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Welfare Of My Society Depends On My Well Being Essay Wikipedia

1. The Concept

Popular use of the term ‘well-being’ usually relates to health. A doctor’s surgery may run a ‘Women’s Well-being Clinic’, for example. Philosophical use is broader, but related, and amounts to the notion of how well a person’s life is going for that person. A person’s well-being is what is ‘good for’ them. Health, then, might be said to be a constituent of my well-being, but it is not plausibly taken to be all that matters for my well-being. One correlate term worth noting here is ‘self-interest’: my self-interest is what is in the interest of myself, and not others.

The philosophical use of the term also tends to encompass the ‘negative’ aspects of how a person’s life goes for them. So we may speak of the well-being of someone who is, and will remain in, the most terrible agony: their well-being is negative, and such that their life is worse for them than no life at all. The same is true of closely allied terms, such as ‘welfare’, which covers how a person is faring as a whole, whether well or badly, or ‘happiness’, which can be understood—as it sometimes was by the classical utilitarians from Jeremy Bentham onwards, for example—to be the balance between good and bad things in a person’s life. But note that philosophers also use such terms in the more standard ‘positive’ way, speaking of ‘ill-being’, ‘ill-faring’, or, of course, ‘unhappiness’ to capture the negative aspects of individuals’ lives.

‘Happiness’ is often used, in ordinary life, to refer to a short-lived state of a person, frequently a feeling of contentment: ‘You look happy today’; ‘I’m very happy for you’. Philosophically, its scope is more often wider, encompassing a whole life. And in philosophy it is possible to speak of the happiness of a person’s life, or of their happy life, even if that person was in fact usually pretty miserable. The point is that some good things in their life made it a happy one, even though they lacked contentment. But this usage is uncommon, and may cause confusion.

Over the last few decades, so-called ‘positive psychology’ has hugely increased the attention paid by psychologists and other scientists to the notion of ‘happiness’. Such happiness is usually understood in terms of contentment or ‘life-satisfaction’, and is measured by means such as self-reports or daily questionnaires. Is positive psychology about well-being? As yet, conceptual distinctions are not sufficiently clear within the discipline. But it is probably fair to say that many of those involved, as researchers or as subjects, are assuming that one’s life goes well to the extent that one is contented with it—that is, that some kind of hedonistic account of well-being is correct. Some positive psychologists, however, explicitly reject hedonistic theories in preference to Aristotelian or ‘eudaimonist’ accounts of well-being, which are a version of the ‘objective list’ theory of well-being discussed below. A leader in the field, Martin Seligman, for example, has recently suggested that, rather than happiness, positive psychology should concern itself with positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (‘Perma’) (Seligman 2011).

When discussing the notion of what makes life good for the individual living that life, it is preferable to use the term ‘well-being’ instead of ‘happiness’. For we want at least to allow conceptual space for the possibility that, for example, the life of a plant may be ‘good for’ that plant. And speaking of the happiness of a plant would be stretching language too far. (An alternative here might be ‘flourishing’, though this might be taken to bias the analysis of human well-being in the direction of some kind of natural teleology.) In that respect, the Greek word commonly translated ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) might be thought to be superior. But, in fact, eudaimonia seems to have been restricted not only to conscious beings, but to human beings: non-human animals cannot be eudaimon. This is because eudaimonia suggests that the gods, or fortune, have favoured one, and the idea that the gods could care about non-humans would not have occurred to most Greeks.

It is occasionally claimed that certain ancient ethical theories, such as Aristotle’s, result in the collapse of the very notion of well-being. On Aristotle’s view, if you are my friend, then my well-being is closely bound up with yours. It might be tempting, then, to say that ‘your’ well-being is ‘part’ of mine, in which case the distinction between what is good for me and what is good for others has broken down. But this temptation should be resisted. Your well-being concerns how well your life goes for you, and we can allow that my well-being depends on yours without introducing the confusing notion that my well-being is constituted by yours. There are signs in Aristotelian thought of an expansion of the subject or owner of well-being. A friend is ‘another self’, so that what benefits my friend benefits me. But this should be taken either as a metaphorical expression of the dependence claim, or as an identity claim which does not threaten the notion of well-being: if you really are the same person as I am, then of course what is good for you will be what is good for me, since there is no longer any metaphysically significant distinction between you and me.

Well-being is a kind of value, sometimes called ‘prudential value’, to be distinguished from, for example, aesthetic value or moral value. What marks it out is the notion of ‘good for’. The serenity of a Vermeer painting, for instance, is a kind of goodness, but it is not ‘good for’ the painting. It may be good for us to contemplate such serenity, but contemplating serenity is not the same as the serenity itself. Likewise, my giving money to a development charity may have moral value, that is, be morally good. And the effects of my donation may be good for others. But it remains an open question whether my being morally good is good for me; and, if it is, its being good for me is still conceptually distinct from its being morally good.

2. Moore’s Challenge

There is something mysterious about the notion of ‘good for’. Consider a possible world that contains only a single item: a stunning Vermeer painting. Leave aside any doubts you might have about whether paintings can be good in a world without viewers, and accept for the sake of argument that this painting has aesthetic value in that world. It seems intuitively plausible to claim that the value of this world is constituted solely by the aesthetic value of the painting. But now consider a world which contains one individual living a life that is good for them. How are we to describe the relationship between the value of this world, and the value of the life lived in it for the individual? Are we to say that the world has a value at all? How can it, if the only value it contains is ‘good for’ as opposed to just ‘good’? And yet we surely do want to say that this world is better (‘more good’) than some other empty world. Well, should we say that the world is good, and is so because of the good it contains ‘for’ the individual? This fails to capture the idea that there is in fact nothing of value in this world except what is good for the individual.

Thoughts such as these led G.E. Moore to object to the very idea of ‘good for’ (Moore 1903, pp. 98–9). Moore argued that the idea of ‘my own good’, which he saw as equivalent to what is ‘good for me’, makes no sense. When I speak of, say, pleasure as what is good for me, he claimed, I can mean only either that the pleasure I get is good, or that my getting it is good. Nothing is added by saying that the pleasure constitutes my good, or is good for me.

But the distinctions I drew between different categories of value above show that Moore’s analysis of the claim that my own good consists in pleasure is too narrow. Indeed Moore’s argument rests on the very assumption that it seeks to prove: that only the notion of ‘good’ is necessary to make all the evaluative judgements we might wish to make. The claim that it is good that I get pleasure is, logically speaking, equivalent to the claim that the world containing the single Vermeer is good. It is, so to speak, ‘impersonal’, and leaves out of account the special feature of the value of well-being: that it is good for individuals.

One way to respond both to Moore’s challenge, and to the puzzles above, is to try, when appropriate, to do without the notion of ‘good’ (see Kraut 2011) and make do with ‘good for’, alongside the separate and non-evaluative notion of reasons for action. Thus, the world containing the single individual with a life worth living, might be said to contain nothing good per se, but a life that is good for that individual. And this fact may give us a reason to bring about such a world, given the opportunity.

3. Scanlon’s Challenge

Moore’s book was published in Cambridge, England, at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the end of the same century, a book was published in Cambridge, Mass., which also posed some serious challenges to the notion of well-being: What Do We Owe to Each Other?, by T.M. Scanlon.

