A Case Study in Newtonian Ethics--Kindly Advise

by Lumpyproletariat5 min read5th Dec 202018 comments

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Scott Alexander wrote about Newtonian Ethics back in 2013. My own experience with the phenomenon is as follows.

One chilly evening in December—this chilly evening in December, if one can be bothered with the particulars—I ventured out into the cold astride my loyal bicycle to collect money for rent and food.

I got lost trying to find the bank I’d been to at least half a dozen times, but that’s not important—it happens every time I leave my house. I am infamous in certain circles for once spending the better part of an afternoon wandering lost on a single road (in my defense, it had a gentle curve).

Returning from the ATM, I had an anthropological experience. I was passing a pedestrian on the sidewalk when he shouted for me to stop. Startled, I acquiesced.

I did not (and do not) have a subroutine for dealing with strangers who approach me. Maybe other people, who have spent more time living in cities, do, but I’m a lumpenproletariat by pedigree who spent his formative years in a neighborhood one step up from a trailer park. I had to think through every step of this interaction, and betimes I don’t think quickly on my feet.

My first thought—oh no someone is making noise at me fear response clamp down on the fear response they’re probably friendly this reminds me of that Still Drinking essay 24 Hours of Privilege I don’t want to microaggress at this guy he took his mask off his mouth to speak that defeats the entire purpose of wearing a mask I need to be present in this moment someone is talking to me maybe I dropped something or they might need my help pay attention.

Aloud, “Can I help you?”

He had a plastic bag full of scraps of paper. Poetry, I was informed, all hand written. I learned that the poetry had no swearing in it—not that he never swore, but there was no swearing in it. He wanted me to have a scrap of paper with his art written on it, and bemused I took it. Mind-space is vast and deep and being abnormal is not morally wrong, but at this point I had him pegged as a crazy person.

A crazy person who created art and shared it. I was happy to meet this crazy person—they brought light into the world. Beneath my mask I smiled, and I hoped he could see it in my eyes.

He then asked me for money. 

He wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t charging for his poems. But if I had any change, he would appreciate it. As a businessman, he said, which thing stuck in my mind. Suddenly things fell into place. This wasn’t an artist out to make someone’s day surreal—this was a man desperate enough to swallow his pride and ask strangers for money, and the poetry was to stop them from leaving so quickly and to make him feel like he wasn't all take no give and maybe a little to make people like me feel indebted. He'd probably tested the pitch on dozens of people and iterated it again and again until he had an intuition for what to say to who.

I’m a lumpenproletariat by pedigree. I’ve been there. I found it very strange to be on the other side of the interaction, almost an out of body experience.

I've never had money and before today no one had ever asked me for it.

Above I wrote how I had to think through every step of this interaction. I lied. Two impulses, faster than conscious thought. 

The first, my powerful aversion to losing money. I've never bought a video game, or a book I didn't need for school. When I decided I'd have to buy new brake pads for my bicycle I was upset all that day. They say that everything is expensive when you're poor, but those brake pads weren't. It was the principle of the thing.  

The second impulse, empathy. He was right in front of me, and he needed help.

Conscious thought caught up and blew past, thinking rapidly in a run-on sentences.  This fellow lives in a first world nation—it wouldn’t at all be an effective use of charity, there are people who need the money more and that isn’t an excuse; once I've got my own oxygen mask on, once I've got enough squirreled away I never have to worry about food again, I'll donate the excess money to people who get higher marginal value out of every dollar—giving here competes against that, directly. Not to mention, it competes against me eating—not this month, but potentially towards the end of the spring semester if unexpected costs come up; I don’t have much of a buffer. I’m also reminded, in that moment, of Slate Star Codex’s piece on Newtonian ethics—just because someone is close enough for me to directly perceive their misery doesn't make their misery more important!

Aloud, “I’m an undergraduate who’s between jobs, I really don’t have any money.” Which is a lie, because I do have money and I probably won’t run out before the summer semester at which point I will have more money, but I was pressed for time and it was what I thought to say.

