Moral differences in mediocristan

Scott Alexander writes:

Utilitarianism agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because Utility, but take it far enough to the tails and we should tile the universe with rats on heroin. Religious morality agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because God, but take it far enough to the tails and we should spend all our time in giant cubes made of semiprecious stones singing songs of praise.

He suggests that these are surprisingly divergent visions of the highest good, for moral visions that give similar advice for day-to-day life:

converting the mass of the universe into nervous tissue experiencing euphoria isn’t just the second-best outcome from a religious perspective, it’s completely abominable

But what strikes me about them is how similar they seem, when you strip away the decorative metaphors. Continue reading

Financial investment is just a symbolic representation of investment projected onto a low-dimensional space inside a control system run by the US government

Nassim Nicholas Taleb recommends that instead of the balanced portfolio of investments recommended by portfolio theory, we follow a "barbell" strategy of putting most of our assets in a maximally safe, stable investment, and making small, sustainable bets with very high potential upside. If taken literally, this can't work because no such safe asset class exists. Continue reading

On proofs of the existence of God

I used to think of proofs of the existence of God as basically attempts to compel assent to a particular religious doctrine through a sort of sleight of hand:

  1. Prove, based on reasonable-seeming general axioms, the existence of some sort of ultimate entity.
  2. Name this entity "God."
  3. Conflate this with the particular God-based model of the world and right action embedded in your own religion.

While in many cases this may actually be the motivation, I now see a totally different thing people might have been trying to do with such "proofs." Continue reading

Zetetic explanation

There is a kind of explanation that I think ought to be a cornerstone of good pedagogy, and I don't have a good word for it. My first impulse is to call it a historical explanation, after the original, investigative sense of the term "history." But in the interests of avoiding nomenclature collision, I'm inclined to call it "zetetic explanation," after the Greek word for seeking, an explanation that embeds in itself an inquiry into the thing.

Often in "explaining" a thing, we simply tell people what words they ought to say about it, or how they ought to interface with it right now, or give them technical language for it without any connection to the ordinary means by which they navigate their lives. We can call these sorts of explanations nominal, functional, and formal.

In my high school chemistry courses, for instance, there was lots of "add X to Y and get Z" plus some formulas, and I learned how to manipulate the symbols in the formulas, but this bore no relation whatsoever to the sorts of skills used in time-travel or Robinson Crusoe stories. Overall I got the sense that chemicals were a sort of magical thing produced by a mysterious Scientific-Industrial priesthood in special temples called laboratories or factories, not things one might find outdoors. Continue reading

Culture, interpretive labor, and tidying one's room

While tidying my room, I felt the onset of the usual cognitive fatigue. But this time, I didn't just want to bounce off the task - I was curious. When I inspected the fatigue, to see what it was made of, it felt similar to when I'm trying to thread a rhetorical needle - for instance, between striking too neutral a tone for anyone to understand the relevance of what I'm saying, and too bold of a tone for my arguments to be taken literally. In short, I was shouldering a heavy burden of interpretive labor.

Why would tidying my room involve interpretive labor?  Continue reading

Model-building and scapegoating

When talking about undesirable traits, we may want to use simple labels. On one hand, simple labels have the virtue of efficiently pointing to an important cluster of behavioral predictions. On the other, they tend to focus attention on the question of whether the person so described is good or bad, instead of on building shared models about the causal structure underlying the perceived problem.

Slate Star Codex recently posted a dialogue exploring this through the example of the term "lazy." (Ozy's response is also worth reading.) I think that Scott's analysis itself unfortunately focuses attention on the question of whether assigning simple labels to adverse traits is good or bad (or alternately, true or false) instead of on building shared models about the causal structure underlying the perceived problem.

When I call someone lazy, I am doing two things. The first is communicating factual information about that person, which can help others avoid incurring costs by trusting the lazy person with some important tasks. This is shared model-building, and it's going to be more salient if you're focused on allocating resources to mitigate harm and produce things of value. In other words, if you're engaged in a community of shared production.

The second is creating a shared willingness to direct blame at that person. Once there's common knowledge that someone's considered blameworthy, they become the default target for exclusion if the group experiences a threat. This can be as simple as killing them and taking their stuff, so there's more per survivor to go around, but this can also take the form of deflecting the hostility of outsiders to the supposed one bad apple. This dynamic is called scapegoating, and it's going to be more salient when zero-sum dynamics are more salient.  Continue reading

There is a war.

