The Impossible Ranking

(Original version in Spanish here)

Last week, before the flames were extinguished in Notre Dame, the two opposing sides that usually arise around this type of news were marching through the world (real and virtual): those who lamented what happened, and those who lamented the ones who lamented what happened. I could not say exactly how big these two groups were, but from my remote corner of the internet, it would seem that for every two moaners, dismayed to see the Gothic icon now turned into a pyre, there was one critic of them, unease with the sudden outbreak of solidarity.

Of course it is a pity that this beautiful church blazed up” – sings the choir of the second group – “but are not there more serious problems in the world than the burning of a building in which nobody died?” What follows is then a litany of the tragedies of humanity and the observation of how ridiculous one looks, dismayed by the scorched cathedral, while in Syria there is a ruthless war going on, a billion people live in poverty, and the entire planet burns because of global warming. The most favorable verdict to the bleeding hearts is that they are not more than puppets; the nastiest, that they are hypocrites.

The story is the same every time someone displays a generous spirit. When in 2011 the Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo announced that he was going to give the 150 thousand dollars of the prize of the Guadalajara Book Fair to two Mexican organizations that protect street dogs, he got bullied by the media for his philanthropic choice. With so many people in need, how could anyone think of helping mongrels? On the other hand, nobody would have bothered in the least if Vallejo had declared that he was going to use that money in any of the unusual hobbies that he likes so much.

The illusion that all problems are comparable

The Notre Dame fire highlighted – once again – the profound inequality of our societies. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that a handful of French families have the financial muscle to move hundreds of millions of euros in a matter of hours for the reconstruction of the cathedral (oh, surprise! receiving generous tax benefits) while in Paris the number of homeless people is in the thousands and on the rise. But this is a reality that is equally shocking, regardless of whether the money of these tycoons is used to save works of art, dogs, people, or if they keep it in bank vaults.

But the criticisms that emerged after the events of Notre Dame went far beyond the issue of inequality. For many, there is something fundamentally wrong in showing support for some causes and not others, a view that arises from assuming that all the problems that afflict our societies are comparable and that there is a natural ranking of priorities that all altruists should respect.

The trick here is to remove all context and pose the issue as an abstract economic dilemma. Do we rebuild a building, or do we save the children from hunger, misery, and despair? The answer to this question is obvious, but one has to realize first that almost by magic two problems that had nothing to do with each other, are now projected on the same axis.

It is a fallacy to insist that all the problems of humanity are fungible and that we can establish a hierarchy that prevents us from trying to solve some of them until we resolve some others. To put all the calamities of this planet in the same pot, we have to harmonize first, in some way, at least four characteristics: The nature of their impacts, the timeframe in which they develop, the resources that are needed to solve them, and the distances that separate us from them.

If I am trying to decide between supporting an organization that gives shelter to the homeless in London, or another that offers free food to the poorest in this city, it will make sense to try to estimate which of the two initiatives promises a greater reward for those affected. After all, the target populations and the level of urgency are comparable, the resources to resolve them are in the same order of magnitude, and the emotional distance that separates me from both problems is precisely the same. But this decision strategy falls apart if the options are, for example, to donate to victims in Haiti after an earthquake devastated the island, or make a contribution to an organization that is looking for a cure for cancer. Is anyone ready to make a rational argument to decide which of these two problems is more important than the other?

Ineffective Altruism

Questions like this fascinate the members of the Effective Altruism movement (EA) whose mantra proves to be irresistible for those with very analytical minds: “You must do the most good in your life“. The keyword here is “most“, which is the one that gives this group such a unique character. It is not just any good that you should look to do in your philanthropic activities, but the ones that solve a massive optimization problem framed over all the calamities of humankind.

Even for someone like me, who considers himself quite cerebral, the calculations they make in EA are way too much. They have to resort to ingenious logical pirouettes to try to decide, for example, what is more noble, helping the blind or the starving; donate for research in malaria or global warming. It’s remarkable that after long Byzantine discussions, the members of EA feel at peace, having discovered with their great intellect the algorithm that will save humanity.

