On Wholesomeness

This is a collection of three essays exploring and ultimately defending the idea of choosing what feels wholesome as a heuristic for picking actions which are good for the world.

The two main generators of my thinking about this were:

  • Reflecting on major mistakes that have been made in EA, and wondering how EA might have been different at a deep level in ways that could have averted those mistakes.
  • Reflecting on and trying to name certain core praiseworthy behaviours of people whom I especially admire.


In the first essay, Acting Wholesomely, we see that the regular English concept of acting wholesomely can be action-guiding, especially if taken with a flavour of “paying attention to the whole of things”. In practice this involves leveraging our emotional intelligence to help recognise which actions or effects are (un)wholesome. This is a skill which many people already exercise implicitly; it can be practised, and can help us to avoid moral errors. Unwholesomeness can never be completely eliminated, so we must learn to relate to it wholesomely — rather than ignore it or treat it as toxic, we may do best to relate to it as a wise parent towards a child who is hurting others.


In the second essay, Wholesomeness and Effective Altruism, we see that there are tensions between wholesome action and a simplistic interpretation of EA. But they can be unified in a “wholesome EA” perspective. Serious pursuit of wholesome action will integrate core EA principles, and serious pursuit of EA will (as I argue in the third essay) integrate a desire for wholesomeness. This might have helped to avert major historical mistakes in EA. There remain challenges to be tackled (when to act carefully vs quickly; when to focus on reducing local unwholesomeness vs more global), but these are just normal challenges in seeking to act wholesomely. 


In the third essay, Wholesome Culture, we ask how much wholesomeness should be an integral part of our culture. We have seen robustness-flavoured benefits in the previous essays. There are also important social effects: it is easier to act wholesomely in wholesome environments, so wholesome action can help to raise the waterline. And a reputation for wholesomeness could be attractive (though care is needed to avoid sounding boring or sanctimonious). While the fetishization of wholesomeness could stifle visionaries, this is a navigable issue. In conclusion, wholesomeness should be an important strand in the foundations of our culture, though it should rarely be the focus of attention.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Adam Bales, Alex Zhu, Jan Kulveit, Nick Beckstead, Rio Popper, and Toby Ord for conversations and/or comments. In memory of Sebastian Lodemann, whose wholesomeness was an inspiration to those around him.