Effective Altruism: How to Give Money Directly to the Poor

give-directly

Effective Altruism is the idea that charitable giving should actually produce measurable results.  It’s an evidence-based approach that is supposedly in contrast to more conventional charities.

I attended the 2014 Effective Altruism Summit, and here is what I learned.  Effective Altruism is the idea that charitable giving should actually produce measurable results.  It’s an evidence-based approach that is supposedly in contrast to more conventional charities.  Some people have told me that large groups like the Gates Foundation do demand evidence of efficacy when funding projects, so it’s not clear how different Effective Altruism really is.  Apparently Peter Singer is a big promoter of this movement, but I haven’t read his work. One of the other attendees suggested that I start with Singer’s essay entitled: Famine, Affluence, and Morality.

I have been fairly successful in my career, but one thing I do feel that I am lacking is meaning.  I feel that giving to help people in need will actually help my own well-being by adding more meaning to my life.

I am attracted to this idea of measurably effective giving because I feel that I have been fairly successful in my life, but I have been failing to give back enough.  I have been very influenced by Seligman’s PERMA model when considering my own self-actualization.  PERMA is an acronym describing well-being.  It encompasses Positive emotions (happiness), Engagement (state of flow), Relationships (social life), Meaning (involvement in things greater than ourselves), and Accomplishment (success).  I am not really a very happy person (I suspect I’ve always had a more active right prefrontal cortex.), but I do find my work engaging and I have some decent relationships.  I have been fairly successful in my career, but one thing I do feel that I am lacking is Meaning.  I feel that giving to help people in need will actually help my own well-being by adding more meaning to my life.

I heard about the Effective Altruism movement at various rationalist meetups and also at CFAR.  I have been very inspired by the many bright people in these communities that truly hold the greater good as their highest life goals.  I have met many gifted folks who feel obligated to apply their talents to having a positive impact on the world.  I often feel humbled when I compare their ambitious and noble sentiments to my own narrow self-interest, and I am grateful to them for providing a model of altruism and service which I can strive to emulate.  Of course there are always murmurings from the Dark Enlightenment fringe that perhaps seeking the greater good is not the the most virtuous goal.  But I haven’t been turned to the dark side yet and remain in light for the moment.

One of the most influential Effective Altruism organizations is GiveWell, which evaluates charities to find the ones that that are “evidence backed, thoroughly vetted, and underfunded.”  I  heard about this group a couple of years ago and have previously donated to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which focuses on deworming efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and is still a top-rated GiveWell charity.  I had no idea that intestinal worms were such a problem and that it was so cheap to treat.  I guess it stands to reason that folks won’t be able to work or go to school if they are too sick from parasitic illness.

Currently, GiveWell’s top rated charity is GiveDirectly, which donates cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda.  They give recipients a single lump sum (equivalent to about 1-year’s income) and allow the recipients to spend the money any way they see fit.

Currently, GiveWell’s top rated charity is GiveDirectly, which donates cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda.  They give recipients a single lump sum (equivalent to about 1-year’s income) and allow the recipients to spend the money any way they see fit.  I was initially attracted to this idea since it lacked the paternalistic quality that most charities have.  The mechanism of cash transfer is M-Pesa.  I gave a small amount earlier this year, but when I saw Paul Neihaus’ presentation, I was completely blown away.  I had no idea how rigorous GiveDirectly’s methodology was.  The most impressive thing to me was the fact that GiveDirectly conducted a preregistered Randomized Controlled Trial to test the effectiveness of their giving.  This is basically the gold standard of research, and many academic studies don’t meet this level of rigor.  The study confirmed the following benefits of GiveDirectly’s program:

Transfers from GiveDirectly have large, positive, sustainable impacts across a diverse set of outcomes, including:

