The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics says that you can have a particle spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time – until you look at it, at which point it definitely becomes one or the other. The theory claims that observing reality fundamentally changes it.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.

In 2010, New York randomly chose homeless applicants to participate in its Homebase program, and tracked those who were not allowed into the program as a control group. The program was helping as many people as it could, the only change was explicitly labeling a number of people it wasn’t helping as a “control group”. The response?

“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”

On March 11th, 2012, the vast majority of people did nothing to help homeless people. They were busy doing other things, many of them good and important things, but by and large not improving the well-being of homeless humans in any way. In particular, almost no one was doing anything for the homeless of Austin, Texas. BBH Labs was an exception – they outfitted 13 homeless volunteers with WiFi hotspots and asked them to offer WiFi to SXSW attendees in exchange for donations. In return, they would be paid $20 a day plus whatever attendees gave in donations. Each of these 13 volunteers chose this over all the other things they could have done that day, and benefited from it – not a vast improvement, but significantly more than the 0 improvement that they were getting from most people.

The response?

IT SOUNDS LIKE something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real — and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive.

There wouldn’t be any scathing editorials if BBH Labs had just chosen to do nothing – but they did something helpful-but-not-maximally-helpful, and thus are open to judgment.

There are times when it’s almost impossible to get a taxi – when there’s inclement weather, when a large event is getting out, or when it’s just a very busy day. Uber attempts to solve this problem by introducing surge pricing – charging more when demand outstrips supply. More money means more drivers willing to make the trip, means more rides available. Now instead of having no taxis at all, people can choose between an expensive taxi or no taxi at all – a marginal improvement. Needless to say, Uber has been repeatedly lambasted for doing something instead of leaving the even-worse status quo the way it was.

Gender inequality is a persistent, if hard to quantify, problem. Last year I blogged about how amoral agents could save money and drive the wage gap down to 0 by offering slightly less-sexist wages – while including some caveats about how it was probably unrealistic and we wouldn’t see anything like that in reality. So of course less than a week after I wrote that Evan Thornley says :

“There’s a great arbitrage there, we would give [women] more responsibility and a greater share of the rewards than they were likely to get anywhere else and that was still often relatively cheap to someone less good of a different gender.”

While Mr Thornley said he wasn’t advocating that the gender pay gap should be perpetuated, he said it provided “an opportunity for forward thinking people”.

A number of online commentators, as well as Australian start-up blogs, have since said Mr Thornley’s comments were sexist.

Mr. Thornley improved on the status quo – but in the process he interacted the problem and was thus caught up in it. This is a strategy which, if widely embraced, would practically eliminate many forms of wage discrimination overnight simply by harnessing something we have way too much of already: greed. So of course it was denounced.

Last year the city of Detroit began to crack down on unpaid water bills, and thousands of poor people suddenly faced the prospect of having their water shut off. The vast majority of people did nothing to help them whatsoever. PETA did offer conditional help: If a family went vegan for 30 days, PETA would pay off their water bill, and throw in a basket of vegan food to boot. This was strictly more helpful than what 99.99999% of humanity was doing for Detroit residents at the time, as it didn’t make anything worse and offered a trade for anyone who valued 30 days of not-being-vegan less than however much they owed on their water bill. For marginally improving he situation instead of ignoring it, they were denounced as “the worst”.

Peter Singer has a famous thought experiment about a child drowning in a pond. I’ll let Philosophy Bro explain:

Like, let’s say I’m on my way to a bitchin’ party and I’m looking fly as shit and I smell good because you already know, and I’ve got a 30-rack of Natty because I’ll be goddamned if I show up empty-handed to the house I’m about to burn down. Once I get over this bridge, and turn the corner I’ve arrived and so has the party. Except I hear a bunch of splashing and I look over the bridge into the river and – fuck me – there’s a kid flailing around and calling for help, like he’s drowning for some reason instead of handling his shit like an adult.

I should save his life, right?

Sometimes in philosophy we like to ask obvious questions and waggle our eyebrows suggestively, like maybe you don’t exist after all, hmm? but bro, this is not one of those times. I should obviously jump in and SAVE THIS FUCKING CHILD’S LIFE. So I ruin a Polo and I don’t smell good anymore and a couple of the beers explode because I dropped them. Who gives a shit, right? A child was going to die.


What if I told you that for $5, you could buy a life-saving vaccine for a child? Sure, he’s far away, but we already agreed: who gives a shit, right? It’ll still save his life, and it only costs you not having a fifth drink at the bar on a Thursday. Remember that $300 bar receipt you posted with the caption “just another Thursday night wearing matching plaid with my bros, we’re special and impressive and are the ACTUAL six dudes with the biggest dicks, unlike all you OTHER overconfidences of bros who think that, well guess what, it’s us?” What you were really saying was “I routinely pass up the chance to save two dozen lives with science so that I can black out and pretend that I like myself for a night.” That’s fucked up, bro.

The difference is that the drowning child has been definitively noticed, and thus her moral weight bears down on us and we have to save her. But children thousands of miles away? Not noticed!

I think this might be where a lot of the discomfort with talking about things we can do to alleviate suffering comes from. If you implicitly believe in the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, then to confront the scope of suffering in the world is to make it your fault, and then if you don’t throw everything you have at the problem you’re as “bad” as PETA or Mr. Thornley or Uber or BBH Labs.

But what if – what if noticing a problem didn’t make it any worse? What if we could act on a problem and not feel horrible for making it just a little better, even if it was an action that benefited ourselves as well? What if we said that in these instances, these groups weren’t evil – it’s okay to notice a problem and only make it a little bit better. If everyone did that, the world would be a vastly better place. If everyone “exploited” opportunities where they could benefit and alleviate people’s suffering at the same time, we’d all be better off.





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[I'm doing a bunch of low-effort reviews of posts I read a while ago and think are important. Unfortunately, I don't have time to re-read them or say very nuanced things about them.]

This is a concept that's relatively frequently referred back to, I think? Which seems like a reason to include it.

I think it's pointing to a generally important dynamic in moral debates, though I have some worry that it's a bit in "soldier" mindset, and might be stronger if it also tried to think through the possible strengths of this sort of interpretation. I'm also not sure quite how critical this dynamic is to EA causes, as opposed to some more general consequentialist vs. deontology debate.

I'm not sure whether we should include this, but I think its current karma is too low.

Replying a year later - I think you have a point about the soldier mindset. The reason I wrote it this way originally was because I was writing it for myself first. I felt afraid to involve myself in things for fear I would feel responsible ever after, I was often afraid of doing a little because I could not commit myself to doing a lot, and I felt an aversion to a lot of positive-sum interactions. I've gotten better at those things, but it's still hard.

I think a lot has been written to this effect since by other people, but if I were to write a follow-up it would be focusing on the alternative rather than attacking what I called "The Copenhagen Interpretation" here. It's okay to help a little. If something helps you a lot and someone else a little and no one gets hurt or is worse off, then the world is better off. Be wary of the temptations to overlook harms - but always remember that the true goal is to help, and sacrifice is only a means. If you can help without sacrifice, so much the better.

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