Saturday, September 19, 2015

Doing Good Better by Will MacAskill – review

I don’t give to charity much. It’s not for want of a compassionate spirit. Some of my greatest anxieties over the years have been whether I’m a good or, more frequently, a bad person. I’m sometimes inspired by the desperation of disaster appeals to part with the odd £50, but having worked for charities, and knowing people who work for them, and knowing a little about them, I’ve become incredibly dubious about the value of giving to them.

Will MacAskill is a bright spark. He’s a research fellow in philosophy at Cambridge, and an associate professor in philosophy at Oxford, and from his photos he looks about 17, so I’m going for bright (which I think we save for people we’re trying to patronise) rather than ferociously clever, but you can take your own pick. His new book, Doing Good Better, is full of great new ways of thinking, surprising conclusions and helpful advice, and it has garnered great reviews from other ferociously bright Oxbridge graduates such as the Guardian's David Shariatmadari.

While Doing Good Better is ostensibly about how best to contribute to charity (branded nowadays as "effective altruism"), it is more widely about how to make decisions in general and in this way it fits neatly into the nascent Freakonomics genre – lo and behold, there is a gushing quote from Stephen Levitt on the cover – in which writers apply economic concepts to unusual topics, and which, spiced with a slug of maverick thinking and a certain amount of journalistic sleight-of-hand, have sold shedloads. (Incidentally, Freakonomics as a term, I’ve recently realised, only really works pronounced by an American rather than a Brit, for whom Dreckonomics might work better, or possibly Feckonomics.)

MacAskill's book is replete with interesting ideas and eyecatching (and liberal-baiting) heresies: Fairtrade is rubbish; sweatshops are good; carbon offsetting is more than just nonsensical greenwash; working in the City (and then donating a portion of your wages) can do more good than digging wells in Africa; going into politics could do anything good at all.

The most essential tenet with which MacAskill sets out his stall is that we should do as much good as possible with our donations. Some good is not enough; we must strive to do the most good we can do. He then moves on to a set of questions we can ask when judging whether a charity, or activity, or job is going to provide that “most good”. The question of whether we must strive to find the most good is already a vexed one, and although it sounds superficially a useful idea, it begins to betray the huge number of assumptions that MacAskill rolls into his calculations once he moves on to making assessments. (I find it interesting that an ambitious high flyer should be so set on “the most” or “the best”.) As Amia Srinivasan in the LRB alludes to, however, this impulse to do the most good takes on its own momentum: if we’re into doing the “most” good with our money, why stop at 10% or 15% or even 50% of our income. Why should we have luxuries, such as shoes or toast? Why do we need chairs, when there’s people dying out there? We can sit on the floor. Do we even need to sit down at all? (Late add: read this)

It’s when we come to MacAskill’s framework for making choices that we face our own choice of how much to accept. He has his five key questions on altruism: how many people benefit and by how much; is this the most effective thing you can do; is the area neglected; what would happen otherwise; what are the chances of success, and how much success would there be – and in answering them, the full battery of Freakonomic jargon comes out to play: a rinse and repeat cycle of Qalys (quality-adjusted life year), marginal utility, expected value, counterfactuals and a lot of putting numbers to things that you wouldn’t imagine at first glance (or indeed second or third) could have numbers put to them. Micromorts – where the risk of an activity killing you is turned into a value – get an airing; taking ecstasy is worth one micromort apparently, since the risk of dying is one in a million; climbing Mount Everest gets 13,000. There’s an almost hilarious attempt to judge how much money an MP could influence in a career.

This quantification of the difficult-to-quantify harks back to John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism, trying to assess the greatest good for the greatest number. Putting numbers on things does help us make sense of the world. And you can be sceptical about it without necessarily writing the whole thing off. The early scientists might have found the idea of putting a number on the speed something travels as impossible, even undesirable; I mean, how would you even begin to think about going about it? So it would be churlish to say out and out that trying to assess different medical programs or charitable endeavours by measuring or predicting their outputs is so fraught and filled with gross assumptions that the numbers you get at the end, while they might help you feel like you can make a decision, are closer to a fantasy than a predictive map.