And he said that if I had any coins on me, that those would help.

And fuck this, I see someone in front of me who is in pain and I understand how much it must have hurt for him to swallow his pride and beg from every stranger on the street; I’m not heartless—but is it heartless to give someone money if doing so trades off against donating more effectively?—but I’d empty my pockets if a friend told me that coins would help—so I’ve proven myself callous or stupid in one case, why make that two?—I’m reminded of something Yudkowsky said about the importance of actually being the sort of person who would help a little old lady cross the street—all this man wants are the coins I have on my person. 

I don’t have any coins on my person, I’m well aware. I don’t carry any coins. What I do carry is thirty-ish dollars in small bills in my wallet because Harry from HPMoR said in one of the early chapters that money was something that you might need a lot of in a hurry and I thought the odds of someone robbing me were low enough that the expected utility of having cash on hand outweighed the odds of losing thirty dollars in one go the man asks me if I can look for coins so I get my wallet out of my pocket.

The bills are all folded together and the idea of taking them all out and pealing them apart in front of him when I just now said I had no money sounds mortifying and because I don’t always make great decisions in the heat of the moment this seems like it would be unconscionably rude even though when I’m heading home I realize it would have been very kind and he would have appreciated it, that I would have appreciated a fiver in his shoes. So I say, "No coins but I've got a couple of bills" and give him the whole wad of cash.

And he’s surprised by it, and I guess he wants to express gratitude somehow because he gives me another poem from his bag, and then I'm gearing up to leave and I tell him to take care of himself and he runs up and gives me a third poem from the little Ziploc bag, and I catch a few of the words on it while stuffing it in my pocket and it looks like it's a prayer or a hymn of some kind and I'm choking up because I was religious once too. 

And I’m glad he’s happy. I'm happy that he'll have something warm to eat tonight when he might otherwise not, or that he could buy a bag of rice that'd last him a week if he has somewhere to cook it, or even that someone with a different risk/reward tolerance than I will get to forget the physical world for a moment if that's what winds up happening, if that's what he needs.

But at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that I just failed some kind of test of character, that I saw something which appealed to me and bought it without thinking. I’m experiencing the same kind of reflexive self-disappointment that I feel whenever I spend money on anything other than food and rent.

I feel bad about poorly managing my units of caring, and it doesn't seem that I can choose not to. 

---

Here's the ask: how do the rest of you handle interactions with beggars on the street? This was my first time that I actually had money to give, but I imagine it'll happen a bunch in my future. It seems that giving or not both cause me distress. What should I do to avoid feeling terrible?

I was going to end this with a transcription of the three poems I retrieved, but they are actually illegible. Considering my own emotional state that is fitting, I think.

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18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:51 AM
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I would like to reiterate Edo's answer, and add my perspective.

First and foremost, I believe that one can follow EA perspectives (e.g. donate effectively) AND be kind and helpful to strangers, rather than OR (repeating an argument I made before in another context).
In particular, I personally don't write giving a couple of dollars in my donation sheet, and it does not affect my EA-related giving (at least not intentionally).

Additionally, they constitute such a little fraction of my other spending, that I don't notice them financially.
Despite that, I truly believe that being kind to strangers, giving a few coins, or trying to help in other ways, can meaningfully help the other person (even if not as cost-effectively as donating to, say, GiveWell).

I don't view this and my other donations as means to achieve the exact same goal, but rather as two distinct and non-competing ways to achieve the purpose of making the world better.

Thank you for the kind words and human connection--I don't want to reiterate word for word what I said under EdoArad's post, but I'd like to. It seems to me that separating the conversation and disordering it is a a tradeoff upvote-style forums make, and I'm entirely unconvinced that such is worth it. Especially for a relatively small forum where everyone reading comments is reading all the way to the bottom anyway. 

