Trade-offs are hard, but we should stop pretending they don’t exist.

Trade-offs are hard, but we should stop pretending they don’t exist.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom… the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

James 3:13-17

One of the things I value most about effective altruism is its willingness to embrace the reality of trade-offs in moral decision-making. As someone who works in politics, I am all too aware of the temptation to simplify decisions into black and white. Politicians like to make bundles of promises which are often mutually incompatible, for instance: absolute freedom and complete safety, rapid economic growth and complete equality, or all the benefits of Brexit without any of the costs. It’s a classic move which, sadly, often convinces voters – at least until the realities begin to play out.

I think the same temptation exists, but in a different way, within the church. Christian ethics are easier to grasp when they are reducible to a Sunday-school-esque list of good and bad actions. This, at least ostensibly, implies that it is in some sense possible to achieve all the good things in life, so long as one makes the right decisions. Christians rightly emphasise our own sin, which often stops us from doing all the good actions, but rarely mention the limitations in the world around us which mean we often have to choose between different good or different bad things.

However in reality there is not only brokenness in ourselves, but also brokenness in the world which severely limits our ability to achieve good things without missing out on some other good things. Equally, the reality of our contexts means that we often have to choose between two bad situations.

Trade-offs are situations where achieving one good thing means forgoing another good thing, or avoiding one bad thing requires accepting another bad thing. Trade-offs arise from the realities of scarcity and choice: although we have morally good goals, our contexts, abilities and resources limit our ability to achieve these goals without making sacrifices.

Trade-offs do not just exist in hypothetical ‘trolley-problem’ scenarios, where one has to sacrifice someone’s life to save another’s, but in every single decision we make. For instance, I could spend this weekend achieving a number of good aims: my faith might motivate me to take very seriously the importance of giving to the poor, and therefore try to earn more money to do so. I also really value spending time with my church community, volunteering for a local political cause, having quality time with my wife and telling my non-Christian friends about Jesus. These are all genuinely, God-affirmed good things, but there is no way I could meaningfully achieve all of these things in one weekend. And yet, despite having sat in church services my whole life, I have never heard any preacher address how to prioritise and choose between these good things.

I believe this is a fundamental gap in the way the church has traditionally thought about morality. Christian ethics tend to focus on listing which things are good and which are bad. They affirm certain general ends, such as the importance of relationships, the intrinsic worth of each person and human dignity, and also certain principles like honesty and commitment. Admittedly this is a very useful thing – it perhaps answers the most important ethical question of knowing what things are good, or in more visionary terms, knowing what kind of world God wants us to help create. However, Christian ethics tends not to be so helpful on what I would call the second most important question in ethics: knowing how to trade-off between good things and between bad things, when one cannot achieve everything.

I have noticed that this refusal to embrace the reality of trade-offs leads to a certain cognitive dissonance when I talk to Christian friends about effective altruism. A typical exchange might arise from me deliberating about whether or not I should spend £20 on a hypothetical birthday dinner for my hypothetical friend Edmund. In response to this, a Christian friend typically offers me some advice along the lines of: “of course it would be great to give the money to charity, but spending time with Edmund – and your other friends – is also really important – Jesus himself had close friends he was willing to invest time in!”

While I appreciate the reminder that God does affirm friendships and community as well as charitable giving as in the list of ‘good things’, my friend’s advice in fact does little more than restate my original dilemma. I know that spending time with Edmund and giving money to charity are both morally, and spiritually, good things: I am not attempting to rule one of them out as a bad thing. The problem is precisely that I cannot do both good things with this particular £20. In other words, there is a genuine trade-off.

Effective altruism offers a framework for dealing with trade-offs like the one described above. It challenges me to think critically about which of the two options should be prioritised, and to assess my intuitions about which does more good. Sending £20 to a charity like AMF, for instance, could buy multiple mosquito nets which have a particular probability of saving someone’s life. This is weighed against the good achieved by my friendship with Edmund – perhaps the intrinsic good of a relationship, but also the value it brings to a wider community and the sadness Edmund might feel if I don’t join for dinner. Through weighing intuitions about the moral value of these ‘goods’, as well as assessing the presence of alternatives (for example, perhaps I could cook a meal for Edmund at home for £5, or find a cheaper restaurant), I am using an effective altruist framework to trade-off between the options. This analysis doesn’t tell me exactly where to draw the line, but making the effort to address the trade-off could result in a better outcome.

The effective altruist approach will sound crude and calculating to many readers, and to some extent, it is. However, my challenge is this: is it better to be crude and calculating, or to pretend the trade-off doesn’t exist? Does God want us to make this kind of decision by following our feelings without regard to the consequences? Without being somewhat ‘crude and calculating’, how would you go about making this decision? Even if you decide that the effective altruist way of calculating ‘amounts’ of good and bad is fundamentally flawed, we can surely at least agree that there is in fact a trade-off, and therefore at least some weighing of options. There is a massive cost to ignoring the trade-off, and the consequences for real people could be significant. Our refusal to engage with trade-offs can lead to bad decisions.

We make trade-offs all the time. They are part of the package of life in a resource-limited, time-bound world where we are further limited by our skills and abilities. I cannot be both a missionary doctor and a human rights lawyer; I cannot give all my money to the local homeless shelter and the local church; I cannot go to Edmund’s birthday dinner and send the money to AMF. Rather than pretending these constraints do not exist, we are challenged to humbly accept them. I believe this is where wisdom comes in – the ability to discern a path through the uncertainties and limitations that come with living in a broken world. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can begin create a world that looks more like God’s Kingdom.

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  1. […] that these should be made with through reasoning. David Lawrence has explored how trade-offs in Christian ethics are often underplayed. One of the key points which David made was that many people think they resolve a tradeoff when all […]

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