Moore’s ultimate aim in criticizing the idea of ‘goodness for’ was to attack egoism. Likewise, Scanlon has an ulterior motive in objecting to the notion of well-being—to attack so-called ‘teleological’ or end-based theories of ethics, in particular, utilitarianism, which in its standard form requires us to maximize well-being. But in both cases the critiques stand independently.

One immediately odd aspect of Scanlon’s position that ‘well-being’ is an otiose notion in ethics is that he himself seems to have a view on what well-being is. It involves, he believes, among other things, success in one’s rational aims, and personal relations. But Scanlon claims that his view is not a ‘theory of well-being’, since a theory must explain what unifies these different elements, and how they are to be compared. And, he adds, no such theory is ever likely to be available, since such matters depend so much on context.

Scanlon does, however, implicitly make a claim about what unites these values: they are all constituents of well-being, as opposed to other kinds of value, such as aesthetic or moral. Nor is it clear why Scanlon’s view of well-being could not be developed so as to assist in making real-life choices between different values in one’s own life.

Scanlon suggests that we often make claims about what is good in our lives without referring to the notion of well-being, and indeed that it would often be odd to do so. For example, I might say, ‘I listen to Alison Krauss’s music because I enjoy it’, and that will be sufficient. I do not need to go on to say, ‘And enjoyment adds to my well-being’.

But this latter claim sounds peculiar only because we already know that enjoyment makes a person’s life better for them. And in some circumstances such a claim would anyway not be odd: consider an argument with someone who claims that aesthetic experience is worthless, or with an ascetic. Further, people do use the notion of well-being in practical thinking. For example, if I am given the opportunity to achieve something significant, which will involve considerable discomfort over several years, I may consider whether, from the point of view of my own well-being, the project is worth pursuing.

Scanlon argues also that the notion of well-being, if it is to be philosophically acceptable, ought to provide a ‘sphere of compensation’—a context in which it makes sense to say, for example, that I am losing one good in my life for the sake of gain over my life as a whole. And, he claims, there is no such sphere. For Scanlon, giving up present comfort for the sake of future health ‘feels like a sacrifice’.

But this does not chime with my own experience. When I donate blood, this feels to me like a sacrifice. But when I visit the dentist, it feels to me just as if I am weighing present pains against potential future pains. And we can weigh different components of well-being against one another. Consider a case in which you are offered a job which is highly paid but many miles away from your friends and family.

Scanlon denies that we need an account of well-being to understand benevolence, since we do not have a general duty of benevolence, but merely duties to benefit others in specific ways, such as to relieve their pain. But, from the philosophical perspective, it may be quite useful to use the heading of ‘benevolence’ in order to group such duties. And, again, comparisons may be important: if I have several pro tanto duties of benevolence, not all of which can be fulfilled, I shall have to weigh the various benefits I can provide against one another. And here the notion of well-being will again come into play.

Further, if morality includes so-called ’imperfect’ duties to benefit others, that is, duties that allow the agent some discretion as to when and how to assist, the lack of any overarching conception of well-being is likely to make the fulfillment of such duties problematic.

4. Theories of Well-being

4.1 Hedonism

On one view, human beings always act in pursuit of what they think will give them the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. This is ‘psychological hedonism’, and will not be my concern here. Rather, I intend to discuss ‘evaluative hedonism’ or ‘prudential hedonism’, according to which well-being consists in the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.

This view was first, and perhaps most famously, expressed by Socrates and Protagoras in the Platonic dialogue, Protagoras (Plato 1976 [C4 BCE], 351b–c). Jeremy Bentham, one of the most well-known of the more recent hedonists, begins his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation thus: ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do’.

In answer to the question, ‘What does well-being consist in?’, then, the hedonist will answer, ‘The greatest balance of pleasure over pain’. We might call this substantive hedonism. A complete hedonist position will involve also explanatory hedonism, which consists in an answer to the following question: ‘What makes pleasure good, and pain bad?’, that answer being, ‘The pleasantness of pleasure, and the painfulness of pain’. Consider a substantive hedonist who believed that what makes pleasure good for us is that it fulfills our nature. This theorist is not an explanatory hedonist.

Hedonism—as is demonstrated by its ancient roots—has long seemed an obviously plausible view. Well-being, what is good for me, might be thought to be naturally linked to what seems good to me, and pleasure does, to most people, seem good. And how could anything else benefit me except in so far as I enjoy it?

The simplest form of hedonism is Bentham’s, according to which the more pleasantness one can pack into one’s life, the better it will be, and the more painfulness one encounters, the worse it will be. How do we measure the value of the two experiences? The two central aspects of the respective experiences, according to Bentham, are their duration, and their intensity.

Bentham tended to think of pleasure and pain as a kind of sensation, as the notion of intensity might suggest. One problem with this kind of hedonism, it has often been claimed, is that there does not appear to be a single common strand of pleasantness running through all the different experiences people enjoy, such as eating hamburgers, reading Shakespeare, or playing water polo. Rather, it seems, there are certain experiences we want to continue, and we might be prepared to call these—for philosophical purposes—pleasures (even though some of them, such as diving in a very deep and narrow cave, for example, would not normally be described as pleasurable).

Hedonism could survive this objection merely by incorporating whatever view of pleasure was thought to be plausible. A more serious objection is to the evaluative stance of hedonism itself. Thomas Carlyle, for example, described the hedonistic component of utilitarianism as the ‘philosophy of swine’, the point being that simple hedonism places all pleasures on a par, whether they be the lowest animal pleasures of sex or the highest of aesthetic appreciation. One might make this point with a thought experiment. Imagine that you are given the choice of living a very fulfilling human life, or that of a barely sentient oyster, which experiences some very low-level pleasure. Imagine also that the life of the oyster can be as long as you like, whereas the human life will be of eighty years only. If Bentham were right, there would have to be a length of oyster life such that you would choose it in preference to the human. And yet many say that they would choose the human life in preference to an oyster life of any length.

Now this is not a knockdown argument against simple hedonism. Indeed some people are ready to accept that at some length or other the oyster life becomes preferable. But there is an alternative to simple hedonism, outlined famously by J.S. Mill, using his distinction (itself influenced by Plato’s discussion of pleasure at the end of his Republic (Plato 1992 [C4 BCE], 582d-583a)) between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures (1863 [1998], ch. 2). Mill added a third property to the two determinants of value identified by Bentham, duration and intensity. To distinguish it from these two ‘quantitative’ properties, Mill called his third property ‘quality’. The claim is that some pleasures, by their very nature, are more valuable than others. For example, the pleasure of reading Shakespeare, by its very nature, is more valuable than any amount of basic animal pleasure. And we can see this, Mill suggests, if we note that those who have experienced both types, and are ‘competent judges’, will make their choices on this basis.

A long-standing objection to Mill’s move here has been to claim that his position can no longer be described as hedonism proper (or what I have called ‘explanatory hedonism’). If higher pleasures are higher because of their nature, that aspect of their nature cannot be pleasantness, since that could be determined by duration and intensity alone. And Mill anyway speaks of properties such as ‘nobility’ as adding to the value of a pleasure. Now it has to be admitted that Mill is sailing close to the wind here. But there is logical space for a hedonist position which allows properties such as nobility to determine pleasantness, and insists that only pleasantness determines value. But one might well wonder how nobility could affect pleasantness, and why Mill did not just come out with the idea that nobility is itself a good-making property.