My situation is a bit different than yours, I think. I don't feel the a strong need to spend money on things; I don't anticipate my personal expenses ever rising above five hundred dollars a month unless I move somewhere with a higher cost of living--with the expectation that such would be a net gain. After I can consistently cover essential expenses without worry, I plan to use my money as effectively as I can (well, before that point too). In my case spending money on anything trades directly against becoming financially independent sooner and then donating the surplus. I also imagine that if I made a habit of charitable giving at this juncture, I'd notice it financially pretty quick.

That said, your, EdoArad's, and DonyChristie's perspectives have helped me gain, well, perspective. I'll think about this more.

With regards to FIRE, I myself still haven't figured out how this fits with my donations. In any case, I think that giving money to beggars sums up to less than $5 per month in my case (and probably even less on average), but I guess that also depends on where you live etc.

On a side note: I think this is beautifully written, and I would be happy, to read future posts from you. These personal glimpses in other people's struggle with EA concepts and values is something that I think might really be valuable to the community, and not many people have the talent to provide it.

Well. I'm floored. People keep upvoting this and saying such wonderfully kind things in the comments . . . Every time I got the notification there was a new comment under this post, I internally flinched and cringed. I'd just written at length about my internal subjective experience, and I regretted writing it from before I clicked submit. It took a lot of evidence piling up to convince the socially cautious part of my brain it was wrong. 

I'm going to update hard towards writing pieces like this one/writing more frequently. It seems like other people ought to as well, it seems like something people want to read. I imagine most of us don't have any new breakthroughs to report in the field of effective altruism. But we probably all have interesting days where we face dilemmas or win victories which would make utterly no sense to most anyone. And, I guess it makes sense you'd want to hear mine because I'd like to hear yours.

I accidentally posted this comment four times, due largely to technical incompetence. Which is fine, I suppose; it adds emphasis!

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Beautiful!

I don't feel that I've solved this issue at all for myself, but some thoughts nonetheless. 

  1. One can cultivate compassion and care by doing more acts of kindness and appreciate the resulting fuzzies
    1. In that sense, I don't think that it is reasonable to think about spending units of caring. 
    2. I like that in your case, it seems that your motivation was strictly out of care for the beggar. People can also feel that they just want him to go away or that they are obligated to give him a few coins.
    3. I think that you can definitely allow yourself to feel good about being a caring altruistic person.
    4. This is instrumentally useful in increasing motivation and improving how you engage with people you help or collaborate with. I don't see a reason to worry about it making one care less about doing good effectively, as long as you feel care toward more abstract far-away people / animals / future people.
  2. On the long run, you probably won't encounter many cases of beggars and random people who need help where you feel compassion toward. I think that it might be a good policy to allow yourself to just be a kind altruist for the fuzzies, without thinking too much about the counterfactual. 
    1. You are allowed to do non-effective acts of kindness. It's okay to feed stray cats.
    2. If that takes too much out of you, you can always change policy.

Thank you for kind words and for validation. If I were properly calibrated I'd find neither useful, but I'm not and I do. It's very gratifying that people seem to appreciate my having written this.

I did not set out to create something that people find beautiful, but if I did so I am happy. Seeing this upvoted, and tagged as "art", was surprising but pleasant. (Parenthetical aside: is art something created for the self, or something created to express the self to others? I've heard both stances espoused. If the latter, then expressing thoughts one finds ugly in a way others find beautiful could be regarded as a failure. Human endeavors are complicated, and I don't think art is often created for any one reason, but I still think there's an answer to something hiding in that line of questioning.)

In response to your first thought, I communicated poorly. When I referred to units of caring, I wasn't positing a finite amount of empathy, I was referencing this. I'll edit the OP to be less opaque. In response to your second thought, I think my thoughts are covered in my response to shaybenmoshe.

