Virtues for Real-World Utilitarians

post by Stefan_Schubert, Lucius Caviola (Lucius_Caviola) · 2021-08-05T22:56:53.819Z · EA · GW · 6 comments

This is a link post for

In this paper, we argue that utilitarians who try to act on utilitarianism in the real world face many psychological obstacles, ranging from selfishness to moral biases to limits to epistemic and instrumental rationality. To overcome the most important of these obstacles, utilitarians need to cultivate a number of virtues. We argue that utilitarians should prioritize six virtues.

In addition, we argue that utilitarians should normally not engage in harm for the greater good, but should stick to common sense norms such as norms against lying and stealing. 

So in our view, real-world utilitarianism converges with common sense morality in some respects. Utilitarians should follow common sense norms and should not feel that they have to sacrifice almost all of their resources for others, in contrast to what it might seem at first glance.

But in other ways, real-world utilitarianism diverges from common sense morality. Because some opportunities to do good are so much more effective than others, utilitarians should cultivate virtues that allow them to take those opportunities, such as effectiveness-focus and moral expansiveness. Those virtues are not emphasized by common sense morality.

Some of our suggested virtues are commonly associated with utilitarianism. Moral expansiveness is maybe the clearest example. By contrast, virtues such as truth-seeking, collaborativeness, and determination do not tend to be associated with utilitarianism, and are not conceptually tied to it. But empirically, it just turns out that they are very important in order to maximize utilitarian impact in the real world.


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comment by Misha_Yagudin · 2021-08-08T16:27:58.463Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great! I broadly endorse the above virtues and can't say much on the object level. On meta-level, I am curious about how do you think about the impact of this paper. I have certain guesses:

  • The paper's conclusion says: "We hope that it should inspire a debate among philosophers and psychologists about what virtues utilitarians should prioritize the most." Is that it?
  • Or are you aiming at figuring out recommendations for EAs to follow (akin to CEA's Guiding principles and Lucius Caviola's talk Against naive effective altruism)?
  • Or maybe you want to re-associate utilitarianism with nice/warm virtues because it appears cold to some (like Bleeding Heart Libertarians was reframing libertarianism)?
Replies from: Stefan_Schubert
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2021-08-08T21:57:56.804Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your comment. The comparison to Bleeding Heart Libertarians is good and instructive; thanks for that. Yes, one goal of our paper is to show that utilitarianism as practiced in the real world isn't about breaking rules and similar. Instead, when you actually apply utilitarianism, you need virtues that most people would feel positively about - like truth-seeking and collaboration. And yes, we do hope that that gives a different and more positive image of utilitarianism.

We also want to give recommendations to people who already believe in utilitarianism inside and outside the EA community, yes.

We are also at the early stages of an empirical project focused on getting a better psychological understanding of these virtues.

comment by Ozzie Gooen (oagr) · 2021-08-09T04:25:52.815Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting work, thanks for posting.

One very minor point:
I see that you use the term "Truth-seeking." I've heard this term used before in the extended community, and I generally like it, but my impression is that it's "primary" definition is particular to political situations. See:

Have you found any existing discussion here? Do you think it's fine for us to use the word in the way you do in this paper, in all settings, without this causing confusing?

Replies from: Stefan_Schubert
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2021-08-09T07:28:15.313Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, good question. I'm not quite sure how strongly the word "truth-seeking" is associated with this political usage (related to truth and reconciliation commissions, etc.). My intuition would have been that you can use it in the wider sense that we use it in here without risk of misunderstanding, but I haven't thought about it before and am open to input.

Replies from: Bluefalcon, oagr
comment by Vilfredo's Ghost (Bluefalcon) · 2021-08-10T06:06:46.056Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

the way you used it seems a lot more normal to me than the political usage

comment by Ozzie Gooen (oagr) · 2021-08-09T16:59:04.846Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Personally, I don't feel like I understand it's regular use much. My (brief) investigation has made me fairly confused on the matter.

If anyone else reading this feels like they have a better impression here, I'd be curious.