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TL;DR

I argue that there is an interesting analogy between war and EA principles. Both can lead people to extreme thinking and actions. To guard against potential negative consequences of such extremes, we should recognise the value of common-sense morality, as illustrated in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”.

Disclaimers

  • This piece aims to illustrate an analogy that I find useful for framing my thinking, hoping it can benefit others as well. However, the analogy is likely flawed from certain perspectives and should not be taken literally.
  • I haven't delved deeply into academic literature on the subject. This is intended as a relatively personal essay, not a rigorous examination of the topic. I'd be interested in further exploration, if the framing presented here proves useful to people and could benefit from additional thought.
  • While my core argument may sound like a critique, I believe most people in the EA movement already accept the case I make. Therefore, this piece is more of a reminder and a framework for thinking about EA than a critique.

Thank you to Felix Werdermann, Frank Theil, and Helene Kortschak for their review and feedback!

Introduction

I recently had the chance to rewatch "Saving Private Ryan," an exceptional movie that portrays the horrors of World War II and the emotional struggles of the soldiers who fought in it. The salience and importance of moral dilemmas in the plot struck me. As the soldiers went through their struggles, I realized that war can teach us something important about how people in the EA movement should relate to the world.

The moral dilemma in Saving Private Ryan

In "Saving Private Ryan," the U.S. military leaders learn that three out of four brothers of the Ryan family died during the Normandy invasion in 1944. The last remaining brother, James, is missing. A group of eight soldiers is sent on a special mission to find him and spare the Ryan family the loss of all its sons.

From a utilitarian perspective, the math doesn't seem to work out and the choice seems absurd – eight soldiers "wasted" on a highly speculative effort to find one person in the chaos of 1944. It could be justified by broader consequences to the Ryan family, but I think this is a hard case to make.

Still, there seems to be something important and morally right about the choice of the military leaders to prioritize the search for James Ryan. They are trying to uphold certain values and decency, even in this mess of a war they find themselves in. They might be doing this based on non-consequentialist considerations and ethics. However, their choice can also be justified on consequentialist grounds. The military leadership probably knows that the ramifications of abandoning certain values and principles might be disastrous in the long run. With their decision, they are protecting their own sanity and that of their entire military effort.

Similarities between war and an EA perspective on the world

Pondering this moral dilemma and the choice made by the military leadership, I found some interesting similarities between the way in which both war and EA principles prompt people to relate to the world. Three main aspects stood out to me.

Struggle for control

Firstly, adversarial relationships are an inherent feature of war. In a sense, such an adversarial relationship also lies at the heart of EA: a war with the conditions of the world we live in.

In a typical war, two or more conflicting parties fight over resources or other goods that they want to control. Conflicting parties usually disagree about how certain resources should be used and try to enhance their influence over them.

In a similar vein, EA is at its core a question of how to use resources. EA can be seen as conflicting with other parts of society about the allocation of resources. But more fundamentally, EA is struggling against the conditions of the world itself. The aim is to constantly improve the state of the world in the most effective way possible. To do so, we have to exert ever greater control over the world to make it more benevolent to all sentient beings living in it.[1]

Triage and urgency

Secondly, war is an extraordinary situation for modern societies that requires drastic measures. It is a state of emergency that leads people to significantly change their priorities and make substantial sacrifices. It requires people to face moral dilemmas and make hard decisions, triaging and choosing the least of many different evils. It comes with a sense of urgency, as the enemy is not standing still and hesitancy can cause tremendous negative consequences.

The resemblance to EA should be obvious to anyone who has been involved in the EA movement. Holly Elmore’s post “We are in triage every second of every day” is a terrific illustration of this way of thinking. People are dying from preventable diseases daily, animals suffer unnecessarily in staggering numbers, and the time horizons for some catastrophic risks are very short. There is so much at stake that we need to make big sacrifices, think hard about the tradeoffs, and do so quickly.

Moral convictions

Thirdly, most parties in a war see themselves as on "the right side of history," fighting for a "just cause." They aim to defend certain principles or values that they deem important. Of course, war is also waged for very egoistic and self-satisfying reasons. But attitudes are usually strongly morally charged. Think about the recent wars in Ukraine and Israel-Palestine. It will be hard to find someone on either side of these conflicts who does not think that they are on "the right side of history."