But there is a yet more weighty objection to hedonism of any kind: the so-called ‘experience machine’. Imagine that I have a machine that I could plug you into for the rest of your life. This machine would give you experiences of whatever kind you thought most valuable or enjoyable—writing a great novel, bringing about world peace, attending an early Rolling Stones’ gig. You would not know you were on the machine, and there is no worry about its breaking down or whatever. Would you plug in? Would it be wise, from the point of your own well-being, to do so? Robert Nozick thinks it would be a big mistake to plug in: ‘We want to do certain things … we want to be a certain way … plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality’ (Nozick 1974, p. 43).

One can make the machine sound more palatable, by allowing that genuine choices can be made on it, that those plugged in have access to a common ‘virtual world’ shared by other machine-users, a world in which ‘ordinary’ communication is possible, and so on. But this will not be enough for many anti-hedonists. A further line of response begins from so-called ‘externalism’ in the philosophy of mind, according to which the content of mental states is determined by facts external to the experiencer of those states. Thus, the experience of really writing a great novel is quite different from that of apparently writing a great novel, even though ‘from the inside’ they may be indistinguishable. But this is once again sailing close to the wind. If the world can affect the very content of my experience without my being in a position to be aware of it, why should it not directly affect the value of my experience?

The strongest tack for hedonists to take is to accept the apparent force of the experience machine objection, but to insist that it rests on ‘common sense’ intuitions, the place in our lives of which may itself be justified by hedonism. This is to adopt a strategy similar to that developed by ‘two-level utilitarians’ in response to alleged counter-examples based on common-sense morality. The hedonist will point out the so-called ‘paradox of hedonism’, that pleasure is most effectively pursued indirectly. If I consciously try to maximize my own pleasure, I will be unable to immerse myself in those activities, such as reading or playing games, which do give pleasure. And if we believe that those activities are valuable independently of the pleasure we gain from engaging in them, then we shall probably gain more pleasure overall.

These kinds of stand-off in moral philosophy are unfortunate, but should not be brushed aside. They raise questions concerning the epistemology of ethics, and the source and epistemic status of our deepest ethical beliefs, which we are further from answering than many would like to think. Certainly the current trend of quickly dismissing hedonism on the basis of a quick run-through of the experience machine objection is not methodologically sound.

4.2 Desire Theories

The experience machine is one motivation for the adoption of a desire theory. When you are on the machine, many of your central desires are likely to remain unfilled. Take your desire to write a great novel. You may believe that this is what you are doing, but in fact it is just a hallucination. And what you want, the argument goes, is to write a great novel, not the experience of writing a great novel.

Historically, however, the reason for the current dominance of desire theories lies in the emergence of welfare economics. Pleasure and pain are inside people’s heads, and also hard to measure—especially when we have to start weighing different people’s experiences against one another. So economists began to see people’s well-being as consisting in the satisfaction of preferences or desires, the content of which could be revealed by the choices of their possessors. This made possible the ranking of preferences, the development of ‘utility functions’ for individuals, and methods for assessing the value of preference-satisfaction (using, for example, money as a standard).

The simplest version of a desire theory one might call the present desire theory, according to which someone is made better off to the extent that their current desires are fulfilled. This theory does succeed in avoiding the experience machine objection. But it has serious problems of its own. Consider the case of the angry adolescent. This boy’s mother tells him he cannot attend a certain nightclub, so the boy holds a gun to his own head, wanting to pull the trigger and retaliate against his mother. Recall that the scope of theories of well-being should be the whole of a life. It is implausible that the boy will make his life go as well as possible by pulling the trigger. We might perhaps interpret the simple desire theory as a theory of well-being-at-at-a-particular-time. But even then it seems unsatisfactory. From whatever perspective, the boy would be better off if he put the gun down.

We should move, then, to a comprehensive desire theory, according to which what matters to a person’s well-being is the overall level of desire-satisfaction in their life as a whole. A summative version of this theory suggests, straightforwardly enough, that the more desire-fulfilment in a life the better. But it runs into Derek Parfit’s case of addiction (1984, p. 497). Imagine that you can start taking a highly addictive drug, which will cause a very strong desire in you for the drug every morning. Taking the drug will give you no pleasure; but not taking it will cause you quite severe suffering. There will be no problem with the availability of the drug, and it will cost you nothing. But what reason do you have to take it?

A global version of the comprehensive theory ranks desires, so that desires about the shape and content of one’s life as a whole are given some priority. So, if I prefer not to become a drug addict, that will explain why it is better for me not to take Parfit’s drug. But now consider the case of the orphan monk. This young man began training to be a monk at the earliest age, and has lived a very sheltered life. He is now offered three choices: he can remain as a monk, or become either a cook or a gardener outside the monastery, at a grange. He has no conception of the latter alternatives, so chooses to remain a monk. But surely it might be possible that his life would be better for him were he to live outside?

So we now have to move to an informed desire version of the comprehensive theory. According to the informed desire account, the best life is the one I would desire if I were fully informed about all the (non-evaluative) facts. But now consider a case suggested by John Rawls: the grass-counter. Imagine a brilliant Harvard mathematician, fully informed about the options available to her, who develops an overriding desire to count the blades of grass on the lawns of Harvard. Like the experience machine, this case is another example of philosophical ‘bedrock’. Some will believe that, if she really is informed, and not suffering from some neurosis, then the life of grass-counting will be the best for her.

Note that on the informed desire view the subject must actually have the desires in question for well-being to accrue to her. If it were true of me that, were I fully informed I would desire some object which at present I have no desire for, giving me that object now would not benefit me. Any theory which claimed that it would amounts to an objective list theory with a desire-based epistemology.

All these problem cases for desire theories appear to be symptoms of a more general difficulty. Recall again the distinction between substantive and formal theories of well-being. The former state the constituents of well-being (such as pleasure), while the latter state what makes these things good for people (pleasantness, for example). Substantively, a desire theorist and a hedonist may agree on what makes life good for people: pleasurable experiences. But formally they will differ: the hedonist will refer to pleasantness as the good-maker, while the desire theorist must refer to desire-satisfaction. (It is worth pointing out here that if one characterizes pleasure as an experience the subject wants to continue, the distinction between hedonism and desire theories becomes quite hard to pin down.)

The idea that desire-satisfaction is a ‘good-making property’ is somewhat odd. As Aristotle says (Metaphysics, 1072a, tr. Ross): ‘desire is consequent on opinion rather than opinion on desire’. In other words, we desire things, such as writing a great novel, because we think those things are independently good; we do not think they are good because they will satisfy our desire for them.

4.3 Objective List Theories

The threefold distinction I am using between different theories of well-being has become standard in contemporary ethics. There are problems with it, however, as with many classifications, since it can blind one to other ways of characterizing views. Objective list theories are usually understood as theories which list items constituting well-being that consist neither merely in pleasurable experience nor in desire-satisfaction. Such items might include, for example, knowledge or friendship. But it is worth remembering, for example, that hedonism might be seen as one kind of ‘list’ theory, and all list theories might then be opposed to desire theories as a whole.

