We should choose between moral theories based on the scale of the problem

One com­mon ob­jec­tion to EA/​util­i­tar­i­anism is that it ap­pears to de­mand a lot from us, and can end up in seem­ingly para­dox­i­cal situ­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, why should we pri­ori­tise our own chil­dren over kids in other parts of the world? And if our work al­lows us to a lot of good, shouldn’t we push our­selves re­ally hard, to just be­low the point of where will burn out? One might re­ply that the to­tal ex­pected util­ity would be greater if ev­ery­one worked rea­son­able hours and looked af­ter their own fam­i­lies, but this ar­gu­ment this seems a bit stren­u­ous since it would re­quire us to do an ex­pected value calcu­la­tion be­fore we de­cide whether we should take care of our­selves or our fam­i­lies in­stead of work­ing on our cause area. In my own life, I try to think of it as us­ing differ­ent moral the­o­ries de­pend­ing on the type and scale of prob­lems that I am con­sid­er­ing, some­thing that is analagous to what we do in physics.

In physics it is of­ten use­ful to know the scale of the prob­lem be­fore de­cid­ing on which the­ory to use. For ex­am­ple, say that we want to calcu­late the mo­tion of a two-body in­ter­act­ing sys­tem. If the two bod­ies are fun­da­men­tal par­ti­cles, for ex­am­ple elec­trons, Quan­tum Elec­tro­dy­nam­ics (QED) would be best suited since it de­scribes the strongest in­ter­ac­tion at that phys­i­cal scale. If in­stead we knew that the bod­ies are planets, con­sist­ing of an nearly in­finite amount of par­ti­cles, the grav­i­ta­tional force would be strongest and we should in­stead use Gen­eral Rel­a­tivity (GR). GR and QED are both equally valid at both scales—there is noth­ing stop­ping you from calcu­lat­ing the grav­i­ta­tional force be­tween two elec­trons, but the re­sult won’t be very use­ful since the grav­i­ta­tional force is dwar­fed by the elec­tro­mag­netic. In a sim­plified way, we could draw the fol­low­ing di­a­gram and use it to clas­sify the differ­ent forces de­pend­ing on which scale they are most use­ful:

Ul­ti­mately, most physi­cists be­lieve that all forces are just differ­ent man­i­fes­ta­tions of the same fun­da­men­tal force that can be de­scribed through a “the­ory of ev­ery­thing”. Un­til such a the­ory is found, how­ever, we are happy with us­ing differ­ent laws at differ­ent scales, and some­one spe­cial­is­ing in GR wouldn’t claim to know more about small scale in­ter­ac­tions than some­one spe­cial­is­ing in QED.

Similarly, I think of the differ­ent moral the­o­ries as be­ing ap­pli­ca­ble at differ­ent scales ac­cord­ing to the fol­low­ing di­a­gram:

Here are a few ex­am­ples of where I think these moral the­o­ries are best ap­plied:

a) Virtue ethics: Spend­ing time with friends and fam­ily, self care. Fol­low­ing the virtues of “be­ing a good friend” or “a good fam­ily mem­ber” seem to be more in­tu­itive than do­ing an ex­plicit calcu­la­tion to show how this will lead to ex­is­ten­tial risk re­duc­tion.

b) Deon­tol­ogy/​con­trac­tu­al­ism: Civil and hu­man rights on a na­tional/​in­ter­na­tional level. It would be very strange to con­sider a so­ciety with­out the in­alien­able and in­di­vi­d­ual rights to free ex­pres­sion, free­dom of love, or fair tri­als, no mat­ter the ex­pected value in each in­di­vi­d­ual case.

c) Utili­tar­i­anism: Fu­ture of hu­man­ity. On the global scale, ag­gre­gated over billions of lives, it makes sense to use util­i­tar­i­anism to de­cide what to do based on a calcu­la­tion of how many lives can be saved by differ­ent in­ter­ven­tions, since any per­sonal or na­tional obli­ga­tions can be av­er­aged out on this scale.

The EA po­si­tion is that we should fo­cus more re­sources on try­ing to solve global scale prob­lems, which I think is cor­rect. How­ever, as hu­mans we also live in a lo­cal and na­tional world, and we need moral the­o­ries to guide our ac­tions in our daily lives. Just be­cause util­i­tar­i­anism is a great tool at the global scale, does not mean that it is the best the­ory at smaller scales as well. Ul­ti­mately, we will prob­a­bly find a new “moral the­ory of ev­ery­thing” which works at ev­ery level, but un­til then we I think should see the com­pet­ing moral the­o­ries as be­ing use­ful over a cer­tain range in space and time.