Tragic Beliefs

I’m posting this as part of the Forum’s Benjamin Lay Day celebration — consider writing a reflection of your own! The “official dates” for this reflection are February 8 − 15 (but you can write about this topic whenever you want).

I’ve cross-posted this to my substack, Raising Dust, where I sometimes write less EA Forum-y content.

  • Tragic beliefs are beliefs that make the world seem worse, and give us partial responsibility for it. These are beliefs such as: “insect suffering matters” or “people dying of preventable diseases could be saved by my donations”.

  • Sometimes, to do good, we need to accept tragic beliefs.

  • We need to find ways to stay open to these beliefs in a healthy way. I outline two approaches, pragmatism and righteousness, which help, but can both be carried to excess.

Why I ignored insects for so long

I’ve been trying not to think about insects for a while. My diet is vegan, and sometimes I think of myself as a Vegan. I eat this way because I don’t want to cause needless suffering to animals, and as someone interested in philosophy, as a human, I want to have consistent reasons for acting. You barely need philosophy to hold the belief that you shouldn’t pay others to torture and kill fellow creatures. But insects? You often kill them yourself, and you probably don’t think much of it.

I ignored insects because the consequences of caring about them are immense. Brian Tomasik, a blogger who informed some of my veganism, has little capacity for ignoring. He wrote about driving less, especially when roads are wet, avoiding foods containing shellac, never buying silk.

But Brian can be easy to ignore if you’re motivated to. He is so precautionary with his beliefs that he is at least willing to entertain the idea of moral risks of killing video game characters. When a belief is inconvenient, taking the path of least resistance and dismissing the author, and somehow with this, the belief itself, is tempting.

But last year, at EAG London, I went to a talk about insect welfare by a researcher from rethink priorities, Meghan Barrett. She is a fantastic speaker. Her argument in the talk was powerful, and cut through to me. She reframed insects[1] by explaining that, because of their method of respiring (through their skins[2]) , they are much smaller today than they were for much of their evolution. If you saw the behaviour that insects today exhibit in animals the size of dogs or larger, it would be much harder to dismiss them as fellow creatures.

Many insects do have nociceptors[3], or something very similar, many of them exhibit anhedonia (no longer seeking pleasurable experiences) after experiencing pain, many of them nurse wounds. If you are interested, read more in her own words here. She ended the talk by extrapolating the future of insect farming, which is generally done without any regard for their welfare. The numbers involved were astonishing. By the end, the familiar outline of an ongoing moral tragedy had been drawn, and I was bought in.

Why did it take so long for me to take insect suffering seriously, and why did Meghan’s talk make the difference? I think this is because the belief that insect suffering is real is a tragic belief.

What is a tragic belief?

I understand a tragic belief as a belief that, should you come to believe it, will make you:

a) Knowingly a part of causing great harms, and

b) A resident of a worse world.

The problem is, some beliefs are like this. It’s easier for us to reject them. Perhaps it is healthy to have a bias against beliefs like this. But, if we don’t believe them, if we avoid them because they are difficult to embrace even though they are true, we will continue to perpetuate tragedies.

So we should find a way to stay open to tragic beliefs, without making the world seem too tragic for us to act.

How can we open ourselves up to tragic beliefs?

There are two techniques that I have seen and experienced which help with accepting tragic beliefs. Pragmatism, and righteousness.

Opportunity framing, or pragmatism

Part of the success of Meghan Barrett’s talk in changing my mind was its last section. There was barely a breath between her projections of insect farming in the next century and her hope, and plans, for doing something to combat it. In a moment, the idea that incredible amounts of suffering might be about to come into being was replaced by the idea that we could prevent incredible amounts of suffering. From the idea that the already massive horrors of factory farming might increase, came the idea that, through our actions, we could save more lives than we might have thought possible before.

One way to accept tragic beliefs, then, is to turn them around.

I’ve seen this in EA community building. The tactic of leading with Singer’s drowning child thought experiment is sometimes effective. The argument that our obligations to rescue, which we feel so strongly when facing one stranger, might actually apply to all strangers who we could possibly help, works for some people. But it alienates a lot of people. Boundless obligations can be binding, they can restrict your actions, and take over your motivations. Some people react against this.

A way to appeal to them is to reframe the obligation as an opportunity[4]. Instead of leading with “a child will die if you do nothing!” you lead with “you can save a child for only $5000!” For globally well off people in rich countries, this can be empowering. You are so lucky, you have the opportunity to do so much good! The same framing was often used in conjunction with the ‘most important century’ — we are living at the most important time in history, we have the chance to shape the world into something fantastic!

But this doesn’t work for everyone. It can seem aesthetically off to be approaching altruism joyously when the subject matter is often so bleak.

Embracing a feeling of righteousness, when done in the right way, can be an alternative to the opportunity framing which allows us to maintain our awareness of tragedy.

The joy in righteousness

Benjamin Lay seemed to be having a bit of fun with his protests. Once, at the end of a speech against slavery, he stabbed a bible filled with pokeberry juice, splashing the blood red liquid on the people surrounding him. Even after being disowned by several quaker groups, he continued with his protests.

This is pure speculation, but I imagine that Lay was enjoying himself. I’m sure he often felt lonely, or isolated, but I doubt he would have continued with his actions if he didn’t derive some sort of joy from them.

Righteousness can be a way of finding joy in tragedy. When you strongly believe that you are right, that your beliefs are consistent and based in reality, it can feel good to stand up for those beliefs in the face of people who are indifferent or even hostile. Compared to indifferent people especially, you will be demonstrably more consistent and serious in your beliefs. You’ll know how to answer their questions, how to expose their hastily derived counter arguments as self-serving or ad hoc, simply by your steadfastness.

But too much righteousness clearly has its downsides. Organisations like PETA, who pull off modern day Benjamin Lay-ish stunts, inspire hatred as well as support. Righteousness can also become arrogance, which is unattractive, but also epistemically risky. When you don’t need the support of your peers to maintain your beliefs, you can become insensitive to real counterpoints.

I’m posting this on Benjamin Lay day, because Benjamin Lay is an example of someone who encountered tragic beliefs and believed them. He realised that slavery was a horror, and rather than relaxing into the comfortable beliefs of his contemporaries, he opposed it. He did this even when it made him worse off. Perhaps this doesn’t make him a shining example for living healthily with tragic beliefs — he did die a hermit.

It is hard to maintain tragic beliefs. On the face of it, it makes the world worse to believe them. But in order to actually do as much good as we can, we need to be open to them, while finding ways to keep a healthy relationship with tragedy.

In the comments, I’d love to see other suggestions for sustainably maintaining tragic beliefs.

  1. ^

    She used this word only out of necessity. There are millions of species, only some described by science.

  2. ^

    Pardon, or please do correct, my shoddy biology.

  3. ^

    The systems associated with pain in many animals.

  4. ^

    This survey from GWWC suggests that the opportunity framing is slightly more resonant than the, also very popular, responsibility framing.