  •  Assets, with recipients increasing asset holdings by 58% primarily through investments in livestock and home improvements (including iron roofs)
  • Business and agricultural income, with income gains implying a 28% annual rate of return on transfers
  • Expenditures, with increases in nearly every category, but not tobacco, alcohol, or gambling
  • Food security, with a 42% reduction in the number of days children go without food
  • Mental health, with large reductions in stress and depression and increases in life satisfaction, as measured using validated psychological scales

The study also found no evidence of impacts on crime, conflict, or inflation.
–http://www.givedirectly.org/evidence.php

One detail Niehaus noted in his presentation at the EA Summit was that domestic violence was reduced and recipient’s cortisol levels actually went down.  This is just amazing to me.  It’s one thing to give people a self-report questionnaire asking how stressed they are, but actually measuring this physiological marker for stress provided even more evidence of a benefit.

thatched-roof-hut-kenya

A simple way to identify the poorest people who are most in need is that they tend to have thatched vs. metal roofs.

I can’t emphasize enough how truly impressed I was by GiveDirectly’s methodology.  They are extremely transparent and actually track the number of bribes paid by recipients in the process of receiving the cash.  This is an extremely hard-nosed and realistic thing to track…

I can’t emphasize enough how truly impressed I was by GiveDirectly’s methodology.  They are extremely transparent and actually track the number of bribes paid by recipients in the process of receiving the cash.  This is an extremely hard-nosed and realistic thing to track, and Niehaus suggested that few other charities are tracking this sort of information.  GiveDirectly also makes excellent use of technology.  In Kenya, they use a service called M-Pesa, which is a mobile phone based way to transfer money.  They pay a lot of attention to fraud prevention and have several high tech solutions for this.  They discovered that a simple way to identify the poorest people who are most in need is that they tend to have thatched vs. metal roofs.  GiveDirectly used satellite imagery to help validate eligibility by having the images judged cheaply via Mechanical Turk.  Their data entry procedures are also first rate, and include geotagged timestamps for every data point as it’s collected in the field.  This also helps cut down on fraud.

It’s interesting to hear stories about how the money is spent.  The payments are in one big chunk deliberately, so that people can make real investments.  One person built a fish pond, another bought a power saw and set up a business cutting wood for hire.

It’s interesting to hear stories about how the money is spent.  The payments are in one big chunk deliberately, so that people can make real investments.  One person built a fish pond, another bought a power saw and set up a business cutting wood for hire.  All sorts of little livelihoods were launched, from musicians who bought guitars to earn money playing in clubs, to a person who bought a motorbike to taxi folks around on.  As Niehaus pointed out, there is no charity donating power saws to the poor, and not every person would be inspired to set up a sawing business.  But giving a chunk of cash to each person allows them to turn their own skills and inclinations into vocations for themselves.  This is not something that could have been planned from above.

As impressed as I was by GiveDirectly, I must say that I was surprised that their presentation was in a side room, while a CFAR presentation was given in the main theatre.  If this was a principled decision, it suggests that the organizers have an interesting philosophy.  They appeared to privilege the importance of CFAR, which teaches rationality techniques to high functioning first world people, over GiveDirectly, which is helping some of the poorest people in the developing world.  This is an interesting proposition that seems to mirror Peter Thiel’s thesis that innovation is more likely to save the world than globalization.

Thiel’s general thesis is hard to argue with, the world clearly needs huge innovations in energy, water, and food to support the world’s burgeoning middle classes.  Innovation is more frequently driven by highly functional developed world people than low functioning developing world people, so I can see why Thiel would want to invest here.  But I will say that this bet is a long shot.  It’s much harder to throw money at the innovation problem.  I attended a CFAR workshop and have a great deal of respect for their team and their approach, but it’s very hard to estimate how much world saving innovation will be created by each dollar donated to them.  Risk averse turtle that I am, I prefer the sure bet that my cash will directly improve the lives of people who are the worst off.

