I talk to my mom on the phone about five days per week. We have a few regular topics of conversation, one of which is current events. She saw some horrible thing on the news today. That segues into her main idea, which is that people are inherently evil.
I don’t agree with my mom on this.
Mind you, I don’t think people are inherently good.1
Instead, I think people are inherently selfish. I picture each of us something like this:
We’re in the middle, or very near to it. Alongside us we have our loved ones. Other family members and close friends might ambulate around the edges of that. The next level out contains more distant relatives and friends. Beyond the relatives and friends come people who share our experiences or agree with our views. After that come strangers and then, finally, people who are decidedly different from us; first on less charged issues, then on more charged issues:
Our level of sympathy is usually by far the highest close to the center. Farther and farther away from the center, that level of sympathy slopes downward. Our sympathetic perspective works a lot like our visual perspective: as people get farther and farther away from us, their concerns of equal magnitude look smaller and smaller, like identical telephone poles shrinking into the distance.
Each of our sympathetic perspectives might have a slightly different shape.
For the legendarily selfless, sympathy rises further out on the circle:
For the legendarily evil, that sympathy line dips below zero into antipathy:
But for most of us, our sympathetic perspective might look something like this:
It’s worth noting that this is not a totally new idea. Nietzsche sort of celebrated it: he referred to the long tails of the circle of caring as ‘herd morality’ and claimed that they suppressed man’s ‘will to power’ and so discouraged advancement toward ‘human greatness.’ I happen to think that his argument is based on a narrow and individually-centered definition of ‘greatness.’ I definitely don’t think the human condition is improved by philosophers willfully tightening their circles of caring or becoming sympathetically nearsighted. Columbia’s Gustave M. Berne Professor Christia Mercer has some excellent work about assumptions of philosophy that help inform Nietzsche’s viewpoint.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me also observes something like the sympathetic perspective and its emergent properties on a larger scale.
Here’s what we need to grapple with.
I think our sympathetic perspective is usually more curved than we care to admit. That is, what is convenient for us personally will take precedence over preventing actual harm to others.
Recently, we learned that GitHub renewed a contract with ICE. That news caused an outpouring of grief among GitHubbers who consider themselves on the right side of history and were suddenly forced to contend with the fact that, as GitHub employees, they are contributing to Bad Things.
This has happened before: Google and the Pentagon. Microsoft and the IC. Palantir and ICE. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal (I mean, that and a dozen other scandals in a given month). IBM and the Nazis (seriously, there’s a whole book about this one). Employees (and specifically I’ll speak here with respect to engineers) explain why they have to work at these places, or conform at these places. “Well, I’d like to build an $X million nest egg for xyz, and then I’d like to do impact work.” “I know the company does Bad Things, but my specific team has a great mission.”
I don’t mean to be insensitive, but that’s bullshit.
Engineers are unique in that demand for the engineering position is higher than supply. This isn’t a disagreement over agile or something. People are DYING. These companies offer money and prestige, and that’s what’s close to the engineer. So it receives more weight on their sympathetic perspective, and it becomes easier to hope that all the red flags this company has previously exhibited are water under the bridge.
Then a news article suddenly reveals the curvature of that perspective. It brings that distant mountain of defending humanity up closer to the career-goals telephone pole, and folks are forced to face the fact that they treat that telephone pole like it’s taller than that mountain. They always knew the mountain was taller. But holy shit, it’s that much taller?
It’s not that simple, Chelsea.
I know it’s not that simple. People have bills, debt, dependents, alimony, healthcare expenses. Sometimes survival does depend on a substantial paycheck.
People want to work in places where they’ll be technically challenged. For principal developers, that might only feel possible at big companies that are more likely to do terrible things.
People want to work in places where they can have broad reach or funding for large projects. This, again, might only feel possible at big companies that are more likely to do terrible things.
People want to work for a reputable name, to establish social and professional status and to get access to other opportunities. Again, this might only feel possible at big, well-known names that have demonstrated themselves to make unethical choices.
We need access to all of these things—skills, reach, capital, reputability—to multiply our long-term positive impact. But that doesn’t mean we get a free pass for the impact we’re enabling right now.
We still need to stop and think about the size of that mountain, our power as individuals, and the choice we make to use that power…
…or not use it, because that wouldn’t be convenient for us.
So what are we supposed to do?
My goal in this series is to talk about exactly that.
Usually in my experience, this conversation alights on some kind of mass effort. Start an engineers’ union! Stage a mass protest! These are great ideas. Also, they take time, outrage, and considerable free labor on top of full-time jobs from lots of people. Our political climate at present is particularly hostile to labor organizing, and capitalism at large is perpetually hostile to labor organizing. Engineers with considerable talent, reach, and experience with intra-company organizing have given up and left their employers. Others have been demoted, reassigned, and pushed out.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do the hard work. But it is to say that labor organizing cannot be our only answer. Instead, it lives in our ‘collective action‘ bucket. And we can also have an ‘individual action‘ bucket.
Because we—because you—have leverage on an individual level, too.
This series will discuss what you, one tech worker, can do to integrate your values with your career path, hold companies accountable, and make your impact through your work a positive one. Not a net positive one with some demerits for enabling reprehensible behavior, but a wholly positive one.
Because I will not spend my precious instant on this despairing, dying planet settling for lesser evils.
And I can’t get that mountain off my mind.
I wonder about my sympathetic perspective. How far out does my circle extend, and where are the edges?
How high is my sympathy level? Who does it cover? Am I offering insufficient support to the truly troubled because folks who are somewhat less troubled happen to be fewer degrees of separation from me?
Am I doing enough to make my circles larger?
I have to believe it’s possible to treat our sympathetic nearsightedness. I find myself working on it every day: assuming less, listening more, soliciting the perspectives of people outside my network of friends and colleagues. I cannot tell you how embarrassed I am by sympathies I tightly held just a few years ago.
I continue to learn every single day just how small I, and by extension my circle, is relative to the whole. And doing that has changed the way I make choices. I do more research before I jump into business relationships. I forego things that matter a lot to me because my eyes, more than they used to, stay on the mountain. And I try to remember, when choices feel scary or unfamiliar, that I have chosen to change my priorities, and of course that will feel strange and scary.
And I do my best to choose it anyway, uncomfortable and scared.
I don’t claim to be perfect at this, or anywhere near it. But I’ve changed my decision calculus enough to share this encouraging news: the choices do get easier. And as far as I can tell so far, they do not get less gratifying.
1I know some of you are pissed to hear me contest the idea that people are inherently good because it conflicts with your general experience, so let me address that. Your experience will suggest that people are inherently good if people are usually good to you personally. You never see a lot of the ugly behavior exhibited by people you know.
Example: If you know any women, you know one who has been sexually assaulted. And yet no one seems to know anyone who assaults women. You know that your black friend has experienced racism, but nobody seems to know any racists personally. Reality check: you know these people, they just don’t act that way to your face. But they do act that way to somebody’s face. There are patterns to who gets the ugly, and many of them are patterns you’ve already heard of: as you get less rich, less white, less straight, less male, less powerful, and less in line with the dominant ideology wherever you are, your experience with people conflicts more and more with the idea that people are ‘inherently good.’
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Well-organized and written thoughts. It’s a difficult topic. I vaguely remember reading about a sect of Hinduism that delineates a stage of life for strictly family and career and a later stage, after the kids are set, to community service. But, as you said, is it worth ignoring your net negative impact now for a mostly positive impact later? I have no answers.