Dec 052015

zuckerbergI generally don’t go seeking out drama. It’s made my life much better. So when I first started seeing posts about how terrible Mark Zuckerberg is, I thought “Well, thank goodness that’s another controversy I won’t ever have to get embroiled in. Everyone I know is already sane.” Turns out I was wrong. I personally, IRL, know someone who started saying what a terrible person Zuckerberg is, so now I have to say something. /sigh

I don’t want to repeat everything that’s already been said better by smarter people, so instead here’s a link to 5 criticisms of billionaire mega-philanthropy, debunked, and one to Unit of Caring.

At first I was shocked to hear anyone was shitting on Zuckerberg at all. Who hears “A billionaire is giving away almost all his money” and thinks “THAT ASSHOLE! Let’s take him down a peg!”? Looking over the arguments, I was struck by something someone else (can’t recall who) said – It is remarkably difficult to steel-man* the anti-Zuckerberg arguements. The “best” I ran into was that this amount of money was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and Zuckerberg should be using his resources to effect systemic change instead. Interestingly, this argument came from a person who is normally very vocal about how the mega-wealthy have far too much say in politics, and their riches should be ejected from the political process. Do we seriously want MORE money in politics?

And what exactly are Zuckerberg’s options anyway? The people who are attacking him for giving away almost all his money to humanitarian efforts are implicitly saying that he should either A) use the money to go into politics instead, or B) spend it on gold-plated yatches and other rich-people toys instead.

A) What if Zuckerberg isn’t sure his political opinions are the best opinions possible, and he doesn’t want to impose them on others? Or that he doesn’t want to ignite the hatred of half the voting public (look at how Soros and the Koch Brothers are viewed) and doesn’t want to get into that whole EXTREMELY wasteful tug-of-war? Zuckerberg-haters are very explicitly giving a “You’re with us or you’re against us” ultimatum, which is always a big red flag that you are the evil side. What’s a guy who wants to stay neutral to do? One would think that good, politically-neutral charities would be the way to go, but apparently that just gets you hate from both sides. So you go with B)

B) Toys. You know, what rich people typically spend their money on. Anyone who promotes this is, IMHO, trying to make the world a worse place. I am reminded of this fantastic passage from Three Worlds Collide, which takes place in a utopia:

>”There was so much wrong with the world that the small resources of altruism were splintered among ten thousand urgent charities, and none of it ever seemed to go anywhere.  And yet… and yet…”

“There was a threshold crossed somewhere,” said the Confessor, “without a single apocalypse to mark it.  Fewer wars.  Less starvation.  Better technology.  The economy kept growing.  People had more resource to spare for charity, and the altruists had fewer and fewer causes to choose from.  They came even to me, in my time, and rescued me.  Earth cleaned itself up, and whenever something threatened to go drastically wrong again, the whole attention of the planet turned in that direction and took care of it.  Humanity finally got its act together.”

This gives me shivers when I read it. You need the context of the rest of the story, but it’s so damned beautiful. Someday, we can get there. And everyone who is shitting on Zuckerberg is making this less likely. They’re pushing it further away. Philanthropy should be encouraged.

Of course none of this is about philanthropy at all. What it’s actually about is Mark Zuckerberg, and Moral Karma. I want to thank Scott Alexander for clarifying the concept of Moral Karma for me, in his post Ethnic Tension And Meaningless Arguments. So much of the world makes much more sense after reading that. To summarize – in almost any political conflict, no one gives a shit about the actual policies. They pick the side they support. Then they load that side with as much “Good Karma” as they can. (“Concepts get good karma by doing good moral things, by being associated with good people, by being linked to the beloved in-group, and by being oppressed underdogs in bravery debates.”) They load the opposing side with as much “Bad Karma” as they can. (“Concepts get bad karma by committing atrocities, being associated with bad people, being linked to the hated out-group, and by being oppressive big-shots in bravery debates. Also, she obviously needs to neutralize Player 1’s actions by disproving all of her arguments.”). The winner of the Karma Contest gets to set the actual policies as they see fit.

Suddenly all the hate makes sense. Zuckerberg is the head of Facebook. He’s already associated with privacy violations, rampant consumerism, those awful Millennials, those terrible people gentrifying San Francisco, and whatever other excesses of capitalism the Blue Tribe hates. Zuckerberg/Facebook is very much The Hated Opposition of Blue Tribe. Therefore it is a Blue Tribe imperative to ensure his Karma balance is always in the Negative.