Ephemerisle 2014: An Intentional Community on the Water

ephemerisle-night-lights-on-water

Photo by Matt Bell

Ephemerisle is sort of a floating community set up in the Sacramento Delta, comprised of several “islands” that are formed by joining together houseboats and floating platforms… Though it resembles more of a floating Burning Man, it still retains some of that libertarian seasteading flavor.

I attended Ephemerisle for the first time this year, and it was quite an amazing experience.  Ephemerisle is sort of a floating community set up in the Sacramento Delta, comprised of several “islands” that are formed by joining together houseboats and floating platforms.  I understand this sort of thing is also known as a raft-up.  This event was originally conceived by seasteader Patri Friedman, and though it resembles more of a floating Burning Man, it still retains some of that libertarian seasteading flavor.  I found myself in several friendly arguments about the overreach of governments. (Though I have yet to hear a convincing libertarian story on how to handle externalities.)  One fellow joked that the original idea was to promote seasteading by moving this floating party from the delta, out to the bay, and finally to the ocean, where it would attract folks from far and wide just to the enjoy the freewheeling celebration.

I was bunked on the big island of Titan, known as the authoritarian party island, since this island had rules(!) such as wearing a safety whistle and having a life vest handy.  Risk averse nerd that I am, I was more than happy to comply with rules bent on keeping me alive.  Titan’s party credentials were sealed by its huge floating dance floor and DJs blasting electronic music late into the night.  Every night.  Until sunrise practically.  Which was challenging for me since I am not generally a party animal.

I have never been to Burning Man, and I do love my comfort, but I decided to take the plunge and attend Ephemerisle this year as an experiment in Comfort Zone Expansion.  I attended a CFAR workshop in June, and this was one idea that stood out for me: CoZE or Comfort Zone Expansion.  It’s the idea that we need to gather more data by trying new things.  CFAR’s seminars generally rely on Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model of cognition:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is something of a pattern matcher, it needs a database of experiences to match against.  Trying new things expands that database and makes your intuition more powerful.  Thus, I found myself at Ephemerisle on a purloined bunk at 5 am for 5 nights in a row with music pounding in my ears, in spite of the ear plugs screwed tightly in place.

Thus, I found myself at Ephemerisle on a purloined bunk at 5 am for 5 nights in a row with music pounding in my ears, in spite of the ear plugs screwed tightly in place.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that I was really purchasing a shared bunk, not a bunk for myself, when I signed up.  At 6’6”, I found that arrangement too cramped for my taste.  Luckily, the assigned sleeping was fairly flexible…

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that I was really purchasing a shared bunk, not a bunk for myself, when I signed up.  At 6’6”, I found that arrangement too cramped for my taste.  Luckily, the assigned sleeping was fairly flexible and I was able to locate ad hoc bunks each night to sprawl my gangly frame out on.

ephemerisle-panarama

Photo by Sean Dwyer

So what was this Ephemerisle thing?  It was certainly a dance party at night, and a hot, sunny boating vacation during the day, and a non-stop intellectual smorgasbord with insightful conversations to be had around every corner.  But one unexpected aspect of this trip that I hadn’t foreseen was the uncanny sense of community.

So what was this Ephemerisle thing?  It was certainly a dance party at night, and a hot, sunny boating vacation during the day, and a non-stop intellectual smorgasbord with insightful conversations to be had around every corner.  But one unexpected aspect of this trip that I hadn’t foreseen was the uncanny sense of community.

 Though the small circle of friends I had back in Buffalo who lived in shared housing was somewhat similar, I had the sense of living in a little village for perhaps the first time in my life.  There were about 150 people on the island most of the time, which is a nice comfortable Dunbar number.  When I woke up each day, I would go forth in search of caffeine and bacon, and, lo and behold, I was surrounded by other folks doing exactly that same thing.

I am used to quiet mornings by myself shuffling around my apartment making my own tea and breakfast while by girlfriend snoozes away in the bedroom.  But mornings on Ephemerisle were communal affairs.  I saw others around me pursuing the same morning goals and it felt … comforting.  Modern life is so isolating with each little nuclear family tucked away, separate from all the others.

