In praise of pretending to really try

Ben Kuhn makes some reasonable criticisms of the Effective Altruism movement. His central claim is that in the dichotomy of ‘really trying’ vs. ‘pretending to try’, EAs ‘pretend to really try’.

To be explicit, I understand these terms as follows:

‘Really trying’: directing all of your effort toward actions that you believe have the highest expected value in terms of the relevant goals

Pretending to try‘: choosing actions with the intention of giving observers the impression that you are trying.

Pretending to really try‘: choosing actions with the intention of giving observers the impression that you are trying, where the observers’ standards for identifying ‘trying’ are geared toward a ‘really trying’ model. e.g. they ask whether you are really putting in effort, and whether you are doing what should have highest expected value from your point of view.

Note the normative connotations. ‘Really trying’ is good, ‘pretending to try’ is not, and ‘pretending to really try’ is hypocritical, so better than being straight out bad, but sullied by the inconsistency.

I claim Effective Altruism should not shy away from pretending to try. It should strive to pretend to really try more convincingly, rather than striving to really try.

Why is this? Because Effective Altruism is a community, and the thing communities do well is modulating individual behavior through interactions with others in the community. Most actions a person takes as a result of being part of a community are pretty much going to be ‘pretending to try’ by construction. And such actions are worth having. If they are discouraged, the alternative will not be really trying. And pretending to try well is almost as good as really trying anyway.

Actions taken as a result of being in a community will be selected for being visible, because visible actions are the ones you will be able to pick up from others in the community. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are only pretending to try – it will just happen to look like pretending to try. But actions will also probably be visible, because by assumption you are driven to act in part by your community membership, and most ways such motivation can happen involve a possibility of others in the community being aware of your actions.

Many actions actions in communities are chosen because others are doing them, or others will approve of them, or because that’s what it seemed like a good community member would do, not because they were calculated to be best. And these dynamics help communities work and achieve their goals.

Of course people who were really trying would do better than those  who were only pretending to try. As long as they could determine what a person who was pretending would do, a person who really tries could just copy them where it is useful to have pretending-to-try type behaviors. But there is no option to make everyone into such zealous tryers that they can do as well as the effective altruism movement without the social motivations. The available options are just those of what to encourage and what to criticize. And people who are pretending to really try are hugely valuable, and should not be shamed and discouraged away.

A community of people not motivated by others seeing and appreciating their behavior, not concerned for whether they look like a real community member, and not modeling their behavior on the visible aspects of others’ behavior in the community would generally not be much of a community, and I think would do less well at pursuing their shared goals.

I don’t mean to say that ‘really trying’ is bad, or not a good goal for an individual person. But it is a hard goal for a community to usefully and truthfully have for many of its members, when so much of its power relies on people watching their neighbors and working to fit in. ‘Really trying’ is also a very hard thing to encourage others to do. If people heed your call to ‘really try’ and do the ‘really trying’ things you suggest, this will have been motivated by your criticisms, so seems more like a better quality of pretending to really try, than really trying itself. Unless your social pressure somehow pressured them to stop being motivated by social pressure.

I also fear that pretending to try, to various extents, is underestimated because we like to judge other people for their motives. A dedicated pretender, who feels socially compelled to integrate cutting edge behavioral recommendations into their pretense can be consequentially very valuable, regardless of their virtue on ethical accounts.

So I have argued that pretending to try is both inevitable and useful for communities. I think also that pretending to really try can do almost as well as really trying, as long as someone puts enough effort into identifying chinks in the mask. In the past, people could pretend to try just by giving some money to charity; but after it has been pointed out enough times that this won’t achieve their purported goals,  they have to pick up their act if they want anyone (themselves included) to believe they are trying. I think a lot of progress can come from improving the requirements one must meet to look like one is trying. This means pointing out concrete things that ‘really trying’ people would be doing, and it hopefully leads to pretending to really try, and then pretending to really really try. Honing the pretense, and making sure everyone knows what the current standards are, are important goals in a community with goals that might be forgotten if we undervalue pretending to really try.

20 responses to “In praise of pretending to really try

  1. You apparently think pretense is per se innocuous.

    Intellectuals should swear by intellectual honesty and have no truck with “social movements” if they require or encourage pretense. At least, you should recognize that truthfulness and hypocrisy conflict.

    Pretense is humanly inevitable. That’s no reason to enlist its aid in causes that, however “charitable,” are less noble than truthfulness.

  2. Diego Caleiro made the same words in response to Ben Kuhn’s critique of effective altruism:

    Ms. Grace, if you made the same point as Mr. Caleiro, you probably wouldn’t have perceived need to write this post out in full. Thus, I’m assuming you haven’t read Mr. Caleiro’s own post. I’ve linked it here for consideration, since it could be quite relevant.

  3. Reading Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” changed my feelings about hypocrisy. Here is the relevant quote:

    “We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy, (…) In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception—he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.“

    I see moderated hypocrisy as the second best human option — where the best option would be to become a super effective super rational superhuman and go towards your stated goals with the precision of an AI released out of the box. I would admire those who really follow the best path, but I would also suspect that most who claim to do so are simply delusional. For most of us, hypocrisy without some reasonable limits is the best available choice.

    Perfect is the enemy of good, especially where the perfect is impossible, and is used mostly to shame those who do at least something. Paradoxically, this is probably what people hate about effective altruism; telling the people who donate to less effective charities that they are doing the wrong thing. The important aspect for me is that switching from less efficient charities to more efficient charities (assuming the same money is donated) is ridiculously easy, assuming someone trustworthy already did the research for you. Yet, the public campain has to be done carefully to avoid the feeling that criticizing other people is more important than actually improving the world. (Because such is the human nature that people usually do things in the first place to raise their status at the expense of someone else’s status.)