While the moral attitudes and frameworks of people within EA might be very different from those engaged in such wars, and EAs seem to be more open-minded, EA is undoubtedly a morally charged movement. At the core of it is the idea of making the world a better place, mostly by following different variants of consequentialism and utilitarianism. Improving ethical thinking and expanding the moral circle of societies are important cause areas for EAs.

The case for some common sense morality

If we accept these similarities between EA and war, we could say that "war-like" behavior is appropriate for EAs, given the circumstances we find ourselves in. This can be taken to the extremes. People might argue that in a war it can be justified to torture people to extract crucial information from them and that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been the morally right thing to do given the counterfactual scenarios.[2]

These are questions that historians, philosophers, and others have grappled with for a long time. As such, the issue I address here is far from new. But I think it is important to remind ourselves of the limits to such a war mentality. Extreme situations can lead people to make horrible choices – examples of war crimes abound. It seems to me that the best antidote to this is an acknowledgment and focus on moral decency, even in extreme, war-like situations. This is what the military leaders in “Saving Private Ryan” did and I think we can learn from their story. 

Of course, there are very significant differences between war and EA and this piece is only meant to illustrate an analogy that should not be taken literally. However, I hope this framing provides a useful perspective.

Given the gravity of the situations we are dealing with and the theoretical lure of a war-like mindset, I think we need to repeatedly remind ourselves of the value of common-sense morality. We should care for our families and loved ones beyond what we would do for strangers. We should be loyal and not betray others. We should be kind and forgiving. We should build our character and virtues. We should uphold many of the values and principles that are commonly seen as good. Neglecting and forgetting basic common sense morality might lead us into directions that will ultimately do more harm than good.

  1. ^

    This aspiration is not exclusive to EA of course. It is baked into the fabric of most industrialized societies and the logic of science. As such, this factor is not sufficient for the case I make here and needs to be considered in tandem with the other factors described. There are also obvious differences between the struggle for control in war and by EA, the most important one being the absence of violence in the latter case. Still, the struggle for control seems to be at the core of both concepts.

  2. ^

    To be clear: I do not endorse these statements but highlight them as examples of conclusions that war-like thinking can lead to.

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Thank you for this post. I agree that utilitarians and EAs in general should keep common-sense morality in mind, on consequentialist grounds.

One difficulty with this is that it’s not always clear what common-sense morality prescribes. It’s likely but not at all certain that public opinion would endorse the mission in Saving Private Ryan in the real world, for instance.

You also mention the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an example of wartime consequentialism (which you’re contrasting with common-sense morality), but a majority of Americans endorse the bombings, and a lot of the people who oppose the bombings do so not because they think the ends never justify the means but because they disagree on whether Japan would have surrendered in the counterfactual.

Finally, to draw on another wartime Spielberg film, it’s interesting that common-sense morality considers Oskar Schindler a hero. He worked in a role that many would consider ethically dubious and accumulated enough wealth (“I could have got more out… If I’d made more money”) and influence to save more than 1,000 lives.

All of this is to say that we shouldn’t caricature common-sense morality and overstate its differences with utilitarianism. As Sidgwick recognised more than a century ago, they are more similar than some utilitarians and common-sense proponents think.

Thanks for your comment! This helped me to think about my argument further.

I agree that the conception of common sense morality is quite underdeveloped here and can be interpreted in different ways. It acts somewhat as a placeholder and I would like to explore this a bit further with more time. Public opinion might not even be a reliable proxy for what I mean here. Maybe virtue ethics would have been a better choice than common sense morality. For instance, I think Oskar Schindler exhibited many important virtues (though my knowledge about the historical facts is limited), while at the same time thinking quite utilitarian.

I agree that in practice there are not as many differences between utilitrianism and common-sense morality (or virtue ethics) as one might initially anticipate. I think that most people in the EA movement already accept this, but I do think there are parts of the movement that neglect "basic virtues". See my disclaimer about the essay being more of a reminder than a critique.

Thanks for your reference to Schindler's List. That film is one of my all-time favorites and also highly interesting from an EA perspective. It might be nice to have a series of posts or something like that on exploring EA themes in popular movies, series, books, etc. (if this doesn't exist already).

