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 betrayal you feel watching Doubt, the betrayal would feel more than 300 times as sharp. 300 abusers represents just Pennsylvania. The full tally is unknown and probably unknowable.

Whatever loss you feel watching Up, you’d be struck by it again and again for each of the approximately 80,000 miscarriages per day across the world (Obstetricians, Gynecologists, and others 2002).

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 despair you feel watching The Skeleton Twins, you would feel that way for each of the estimated 334 million people in the world with depression (Organization and others 2017).

Whatever loneliness you feel watching Three Colors: Blue, you might feel that same feeling 2,500 times a day for each of the one quarter of US women who are widowed by age 65 (Berardo 1992).

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 impotence you feel watching Killer of Sheep, you’d remember that there are over 900,000 black people in Los Angeles alone living under flawed structures and institutions.

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.

Whatever hopelessness you feel watching Cool Hand Luke, it would echo and rebound magnified from the cells of more than 10 million detainees (Walmsley and others 2015).

Whatever suffocation you feel watching Requiem for a Dream, you’d feel it on behalf of the approximately 164 million people with substance use disorders (Ritchie and Roser 2018).

Whatever ache you feel watching Grave of the Fireflies, it would hollow you out each day along with the approximately 815 million people who are chronically undernourished (Organization 2014).

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 on 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. The names of those that struggle for a more perfect future, obstacles be damned. 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.”

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 humility 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.

Long-form caveats

In addition to the shorter ‘Warnings’ up top:

  1. 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.

  2. I’m not a wholly credulous adherent of the great man theory of history. The implied blame for the names listed in The world as we imagine it should surely be spread across many more actors.

  3. The arguments presented for Maximize or be maximized are far from conclusive. I am not myself convinced the claim is correct. (Edit: It turns out this argument that maximizers win in the end goes by the name “the singleton hypothesis” (Bostrom 2006).) Even if it’s not, I think the moral imperative to maximize can be made (under certain ethical views) in terms of opportunity cost.

Berardo, F. M. 1992. “Widowhood.” In Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by E. F. Borgatta and M. L. Borgatta. Macmillan.

Bostrom, Nick. 2006. “What Is a Singleton.” Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations 5 (2): 48–54.

Desvousges, William H, F Reed Johnson, Richard W Dunford, Kevin J Boyle, Sara P Hudson, and K Nicole Wilson. 1992. Measuring Nonuse Damages Using Contingent Valuation: An Experimental Evaluation of Accuracy. Vol. 1992. Research Triangle Institute Research Triangle Park, NC.

International Labour Organization. 2018. World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018.

Obstetricians, American College of, Gynecologists, and others. 2002. “ACOG Practice Bulletin. Management of Recurrent Pregnancy Loss. Number 24, February 2001.(Replaces Technical Bulletin Number 212, September 1995). American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.” International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics: The Official Organ of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics 78 (2): 179.

Organization, Agriculture. 2014. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014: Strengthening the Enabling Environment for Food Security and Nutrition. Food; Agriculture Organization.

Organization, World Health, and others. 2017. “Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates.” World Health Organization.

Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. 2018. “Substance Use.”

Roser, Max. 2018. “War and Peace.”

UN, UNICEF. 2015. “The Millennium Development Goals Report.” UN New York.

Walmsley, Roy, and others. 2015. World Prison Population List. Home Office London.