  4. Pingback: In defense of actually doing stuff | nothing is mere

  5. Thanks Katja, this post was a good clear version of some of the rough reactions I’d had on reading Ben’s post. Reading it felt like a labour-saving activity for thinking!

  6. I really like this post in that it clearly articulates a naturalistic understanding of human motivation and behavior, in a context of trying to determine how to actually do good, rather than concluding that people are horrible and morality is pointless.

    I strongly agree with the point that the desire for esteem is an important part of maintaining a community, but I think that there’s a further argument to be made about how pretending to really try allows people to transition into really trying, vs. just letting them do good through other methods.

    In particular, I think that acceptance of “pretending to really try” makes it easier for concrete actions that are well-supported within the epistemic norms of the community to spread, but I that “pretending to really try” is much less effective than “really trying” at producing said concrete recommendations, since it’s mostly based on imitation. I’d also be worried that the sorts of recommendations that spread in a “pretending to really try” group do not take enough local information into account to make innovations that are as good as could be somewhat reasonably expected.

    For instance, I think that it’s pretty likely that the EA community is on track to working out good lifestyles for earning and donating lots of money, and that the current norms are good at spreading particular details of how to do this well. On the other hand, it seems like there are lots of other things that would be very helpful (research capacity and techniques, being able to direct human capital to particular charities that could use it, etc.) that will not be worked out as much as they maybe could be, because of the relative focus on “pretending to really try” rather than “really trying”.

    • I agree that some people who are really trying are likely to be valuable. Though I think even without that, people who are ‘pretending’ can come up with novel things – e.g. if thinking about how to do better is considered virtuous and can be done visibly.

      • I think that we’re about equally likely to disagree about the extent to which this is true, or have different thresholds for labeling behavior as “pretending to really try” and “really trying”.

        In particular, I think that thinking about how to do better according to “pretending to try” works only as well as the regularly-acted-on norms of justification do, and that this isn’t that well, because pretending to try (to me) seems to mean something like doing the community-recommended actions, and using the common justification strategies that the community has, without necessarily trying to accomplish the goals of said actions or strategies in a way that brings in factors outside of the community’s understanding of the problem.

        Granted, that probably won’t be true given sufficiently stringent norms about what a convincing attempt looks like, but I don’t think the EA movement is at that level yet.

  7. it clearly articulates a naturalistic understanding of human motivation and behavior, in a context of trying to determine how to actually do good

    Only by excluding the most important intellectual good: truthfulness.

    Otherwise, it demonstrates that the charities are the enemies of the good, their minions serving, instead, lies and hypocrisy.

    • I was assuming that within this “pretending to really try” context, people still cared about truthfulness, and just weren’t bringing it up in this article.

      I can see how “pretending to really try” would be opposed to truthfulness, but I think that the implementation details of “pretending to really try” can make that opposition stronger or more or less negligible. For instance, if the approach to “pretending to really try” is something like “You do what you can”, or “Something is better than nothing”, then I think that’s pretty okay w/r/t truthfulness, but if the approach is “Everyone here is working so hard!” then it isn’t.

  8. I wonder what it would take to “pretend to really try” within the EA community with respect to the “Earning to Give” path. Presumably it would be to say “I give X% to charity Y” (without actually giving anything).

    But I think most people would be uncomfortable with blatant lying of such sort, so they would give some smaller percent of their income (which is already good).

    Also, accompanying this, the person would also need to be able to engage in a serious discussion why they choose charity Y rather than charity Z; and that takes a serious engagement with the underlying difficulties of charity evaluation. To succeed in convincing other people that you really care would be to know arguments and counter-arguments to a wide variety of concerns; one couldn’t just say “I don’t care about this objection” without a serious counter-argument.

    To reach this level of understanding of the issues would probably make the person care a lot more about the issues; it would almost surely make them think of themselves as “the kind of person who cares”. Self-perception theory ( “asserts that people develop their attitudes by observing their own behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused it”.

    I thus think pretending to really try will lead to actually trying. Sincerely caring about something is hard to fake; and when one pretends long enough, one will likely believe it and then act it.

    I’m eager to hear feedback :)

    • Your inference from self-perception theory (or from cognitive-dissonance theory, of which it is a variant) is valid as far as it goes. But only that far. Another implication is that legitimizing hypocrisy will weaken or even reverse this effect. If the pretend altruist says to herself, “I’m pretending (which is OK),” then what she self-observes is … someone pretending. So (within the “efficient charity” framework), acknowledging the roots of official charity in hypocrisy (per Katja) is self-defeating!

      Thus are the muddles wrought by intellectual dishonesty.

  9. I’m worried that tolerance of ‘pretending to really try’ would lead to or amount to an implicit norm of not “putting effort into identifying chinks in the mask” (with social punishment for those who do try to do so), as everyone collectively tries to defend their image as ‘actually trying’ with their current actions.

    • I agree with this a lot, and this is a lot of (most?) of what I worry about.

      I would think that pledging to donate money, and then donating the money to whoever GiveWell/Giving What We Can/etc. says to without very critically examining their choices, or trying to do other EA things very effectively would only qualify as “trying” rather than “really trying”.

      For instance, this year it seems that many EAs are donating explicitly for self-signalling purposes, while there are very strong arguments for delayed donations, donating to DAFs, etc. This seems somewhat pathological, given that EAs are trying to find the best thing and do it, and in the face of finding alternative less-clearly good best things, decide to self-signal. This seems to indicate a non-engagement with the issues at hand.

  10. Pingback: Ben Kuhn on the effective altruist movement | Pablo's miscellany

  11. Pingback: Ben Kuhn on the effective altruist movement | The Effective Altruism Blog


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