Author Archives: Benquo

Blackmailers are privateers in the war on hypocrisy

Allowing blackmail seems prima facie good to me, since it's a tax on covert illicit behavior. Zvi seems to think, to the contrary, that it's prima facie bad.

Robin Hanson argued: If there exists some information about someone that, if revealed, would cause people to coordinate to punish them, then it's good for this information to be revealed because on average it's good for such people to be punished. Blackmail rewards people for investigating covert illicit behavior that would otherwise remain undetected, and correspondingly punishes the people engaging in that behavior.

Zvi offered two interesting arguments against this, which I'll address one at a time.  Continue reading

MeToo is good

In Locker room talk, I suggested that apparent coordination to shield sexual assaulters, harassers, or abusers might be much more local than it seemed. Since then, Donald Trump won the presidential election with a narrow majority, and the MeToo movement took off. The way the two phenomena have played out seem like strong evidence for the hypothesis that there were multiple strong coalitions with very different priorities, hidden from each other.

Half the country was at least willing to hold their noses for Trump, which I felt was a somewhat surprising display of tolerance for unambiguously awful behavior, but the apparently entrenched Harvey Weinstein was quickly dethroned, and a sitting Senator was removed, suggesting that in some places the coalition against sexual abuses has great power.

What's amazing to me, though, is how discriminating the MeToo phenomenon has been, and how resistant it's been to spurious scapegoating dynamics.

Continue reading

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