What should go on the list? It is important that every good should be included. As Aristotle put it: ‘We take what is self-sufficient to be that which on its own makes life worthy of choice and lacking in nothing. We think happiness to be such, and indeed the thing most of all worth choosing, not counted as just one thing among others’ (Nicomachean Ethics, 1197b, tr. Crisp). In other words, if you claim that well-being consists only in friendship and pleasure, I can show your list to be unsatisfactory if I can demonstrate that knowledge is also something that makes people better off.

What is the ‘good-maker’, according to objective list theorists? This depends on the theory. One, influenced by Aristotle and recently developed by Thomas Hurka (1993), is perfectionism, according to which what makes things constituents of well-being is their perfecting human nature. If it is part of human nature to acquire knowledge, for example, then a perfectionist should claim that knowledge is a constituent of well-being. But there is nothing to prevent an objective list theorist’s claiming that all that the items on her list have in common is that each, in its own way, advances well-being.

How do we decide what goes on the list? All we can work on is the deliverance of reflective judgement—intuition, if you like. But one should not conclude from this that objective list theorists are, because they are intuitionist, less satisfactory than the other two theories. For those theories too can be based only on reflective judgement. Nor should one think that intuitionism rules out argument. Argument is one way to bring people to see the truth. Further, we should remember that intuitions can be mistaken. Indeed, as suggested above, this is the strongest line of defence available to hedonists: to attempt to undermine the evidential weight of many of our natural beliefs about what is good for people.

One common objection to objective list theories is that they are élitist, since they appear to be claiming that certain things are good for people, even if those people will not enjoy them, and do not even want them. One strategy here might be to adopt a ‘hybrid’ account, according to which certain goods do benefit people independently of pleasure and desire-satisfaction, but only when they do in fact bring pleasure and/or satisfy desires. Another would be to bite the bullet, and point out that a theory could be both élitist and true.

It is also worth pointing out that objective list theories need not involve any kind of objectionable authoritarianism or perfectionism. First, one might wish to include autonomy on one’s list, claiming that the informed and reflective living of one’s own life for oneself itself constitutes a good. Second, and perhaps more significantly, one might note that any theory of well-being in itself has no direct moral implications. There is nothing logically to prevent one’s holding a highly élitist conception of well-being alongside a strict liberal view that forbade paternalistic interference of any kind with a person’s own life (indeed, on some interpretations, J.S. Mill’s position is close to this).

One not implausible view, if desire theories are indeed mistaken in their reversal of the relation between desire and what is good, is that the debate is really between hedonism and objective list theories. And, as suggested above, what is most at stake here is the issue of the epistemic adequacy of our beliefs about well-being. The best way to resolve this matter would consist, in large part at least, in returning once again to the experience machine objection, and seeking to discover whether that objection really stands.

5. Well-being and Morality

5.1 Welfarism

Well-being obviously plays a central role in any moral theory. A theory which said that it just does not matter would be given no credence at all. Indeed, it is very tempting to think that well-being, in some ultimate sense, is all that can matter morally. Consider, for example, Joseph Raz’s ‘humanistic principle’: ‘the explanation and justification of the goodness or badness of anything derives ultimately from its contribution, actual or possible, to human life and its quality’ (Raz 1986, p. 194). If we expand this principle to cover non-human well-being, it might be read as claiming that, ultimately speaking, the justificatory force of any moral reason rests on well-being. This view is welfarism.

Act-utilitarians, who believe that the right action is that which maximizes well-being overall, may attempt to use the intuitive plausibility of welfarism to support their position, arguing that any deviation from the maximization of well-being must be grounded on something distinct from well-being, such as equality or rights. But those defending equality may argue that egalitarians are concerned to give priority to those who are worse off, and that we do see here a link with concern for well-being. Likewise, those concerned with rights may note that we have rights to certain goods, such as freedom, or to the absence of ‘bads’, such as suffering (in the case of the right not to be tortured, for example). In other words, the interpretation of welfarism is itself a matter of dispute. But, however it is understood, it does seem that welfarism poses a problem for those who believe that morality can require actions which benefit no one, and harm some, such as, for example, punishments intended to give individuals what they deserve.

5.2 Well-being and Virtue

Ancient ethics was, in a sense, more concerned with well-being than a good deal of modern ethics, the central question for many ancient moral philosophers being, ‘Which life is best for one?’. The rationality of egoism—the view that my strongest reason is always to advance my own well-being—was largely assumed. This posed a problem. Morality is naturally thought to concern the interests of others. So if egoism is correct, what reason do I have to be moral?

One obvious strategy to adopt in defence of morality is to claim that a person’s well-being is in some sense constituted by their virtue, or the exercise of virtue, and this strategy was adopted in subtly different ways by the three greatest ancient philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. At one point in his writings, Plato appears to allow for the rationality of moral self-sacrifice: the philosophers in his famous ‘cave’ analogy in the Republic (519–20) are required by morality to desist from contemplation of the sun outside the cave, and to descend once again into the cave to govern their fellow citizens. In the voluminous works of Aristotle, however, there is no recommendation of sacrifice. Aristotle believed that he could defend the virtuous choice as always being in the interest of the individual. Note, however, that he need not be described as an egoist in a strong sense—as someone who believes that our only reasons for action are grounded in our own well-being. For him, virtue both tends to advance the good of others, and (at least when acted on) advances our own good. So Aristotle might well have allowed that the well-being of others grounds reasons for me to act. But these reasons will never come into conflict with reasons grounded in my own individual well-being.

His primary argument is the notorious and perfectionist ‘function argument’, according to which the good for some being is to be identified through attention to its ‘function’ or characteristic activity. The characteristic activity of human beings is to exercise reason, and the good will lie in exercising reason well—that is, in accordance with the virtues. This argument, which is stated by Aristotle very briefly and relies on assumptions from elsewhere in his philosophy and indeed that of Plato, appears to conflate the two ideas of what is good for a person, and what is morally good. I may agree that a ‘good’ example of humanity will be virtuous, but deny that this person is doing what is best for them. Rather, I may insist, reason requires one to advance one’s own good, and this good consists in, for example, pleasure, power, or honour. But much of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is taken up with portraits of the life of the virtuous and the vicious, which supply independent support for the claim that well-being is constituted by virtue. In particular, it is worth noting the emphasis placed by Aristotle on the value to a person of ‘nobility’ (to kalon), a quasi-aesthetic value which those sensitive to such qualities might not implausibly see as a constituent of well-being of more worth than any other. In this respect, the good of virtue is, in the Kantian sense, ‘unconditional’. Yet, for Aristotle, virtue or the ‘good will’ is not only morally good, but good for the individual.

Bibliography

Fletcher (2016a) is an excellent introduction to the philosophy of well-being. Some significant recent works are Griffin (1986) and Finnis (2011), which present different objective lists, Feldman (2004) and Crisp (2006), which defend hedonism, Sumner (1996), which rejects many current options and advocates a theory of well-being based on the idea of ‘life-satisfaction’, Kraut (2007), which develops a broadly Aristotelian account, and Haybron (2008), Tiberius (2008), and Alexandrova (2017) which address issues that arise in contemporary psychological research on happiness. A collection of extremely useful essays is Fletcher (2016b). See also Nussbaum and Sen (1993).