Modern life is so isolating with each little nuclear family tucked away, separate from all the others.  It’s a warm, inclusive feeling to share experiences with your neighbors.  Each evening at sunset, the entire population of Titan was up on the roofs of the houseboats, taking in the beautiful view, enjoying the golden hour together, socially.

 It’s a warm, inclusive feeling to share experiences with your neighbors.  Each evening at sunset, the entire population of Titan was up on the roofs of the houseboats, taking in the beautiful view, enjoying the golden hour together, socially.  It felt really natural and compelling.  We humans probably evolved in little groups about this size, and I love the neo-paleo idea of intentional communities like this.  We need to bring back the village and the shared community.  But these should be communities of choice rather than the forced obligation of villages in the past.  (Of course I would think that, being a liberal.)

So what else did I learn at Ephemerisle?

Being a Bay Area crowd, of course there were lightning talks, since we do love our talks.  Christine Peterson urged the women of the crowd to forsake the bad boys and give the good guys a chance by dating them for at least two months to give the oxytocin a chance to kick in.

 Well, being a Bay Area crowd, of course there were lightning talks, since we do love our talks.  At Ephemerisle these are called Memocracy.  Christine Peterson urged the women of the crowd to forsake the bad boys and give the good guys a chance by dating them for at least two months to give the oxytocin a chance to kick in.  Though she acknowledged the allure of bad boys and noted the common strategy of women marrying good guys and cheating with bad boys (cuckolding!), she warned of the dangers involved with that approach.  Good guy that I perceive myself to be, I fully concur with her sage advice.  Stay away from those players, you wise females, it’ll end in tears.

Divia Caroline Eden talked about TagTeach and operant conditioning.  She reiterated the idea that one should make as few errors as possible when learning a new skill… Divia recommended breaking it down into the smallest blocks possible and focusing on precision before speed.

Divia Caroline Eden talked about TagTeach and operant conditioning.  She reiterated the idea that one should make as few errors as possible when learning a new skill.  This was non-obvious to me at first, but was also touched on by Michael Valentine at the CFAR workshop.  It made more sense to me when I considered that you shouldn’t practice making mistakes.  Thus to learn a task, Divia recommended breaking it down into the smallest blocks possible and focusing on precision before speed.  She suggested that if you can’t perform a task in the first two or three attempts, to make it simpler.  I hadn’t heard her speak before, but she seemed very knowledgeable on this topic.

All the talks were quite interesting, but I will gloss over some others briefly.  Fellow QS’er Dan Dascalescu talked about a blood work service called Inside Tracker that recommends optimal supplementation based on your actual nutrient levels.  Conor White-Sullivan spoke on his passion for learning and being inspired by Ben Franklin’s Junto.  Randy Hencken spoke about the opportunities being explored by the Seasteading Institute and clued me in to some show called Silicon Valley that had a seasteading episode.  I have to check out any show with a character modeled after Peter Thiel.  A fellow from Honduras was promoting the opportunities for libertarians to experiment with new forms of government in Honduras’ new autonomous free trade zones.

Bleys Goodson gave a talk on harm reduction… (He) dreams of removing all suffering from the world, even to the extent of modifying ecosystems so that predators won’t need to prey on other creatures.

Bleys Goodson gave a talk on harm reduction, which I missed, but I did have a chance to talk with him and his thesis is similar to David Pearce, who also dreams of removing all suffering from the world, even to the extent of modifying ecosystems so that predators won’t need to prey on other creatures.  I had been skeptical of this approach, arguing that once we remove suffering, we will effectively narrow the full range of sensation.  It may even turn out that any state short of complete bliss will seem like suffering in this world.  To which Bleys effectively replied, “So what, that would be better than this world.”  I thought this over for a minute and I had to concede the point.  I really can’t argue against those who would reduce the suffering in this world.  It’s really a worthy goal that’s worth the trade-off of a compressed range of experience.