Of course, in the real world, we do these kind of gross assumptions all the time, and it has to be better than other means of making these decisions: asking a priest or consulting runes or taking acid in a desert cave and waiting to see what the wall paintings tell us. But as MacAskill mentions when he’s talking about Fukushima nuclear disaster, and as we also saw in the subprime mortgage fiasco of 2007, small assumptions (in those cases, that a tiny chance of failure equalled zero, which is fine and dandy until it suddenly doesn’t) when rolled into other assumptions and cooked in a lovely Qaly-marginal utility-expected value stew, can turn out quite convincing but entirely wrong results.

The expected influence of an MP is a great example of how nebulous the calculations can get. MacAskill divides up British government spending into portions based on who he thinks influences where the money goes. At the end of this, he decides that an MP can influence £8m. Because he’s made a lot of conservative assumptions on the way, he feels pretty confident about this figure. But conservative or not, those assumptions carry a huge forward weight on them. A slight error in one has a dramatic effect on the end figure. And do backbench opposition MPs really think they influence £8m a year? Isn't there a huge variation between them that makes the number meaningless?

This sort of thing is what I call, in the manner of MacAskill and Freakonomics, the spiral of assumptions. From tiny assumptions, colossal mistakes are made. MacAskill’s so confident in his calculations that he even rolls how uncertain he is into them. But how certain is he about how uncertain he is? We’re into known knowns and unknown unknowns, and look how that worked out for Rumsfeld.

There’s something quite neoliberal in the assumptions MacAskill has made – not just when he tells people to get jobs in the City in order to donate their wages, quite forgetting, in his calculations, to take on board the possible damage that a career in the City could do to those you’re supposedly doing it in order to help (he has apparently subsequently addressed this). The two key assumptions underlying neoliberalism seem to be to be: the best marker of value is price, and the best decider of price is the market. It’s in the game of sticking numbers on things. Sticking numbers on things that are hard to quantify seems like a sensible enough thing to try – you can always adjust a value if you later find out you’ve got it wrong. But when it leads you to take for granted all sorts of things that are speculative at best – and at its worst, to screen out those things that you can’t jimmy up a value framework for – then you might find the results are not what you expected. You might even be doing bad.

I hesitate to get too up in MacAskill's grill – as Kant used to say – mainly because he is a philosophy don at both Ox and Bridge and I am, well, not. But there's a couple of points in which I feel he's on shaky ground. The first goes back to doing the most good, which automatically means doing good in places such as Ethiopia, where your money goes a lot further. But there's a lot to be said for proximity – giving to causes both close to your home and your heart – and giving in such a way that you can see the results. Charity begins at home, after all. And there's something curious about people who state in all confidence that they care no more for their family, or neighbours, than strangers across the ocean. Something not quite right.

The second point is slightly too dull to go into at length here, but is to do with carbon offsetting and whether preventing further rainforest destruction (as the charity he recommends does) can really count as offsetting your continuing carbon output (at a time when scientists are calling urgently for "negative emissions", preventing other further emissions while adding your own seems the quintessential "greenwash"). But whether or not it does – I don't think so – the charity he recommends, Cool Earth, sounds great, and definitely seems worth giving some of your money to.

Doing Good Better is filled with similarly great recommendations and ideas, but there's something awry in the ultra-rationality and seemingly arbitrary valuations. It's good, in other words, but he could have done better.

This just in: While I was attempting to construct this robust intellectual critique, I chanced upon a recent article by MacAskill, W and MacAskill, A (wife? sister?) that attempts to use the familial utilitarian-logic-and-reason method to show that lions shouldn’t be allowed to hunt wild animals. With its abundance of reason and surfeit of sense, it manages to come off as a sort of masterful Voltarian satire; the kind of thing, so they would teach you in philosophy class, after which utilitarianism was never heard of again.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Minds made up – a short story

The door opened and she came into the room. He was lying on the bed and worried immediately that he somehow looked undignified. As he tried to straighten himself out, a thought appeared in his head: “Oh, he looks sweet.” Not a thought of his, but he heard it all the same.

“Hey,” he said, “how are you?”

“I’m good,” she said, and she broke into a smile from the shyness.

He looked at her for a second and thought how beautiful she looked, and much he fancied her. Then he remembered himself. “Sit down,” he said, pointing at the chair. And then he heard in his head: “Rather sit on the bed.”

 He struggled to get his voice above a mumble. “Or ...” he said, nodding at the bed.

