[guest post] Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

Here’s a guest post from Robby Bensinger about the psychology of altruism with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in. 

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.

Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.

One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.

A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.

Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

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I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.

Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!

In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.

Guy Leaves Internet For A Year, Finds That That Doesn’t Solve All His Problems

A writer named Paul Miller has done what most people could probably only dream of–he completely unplugged from the Internet for an entire year, hoping to find out “what else there was to life.”

A year later, he returned, only to tell us this:

I was wrong.

One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”

It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.

But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.

I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.

I think it’s worthwhile commending Miller for two achievements that must people might not be able to manage (and no, neither are quitting the ‘net):

1. Despite making quitting the internet to find a better life a huge part of his public identity, Miller told us the truth about what really happened. Many people in this situation would lie, quietly back off the subject, or try to put some sort of spin on it to suggest that they were still right all along.

2. Despite making quitting the internet to find a better life a huge part of his personal identity, Miller overcame confirmation bias and realized that his internet fast wasn’t helping. Many others would probably engage in enough mental jujitsu to keep believing whatever’s most consistent with their beliefs and identity–in Miller’s case, that quitting the internet helps you find a better life.

For me, the most poignant bit of Miller’s article was this: “So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a ‘Facebook friend,’ but I can tell you that a ‘Facebook friend’ is better than nothing.”

First of all, this is true in a literal sense. Casual online buddies can’t replace those close, inseparable friendships where you bond over cheap wine, campy television, and political rants at 2 AM. They just can’t. But they give you people to talk to, bounce ideas off of, grab coffee with (if you live near each other), get restaurant recommendations from, and meet other people through.

Second, sometimes “Facebook friends” grow to mean more to you than any meatspace friend can. My “Facebook friends” have been there for me when nobody else has. That’s the biggest reason I’d never pull a stunt like Miller’s.

Technology like the Internet is a tool. With a few exceptions, any tool you can think of can be used adaptively or maladaptively, helpfully or harmfully. It’s not always clear which is which, because it’s very contextual.

What if I told you that I literally spend HOURS a day at the computer? Many consecutive hours. Many people, especially people of older generations than me, might be horrified.

But what if I also told you that I work out for an hour almost every day, see friends in person a few times a week, and spend most of my online time talking to close friends, reading things that interest me, and writing?

That starts to sound pretty different.

It may very well be the case that some people for whatever reason are just incapable of using the Internet adaptively. If they go online even for a bit, they end up losing hours playing mindless games or refreshing Facebook or watching YouTube videos. For those people, purposefully cutting down (or even eliminating) Internet time can be helpful, at least until they learn how to manage it effectively.

However, I think the reason Miller wasn’t successful at this is because it’s rarely helpful to view personal development as denying yourself something rather than giving yourself better alternatives and forming good habits to replace the bad ones.

For instance, diets often fail because people get miserable at the thought of everything they can’t eat. Ice cream. Chocolate. Pizza. Popcorn. Soda. Carbs. Red meat. If you keep trying to eliminate Bad Things rather than implement Good Things, you’ll probably either find yourself eating a really shitty but sweets-and-pizza-free diet, or you’ll find yourself falling off the wagon.

This is sort of what Miller did:

My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I’d outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.

Perhaps this is because he didn’t quite identify what was so wrong with his life with the Internet (at least, not in the article; maybe he did to himself). But if he had, he could’ve instead set concrete goals about how he would fix it without necessarily going offline cold-turkey: “Try one new Meetup group per month.” “Call so-and-so every Sunday.” “Install software that limits my time on Facebook and Tumblr.” “Unsubscribe from all my RSS feeds.” Whatever tips your cow.

Psychologically, setting goals like these is much more useful and much more likely to produce results than “Quit the Internet and chill at my parents’ and stuff.”

And with the dieting analogy, what I’ve personally found much more useful than trying to “diet” or “cut down” on things I eat is to just give myself healthier alternatives. I decide that I’m going to buy bell peppers, which are delicious. I think about how much I love olive oil and I put it on my pasta instead of butter. And sometimes I still eat shitty things, but it’s ok because a lot of the time I’m working on eating non-shitty things.

I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with quitting the Internet entirely; I’m not one to begrudge people like Miller their idealism and grandiosity. But it’s clear that the Internet is something that some people really do have a lot of trouble with because it sucks them in and interferes with their “real” life, so it’s important to find strategies that actually work. I’m not sure that going cold-turkey is something that works for many people.