Of course I chatted with a bunch of tech people here and there.  I learned that there is a stealthy hierarchical social network platform being built called Urbit.  I heard about a distributed internet resource platform called MaidSafe.  One fellow made the misinformed claim that the Deep Web was resistant to government control, neglecting the fact that the NSA can tap all the pipes and capture data in transit, so it doesn’t matter if the websites you visit are indexed or not.  But it’s interesting to think about the fact that the majority of the internet is unavailable to search engines.

There was much discussion of leadership, and it was pointed out that leaders must not show fear or uncertainty, since we all mimic each other and it’s unhelpful for a team to mimic fear when undertaking a project.  I was reminded of a new age woo weaver, called the Visionary Activist, who asserted that:

We now know that the alpha wolf is the charismatic one who invites everyone in the pack into creative play. And you can identify an alpha wolf within 10 days of birth because it is the cub in the litter with the lowest resting heart rate. The calmest, coolest wolf turns out to be the most charismatic, the most fun.

I couldn’t actually find any supporting evidence for this “fact,” which appears to have been pulled out of some rear orifice, but I like the idea nonetheless.  I don’t like the idea of a domineering leader.  I am more comfortable striving to be a leader who invites allies into creative play.

I was also turned on to René Girard’s Mimetic Desire thesis, which suggests that desire is essentially social in nature, which fits into my conceptual framework nicely.  It seems to fit into the whole friendly AI question, and might give a clue as to how a group of agents with diverse desires could actually outcompete a single agent with static desires.  It also throws more cold water on hard individualism, which I will always delight in doing.

… There was much talk of poetry and music.  Jim O. coordinated a poetry reading and brought a wonderful collection of books… People read selections like Robert Frost’s Acquainted with the Night and ee cummings’ What of a Much of a Which of the Wind.

Unlike a lot of events that I normally attend, there was much talk of poetry and music.  Jim O. coordinated a poetry reading and brought a wonderful collection of books.  I literally had tears streaming down my face as people read selections like Robert Frost’s Acquainted with the Night and ee cummings’ What of a Much of a Which of the Wind.  I learned that I truly admire the work of Wallace Stevens, who I hadn’t heard of before.  Joe B. shared poems like Six Significant Landscapes and The Man with the Blue Guitar.  And then there was the hilarious and apropos I’m a Modern Man by George Carlin, who might well have been mocking half the attendees at Ephemerisle.  Selections like Tim Minchin’s Storm, Circus Animals Desertion by Yeats, and Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel rounded out the reading.  I was remarkably moved by this moment of culture, and it reminded me that I haven’t read poetry in years, let alone heard it read aloud with strong emotions.  This is a deficit I look forward to correcting.

ephemerisle-dancing

Photo by Matt Bell

As for music, I learned that there is a genre called ElectroSwing, which proved to be quite popular.  It combines old-timey jazz with modern progressive beats, and I actually found that I could dance to it just a little bit, unlike the jarring DubStep that the kids like to spaz out to these days.  I asked around and the consensus was that Caravan Palace is one of the bands to definitely check out in this style.  Though there was a diverse range of tastes represented with some people preferring trap music artists like Dirty South Joe, 90s artists Fantastic Plastic Machine, and even modern harpist Joanna Newsom.

Now I want to address a sensitive topic that presented something of a moral dilemma for me.  A small number of women at Ephemerisle were topless or nude at certain times during the event.

Now I want to address a sensitive topic that presented something of a moral dilemma for me.  A small number of women at Ephemerisle were topless or nude at certain times during the event.  (Some men were nude as well.)  Now, I would certainly never disparage public nudity at an event like this that has liberty as a core value.  But newbie that I am to these sorts of events, I had a difficult time dealing with it.  Given the puritanical and even prudish norms of American society, public nudity would be expected to trigger some amount of sexual arousal in onlookers.  I am willing to allow that different social norms have been established in communities like this and Burning Man.  Yet, I remain skeptical that at least some of the people that chose to be nude weren’t engaging in some sort of explicit exhibitionist sexual play.

