The moral imperative and mortal peril of maximizing
The world as we understand it
A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. —Probably not Joseph Stalin
We humans are famously bad at finely-tuned and well-calibrated caring. In an early study on scope neglect, experimental subjects were willing to pay $80 to save 2,000 migrating birds from drowning in oil ponds and $78 to save 20,000 (Desvousges et al. 1992). Alas, our sentiments are not a precision instrument.
But suppose that our moods better mapped to the world as we understand it:
Whatever despondency you feel watching Winter’s Bone, your feelings would be magnified in depth and breadth by the knowledge that 836 million people in the world live on less than $1.25/day (UN 2015).
Whatever precarity you feel watching Grapes of Wrath, you’d feel it a shattering 2 billion times more intensely for the approximately 25 percent of the world population that live on small farms.
Whatever shame you feel watching Tokyo Sonata, you’d feel it 192 million times over for the global unemployed in 2018 (International Labour Organization 2018). Then you’d remember that any period of unemployment’s negative effects last at least 10 years [louis2002].
Whatever horror you feel watching The Battle of Algiers, you’d feel it just the same for each and every one of the approximately 80,000 people who will die from battle in state-based conflicts this year (Roser 2018).
Whatever grief you feel watching Amour, you’d have around 3.5 minutes to recover before the grief of another US death by stroke crashed over you.
But, for good or for ill, we are bounded and parochial. We cannot comprehend in any but the most abstracted ways the daily ruin that nature visits on us, that we visit on ourselves and each other.
The world as we imagine it
[T]hose who would play this [utopian] game on the strength of their own private opinion … and would brave the frightful bloodshed and misery that would ensue if the attempt was resisted—must have a serene confidence in their own wisdom on the one hand and a recklessness of other people’s sufferings on the other, which Robespierre and St. Just […] scarcely came up to. (Mill 1879)
The tragedies of life on Earth are no recent revelation. The Epic of Gilgamesh—our earliest surviving great work of literature—is about the hero’s vain attempt to undo the great tragedy of his life.
For some, the knowledge that tragedy has been with us from the beginning inspires not acquiescence but determination that we might leave it behind before we reach the end. These are names that go down in history. Names like:
- Maximilien Robespierre
“Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.”
- Adolph Hitler
“The exposure of sick, weak, deformed children, in short their destruction, was more decent and in truth a thousand times more humane than the wretched insanity of our day which preserves the most pathological subject, and indeed at any price, and yet takes the life of a hundred thousand healthy children in consequence of birth control or through abortions, in order subsequently to breed a race of degenerates burdened with illnesses.”
- Charles Trevelyan
In the face of the catastrophic Irish famine: “If the Irish once find out that there are any circumstances in which they can get free government grants, we shall have a system of mendicancy such as the world never knew.”
- George W. Bush
“In many nations of the Middle East – countries of great strategic importance – democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom, and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it.”
- Pol Pot
“I came to join the revolution, not to kill the Cambodian people. Look at me now. Am I a violent person? No. So, as far as my conscience and my mission were concerned, there was no problem.”
Whoops. That list wasn’t quite the moment of triumph we were building to.
I include all these names on the list not to suggest that they are morally equivalent but to illustrate a common thread: In each case, someone had or claimed to have a vision of the world as it ought to be—a remedy for misery. They swept up others, opportunists and true believers, in their vision. When they tried to wrench the world as they understood it toward the world as they imagined it, they found that these notional worlds were neither the world as it was nor the world as it should be. The distance between the notional and the actual was measured in bodies. In brief, the problem was hubris writ large.
Maximize or be maximized
This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise. If now there is not a communist government in Paris, this is only because Russia has no an army which can reach Paris in 1945. —Actually Joseph Stalin
If hubris is the problem, is the answer simply to look at all the fables on hubris—Icarus, Phaethon, Paradise Lost, Frankenstein—and follow the sage advice found therein? Alas, the complexity of the world as it is exceeds the complexity of the world as we render it in stories. There’s no author to ensure that our repentance is rewarded and we cannot relinquish power to its rightful source.
On the contrary, the only way out is through—we must maximize. As Stalin suggests in the epigraph, I fear that maximizers are destined to win out over satisficers. Just as a strain of bacteria which reproduces would dominate a petri dish when pitted against a sterile strain and a proselytizing religion spreads farther and faster than a disinterested one, totalizing world-systems tend to crowd out complacent ones. So whether the maximizer you fear is capitalism or its claimed successor, there is no refuge from maximizing.
The only possibility left to us is to enthrone a benevolent maximizer—usher in utopia—before one of the many indifferent maximizers squeezes out all alternatives. That is, we must find and reify the right epistemology, ethics, politics, economics, etc.—the world as we understand it forbids stasis. And there are no half measures in sight—it’s maximize or be maximized. But we must undertake this task with full knowledge that it is doubtful and dangerous—the world is better and worse and more than we imagine it to be.
In addition to the shorter ‘Warnings’ up top:
Inevitably, The world as we understand it cannot represent all the ills of the world. Any selection of problems is incomplete and no particular instance of a problem as dramatized in a film can represent the whole class. The current list has many omissions which reflect limited data, time, and my own parochialism.
The arguments presented for Maximize or be maximized are far from conclusive. I am not myself convinced the claim is correct. Even if it’s not, I think the moral imperative to maximize can be made (under certain ethical views) in terms of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost just doesn’t stir the heart in the same way that averting catastrophe does.
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