The Ethics of Giving part two: Christine Swanton on the Virtues of Giving

A review and critique of the second section of the volume The Ethics of Giving: Philosophers' Perspectives on Philanthropy, edited by Paul Woodruff, with an emphasis on issues relevant to the decision making of Effective Altruists.

Christine Swanton is a virtue ethicist who applies a moral theory of "thick concept centralism" (TCC) to beneficence. TCC aims to replace "thin" (i.e. conceptually simple) concepts, like welfare or donations, with "thick" (i.e. conceptually complex) concepts, like kindness and manipulation. This is a radical revision of the way we normally look at the world; for instance, physical facts and moral values are no longer clearly separated under this view. Swanton does not give a full argument for this theory, but attempts to use philanthropy as an issue to illustrate its strength, by showing that it succeeds in solving three ethical problems of giving where thin morality purportedly fails to satisfy competing criteria of normative theory.

The first problem is supererogation. The issue here is the apparent contradiction between two traditional claims of thin morality: on the one hand, that "we have most reason to produce the most good possible, and we ought to do what we have most reason to do," and on the other hand, that “in certain circumstances agents may choose an action other than the one that would most promote the good,” like giving all their spare money away. The first claim is not controversial, especially in consequentialism. But the only reason cited by Swanton to favor the second claim is the issue of demandingness. And it is not widely accepted that this is compelling - not among consequentialists, at least. So Swanton does nothing to illustrate that a problem exists for the consequentialist who is fine with a demanding moral view that contains no room for supererogatory actions. Additionally, Swanton does not address the possibility of scalar consequentialism, where options are merely evaluated as more or less good and none are labeled obligatory. These viewpoints are common in EA, but for someone who can accept neither, Swanton shows that her theory can avoid the conceptual problem of supererogation.

The second bug in the traditional thin picture of philanthropy is underdetermination. Swanton states that "A classic problem in the ethics of beneficence and philanthropy is that of underdetermination by reason; for example, reason does not determine to whom one should give, how much, and to how many." This contradicts the idea that it is rational to do that which we have the most reason to do. There are two ways that reason can underdetermine, according to the philosopher Ruth Chang. First, we may end up with multiple incommensurable alternatives. And second, we may end up without any justified choice.

It's worth noting that Chang's idea of incommensurability is not the same as the philosophically strong idea of incomparability; it is a matter of practical reasoning where we have no overall reason to regard one option as better than another. But then it seems clear to me that the phrase "that which we have the most reason to do" can refer to anything that is tied for being the most reasonable option. I think readers will generally agree that this banal observation solves the first manifestation of the purported contradiction.

Meanwhile, the idea of there being no justified choice is often considered an informal analogue of incomparability: the idea is that sometimes one does not have enough reason to sufficiently support any one action. In her words, reason can "break down". That there are any cases like this is controversial, but in theoretical reason it's clearer still when nothing like this can occur: we must rank all options on a single ordered list, which means that there will always be either one best option or a tie, with no incomparabilities. One reason to suppose that this is always possible is that generally we think that options are to be evaluated by their expected value. No matter how great our uncertainty, subjective probability theory still gives us quantitative expectations, which means that the expected values of all options will always have one neat ordering. And even if we are morally uncertain about how to measure value in the first place, William MacAskill has demonstrated that a framework of maximizing expected choiceworthiness is appropriate and similarly yields a cardinal list of options. But even if we reject this substantive picture of value maximization, we can defer to a much more basic picture: all options are equally reasonable by default, and as we introduce reasons we merely see them change our ranking of some charities relative to others. This logic is easy to see in EA charity evaluation, as cause neutrality has us assume that all charities are of equal value before letting various considerations lead us to elevate our effectiveness estimates of some over others.

The above picture still requires us to choose arbitrarily in cases of ties. Swanton's central argument is that it is better to let one's choice be guided by "narrative virtue" - to go with the flow of what seems to be the path that life has laid out for you. When practical reason leaves multiple options on the table, it feels right that we should make our choices fitting in the moment and inspired, rather than vacillating and picking arbitrarily. But the text doesn't discuss a much simpler alternative takeaway from this intuition: we have practical reasons not to vacillate, and we have practical reasons to allow oneself to feel inspired. 

The third problem is one of collective action. This is the question of why one should do something that makes no apparent impact upon a large problem. Why eat vegan, if the supermarket buys a thousand pounds of meat at a time? Why vote, if it won't make the difference in the election? There is a tension between the apparent moral reason to take part in such efforts and the lack of a causal connection behind personal action and group impact. Swanton argues that her theory accounts for this issue well compared to other attempts to give an ethical account of free-riding, parasitism, and collective action, but doesn't address the standard EA view, that one's actions do have an *expected* impact in such cases: they might be the one action that makes the difference between a collective action occurring or not, as well as having other benefits. Swanton would presumably appeal to rigid thought experiments where this expected impact does not exist, in which case we might simply deny that we ought to act at all, given the absence of a causal connection between our actions and the outcomes. Swanton's response to this kind of denial, which is also present in Julia Nefsky's framework, is just to boldly assert that causal logic is the inappropriate framework for looking at moral actions.

Overall, I have to say that I was disappointed by Swanton's chapter because it ignored common EA solutions to all three of the problems that it evaluated, when EA is perhaps the textbook example of a thin-concepts approach to philanthropy. We already solve the problem of supererogation by either accepting demandingness or adopting scalar consequentialism. We already solve the problem of undetermination by having a formal approach to decision theory and cost-effectiveness estimation rather than relying on vague notions of practical reason. And we already solve the collective action problem by following expected value theory.

It's worth noting, though, that this chapter is just one piece of the puzzle regarding a comprehensive question of moral theory. It may be the case that Swanton's argument provides reasons in favor of TCC, but that other moral problems in other contexts count in the opposite direction, in which case you still should not abide by TCC's recommendations on the subject of charity. Conversely, just because our standard philosophical views succeed in handling all these cases does not mean that they are the right ones to use, because TCC might be true for other reasons. But my impression from the text is that the philosophy required to understand it and support it is abstruse - it stems from Heideggerian ontology and metaphysics. And for those of us who see concepts like desire and suffering as clear and meaningful phenomena in their own right, the idea that we should disparage them in favor of vague social constructs which only crudely and unreliably conform to our own moral intuitions is a tall order.

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