Even if the nudists just wanted to feel free of arbitrary social constraints, that’s fine.  All of the participants at this event were well-behaved, and the only rumors I heard of unpleasant incidents involved party crashers who were quickly escorted off of the island.  I mentioned my discomfort at seeing these naked young women to a friend of mine and he reassured me that they wanted to share their beauty and there was nothing wrong with appreciating that beauty.  And that made me feel better to a degree.  But seeing a topless twenty-something woman hula-hooping or giving a lap dance to the judges in a cooking contest triggers more of a physiological response than some dispassionate admiration of beauty.  Really, even a young woman sitting topless and nodding along sagely as conversation turns to Federal Reserve policy strikes me as remarkably kinky. 

The most obvious moral dilemma I ran into was this: At what point does a forty-something like myself cross the line into perversion by ogling naked women in their twenties?  Regardless of how the Ephemerisle community may view this sort of thing, I don’t want to think of myself as a dirty old man.  I subscribe to virtue ethics in these scenarios.  Style and character matter.

I’m the first to admit that I am being a prude here.  When Christine Peterson notes the attraction that women have for bad boys, the converse should also be noted.  Men are often attracted to bad girls as well.  Esther Perel points this out in her excellent Ted Talk on maintaining the spark in long-term relationships.  The forbidden is erotic.  Transgression makes desire more potent.  The most obvious moral dilemma I ran into was this: At what point does a forty-something like myself cross the line into perversion by ogling naked women in their twenties?  Regardless of how the Ephemerisle community may view this sort of thing, I don’t want to think of myself as a dirty old man.  I subscribe to virtue ethics in these scenarios.  Style and character matter.

And yet when faced with a moral challenge, I had a remarkably difficult time resisting the urge to look at these nude women.  I had the slightly unpleasant experience of struggling for control of my own involuntary physiological responses.  I will grant that this dilemma would have been greatly reduced if more of the nude women had been my own age.  (Is Generation X more modest than Millennials?  You sure won’t see me getting naked in public any time soon.)  Large age disparities equate to large power disparities, which I find ugly in any relationship.  There is a beauty to symmetry in relationships.  And this is where I realize that the sexual play between a voyeur and exhibitionist inherently lacks symmetry, even when the ages of the participants are comparable.  The arousal of the voyeur simply cannot be reciprocated by a exhibitionist exposing herself to a large group.  So yeah, I guess I am going to be a stick-in-the-mud on principle here.

And, of course, bringing this discussion home to my girlfriend of 17 years led to some fairly passionate discussions.  She’s quite a jealous person, so we had to work hard to come to a mutual agreement on the matter.  In the end she conceded that it’s unreasonable for her to expect me not to ever be attracted to other women, and that we both value honesty enough to deal with the consequences of talking about it.  For her part, she acknowledged feeling undervalued by a society that places such a premium on the youthful beauty of women.  But she dresses very androgynously (a throwback to when her queer sister used to help dress her), and she learned that showing off her figure a bit more will garner more attention from both men and women, which I don’t have a problem with, so this was a productive crisis for both of us.

Overall, I was deeply impacted by my experience at Ephemerisle… I came out of it with a renewed interest in intentional communities, a newfound love of boating, a new favorite musical genre (ElectroSwing!), a whole plethora of new ideas to explore, a greater capacity to gracefully deal with public nudity, and really many new social connections…

Overall, I was deeply impacted by my experience at Ephemerisle. It certainly far surpassed any expectations I had about Comfort Zone Expansion.  I came out of it with a renewed interest in intentional communities, a newfound love of boating, a new favorite musical genre (ElectroSwing!), a whole plethora of new ideas to explore, a greater capacity to gracefully deal with public nudity, and really many new social connections, because I met some amazing people that I look forward to getting to know better in the future.  I want to extend many thanks to all of the people who worked so hard to make this event happen, it really was a transformational experience for me.

