Morality as "Coordination" vs "Altruism"

by Raemon2 min read29th Dec 20202 comments


Moral Philosophy

Reworked version of a shortform comment. This is still not the optimal version of this post but it's the one I had time to re-publish.

I've spent the past few years trying to get a handle on what it means to be moral. In particular, to be moral in a robust way, that holds up in different circumstances. 

A year-ish ago, while arguing about what standards scientists should hold themselves to, I casually noted that I wasn't sure whether, if I were a scientist, and if the field of science were rife with dishonesty, whether it would be better for me to focus on becoming more honest than the average scientist, or focus on Some Other Cause, such as avoiding eating meat.

A bunch of arguments ensued, and elucidating my current position on the entire discourse would take a lot of time. But, I do think there was something important I was missing when I first wondered about that. I think a lot of Effective Altruism types miss this, and it's important.

The folk morality I was raised with, generally would rank the following crimes in ascending order of badness:

  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Killing
  • Torturing people to death (I'm not sure if torture-without-death is generally considered better/worse/about-the-same-as killing)

But this is the conflation of a few different things. One axis I was ignoring was "morality as coordination tool" vs "morality as 'doing the right thing because I think it's right'." And these are actually quite different. And, importantly, you don't get to spend many resources on morality-as-doing-the-right-thing unless you have a solid foundation of the morality-as-coordination-tool. (This seems true whether "doing the right thing" looks like helping the needy, or "doing God's work", or whatever)

There's actually a 4x3 matrix you can plot lying/stealing/killing/torture-killing into which are:

  • Harming the ingroup
  • Harming the outgroup (who you may benefit from trading with)
  • Harming powerless people who can't trade or collaborate with you

And I think you need to tackle these mostly in this order. If you live in a world where even people in your tribe backstab each other all the time, you won't have spare resources to spend on the outgroup or the powerless until your tribe has gotten it's basic shit together and figured out that lying/stealing/killing each other sucks.

If your tribe has it's basic shit together, then maybe you have the slack to ask the question: "hey, that outgroup over there, who we regularly raid and steal their sheep and stuff, maybe it'd be better if we traded with them instead of stealing their sheep?" and then begin to develop cosmopolitan norms.

If you eventually become a powerful empire, you may notice that you're going around exploiting or conquering and... maybe you just don't actually want to do that anymore? Or maybe, within your empire, there's an underclass of people who are slaves or slave-like instead of being formally traded with. And maybe this is locally beneficial. But... you just don't want to do that anymore, because of empath, ,or because you've come to believe in principles that say to treat all humans with dignity. Sometimes this is because the powerless people would actually be more productive if they were free builders/traders, but sometimes it just seems like the right thing to do.

Avoiding harming the ingroup and productive outgroup are things that you're locally incentived to do because cooperation is very valuable. In an iterated strategy game, these are things you're incentived to do all the way along.

Avoiding harming the powerless is something that you are limited in your ability to do, until the point where it starts making sense to cash in your victory points.

I think this is often non-explicit in most discussions of morality/ethics/what-people-should-do. It seems common for people to conflate "actions that are bad because it ruins ability to coordinate" and "actions that are bad because empathy and/or principles tell me they are."

I'm not making a claim about exactly how all of this should influence your decisionmaking. The world is complex. Cause prioritization is hard. But, while you're cause-prioritizing, and while you are deciding on strategy, make sure you keep this distinction in mind. 


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I think this is often non-explicit in most discussions of morality/ethics/what-people-should-do. It seems common for people to conflate "actions that are bad because it ruins ability to coordinate" and "actions that are bad because empathy and/or principles tell me they are."

I think it's worth challenging the idea that this conflation is actually an issue with ethics.

Although it's true that things like coordination mechanisms and compassion are not literally the same thing and can have expressions that try to isolate themselves from each other (cf. market economies and prayer) and so things that are bad because they break coordination mechanisms or because they don't express compassion are not bad for exactly the same reasons, this need not mean there is not something deeper going on that ties them together.

I think this is why there tends to be a focus on meta-ethics among philosophers of ethics rather than directly trying to figure out what people should do, even when setting meta-ethical uncertainty aside. There's some notion of badness or undesireableness (and conversely goodness or desirableness) that powers both of these, and so they are both different expressions of this same underlying phenomenon. So we can reasonably ties these two approaches together by looking at this question of what makes something seem good or bad to us, and simply consider these different domains over which we consider how we make good or bad things happen.

As to what good and bad mean, well, that's a larger discussion. My best theory is that in humans it's rooted in prediction error plus some evolved affinities, but this is an ongoing place where folks are trying to figure out what good and bad mean beyond our intuitive sense that something is good or bad.

The issue isn't just the conflation, but missing a gear about how the two relate.

The mistake I was making, that I think many EAs are making, is to conflate different pieces of the moral model that have specifically different purposes.

Singer-ian ethics pushes you to take the entire world into your circle of concern. And this is quite important. But, it's also quite important that the way that the entire world is in your circle of concern is different from the way your friends and government and company and tribal groups are in your circle of concern.

In particular, I was concretely assuming "torturing people to death is generally worse than lying." But, that's specifically comparing within alike circles. It is now quite plausible to me that lying (or even mild dishonesty) among the groups of people I actually have to coordinate with might actually be worse than allowing the torture-killing of others who I don't have the ability to coordinate with. (Or, might not – it depends a lot on the the weightings. But it is not the straightforward question I assumed at first)