  • Adler, M. and M. Fleurbaey (eds.), 2016, Oxford Handbook of Wellbeing and Public Policy, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Alexandrova, A. 2017, A Philosophy for the Science of Well-being, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Aristotle, Metaphysics, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, J. Barnes (ed.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • –––, Nicomachean Ethics, R. Crisp (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Bentham, J., 1789 [1996], An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, J. Burns and H.L. A. Hart (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Bradley, B., 2009, Well-being and Death, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Crisp, R., 2006, Reasons and the Good, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Feldman, F., 2004, Pleasure and the Good Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • –––, 2010, What is this Thing Called Happiness?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Finnis, J., 2011, Natural Law and Natural Rights, 2nd edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Flanagan. O., 2007, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Fletcher, G., 2016a, The Philosophy of Well-being: An Introduction, London: Routledge.
  • Fletcher, G. (ed.), 2016b, The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-being., London: Routledge.
  • Griffin, J., 1986, Well-being, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Haybron, D., 2008, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Heathwood, C., 2006, “Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism”, Philosophical Studies, 128: 539–63.
  • Hooker, B., 2015, “The Elements of Well-being”, Journal of Practical Ethics, 3: 15–35.
  • Hurka, T., 1993, Perfectionism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Kagan, S., 1992, “The Limits of Well-being”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 9: 169–89.
  • Kraut, R., 2007, What is Good and Why, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 2011, Against Absolute Goodness, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Layard, R., 2005, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, London: Penguin.
  • Mill, J.S., 1863 [1998], Utilitarianism, R. Crisp (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Moore, A., 2000, “Objective Human Goods”, in B. Hooker and R. Crisp (eds.), Well-being and Morality: Essays in Honour of James Griffin, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 75–89.
  • Moore, G.E., 1903, Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nozick, R., 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Nussbaum, M. and A. Sen (eds.), 1993 The Quality of Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Parfit, D., 1984, Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Plato, Protagoras, C.C.W. Taylor (ed. and trans.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.
  • –––, Republic, G.M. Grube (trans.), revised C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
  • Raz, J., 1986, The Morality of Freedom, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • –––, 2004, “The Role of Well-being”, Philosophical Perspectives, 18: 269–94.
  • Rosati, C., 1995, “Persons, Perspectives, and Full Information Accounts of the Good”, Ethics, 105: 296–325.
  • Russell, Daniel C., 2012, Happiness for Humans, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Scanlon, T., 1998, What We Owe to Each Other, Harvard: Belknap Press.
  • Seligman, M., 2011, Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being—and How to Achieve Them, Boston & London: Nicholas Brealey.
  • Smuts, A., 2017, Welfare, Meaning, and Worth, London: Routledge.
  • Sumner, W., 1996, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Tiberius, V., 2008, The Reflective Life, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Velleman, J. David, 1991, “Well-being and Time”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 72: 48–77.
  • White, N., 2006, A Brief History of Happiness, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  • Woodard, C., 2013, “Classifying Theories of Welfare”, Philosophical Studies, 165: 787–803.

by Brian Tomasik
First written: 26 Nov. 2013; last update: 13 Dec. 2015

Summary

Improving society's wisdom, especially in comparison with its technological power, seems fairly robustly positive. Spreading knowledge of important findings -- particularly in the social sciences, philosophy, and so on -- is valuable, and one of the best channels for doing this is Wikipedia. While I wouldn't say that contributing to Wikipedia as a first-order priority is necessarily altruistically optimal except for very important topics, I would encourage people to add relevant material when they happen to come across it or if they already have deep knowledge of it such that adding it has low cost. If you plan to write a factual piece, consider whether you could add the material to Wikipedia instead of or in addition to reinventing the wheel. It's not clear what the sign is of Wikipedia articles that accelerate technology growth, so I tentatively recommend pushing on fields of knowledge that enhance reflectiveness and cooperation relatively more than technology.

Note: I created a list of ideas for Wikipedia articles to create, improve, or refine in case you want to jump-start your imagination. That said, I find it's generally easier to start with a paper I'm reading or a topic I want to learn about and then find what Wikipedia article can most appropriately include that information.

Contents

Introduction

When I was a child in the early 1990s, I once told my mom something like the following: "People should create a big book of all the world's knowledge, and then everyone can add to it the things they uniquely know about." My mom wrote this down in her journal of interesting things that her children said.

In 2005 I began hearing about Wikipedia from friends in school, who were remarking on the fact that anyone could edit it. Soon thereafter I began reading Wikipedia articles extensively, and they massively expanded my view of the world. A sizeable fraction of everything I know has come from Wikipedia. The rest of the world seems similarly enthusiastic, given that Wikipedia articles tend to show up at the top of search results, even when an official page for the topic also exists.

While I had been a consumer of Wikipedia for a long time, I only began editing articles in 2009, after hearing of some friends who did the same. I wrote a blog post encouraging readers to save interesting material they found to Wikipedia. In the present essay, I underscore that recommendation, specifically for contributions to social sciences, humanities, and other fields that help advance society's wisdom faster than it's technological power.

The value of popularization

When you read an academic paper, what section do you find most useful? The results? The discussion? The figures? Obviously this open-ended question has many answers depending on the circumstances, but often I find the most densely insightful section of a paper is the literature review. This is because I can get not just one particular study's (possibly noisy) findings but instead an overview of the whole field, helping me understand where the bulk of opinion lies and what kinds of general problems the field grapples with. Obviously if I were a specialist in the field, the literature review would merely repeat things I already knew, but for everyone else, literature reviews can be like gold.

Broadening horizons

Many commentators remark about the flood of information in which we find ourselves today. Because there's so much to explore about every topic under the sun, it's possible even in the age of the Internet to get stuck in a tiny subset of the space of intellectual insights. I'm skeptical of claims that the Internet encourages this balkanization on balance; there's a lot more informational balkanization that goes on unseen in poor regions of the globe that don't have Internet access. Still, it's important to break out of the narrow communities and niches that we might get stuck in, to take a more global perspective on what there is to explore and which topics are most altruistically important. Popularizations and literature reviews are essential for making this possible, by giving non-experts a glimpse into new domains that would otherwise require a lot of time to understand.

Of course, it's easy to criticize popularizations as being overly simplistic, and readers should not presume that just because they understand the intuitive summary that there aren't important details and qualifications remaining hidden. But the only alternative to popularization is leaving the insights to a few experts and missing out on the gains from expanding the minds of everyone else.

Insufficient incentives for good popularization

Unfortunately, there aren't enough incentives for academics to popularize their work. Tenure is based on formal publications, and sometimes popular books and articles can be seen in a negative light. Consider Carl Sagan:

Inevitably, Sagan's public success has drawn crossfire. "His talent for popularization is quite unusual in science," observes JPL director Bruce Murray, "so it carries some bitter fruit among elitists." [...] The more common view is that Sagan's critics are simply jealous. "Many scientists are envious of Carl," says planetary geologist Larry Soderblom. "Most of them come across in the media like a pot of old dishwater. Quite honestly, I think his time is better spent popularizing, because he's so skilled and we need it." ("His Cosmos a Huge Success, Carl Sagan Turns Back to Science and Saturn's Rings")

Similarly, on an Ask MetaFilter thread, one academic says:

Writing for the public will not get you tenure, or even count much towards it, in any field that I have any contact with, and unless you are one a few very rare people, the time spent on this would probably substantially hurt your case.