The Hardest Problems of the Future are Political

can-conservatives-and-liberals-be-friendsI often feel that the hardest problems of the future are political.  The most obvious example of this is the green revolution.  I love to think about how the Haber process allowed humans to pull nitrogen from the air and create fertilizer.  It’s estimated that 40% of humans alive today owe their existence to this process.  Yet, we clearly haven’t eliminated world hunger.  We haven’t even eliminated hunger here in the USA.  Bright eyed positivists may insist that we merely need the next big breakthrough to make food even cheaper.  Ray Kurzweil rightly points out that many revolutionary technologies start out expensive and faulty, only to end up cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous through exponential progress. The worldwide explosion of mobile technology is a recent example of this.

But I remain unconvinced that we can rely on technology alone to improve the human condition.  Our world will not spontaneously transform into the Star Trek world that Gene Roddenberry envisioned, in which humanity, freed from the need to toil for base survival, casts money aside and boldly strides among the stars.  Americans in particular seem highly averse to this scifi socialism, as I have noted before.  Perhaps we are too ruggedly independent, valuing personal accountability and self-reliance over care for the poor and needy.

Yet, as wealth inequality increases along with automation, the Lights in the Tunnel scenario outlined by Martin Ford becomes more likely.  Ford argues that the Luddite Fallacy, which shows that automation creates jobs in other sectors, will soon come to an end as humans fall further and further behind machine capabilities.  If fewer people can work, then fewer people will be able to purchase goods.  The law of diminishing propensity to consume dictates that the economy will thus contract with fewer consumers.  After all, by the time you have purchased your fifth super-yacht, they start to become boring.

Marshall Brain offers a wonderful market based solution to this problem: give everyone a $25,000 per year stipend.  They will spend this money as they see fit, allowing the markets to continue functioning as consumers pick the winning and losing companies based on how well these companies meet consumer preferences.  As Vernor Vinge says, humans excel at one thing that machines can’t yet compete with: we want things.  But this is simply a non-starter politically here in the USA.  Especially with the Tea Party types screaming for less government and more personal accountability, and frankly, not even the liberals are putting forth this radical of an idea.

This graph of the liberal and conservative blogosphere sums up the problem nicely:

liberal-conservative-blogosphere

This is a bit old, but it shows the links between conservative and liberal blogs back in 2004.  Note that few blogs are in the middle and there are few links between the two clusters.  This is referred to as selective exposure.  We all naturally seek out ideas that we agree with.  But it makes it hard to communicate with the other side if you are just indignantly preaching to the choir with spittle flying from your lips.  And the spittle doth fly.  With Congress in gridlock, the media pundits on both sides spew vitriol at the other, and it sometimes feels as though there are two Americas (At least two really).

This is where Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory comes to the rescue.*  Haidt factored human values into five major foundations with a tentative sixth:

THE MORAL FOUNDATIONS

1) Care/harm: … Related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: … Ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives.]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: … Related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies the virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active any time people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: … Shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: … Shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

We think there are several other very good candidates for “foundationhood,” especially:

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. We report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.

This picture sums up the idea nicely:

moral-foundations-graph

Here we see how much liberals (green) and conservatives (purple) value each of the moral foundations.  Notice that conservatives value all of the foundations more or less equally, while liberals value care, liberty, and fairness, but disdain loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  Hmm, sounds about right to me.  I considered myself a liberal for a long time, and I have a hard time seeing the sense in valuing authority for its own sake.  But along the way, I have met a bunch of earnest, intelligent, conservatives and libertarians, who seem to sincerely believe that their ideology will result in the best outcomes for everyone.  And I have a hard time demonizing the conservative I share coffee with as we discuss the singularity.

