Category Archives: Philosophy

Nightmare of the Perfectly Principled

My actual literal nightmares about civilizational collapse somehow manage to be insanely optimistic about human nature.

I dreamt that in response to the news of the Trumps’ probable successful intimidation or bribery of their New York prosecutors, the US devolved into a lawless hellscape, since the last shreds of pretense of “we’re punishing you because it’s what the law says” were gone. In my dream, I successively wished I’d transferred more of my assets to paper, then money, then gold, then firearms, as I realized how far things had gone.

If I’d been thinking sanely, the thing I should have wished I’d accumulated is the only real source of safety in a state of war: a bigger, better gang. But fundamentally, I should have known better than to imagine that things would collapse quickly.

What was I getting wrong? I was tacitly assuming that the majority of people were perfectly principled. Continue reading

Poets are intelligence assets

Aeschylus’s Oresteia is an ancient Greek tragedy about the dialectic between the natural desire for vengeance, order, and the rule of law. This is most likely what contemporaries thought the play was about, including Aeschylus himself.

It is also a play about sexual politics, and the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy.

This is a good example of the well-known phenomenon in which literary criticism and other forms of textual analysis frequently get something “out of” the text that the author had no apparent intent of putting into it - and that many coherent narratives can be extracted from the same text. Far more than an author could plausibly have meant to put into the text. This is often taken as evidence that such readings are spurious.

Robin Hanson argued that one way to extract information from published studies that was comparatively uncontaminated by publication bias, was to look at the coefficients of control variables. The idea is that if your study is about, say, the effect of alcohol on life expectancy, journals may be unwilling to publish it if you get an improbable-seeming result, or no significant result. But less scrutiny is applied to the estimated effect of alcohol if you’re studying something else, and simply “control for” alcohol (i.e. include it in your model as a possible predictor).

Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it. Continue reading

On the fetishization of money in Galt’s Gulch

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is set in a world in which the death dance of capitalism has reached its final stages, the state itself becoming an instrument of direct appropriation of surplus value generated by the workers. As industrialists become aware of the extractive nature of the process in which they are participating, one by one, they convert to the radical anarchism of an agitator named John Galt,* and “go on strike” to an utopian community hidden in the mountains of Colorado: Galt’s Gulch.

In Galt’s Gulch, resources are allocated to whomever can use them most productively, in an informal process; since everyone can see how their interests converge, levels of trust are high, and hoarding and shirking are basically nonproblems. People pick up whatever tasks seem needed, regardless of their profession or the ability such tasks might give them to extract rents.

This raises the obvious question: Why does anyone use money in Galt’s Gulch? Continue reading

Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be)

In the past year, I have noticed that the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) has come to the right answer long before I or most people did, on a surprising number of things, in a surprising range of domains. And yet, I do not feel inclined to become one of them. Giving credit where credit is due is a basic part of good discourse, so I feel that I owe an explanation.

The virtues of the Society of Friends are the virtues of liberalism: they cultivate honest discourse and right action, by taking care not to engage in practices that destroy individual discernment. The failings of the Society of Friends are the failings of liberalism: they do not seem to have the organizational capacity to recognize predatory systems and construct alternatives.

Fundamentally, Quaker protocols seem like a good start, but more articulated structures are necessary, especially more closed systems of production. Continue reading

Taking integrity literally

Simple consequentialist reasoning often appears to imply that you should trick others for the greater good. Paul Christiano recently proposed a simple consequentialist justification for acting with integrity:

I aspire to make decisions in a pretty simple way. I think about the consequences of each possible action and decide how much I like them; then I select the action whose consequences I like best.

To make decisions with integrity, I make one change: when I imagine picking an action, I pretend that picking it causes everyone to know that I am the kind of person who picks that option.

If I’m considering breaking a promise to you, and I am tallying up the costs and benefits, I consider the additional cost of you having known that I would break the promise under these conditions. If I made a promise to you, it’s usually because I wanted you to believe that I would keep it. So you knowing that I wouldn’t keep the promise is usually a cost, often a very large one.