When you're optimizing for impact on the world rather than career success, you may end up with different priorities than those of academics.

Of course, there are also journalists, book authors, and other popularizers of intellectual findings. They are indeed valuable. However:

  1. There's an externality problem. The social value of improved wisdom is much higher than the personal consumption value of reading interesting articles and books. Hence, we should expect too little popularization relative to the social optimum.
  2. Since popularizers need to be paid by consumers, there's incentive to go for sensational, flashy stories at the expense of more careful, systematic discussions that portray the whole history of a field and its divergent viewpoints. One day we see a health news story about X reducing life expectancy; tomorrow we see another story about X increasing life expectancy. Better would be a summary of a meta-analysis combining hundreds of those individually noisy findings.

Intuitive argument for the value of popularizing over direct research

Research is valuable mainly insofar as the insights produced have an impact in society. (There are other side benefits as well, such as providing life experience to the researcher.) Sometimes most of the impact will come from influencing a few dozen colleagues who intimately understand the narrow field under discussion. This is especially likely for highly technical findings with less broader importance. However, many academic fields -- especially social sciences, humanities, and pure sciences like physics -- have significant implications for social policy and people's outlooks on the world, and these findings need to be more widely known.

Say it takes 10 person-months to produce a high-quality journal article in some academic field. It takes the reader at most a few hours to absorb the insights from that article; the benefit-to-cost ratio for the reader is much higher (ignoring the fact that the reader may want to do some direct hands-on work in detail to have a better picture of what science actually looks like). Now suppose that reader summarizes the core idea of the article in a few sentences on a related Wikipedia page and includes a citation. The benefit-to-cost ratio for Wikipedia readers is even larger: It takes just a few seconds for them to absorb those sentences, but now they have at least a taste of the important juices the article contained.

In the same time that it takes a scientist to conduct the studies for one paper, a popularizer could write summaries of tens to hundreds of such studies to share with others. If spreading a popularization of an existing study is even 0.5% to 5% as valuable as doing a new study from scratch, the popularizer is making a bigger contribution.

I personally see immense numbers of studies buried in old journals or academic websites containing fascinating insights that have not seen the light of day, because no one has written about them for a more lay audience. Empirically, there are plenty of low-hanging fruit to snatch up.

Standing on shoulders of giants

Many people love to get their hands dirty. Running experiments, creating new models, and so on are cool and fun. Indeed, they are, and there's value in trying some of them if only to get practice for what it's like. But before (or at least, in addition to) running off to develop a grand new theory or collecting new data, it's good to explore the literature that already exists on your topic. Luke Muehlhauser articulated the importance of this in "The Neglected Virtue of Scholarship." Popularization makes it easier for more people to stand on the shoulders of more giants.

Why Wikipedia?

Popularization can take many forms: Blog posts, articles on your website, YouTube vidoes, sharing links on Facebook and Twitter, and so on. However, I recommend adding the information to Wikipedia as a first resort, unless

  • what you want to share isn't noteworthy or authoritative enough to be on Wikipedia,
  • you want to make very long comments about the material rather than distilling its key insights, or
  • you want to express an opinion about the material.

Even in the latter two cases, you can consider sharing the basics on Wikipedia in addition to writing about it separately. After all, if the material is already in your head, it should be low-cost to Wikipedify it.

Following are some reasons to prefer Wikipedia.

Readership

As of 2015, all the articles on "Essays on Reducing Suffering" combined get about 370 page visits per day. Assuming there are ~130 pages on this site, that's about ~3 views per page per day. (The distribution is far from evenly distributed, though.) In contrast, most of the pages I've created on Wikipedia get several times more views per page per day. For example, so far in June 2015, "Insect euthanasia" has been viewed ~12 times per day, "Welfare of farmed insects" has been viewed ~8 times per day, and "Fish slaughter" has been viewed ~4 times per day.

Of course, page views are obviously not the only consideration. My website has additional value insofar as

  • the ideas are new and hence more counterfactually important than making available existing knowledge,
  • readers of my website may be more affected by these essays, and
  • my website allows me to express my opinions, which is more valuable by what I care about than readers perusing more factual content.

I sometimes see what I write on this website as enormously more important than what other people are doing, but in many cases, that's an illusion. Good research is good research regardless of who did it, and from a more distanced perspective, I realize that the information I add to Wikipedia can be enormously valuable for shaping how other people see the world, just like this website hopefully is.

Credibility

Not only does Wikipedia have more readers, but the content people read on Wikipedia will be taken more seriously than that expressed by a lone Internet blogger. If you want to share factual information rather than an opinion, Wikipedia will not only bring it to more people but will do so more persuasively.

Peer review

One reason for Wikipedia's credibility is its peer-review system. Making a contribution to Wikipedia is a signal that what you write can withstand inspection. Many editors on Wikipedia are very smart.

Concision and context

Blog posts popularizing academic findings are great, and we need more of them. However, they're scattered across the Internet and not easy to find. They also tend to review one or a few articles without necessarily putting them in complete context. (Usually when they do provide context, it's in the form of linking to Wikipedia articles!) Moreover, the popularizations may be long, not well summarized, and are not necessarily the best starting point for entry-level readers.

Of course, you could make your popularizations more Wikipedia-like, by being more thorough and more contextually interlinked. But in that case, why not just write it on Wikipedia itself? And if the content already exists on Wikipedia, don't reinvent the wheel. In general, the world would be better off with a single, best introductory article on a topic than several, not-as-good articles explaining the same things. (Of course, there's some allowance for creating a few different introductions depending on the background and age of the reader.)

In general, Wikipedia is the go-to place for the world's knowledge, and you're not going to beat it at what it does elsewhere. If what you want to write is suitable for Wikipedia, it should go there.

Fast turn-around

Publishing for a journal or other professional venue means waiting at least weeks, and often many months, for publication. With Wikipedia, you can publish immediately (or, with a new article, as soon as the content is substantive enough not to be deleted), and you get feedback right away.

I also personally find immediate publication more psychologically rewarding, because I can get a little "high" whenever I make a successful edit, rather than thinking of the project as a long slog where the payoff comes only in the distant future.

Epistemic discipline

Wikipedia's standards of high-quality evidence and representing multiple viewpoints are not just a burden to live with; they're in fact epistemic virtues that you should be aiming for on your own. Of course, our personal opinions on an issue will be more than just a mix of expert opinions, but we should know the main expert opinions and give them serious consideration. If your pet theory isn't suitable for inclusion in a Wikipedia article, how sure are you that it's correct? (Of course, there are many cutting-edge topics that do not yet have suitable presentations but should be explored. If we only relied on existing, authoritative sources, we'd have no new knowledge.)

A model of cooperation

If I had to envision the information-gathering stage of Eliezer Yudkowsky's dream of coherent extrapolated volition (CEV) in a concrete form, it might looks something like Wikipedia: People coming together, sharing insights, resolving disagreements, and so on. Of course, CEV has a significant moral component that's not present on Wikipedia, but the idea is not dissimilar, and improving wisdom is a big part of CEV as well. So to some extent, Wikipedia is like an achievable, first step toward a part of CEV. (Other features of the Internet and other social institutions like democracy are also crude but feasible approximations of a CEV-like approach.)

