A Case Study in Newtonian Ethics—Kindly Advise
Scott Alexander wrote about Newtonian Ethics back in 2013. My own experience with the phenomenon is as follows.
One chilly evening in December—this chilly evening in December, if one can be bothered with the particulars—I ventured out into the cold astride my loyal bicycle to collect money for rent and food.
I got lost trying to find the bank I’d been to at least half a dozen times, but that’s not important—it happens every time I leave my house. I am infamous in certain circles for once spending the better part of an afternoon wandering lost on a single road (in my defense, it had a gentle curve).
Returning from the ATM, I had an anthropological experience. I was passing a pedestrian on the sidewalk when he shouted for me to stop. Startled, I acquiesced.
I did not (and do not) have a subroutine for dealing with strangers who approach me. Maybe other people, who have spent more time living in cities, do, but I’m a lumpenproletariat by pedigree who spent his formative years in a neighborhood one step up from a trailer park. I had to think through every step of this interaction, and betimes I don’t think quickly on my feet.
My first thought—oh no someone is making noise at me fear response clamp down on the fear response they’re probably friendly this reminds me of that Still Drinking essay 24 Hours of Privilege I don’t want to microaggress at this guy he took his mask off his mouth to speak that defeats the entire purpose of wearing a mask I need to be present in this moment someone is talking to me maybe I dropped something or they might need my help pay attention.
Aloud, “Can I help you?”
He had a plastic bag full of scraps of paper. Poetry, I was informed, all hand written. I learned that the poetry had no swearing in it—not that he never swore, but there was no swearing in it. He wanted me to have a scrap of paper with his art written on it, and bemused I took it. Mind-space is vast and deep and being abnormal is not morally wrong, but at this point I had him pegged as a crazy person.
A crazy person who created art and shared it. I was happy to meet this crazy person—they brought light into the world. Beneath my mask I smiled, and I hoped he could see it in my eyes.
He then asked me for money.
He wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t charging for his poems. But if I had any change, he would appreciate it. As a businessman, he said, which thing stuck in my mind. Suddenly things fell into place. This wasn’t an artist out to make someone’s day surreal—this was a man desperate enough to swallow his pride and ask strangers for money, and the poetry was to stop them from leaving so quickly and to make him feel like he wasn’t all take no give and maybe a little to make people like me feel indebted. He’d probably tested the pitch on dozens of people and iterated it again and again until he had an intuition for what to say to who.
I’m a lumpenproletariat by pedigree. I’ve been there. I found it very strange to be on the other side of the interaction, almost an out of body experience.
I’ve never had money and before today no one had ever asked me for it.
Above I wrote how I had to think through every step of this interaction. I lied. Two impulses, faster than conscious thought.
The first, my powerful aversion to losing money. I’ve never bought a video game, or a book I didn’t need for school. When I decided I’d have to buy new brake pads for my bicycle I was upset all that day. They say that everything is expensive when you’re poor, but those brake pads weren’t. It was the principle of the thing.
The second impulse, empathy. He was right in front of me, and he needed help.
Conscious thought caught up and blew past, thinking rapidly in a run-on sentences. This fellow lives in a first world nation—it wouldn’t at all be an effective use of charity, there are people who need the money more and that isn’t an excuse; once I’ve got my own oxygen mask on, once I’ve got enough squirreled away I never have to worry about food again, I’ll donate the excess money to people who get higher marginal value out of every dollar—giving here competes against that, directly. Not to mention, it competes against me eating—not this month, but potentially towards the end of the spring semester if unexpected costs come up; I don’t have much of a buffer. I’m also reminded, in that moment, of Slate Star Codex’s piece on Newtonian ethics—just because someone is close enough for me to directly perceive their misery doesn’t make their misery more important!
Aloud, “I’m an undergraduate who’s between jobs, I really don’t have any money.” Which is a lie, because I do have money and I probably won’t run out before the summer semester at which point I will have more money, but I was pressed for time and it was what I thought to say.
And he said that if I had any coins on me, that those would help.
And fuck this, I see someone in front of me who is in pain and I understand how much it must have hurt for him to swallow his pride and beg from every stranger on the street; I’m not heartless—but is it heartless to give someone money if doing so trades off against donating more effectively?—but I’d empty my pockets if a friend told me that coins would help—so I’ve proven myself callous or stupid in one case, why make that two?—I’m reminded of something Yudkowsky said about the importance of actually being the sort of person who would help a little old lady cross the street—all this man wants are the coins I have on my person.
I don’t have any coins on my person, I’m well aware. I don’t carry any coins. What I do carry is thirty-ish dollars in small bills in my wallet because Harry from HPMoR said in one of the early chapters that money was something that you might need a lot of in a hurry and I thought the odds of someone robbing me were low enough that the expected utility of having cash on hand outweighed the odds of losing thirty dollars in one go the man asks me if I can look for coins so I get my wallet out of my pocket.
The bills are all folded together and the idea of taking them all out and peeling them apart in front of him when I just now said I had no money sounds mortifying and because I don’t always make great decisions in the heat of the moment this seems like it would be unconscionably rude even though when I’m heading home I realize it would have been very kind and he would have appreciated it, that I would have appreciated a fiver in his shoes. So I say, “No coins but I’ve got a couple of bills” and give him the whole wad of cash.
And he’s surprised by it, and I guess he wants to express gratitude somehow because he gives me another poem from his bag, and then I’m gearing up to leave and I tell him to take care of himself and he runs up and gives me a third poem from the little Ziploc bag, and I catch a few of the words on it while stuffing it in my pocket and it looks like it’s a prayer or a hymn of some kind and I’m choking up because I was religious once too.
And I’m glad he’s happy. I’m happy that he’ll have something warm to eat tonight when he might otherwise not, or that he could buy a bag of rice that’d last him a week if he has somewhere to cook it, or even that someone with a different risk/reward tolerance than I will get to forget the physical world for a moment if that’s what winds up happening, if that’s what he needs.
But at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that I just failed some kind of test of character, that I saw something which appealed to me and bought it without thinking. I’m experiencing the same kind of reflexive self-disappointment that I feel whenever I spend money on anything other than food and rent.
I feel bad about poorly managing my units of caring, and it doesn’t seem that I can choose not to.
Here’s the ask: how do the rest of you handle interactions with beggars on the street? This was my first time that I actually had money to give, but I imagine it’ll happen a bunch in my future. It seems that giving or not both cause me distress. What should I do to avoid feeling terrible?
I was going to end this with a transcription of the three poems I retrieved, but they are actually illegible. Considering my own emotional state that is fitting, I think.