He cursed. He knew that when he was too shy, he might seem rude, or just retarded. But she took the hint, and sat on the bed, beside him. He wanted to touch her.

She looked at him, the edge of her lip caught between her teeth. Another strange thought crossed his mind, one that couldn’t possibly have been his: “He’s got lovely eyes.” They looked at each other for a minute. He suddenly had a crazy idea. “Can I hear her thoughts?” he asked himself. And without having looked away, they somehow found themselves looking at each other even more. He wanted to worship her skin, it was like a rich blanket he wanted to cuddle up to. He wanted to cuddle it and never get up again. She let go of her lip to smile broadly for a second, before a slight frown crossed her eyebrow. Then he heard another thought that wasn’t his: “A blanket?” And he thought: “How did she know what I was thinking?”

They both sat up. “Can you hear what I’m thinking?” they thought, their eyes lit with fear and awe.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Stoning – a short story

It was as he wiped his face before getting up to make a cup of tea that William noticed the dust falling from his forehead. He stared as it floated in the air, barely coaxed by gravity to the desk. After a moment of staring, realising his hand was still at his brow, William rubbed his eye and watched again as more microscopic grains joined the cloud. He sniffed, dragging some dust to his nose. It didn’t smell good.

He hadn’t been feeling well lately, William. Hadn’t had his usual zest. He was tired, always tired, and getting slow. Heavy. Walking had become an issue; where before he could have burst up a flight of stairs, or just jauntily strolled down a high street, now each step asked the question: do I have to?

A stroll had become a shuffle, and it wasn’t just his legs; his fingers were losing their panache. The keys on his computer were suddenly deeper than they had been. He plodded around the keyboard as if he was looking for a series of scattered possessions. He couldn't sort through his pockets, or count his crumpled cash. His breath was dense, his thoughts sluggish and mundane, his skin pallid and chalky. And now there was the dust.

He traced a cumbersome finger through the powder that had collected on the desk. Greyish dust, with a hint of blue, he fancied. Perhaps his skin was sloughing. But not flaking. Not flaking, but drowning, he thought. 

Maybe try the cup of tea, loosen up the joints. He wheezed himself out of the chair. His feet clubbed the ground as he walked to the water station, head throbbing with each step.

Two of his colleagues passed by, looking at him with trepidation, as if they were worried both about him, but also that if they asked, they might have to talk to him about it. They passed without acknowledgement, eyes straining at the ceiling. William tried to take a deep breath but his nose barely pinched at the air, and he continued, thudden-footed, towards his cup of tea.

At lunch, he went out to sit in the sun. He spent the entire hour on the grass, watching the wind in the trees, and barely moved a muscle the whole time. By the end of the hour, his skin was warmer, slightly, a surface improvement. But he was slower than ever. To lift up his head took the concentration of a crane operator. 

There was no point going back to the office, he decided, so he sat for a further three hours in the warmth, hoping it might improve things at least a little, but by the end of the afternoon, though his skin was warm to the touch, none of the heat had penetrated his muscles, which remained starched and stiff. He struggled back to the office to collect his things, and to tell them he’d not be in the next day. A day of rest, he decided. That was what was called for.

The morning sun cracked the curtains as William rested flat on his back on the bed. His thoughts were gummed up, his body lay fallow, static, somnolent. His mind chanced through options for anxiety. What kind of illness might this be, he wondered. What kind of cancer? What kind of life?  

Sitting up was manageable, if slow. His eyes barely wanted to move from looking straight ahead; they would move under his instruction, but only eventually, in their own time.

He went to the doctors' surgery. They told him to wait, which was the one thing that was easy, and he managed to sit there for three hours, without the time bothering him. In fact, he thought, it was more relaxing when he didn’t try to move. If he just stayed still, there wasn't really anything to worry about. He let out a breath at that thought, one that was barely able to leave his mouth.

The doctor listened to his complaint and examined him, sympathetic but hurried, before ruling out cancer as a cause, and suggesting some brisk walking, or yoga. But William knew brisk walking was out, and yoga had been unlikely at the best of times. He left the surgery and went to sit in the park again, where he watched litter gambol on the breeze, and his obdurate limbs soaked up what sunshine they could. 