So, I translated one of the poems. The other two are addressed to Jesus Christ, dated as being written in November this year, and signed with something incomprehensible. This one is shorter than the other two, written on a smaller piece of paper, and isn't signed, dated, or addressed. It reads: 

 

our hopeful nation

this high should've came with a barcode

25 candles hovered above a golden mountain top

Jesus Christ

the wind

the dust

and the Holy Spirit

revising sky rays

a violent gospel

volume 13

net speed 98.b

the taste of my music on a Sunday night

there's something about the riot that makes me want to breed 

I put on my goggles to attempt literary analysis, and then I took them back off. Anyone else want to give it a go?

This comment is a test, I'm troubleshooting a thing.

I relate to the angst.

After having interactions like this, I made a rule of not giving money to beggars who explicitly ask for it. If I want to give money to homeless people, it has to be for people not optimizing for it (sometimes aggressively so) in a race to the bottom against other homeless people. Especially if people pull the Reciprocity heuristic; due to my disagreeableness it was relatively not that hard to set an intention to still say no when people do that, for the most part.

A different idea I've considered is to have $1 bills (or whatever unit you wish) explicitly allocated for this. Or to keep track of people you pass, and use that counter to track giving to some more effective thing.

N-order effects of giving are probably more valuable than losing a few dollars, though. It feels really good to give to people. I spent a couple hours spontaneously delivering a $2 cookie to someone as a gift, recently.

Some people suggest to carry food on you that you can give to homeless people instead of money.

I'd advise setting a 5 minute timer to come up with a simple policy, and stick to it.

Hm, it's interesting different people's thoughts on and reactions to the same events. Every one of us are aliens. You see people optimizing for money and you feel negatively towards them for participating in a race to the bottom. I see people optimizing for money and I respect their hustle. Maybe it's a class thing. I worked as a waiter until I found a way to hurt myself doing so (such tends to be how my stints of gainful employment end--I need to land an office job or one day I'll trip on my own feet and stumble into an open grave), and I spent every minute of it optimizing for money, sometimes aggressively so. Maybe as I claw my way up the social ladder I'll come around to your point of view. Yesterday was novel, I imagine it gets old.

I'm not as high on the social ladder as you'd think, though some of my perspective is probably colored by class views rubbing off on me from other people around me. I have been sort of homeless technically for much of the past couple years and actually think EAs should live in tent cities/off-grid villages. I've also briefly researched becoming a professional beggar in a really wealthy place such as Switzerland; this shifted into the idea of becoming a street performer, which didn't work out.

My perspective was heavily informed by a couple of experiences with people using body language to get really close up to me and ask for a much larger amount of cash than I would otherwise give to the median person. I also had someone yell at me angrily when I didn't say anything to them when they approached me at night. My experience of the reciprocity trick wasn't with someone homeless, but with people hawking their mixtape and "giving it away", as well as signing my name on it, only to take it away if I wasn't giving them "a donation". So I'm not lambasting the average beggar, it's just we need to not let the most dark triad people shake people's pockets and make it harder for more down-on-their luck, earnest people to be able to ask for help.

It was raining yesterday and I offered $4 to someone who was huddling in a tunnel, but they didn't take it. I tend to feel spontaneously generous sometimes when the spirit moves me.

Yesterday was novel, I imagine it gets old.

Inurement is the strongest feature here, I believe. Once you see an endless sea of people, then it becomes overwhelming, demotivating, and you stop being as empathetic.

(Meta: Annoyed as heck by the upvote/downvotes here, coloring our discussion; is there a mod out there to not see karma on EA Forum, like there was for old LessWrong?)

You are an amazing alien, a soul akin enough to mine that I feel slightly less an alien for talking to you. I really don't know why people don't live stranger lives, when ordinary lives chasing money and status are so terribly depressing. It is nice to meet a fellow denizen of planet Camazotz dancing to the beat of a drum other than Its.

(Does one still waive the apostrophe when they're referring to a possession of the proper noun It?)

Clarification clarified. If someone invaded my personal space and dark triaded at me, I imagine I would use my bigness and noise to make them leave. I'm sympathetic to people less big. 

I feel fairly negative towards upvotes my self. They make it easy to pile on someone without actually engaging with them.