Overall this seems like it’s on the right track – I endorse something similar. But it only solves part of the problem. In particular, it explains interpersonal integrity such as keeping one's word, but not integrity of character. Continue reading

Against responsibility

I am surrounded by well-meaning people trying to take responsibility for the future of the universe. I think that this attitude – prominent among Effective Altruists – is causing great harm. I noticed this as part of a broader change in outlook, which I've been trying to describe on this blog in manageable pieces (and sometimes failing at the "manageable" part).

I'm going to try to contextualize this by outlining the structure of my overall argument.

Why I am worried

Effective Altruists often say they're motivated by utilitarianism. At its best, this leads to things like Katja Grace's excellent analysis of when to be a vegetarian. We need more of this kind of principled reasoning about tradeoffs.

At its worst, this leads to some people angsting over whether it's ethical to spend money on a cup of coffee when they might have saved a life, and others using the greater good as license to say things that are not quite true, socially pressure others into bearing inappropriate burdens, and make ever-increasing claims on resources without a correspondingly strong verified track record of improving people's lives. I claim that these actions are not in fact morally correct, and that people keep winding up endorsing those conclusions because they are using the wrong cognitive approximations to reason about morality.

Summary of the argument

  1. When people take responsibility for something, they try to control it. So, universal responsibility implies an attempt at universal control.
  2. Maximizing control has destructive effects:
    • An adversarial stance towards other agents.
    • Decision paralysis.
  3. These failures are not accidental, but baked into the structure of control-seeking. We need a practical moral philosophy to describe strategies that generalize better, and that benefit from the existence of other benevolent agents rather than treating them primarily as threats.

Continue reading

New York culture

Recently, a friend looking to support high-quality news sources by subscribing asked for recommendations. I noted that New York Magazine had been doing some surprisingly good journalism.

I'd sneered at that sort of magazine in the past – the sort that people mainly buy to see who's on the annual top doctors list or top restaurants list. But my sneering was inconsistent. I'd assumed that such an obviously gameable metric must already be corrupt – but when I lived in DC, Washingtonian Magazine's restaurant picks were actually pretty good, and my girlfriend found a really good doctor on the Top Doctors list. Nor was he an expensive concierge doctor – he took her fairly ordinary health insurance. I'd assumed there would be paid placement, but there wasn't. The methodology of such lists is actually fairly clever: they survey doctors, asking for each specialty – if you needed to see a doctor other than yourself in this specialty, whom would you go to? Now I live in Berkeley, and the last time I needed to see an ear doctor, I found one on the list just a few blocks from my house – and he was excellent.

But even after correcting for my prejudices, New York Magazine is special. They recently published some of the best science reporting I've seen – it's nominally about the Implicit Association Test, but it's really about the sorts of bad science that contributed to the replication crisis. Here are some excerpts I thought were especially clear: Continue reading

Bindings and assurances

I've read a few business books and articles that contrast national styles of contract negotiation. Some countries such as the US have a style where a contract is meant to be fully binding such that if one of the parties could predict that they will likely break the contract in the future, accepting that version of the contract is seen as substantively and surprisingly dishonest. In other countries this is not seen as terribly unusual - a contract's just an initial guideline to be renegotiated whenever incentives slip too far out of whack.

More generally, some people reward me for thinking carefully before agreeing to do costly things for them or making potentially big promises, and wording them carefully to not overcommit, because it raises their level of trust in me. Others seem to want to punish me for this because it makes them think I don't really want to do the thing or don't really like them. Continue reading

Humble Charlie

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch.
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door.
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

-Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire

In my series on GiveWell, I mentioned that my mother's friend Charlie, who runs a soup kitchen, gives away surplus donations to other charities, mostly ones he knows well. I used this as an example of the kind of behavior you might hope to see in a cooperative situation where people have convergent goals.

I recently had a chance to speak with Charlie, and he mentioned something else I found surprising: his soup kitchen made a decision not to accept donations online. They only took paper checks. This is because, since they get enough money that way, they don't want to accumulate more money that they don't know how to use.

When I asked why, Charlie told me that it would be bad for the donors to support a charity if they haven't shown up in person to have a sense of what it does. Continue reading