While I've seen the war/EA analogy in a few places (Brian Tomasik on triage, Scott Alexander's "All of these Effecting Effective Effectiveness people don’t obsess over efficiency out of bloodlessness. They obsess because the struggle is so desperate, and the resources so few", Holly Elmore's post in your essay), I like how your essay explored this analogy more systematically than the others, and also came to a different conclusion, arguing instead for common sense morality even in wartime as a guardrail against abhorrent moral decision-making. I think it pairs well with Holden Karnofsky's reminder that maximization is perilous

Most EAs seem to take action by following a formula something like: “Take a job at an organization with an unusually high-impact mission, which it pursues using broadly accepted-by-society means even if its goals are unusual; donate an unusual amount to carefully chosen charities; maybe have some other relatively benign EA-connected habits like veganism or reducetarianism; otherwise, behave largely as I would if I weren’t an EA.”

I’m glad things are this way, and with things as they stand, I am happy to identify as an EA. But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that EA likely works best with a strong dose of moderation. The core ideas on their own seem perilous, and that’s an ongoing challenge.

And I’m nervous about what I perceive as dynamics in some circles where people seem to “show off” how little moderation they accept - how self-sacrificing, “weird,” extreme, etc. they’re willing to be in the pursuit of EA goals. I think this dynamic is positive at times and fine in moderation, but I do think it risks spiraling into a problem.

One thing that was not clear to me from your essay is the 'decision procedure' for when to use common sense morality vs the wartime/EA lens. I like 80K's "character, then constraints, then consequences" recipe here: first cultivate good character, then respect constraints e.g. the rights of others, and then do as much good as you can (although I would still be wary of obsessing over the last one too much, cf. Tyler Alterman's reflections on balancing it with other wants and needs).

That said, what constitutes good character and what rights are worth respecting are also contextually contingent (culture, history, etc), sometimes in abhorrent ways; e.g. Kwame Anthony Appiah's reminder that beating one's wife and children was considered a father's duty. This raises the question of whether we can 'future-proof' our ethics, which forces a closer examination of what common sense morality prescribes (as JBentham mentioned upthread). I don't have any original insight here unfortunately despite having grappled with this set of questions for a while; my revealed-preferences-ethical stance is probably somewhere between the median do-gooder and the median EA as Holden sketched above... 

Thanks for the links to those other pieces that address similar issues. I wasn't aware of most of them and they are suuuper interesting/relevant! Seems like I have some more reading and researching to do.

I think I agree with what you referenced from 80K. I see virtues and good character as the foundation on which you can then build in a more maximizing way. Satisfying certain personal needs and wants also fits into this foundational category. Of course, how exactly one balances these aspects highly varies from person to person.

And these decisions are highly context-dependent, yes. What I wrote is only a very high-level frame. In practice, it is of course very important to consider which aspects of "common sense morality" we really want to follow, just as it is very important to reflect on which personal needs and wants we should really follow or prioritize. This is a tricky balancing act that I am constantly trying to master. And social norms are always in flux as well.

For instance, I certaintly don't think it is okay to farm animals in ways that make them suffer unnecessarily, even though it is common practice and might be commonly seen as morally acceptable. This also means that I act in ways that deviate from the norm (i.e. plant-based consumption). But society around me is also adapting and some data suggests that a majority of people actually find the way we treat farmed animal abhorrent (they just don't act on it or rationalize their behavior).

All of this to say: Yes, moral common sense is vague and constantly changing. Yes, we always need to reflect on it and not follow the majority blindly. But I think it is beneficial to find certain core value and virtues to adhere by (and those should be ones where we are confident that they are not overall harmful).

Great post and analogy, and a point I feel very important to keep reiterating! Something to also keep in mind is how what is considered to be common sense morally and the relative significance of different virtues can vary between cultures. As such, the extent to which this may differ from consequentialism and to which one may give weight to common sense morality will also vary.

Thanks Aashish!

Important points and I agree that common sense morality is underdeveloped here. I suspect that there are some things that are relatively universal (like love and care for the family or generosity), but yes, the focus/weight of different aspects will vary.

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