In general, Wikipedia is sometimes cited by pundits as a sign of hope for humanity -- that individuals can voluntarily come together and build something amazing without debilitating levels of conflict. Wikipedia has extensive philosophy around consensus, dispute resolution, and so on.

Social praise

I suspect many people would feel that if you wrote 5 Wikipedia articles, that would be more socially valuable than 10 similar articles on your own website. This is because Wikipedia has greater readership, but also because it's an investment that allows your work to last, continue to be updated, and morph into something larger than yourself.

Writing your own material is good too, but there lingers a sense of ownership and status-seeking when writing something with your name on it. Because Wikipedia articles are author-less, contributing to them is a more pure signal of altruism. Of course, you can show off your Wikipedia contributions, as, for example, Pablo Stafforini, Vipul Naik, and my page demonstrate.

Low-hanging fruit for improvements

You might expect that most of the basic and really important material would already be on Wikipedia, so that additional contributions would just represent some bonus points. In fact, there are some major holes in Wikipedia's content, as Lance Bush discusses in "Low-hanging fruit: improving wikipedia entries." For instance, in Nov. 2013, I discovered that the famous Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene had no Wikipedia entry, even though he has done some groundbreaking work in the neuroscience of morality and is a well known author. Likewise, until recently, there were no Wikipedia pages for effective altruism, earning to give, or room for more funding.

We should not use Wikipedia as a self-promotional tool. Doing so would be one easy way to make enemies and hurt our cause. However, what we can do is notice the (sometimes significant) lacunae in the material that is available on Wikipedia and selectively add those topics that we think would have the highest social value if they were more widely known. This brings me to the topic of my next section.

Differential Wikipedia progress

In "Differential Intellectual Progress as a Positive-Sum Project," I highlight the importance of advancing society's wisdom relatively faster than its technological power. Before we develop ever more dangerous tools (in the fields of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and so on), we should seek to improve social institutions, international cooperation, tolerance, and philosophical sophistication so that we can more circumspectly shape the future and achieve more of what everyone wants in expectation.

Given this premise, the value of contributions to Wikipedia in aggregate is not immediately obvious. While Wikipedia is an enormous boon for societal wisdom, it also advances technology at a faster pace.

My suggestion is that we focus our Wikipedia contributions on topics that tend more to improve wisdom: social sciences, philosophy, other humanities, and some natural sciences (e.g., cosmology) that are extremely illuminating but not directly applicable to engineering.

Of course, the net sign of engineering itself is not obvious. Maybe faster growth even in that field is better because it reduces the duration for which humanity is exposed to risks of bad outcomes due to suboptimal situations that technology could remedy. I don't know. My prevailing intuition is that technology will come in due course, and what we need to do first is make sure we can handle it in positive-sum ways for many value systems before it arrives.

Finally, note that popularization of technology is a different matter from advancing the state of the art in the field. Wikipedia's science and tech articles do speed up technological development by helping students and researchers learn faster, as well as possibly by encouraging more people to go into those fields. How much contribution this makes to the pace of progress in these fields I'm not sure. On the other hand, popularizations of technology are a big component of what we need to enhance debates in society about how to respond and what structures we can build to make sure technology is used for mutual benefit.

On balance, if I could costlessly contribute to all of Wikipedia's work, I would probably do so; the expected benefits seem to outweigh the costs. That said, there's high variance in this assessment, and it seems more clearly positive to selectively contribute to social sciences and related disciplines.

Currently I shy from contributing to ecology articles on Wikipedia because the information seems more likely to be used by conservationists than by people concerned with reducing wild-animal suffering. That said, if I had confidence that a given environmentalist issue aligned with reduction of wild-animal suffering, I would contribute to articles in that area.

Is contributing to Wikipedia cost-effective?

Currently I'm doing a lot of basic reading in many fields relevant to suffering reduction, and this process involves surveying the academic literature rather than producing new discoveries per se. If, as I'm reading an article, I find that its insights are worth sharing, I can pull up the most relevant Wikipedia page and add a few sentences to it. This is fairly cheap for me because I'm already reading the article anyway. I also find that

  • writing to share with others is more motivating and fun than just reading in private,
  • writing about an article forces me to pay attention to its core ideas and really try to understand it, and
  • once I've written about the article, I have my notes about it on Wikipedia whenever I might want to return to them.

Of course, your mileage may vary on these factors.

Once you've overcome the startup costs of learning how to contribute to Wikipedia, it seems the main long-term cost is the time it takes to add citations, because this is mindless and isn't something I would do reading on my own. Overall, this probably isn't a big deal.

So, if you're reading interesting things, or if you already have extensive expertise in a topic and can cite relevant sources without difficulty, I think the benefit-to-cost ratio for Wikipedia contributions is high enough that you should do it, except maybe in some more technologically relevant fields, or if the topic is not very important intrinsically.

If you're not already reading things that are worth sharing, it's more doubtful whether doing so is optimal just for purposes of sharing on Wikipedia. Relative to some very unique skills you might have, Wikipedia contributions are somewhat replaceable, although the degree of replaceability can vary. Some of the contributions you might make -- e.g., to pages on the mathematics of cooperation theory -- might be sufficiently technical that only other very smart people could do them. Still, if you're not already reading about something for other reasons, you should probably let someone else with a comparative advantage write about the topic, unless you wouldn't be doing much else productive with your time.

In any event, whether it's worth contributing depends highly on what material we're talking about. Filling in a series of past episodes of I Love Lucy is a different matter from expanding articles on suffering in nature or the history of international cooperation. I think the latter topics could be important enough to deserve being written even if you weren't already planning to study them in depth.

Encouraging others to contribute?

It's plausible that if you wanted to increase social-science and philosophy contributions to Wikipedia, you could do this better by indirect means (i.e., encouraging others to do so), although this could be tricky if you don't want to also push on the tech articles. That said, tech articles may not be a big concern anyway on balance as discussed in the previous section.

I'm not suggesting that an organization promoting social sciences on Wikipedia would be an optimal charity to support. It's plausible there are better ways to promote societal wisdom faster, and I don't even know if that's the most efficient thing to push on -- perhaps not relative to more direct efforts to strengthen compromise?

The big picture

It's important not to be insular in thinking about the value of Wikipedia: Even though most of the people it enlightens aren't part of your ideological circle and will never pay you back for the favor, if we take a distanced perspective of seeing ourselves, with our own ethical convictions, as one small piece of a larger project of humanity jointly working to figure out tough issues, we realize that our pet projects are not so momentously important compared with everything else as they might seem. Helping to edify those strangers may have its own ripple effects. I know there have been a few Wikipedia articles that have significantly changed my world view.

Selectively adding altruistically relevant material to Wikipedia is like treating the whole world as an arm of your altruism-research organization. Sometimes it's hard for us to see when we have our particular prejudices, but there's immense value in more people learning about these important issues -- such as cooperation, global politics, cognitive biases, animal suffering, humane slaughter, and so on. Adopting a more Copernican view of our place in the altruism universe can cut against pride, but when we do so, we see that the extensive audience of Wikipedia is a more powerful place to make an impact than we might have thought.