A person who wants to make a small donation for the reconstruction of Notre Dame, is doing a good thing or bad thing? For Peter Singer, a champion of the cause of EA, the answer is undoubtedly clear: it is bad. In his New York Times column of 2013, and more extensively in his book “The Most Good You Can Do“, Mr. Singer entertains the comparison between donating to an art gallery (which might be equivalent to a charred cathedral) or to a foundation that helps recover the sight of blind people. After a long chain of assumptions and deductions, Mr. Singer not only manages to conclude that the donation to the gallery is a waste, but extrapolates the argument to find that any contribution to the arts is irrational.

If you perceive a certain air of moral superiority in the movement of EA, it is because, from their point of view, the efforts that one makes to causes that are outside their radar are, by definition, suboptimal. Steven Pinker, giving his endorsement to this group said: “These are efforts that actually help people rather than making you feel good or helping you show off“.

I feel uncomfortable criticizing EA as I myself was an enthusiast of this movement during my Ph.D. years, and I still have several friends who are members of it. I also know that EA people are open to debate and criticism. They are not crazy fundamentalists, but rather a group of generous and well-intentioned thinkers that seek to make a change in this world. It may be me who has not understood something fundamental about their philosophy, so I encourage readers who have not heard about EA before to form their own impressions by examining the abundant material about this movement that is available on the Internet.

Long-distance relationships

I mentioned earlier that the emotional distances that separate us from the tragedies of humanity must be harmonized before we can even think of making them all comparable. If a problem afflicts a group of Colombians and another a group of, say, Ugandans, I must first relinquish any sense of belonging to the country where I was born, if I don’t want to bias my decision against the Africans.

Wearing the EA goggles, one finds a simple solution to the conundrum: introducing loyalties in altruism is immoral. Their argument rests on an indisputable truth: any human life is worth precisely the same anywhere on the planet, no matter if it is in Colombia or Uganda. Therefore, I must not flinch if the victim of a tragedy is my neighbor or if it is someone who lives in the antipodes. I must be indifferent if those who suffer do so because of a condition that has affected a loved one in the past, or if they suffer from something of which I know little or nothing.

The fear of contesting this view is that one runs the risk of being grouped with those morons who believe that there is no world beyond national borders, or that your only duty in life is to pick a rifle and defend your family. Perhaps if one does not agree with the homogeneity principles of EA, one might end up being accused of sharing Theresa May’s ridiculous views that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere“.

Mathematicians can construct and explore imaginary spaces in which the distance to any point is always the same (these are called discrete spaces). Although they are essential in Mathematics, one would have to be Borges to be able to describe these abstractions without having to resort to mathematical technicalities. Quino, the author of the best Latinamerican comic ever, Mafalda, drew a particularly inspired vignette where Felipe is asked to think of a place like that, where everything is here, making the poor boy faint.

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[1] Mafalda: Felipe, have you ever thought about what would happen if distances didn’t exist? Felipe: If distances didn’t exist? No, what would happen? [2] M: That everything would be here. Do you realize what it would be like if everything was here? [3] Everything here. Kremlin. The Lone Ranger. The Beatles. Africa. Cuba. Berlin Wall. Disneyland. Pelé. Vietnam. The Ku-Klux-Klan. Jerry Lewis [4] M: Do you realize Felip…? [5] M: Yeap, he realizes.
 Mathematical discrete spaces are not a good model of human interactions, despite whatever EA claims. The reality is that we forge loyalties of various intensities and denying that essential human condition is an unacceptable simplification. It is true: I prefer to help my countrymen and women, and I would not be shocked at all if my friends in Uganda think the same way. But that’s not the end of the story. What is really beautiful about our humanity is that we also seek to get closer to others, even those who are far away from us.

Reading, traveling, interacting with people who live a reality different from ours help us to shorten the distances that separate us from others. Only approaching these other realities is that we can feel the pain of others as ours, become sensitive to the suffering of animals, or understand the importance of the human cultural legacy. Maybe we have to be humble and accept that this is a slow process, and that life is too short for us to develop empathy with all humans on this planet. But we cannot take shortcuts to satisfy our natural human desire of helping others, and we have to acknowledge that the first thing we must do is to bridge, step by step, the emptiness between us.

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