Category Archives: Philosophy

Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game

On Twitter, Freyja wrote:

Things capitalism is trash at:

  • Valuing preferences of anything other than adults who earn money (i.e. future people, non-humans)
  • Pricing non-standardisable goods (i.e. information)
  • Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)

Things capitalism is good at:

  • Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
  • Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
  • The obvious: making value fungible

Anyone know of work on -

a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or
b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?

This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.

Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.

The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.) Continue reading

Should Effective Altruism be at war with North Korea?

Summary: Political constraints cause supposedly objective technocratic deliberations to adopt frames that any reasonable third party would interpret as picking a side. I explore the case of North Korea in the context of nuclear disarmament rhetoric as an illustrative example of the general trend, and claim that people and institutions can make better choices and generate better options by modeling this dynamic explicitly. In particular, Effective Altruism and academic Utilitarianism can plausibly claim to be the British Empire's central decisionmaking mechanism, and as such, has more options than its current story can consider.


I wrote to my friend Georgia in response to this Tumblr post.

Asymmetric disarmament rhetoric

Ben: It feels increasingly sketchy to me to call tiny countries surrounded by hostile regimes "threatening" for developing nuclear capacity, when US official policy for decades has been to threaten the world with nuclear genocide.

Strong recommendation to read Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine.

Georgia: Book review: The Doomsday Machine

So I get that the US' nuclear policy was and probably is a nightmare that's repeatedly skirted apocalypse. That doesn't make North Korea's program better.

Ben [feeling pretty sheepish, having just strongly recommended a book my friend just reviewed on her blog]: "Threatening" just seems like a really weird word for it. This isn't about whether things cause local harm in expectation - it's about the frame in which agents trying to organize to defend themselves are the aggressors, rather than the agent insisting on global domination.  Continue reading

Totalitarian ethical systems

(Excerpt of another conversation with my friend Mack.)

Mack: Do you consider yourself an Effective Altruist (capital letters, aligned with at least some of the cause areas of the current movement, participating, etc)?

Ben: I consider myself strongly aligned with the things Effective Altruism says it's trying to do, but don't consider the movement and its methods a good way to achieve those ends, so I don't feel comfortable identifying as an EA anymore.

Consider the position of a communist who was never a Leninist, during the Brezhnev regime.

Mack: I am currently Quite Confused about suffering. Possibly my confusions have been addressed by EA or people who are also strongly aligned with the stated goals of EA and I just need to read more. I want people to thrive and this feels important, but I am pretty certain that "suffering" as I think the term is colloquially used is a really hard thing to evaluate, so "end suffering" might be a dead end as a goal

Ben: I think the frame in which it's important to evaluate global states using simple metrics is kind of sketchy and leads to people mistakenly thinking that they don't know what's good locally. Continue reading

Commentary on Philosophy War

[Epistemic status: Truth-oriented, but don't want to stake any capital on this. Read only for fun, but you might learn something.]

Currently reading Adorno and interested in this silly little video.

"Zizek" makes a good-faith effort to get people with multiple perspectives talking with each other about subjects related to the set {Wagner, automation, Judaism, Adorno, Wicca} through truly epic levels of conviviality, but they have some sort of Babel problem and can't actually communicate. This leads to a war that pretends to be about philosophical differences, but if you look at what the words cash out to they're not really more meaningful than "Hey! Hey! Hey! I wish to borrow Pakistan!" or "My neighbors suffer, Whee!" - calls to action to expropriate via organized violence, and endorsement of the same.  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

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