Now Zuckerberg is donating all his wealth to charity, which is traditionally a Good Karma move. And it’s a LOT of wealth. There is a danger that this action could push A Hated Opponent into the realm of Positive Karma. This is absolutely not allowable. It is a threat to the side of Goodness and Justice, and what kind of evil mutant supports a Hated Opponent against the side of Goodness and Justice?? This is the time where “she obviously needs to neutralize Player 1’s actions by disproving all of her arguments” rears its ugly head. Since it’s very hard to forcibly stop Zuckerberg from giving away his money, it now must be proven that he’s not really doing it for good reasons, and it doesn’t count, and he’s still a terrible person.

Finally the hatred makes sense. As Jai points out in Foes Without Faces, people love villains, and causes without a human face get neglected (“It’s obviously not worth allying ourselves with an ancient unspeakable evil whose voice is the essence of death just to kill one lousy human, no matter how awful they are. Right?” “Would the plan to compromise polio eradication to hunt down Bin Laden have gone forward if our leaders treated faceless enemies with the same weight they afford human enemies?”). Zuckerberg has a face. The millions of people who could potentially be helped by his charitable efforts? Not so much. No more than the hundreds of thousands of potential victims of polio. They’re a statistic. So it’s easy to get people to keep attacking a hated Villain, and not even realize that they are literally pushing away the Three World’s utopia by doing so.

Because we can’t even say “This person is evil, and the things he did in the past are awful, but this one thing he did is good. Even if he did it for the wrong reasons, it is a good thing, and we should encourage that thing.” No. Fuck that person. Never let anything good be associated with them, no matter the cost. The Karma War cannot be lost.

To not be too much of a downer, I must consider how I update my beliefs. Do I update in the direction of “people are inherently amoral, and political contests matter more to them than actually being good”? Or do I update in the direction of “Outrage is a fantastic way to spread memes, and the most outrage-producing ones are the most shared ones, even when they reflect only a tiny minority viewpoint, and so I should further downgrade my opinion of The Media rather than humanity in general”?

I think the question answers itself. Or at least I tried to word it so it would. :) In either case – Zuckerberg is awesome. The world would be better if more people emulated his example, at least in this regard. A “Like” to him!


* Steel-manning being the act of strengthening your opponents position in order to engage it more fairly and thoughtfully – the opposite of straw-manning)

  6 Responses to “Zuckerberg’s Moral Karma”

  1. I just try to get people to convert their antagonism into predictions I could bet against them on. If you can’t get them to join you, at least get them to pay you.

    • Predictions such as “he will end up not actually doing much charitable with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative”, or what? That one doesn’t seem bettable because it’s hard to define what counts and what doesn’t. I’m having a hard time imagining what other third-party observable predictions could result from “He is Evil doing this for Evil Reasons”. The only other one I can think of is “Facebook will continue having poor privacy controls”, which doesn’t have anything to do with the donation.

  2. Great post.

    This is pretty much “Perfect is the enemy of good”. Since this is not exactly how I would want rich people to spend their money, it must be bad.

    This kind of thinking is especially common here in Germany. I would expect people to use this example to try and pressure our own billionaires to do something similar. Instead there seems to be some weird nationalism going on. *These American billionaires are trying to show up our German billionaires. We can’t let them get away with this!*
    Alternatively “Oh, the US is such a post-apocalyptic, capitalistic wasteland that rich people have to do what the government should be doing instead.”
    Alternatively “This is something that a rich person does, therefore it has be bad and exploitative.”

    Sorry for strawmanning a bit, but I’m quite bothered by these arguments.

  3. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Zuckerberg for giving his money away, if he does that. But (at least from what I have seen so far) he has not given any timeline other than within his expected lifetime. If he is planning to wait another 40 years before giving it away, I wonder why he is announcing it now. Yes, it could do some good by encouraging others to be more charitable. But the main effect would be to make people think well of him during his life.

  4. The best arguments about this I’ve seen have been in the direction of “we don’t yet know what he’ll actually do with the money.” Zuckerberg’s description of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s goals is pretty vague, and his donation history (the Newark school thing) isn’t heartening. I approve of the fact that he’s giving away a lot of money, but I don’t feel like I can pass judgment until I see the specifics.

    (Sam Biddle’s post about this topic on Gawker makes an argument along these lines, although as usual with Biddle there’s plenty of nonsense and hyperbole thrown in)

  5. My question is, why does anyone care what Zuckerberg does with his money? I only care if he’s giving me some. Otherwise, it’s none of my business.

    Best way to identify an SJW is when they get bent out of shape about things that are not their business.

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