Households vs markets

The first symptom was the clutter on the kitchen counter. One cutting board, two pans, one knife. My colleagues had arrived at the rented house the day before, so they'd had plenty of time to arrange things to their liking. I was sure the clutter was not to their liking, if they noticed it at all.

A teachable moment. Instead of tidying the counter myself, and accreting a small amount of resentment, I suggested to one of them that she think of the things on the counter as things that were in her power to arrange however she liked, to suit her taste, selfishly. (“Just as you might optimize your text editor to suit your workflow,” my other colleague chimed in.) She took this suggestion, and spent a few minutes arranging and rearranging the items on the counter. She put away the knife in the knife block.

A puzzle. She noted that she doesn’t usually think of the items in her home this way. Instead, household chores feel as though they are impositions from an abstract, outside authority. She was capable of accessing this other, more pleasant way of working on the things around her. Why wasn’t it natural for her to feel that way in her own home?

An hypothesis. In our usual mode of life, there is a separation between a job - which is done for someone else, to satisfy someone else’s standards, outside the home - and consumption, which is at least ostensibly done to suit one’s own taste. One of the goods you can buy with an income from a job is a nice place to live, and you can also buy services to keep the place clean and tidy. For the most part, you maintain the place you live by leaving it, and entering the domain of an outside authority. Household chores are the remainder that cannot efficiently be outsourced, or an echo of a previous era in which such outsourcing was less common. Continue reading


For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
- The Gospel according to Matthew

r > g
-Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

From Jesus to Piketty, it is a commonplace that wealth is a positive feedback loop.

Under one model, differential ability to steward capital, plus compounding gains, implies that perfectly benevolent people with more money than most should keep it more often than a naive expected utility maximization would suggest. On the other hand, conquering empires also experience compounding gains; the ability to leverage force into more force implies that this is a harmful positive feedback loop.  Continue reading

Oops Prize update

I'm overdue to publish an update on the Oops Prize. It fell off my priority list because I received exactly one nomination. I followed up with the nominee and couldn't get enough clarification to confirm eligibility, but my sense was that while the nominee clearly changed their mind, it wasn't a particularly clear case of public error correction as specified in the prize criteria.

Since the Oops Prize remains unclaimed, I'm offering it again this year. To clarify, I don't think the prize amount is enough to incentivize overt error-correction on its own, but it might be enough to give people an incentive to bother informing me if such error correction is in fact happening.

If anyone at an EA Global conference this year publicly repudiates an old belief, and the efforts they made and asked others to make on this basis, and explained what they're doing differently, then I'd like to celebrate this. Since talk is cheap, I'm offering $1,000 in prize money for the best example of such error-correcting; $900 to the person who most clearly reports changing their mind about something big they’d already invested their time or money or credibility in and asked others to invest in, and $100 to the first person to nominate them. Self-nomination is encouraged.

To qualify, an entry has to have the following attributes:

  • It is explicitly error correction, not an account that spins things to look like a series of successes evolving over time, or "I used to think X, and now I think X'."
  • The nominee successfully encouraged a public commitment of resources based on the original belief (e.g. funds raised or volunteer hours).
  • There is a record of the error-correction statement. If it's not a recorded talk, an independent witness (neither the nominator nor prizewinner) is enough evidence.
  • It happened at EA Global, and either was part of a scheduled talk, or an independent witness (neither the nominator nor the nominee) believes that at least ten people were present.

Anyone who speaks at EA Global this year is eligible for the prize, including leaders of EA organizations such as CEA, EAG leadership, and GiveWell / Open Philanthropy Project staff. If no qualifying entries are submitted, then no prize will be awarded. I am the sole, unaccountable judge of this, but will get people to check my work if I don't think anyone's eligible or feel like I'm too close to the person I think should win.

You can send nominations to me by email at If the error-correction is already publicly available, or if the nominee gives me permission, I’ll announce the winner by the end of the year. If there is no public recording and the nominee isn’t OK with the error-correction being publicized in this way, then I reserve the right to award them only a partial prize or none at all.