He spent the day with his cares rolled up in a motionless daze, and by evening he again could feel the warmth on his skin. But the weight, the density of his body was unchanged. If anything it was even worse. His walk home was so lethargic he barely got back before dark.

As he lay back in bed, he could feel the warmth from his body reflected on his blanket. Perhaps I should take more notice of the sun, he thought.

The summer solstice was up. The man on the radio mentioned it, as William eyed the blue sky and wondered if he could go back to the park again. Ten thousand people expected at Stonehenge tonight, to welcome the solstice dawn, the radio man said. I’d like to welcome the dawn, thought William. That could help.

He took a train to Salisbury, and sat in his seat like a sack of sand. Then he took a bus. He approached the stones as evening fell, great crowds of students and hippies and costumed mystics converging for their vigil, carrying drums, blankets and liquor across the wide grass plain. The cheerful atmosphere passed him by, and the onset of cold at dusk had him worried. He entered the circle of stones, the ancient, cragged rocks towering above him. His back straightened and tightened, his head rolled in its place on top of his spine. His breaths tightened. He took a look at his skin, greyer, and bluer than before. 

By the stones, he felt better. The revellers' bodies gave him shelter, and at least the idea of warmth. He gently moved through the crowd until he found his spot, his feet resting on a dip in the ground. Beside him was one stone that was missing its pair. His feet felt secure here. His mind lifted. These stones were going to help him. 

The night passed briefly, easily. William didn’t move a single inch until the sunlight grew in the east, and the drumming grew harder, the shouting louder and the dancing wilder, and the light began to rise in the distance, and the sun breached the horizon, striking William’s sluggard mass, and he looked up, just, to see the sun one more time, before his eyes sunk into his head and his joints closed up, his feet dropped into the earth and he found his place amongst the stones.

And Stonehenge once again gave its solstice smile, this time with an extra tooth.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Vote goat – general election special

I live in a safe Labour seat. Very safe. They could put up a goat for election, a Satanist, Stalinist baby-eating, crack-smoking goat, and it would trot to victory without breaking a sweat. Labour has held this seat for so long the other parties are reduced to standing at the back dressed stupidly and looking stupid. It's so safe Fort Knox is on the phone, looking for tips. (Speaking of which, does anyone say "safe" any more? As in "Here's your ten-pound draw." "Safe, mate." I haven't said it for years, but then I haven't bought a ten-pound draw for years either, so maybe that's why.)

So anyway, I don't need to vote Labour in this election, because as I say, the whole goat thing, even though I hope to God's highest hopes that Red Ed gets in – HOPE TO FUCK – and not Cameron & his tribune of absolute cunts. But Labour are in round my way whatever I do, so I was going to vote Green, because you know, encourager les autres and all that.

But now, you see, with the whole Cameron claiming that getting the most votes counts in the legitimacy stakes – despite the whole parliamentary democracy thing – now I have a reason to vote Labour, to shore up their vote against such manifest shenanigans. But then again, my one little biddy vote doesn't count for much. But then again, what if other people think like me? So here's the thing:

I'm not positing any laws of spiritual causality here. I don't imagine what I choose to do will somehow influence anyone else. But I've noticed that I'm not an original thinker. I've noticed that when I think of a joke to tell on Twitter, someone else has thought of it; when I think of a comment to write under an Owen Jones CiF piece, someone else has already written it. In short, I'm one of a lot of thinkalikes. So, I have to conclude that whatever I decide to do viz this Labour/Green/Goat scenario, others will have also concluded it. Those of us bound together across space and time by our less-than-original minds will all vote the same way, so what I decide could count for a lot, or at least enough to wipe that smug cunt fuckwit leer off of Cameron's self-satisfied mug. That would get his goat. Vote goat.

Friday, February 27, 2015

With the birds

I'm on my way to work. It's raining, but the rain is so light it's unable to fall, and instead cavorts wildly in the twisting wind, my jacket collecting the drops like tiny fluff. There is a black man standing on the other side of Broad Lane, his hands held together as if performing a rite, a magpie sitting between them. The bird is in no rush to fly away. He pops it onto his shoulder and begins to languidly flap his arms like a bird of prey; then he jogs up and down the pavement, grinning wildly at the drivers in the lorries and cars going by. The bird trots behind his head to sit on his other shoulder, happy as Larry.