Poll: Why altruists don't contribute to Wikipedia

I was curious to learn more about why more altruists don't contribute to Wikipedia, so I composed a poll for the "Effective Altruists" group on Facebook. Here are the vote tallies:

I've never thought about it13
I don't think it's a good marginal use of my time10
It would take too much time to write up the info or citation6
It would take too much focus/willpower6
It would take too much time to figure out where to add info4
I already do3
I'm worried my contributions will be nullified by deletionist editors2
I'd rather bring traffic to my own website1
I have in the past but have had too many negative experiences1
I only skim what I read, so I can't accurately summarize any of it1
There's no authorship credit / reputation benefit for Wikipedia contributions1
The expected benefit is basically zero or negative0
I don't know how0

My replies to possible concerns

I personally find Wikipedia contributing extremely rewarding. When there are important topics that I want to become an expert on, the Wikipedia article is the first thing I should be reading anyway. Then once I'm familiar with that material, I can read additional papers in the field and summarize them on that article's page. When I have to summarize a paper, I read it more actively and more fully internalize its points, and I remember it much better. Indeed, my Wikipedia contribution gives me a sort of extended memory of what I learned. I've found that there's no shortage of altruistically relevant pages where lots of relevant content is missing.

When I read about a topic, some altruistic value comes from my own improved understanding, but if I contribute to Wikipedia, an additional source of value comes from helping many other people understand the topic better. Most of the time cost of contributing to Wikipedia comes from reading the source material, so if I'm going to read it anyway, I find little additional burden in adding a sentence or two summarizing it on a relevant Wikipedia article -- assuming what I'm reading is worth sharing. I try to check that the citation I plan to add doesn't already exist by doing a search by keyword or author names. For instance, if the paper is by Ken Olum about the doomsday argument, I would search {olum doomsday site:wikipedia.org} and see if the paper is already mentioned.

It can be daunting to create new articles, so you might focus on adding one citation at a time to an existing article. If you're worried about needing to learn a lot of Wikipedia style to get started, I'd recommend reading just one or two introductory articles, starting to edit, and then reading more background if you discover that Wikipedia contributing will be a bigger part of your life.

If you're concerned about not getting recognition, one way to help with this is to list your contributions on your "User page." You may also list limited biographical information, including a link to your personal website. It's true that if you contribute to Wikipedia, your personal or organizational website won't get traffic from the content, but if you take a more impartial view about the value of different activities, this may be less bad than it seems. And in any case, the contributions you do make on Wikipedia will probably get more traffic than they would have on your site. The articles that I've created tend to get at least 10 views per day on average, compared against less than one view per day for most of the pieces on my own websites. You can also share your Wikipedia contributions on Facebook just as if they were a blog post or paper.

It's true that deletionist editors make the world a sadder place, though I suppose they do help keep Wikipedia's quality reputation high. In practice, though, I haven't found deletionism to be a big problem. Of all my contributions between Nov. 2013 and Jun. 2014, maybe ~4% were removed as of Jun. 2014. What's more, if your contributions are removed, you can just find the text and citations from the page's edit history and copy your additions onto your own website instead. I did this for an article section that I wrote on satisfaction in arranged marriages that was removed. (I wrote it out of personal interest rather than because of its high altruistic import.) Because contributions to Wikipedia are irrevocably put under a Creative Commons license, I listed the text that I moved to my site under the same.

In addition, Vipul Naik suggests:

I generally try to concentrate my attention on contributions where the probability of my edits getting overridden are minimal. These usually tend to be pages about organizations, books, people, etc. rather than general subject overviews. The criteria for the latter are much more moot and as a result there can be lots of edit wars etc. in those. I try to steer clear of general subject overviews for that reason (though I might make minor edits to already existing pages).

Wikipedia translations

In addition to adding content to the English Wikipedia, another possibility is to help translate existing articles to other languages. It's possible for even those who only speak English to help with this, although of course if you know the target language, that's even better. Here are some pros and cons for translation compared against contributing new content to the English article:

  • Pros
    • Translation is faster than writing from scratch, potentially much faster. This means you can make available many more words of text per unit time than if you made novel contributions.
    • There may be fewer existing foreign-language articles on the web about a given topic, so the marginal value of an additional article may be higher in a foreign language.
    • Depending on your moods and inclinations, you might enjoy translating more (or less) than contributing to the English article.
  • Cons
    • One of the most important downsides is that when translating, you learn far less personally than when adding new content. 90% of the effort of adding to Wikipedia for me lies in reading the source articles that I'm writing about or the Wikipedia page where I'm adding them, and those are things I'd want to be doing anyway, which is why I find Wikipedia contributing to have low opportunity cost. In contrast, translating would involve more menial work. Of course, translating would let you read the contents of the article you're translating, but at a really slow pace.
    • Foreign pages have fewer readers. To get some sense of proportions, here's a quick-and-dirty comparison of English vs. German pages using the stats.grok.se tool:
      • The English "Artificial intelligence" page gets 3500-4000 views per day. The German page "Künstliche Intelligenz" gets about 300, less than 1/10 as many.
      • The English "Roboethics" page gets about 60 views per day, compared against 8-10 for the German "Roboterethik" page.

      You could do a similar comparison for articles that resemble the one you'd like to translate.

    • I would conjecture that foreign-language readers who can't read English are somewhat poorer or less educated on average, which means they may also have less of an impact even if they read the information. That said, even very intelligent people may prefer reading their native languages, so this is only a weak point.
    • The English Wikipedia is likely to be the "state of the art" of the field (i.e., better than versions in other languages on average). It seems arguably most important to advance the "state of the art."
    • The English Wikipedia can often serve as a base from which content can be copied to other languages, so adding to the English version deserves some credit for those translations that will derive from it.

Another possibility is to work on Wikipedia infrastructure or tools rather than articles. This could have a big impact through automation. On the downside, (1) it benefits all articles, including those that may increase risks, and (2) it doesn't teach you about the contents of articles in the way adding information to articles does, though if you want to learn programming-related skills, developing Wikipedia tools could be a valuable experience in its own right.

Acknowledgments

I was inspired to expand this piece from an initial, shorter blog post in part because of a suggestion on the Effective Altruist Project Board about contributing to Wikipedia. José Oliveira Stor Zé and Peter Hurford inspired parts of the section about translating articles.

  1. As Vipul Naik pointed out, the statistics reported on stats.grok.se include "much impure data, for instance bots loading a page continuously for whatever reason and any stupid crawler not using the API, etc." according to the FAQ. "Wikimedia Traffic Analysis Report - Crawler requests" reports that 19.8% of page requests come from bots. As another page notes, "On less popular wikis the share of bot requests will be higher."

    That said, there are other reasons to think even low view counts per day may not be overestimated on balance:

    • Some of my Wikipedia pages have traffic counts as low as 3, 2, or even 0 on some days, so this noise is probably not too high. Or else it's erratic, but then that doesn't explain the relative consistency from day to day.
    • The page views could also be underestimates because they don't "include requests to the mobile site, which is expected to serve about half of the pageviews at some point in 2015" according to the FAQ. In Jun. 2014, mobile traffic was 26.8% of the total.
    • Sometimes the counts logged are too low for various reasons.

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