What I love about the Moral Foundations Theory is that it offers us a key to bridge the divide between these two Americas, liberal and conservative.  (Libertarians are different and value the liberty dimension above all others, apparently.)  When viewed through the lens of moral foundations, some conservative positions become much more intelligible, especially when considering the three great differentiators: loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Take illegal immigration for example.  Liberals tend to be soft on this issue and more welcoming of immigrants in general.  The conservative position might seem cold hearted and provincial.  All rational arguments about the economic benefits of immigration (i.e. leads to greater GDP) fall on deaf ears.  Even the fairness argument that we were all immigrants once (except indigenous people) fails to gain much traction with staunch conservatives.  But instead of throwing up their hands and deciding that conservatives are simply evil, liberals might do well to pause a moment and consider how illegal immigration could undermine our democracy.

The formal immigration process tries to ensure that immigrants are familiar with the institutions of the United States.  In order to become citizens, they must learn about our constitution, history, and democratic values.  This helps them understand how democracy is SUPPOSED to work.  The countries many immigrants come from don’t have good American things like rule of law or freedom of speech.  If they become citizens illegally, it’s not clear that they will understand how to fight for democratic values.  This will result in a growing underclass, afraid to speak up for themselves, woefully unaware of enlightenment era concepts of individual rights.  The formal immigration process also teaches immigrants the story of America, which creates a coherent American narrative that will help us relate to each other and move forward as a people.  This is just one example of how carefully considering a conservatives’ moral foundations reveals nuances to our nation’s problems, and hopefully could reveal a path towards compromise.

The 4th of July is something of an ambiguous holiday for liberals, and really liberals probably are a bit deficient in patriotism, or loyalty to our country.  They don’t seem to value this moral foundation of loyalty much.  And that is a shame really.   I heard Danielle Allen, author of a new book on the Declaration of Independence, on NPR today, and was struck again at the visionary struggle that the founders of our nation underwent as they carefully crafted America’s seminal texts.  I personally will take Allen’s advice and read the declaration in its entirety.  Because for all its flaws, I am proud of this American experiment.  Sure, we are no Scandinavia with its admirable socialism.  But the Scandinavians can’t match our pluralism.  Not to mention the fact that when’s the last time a cool band came out of there?  Abba?

America actually is the coolest country in the world.  And as I feel a stirring of patriotism on this holiday, I think that I am becoming a reformed liberal.  One who might value loyalty a little bit after all.  One who might reach out to my conservative friends and try to pry the rules of tradition** from their hands, while offering some good rational alternatives in exchange, which satisfy their moral sensibilities.  Because America is awesome, and if we don’t all get together and craft a solution, it will all go to hell when the robots take over.

* Err, I know, the corruption thing needs to get worked out first.
** This conservatives-slavish-hue-to-heuristics idea is worth further examination.

[UPDATE 10/17/2015]

I like ideas like Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory because it seeks to establish some first principles from which we should be to extrapolate why the left and the right disagree in our country.  Same for Muder’s inherited obligations of conservatives vs negotiated obligations of liberals. But then I went on Facebook and tried to use these principals to actually argue with a conservative and I failed utterly.  I was trying to understand by what principle do conservatives oppose abortion which kills babies but support wars that kill babies.  The answer I got was that morals don’t need to be consistent.  We can have one justification for a certain position and an entirely different justification for another.  But the problem is that this sounds irrational to me.  I want human morals to be ultimately  rational, but I should know better.  

I do believe that morals are adaptive.  We adopt the morals of the tribe around us so that they won’t kill us (in uncooperative environments) or so that we can flourish (in more cooperative environments)  Robin Hanson would probably point out that these morals are just social signalling to help us identify with our in groups.  There is no more rhyme nor reason to the pattern of beliefs held by liberals or conservatives any more than the spots of a peacock feather.