Starfish Tossing Parable

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But old man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all; you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all!”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one.”

“No no, sorry, you misunderstand,” the young man replied, “I’m not questioning your motives, but rather your methods. Manually tossing starfish into the ocean can’t possibly be the most effective or efficient way to save them. How long have you been doing this?”

Wisdom gleamed in the old man’s eyes. “Years now. Every day, the tide strands them ashore, and every day I walk along this beach and return them. To date, my efforts have saved many thousands from desiccation!”

The young man looked out upon the water, his brow furrowing. “And did you once ever undertake a systematic analysis of alternative methods of starfish rescue?! A single week spent in thought and communication with starfish experts could conceivably increase your productivity tenfold! A hundredfold, even! Easily correctable structural issues might be responsible, and you’re but ineffectually flailing at the symptoms when you could be solving the problem! If nothing else, automation may have vastly helped — we are not tool manufacturers for nothing! Your week of ‘inaction’ might have saved millions more starfish in the long run! If you really cared about saving starfish, you’d have sought to maxi–”

“I could not delay! Every moment of hesitation condemned countless starfish to unfortunate ends!”

“But so too does pausing to sleep and eat. You implicitly recognize the value of not working yourself ragged each day that you may help more starfish in the future. Even so, I see the stoop in your back and the ache in your bones. Surely your comparative advantage lies elsewhere. Tell me, old man, what did you do before assuming the mantle of starfish-rescuer?”

“Actually, I’m only 43. Years of walking this beach without sunscreen have wrinkled my skin something fierce. But anyway, before this I was a high-profile hedge fund manager, and before that an investment banker. Little good it did for the starfish, though. Their plight called to me, so I quit my job, burned my possessions, and began roaming this beach.”

The young man tripped. “What?! Surely allocating a small fraction of your income to informed starfish relocation would have been a better choice! Why, it would have even created jobs, or something, I don’t know. Ask the economists! How many starfish have you failed to save due to your thoughtlessness? And you neglect tractability! Is this even the best beach to be doing this on? Perhaps the beach down the way has a much greater starfish density, and if you’re impartial between suffering here and elsewhere you should prioritize those beaches with the most easily solvable and largest problems. You might even consider helping other taxa, too. Starfish lack especially complex central nervous systems, and the extent to which they can be said to meaningfully suffer is questionable. Regardless, have you even compared the disutility of desiccation to that of, say, death via predation or starfish wasting syndrome, weighted by the probabilities of each of those occurring?! Or attempted to account for top-down trophic effects with respect to animals the starfish themselves eat, given that you’re already intervening in nature? Starfish take part in some rather complex ecological networks, and failing to account for-”

“You’re missing the point! Altruism is fundamentally a humanizing practice; it lets us cultivate the virtues of love and compassion and fills our spirits with joy, goodness, and light. It forges unbreakable bonds between ourselves and those around us. With the earth itself, even! And it allows us to live in the moment as we work to better the lives of those in our immediate vicinity. You would replace that with a robotic pursuit of efficiency, caring for nothing but the mere number of lives saved.”

“The mere number?! As if that’s a trivial consideration! I’m not saying that you need to become a cold, hard compassion-bot, striving only to maximize expected returns-on-benevolence, blind to everything but numbers, steel, and statistical analysis. It’s perfectly possible to care about radiating kindness and warmth or whatever while also seeking to make an actual difference in the world. Or at least as large a one as you can feasibly manage! My point is not that you should forego the psychological satisfaction of helping others, but that if you honestly valued their lives and wellbeing, you’d think hard and seek advice about how best to serve them, instead of latching onto the first obvious intervention that came your way. You don’t have to harden your heart to the world around you, you have to open it and weigh the good you can do here relative to the good you can do elsewhere.”

Hours of dramatic and obnoxious conversation passed in this way, the starfish — for the moment, at least — forgotten (with the exception of a few symbolic tosses for signaling purposes and when it otherwise wasn’t too costly). That evening, the two men left the beach. The not-so-old man resumed his previous role in enormously lucrative investment banking, and the young man founded a research institute dedicated to the reduction of both wild and domestic animal suffering, funded initially by the other’s rapidly growing riches.

Twenty years later, the coastline had been subtly modified to prevent starfish from so easily washing ashore. Occasionally, low-impact machines zipped across the beach to return any wayward starfish that did. Through somewhat haphazard application of Randomized Controlled Trials and Bayesian GLMMs, the Starfish Problem was solved, along with global poverty, disease, food shortage, the energy crisis, factory farming, material scarcity, and many other ills afflicting humans and other animals (for all those problems were fundamentally interconnected). The world experienced a period of peace and prosperity hitherto thought impossible — all due to the courageous questioning of one young man! And a very great deal of money, too!

(header image source)

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