. Aristotle claims that job for “politics […] for it determines which sciences ought to exist in states”.[2] That definition suits my purposes well enough. My core interests are in political theory, but I don’t believe that the study of politics can afford any disciplinary parochialism. This blog, then, will take the stance that the first thing politics must question is simply what the set of political questions is. And that search will require a broad view of what the proper subject matter of politics is.


1. Pliny the Younger, Epistulae 1.1. Translation my own.

2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.2, 1094a, transl. Ostwald.