Here's a story some people like to tell about the limits of reason. There's this plant, manioc, that grows easily in some places and has a lot of calories in it, so it was a staple for some indigenous South Americans since before the Europeans showed up. Traditional handling of the manioc involved some elaborate time-consuming steps that had no apparent purpose, so when the Portuguese introduced it to Africa, they didn't bother with those steps - just, grow it, cook it, eat it.
The problem is that manioc's got cyanide in it, so if you eat too much too often over a lifetime, you get sick, in a way that's not easily traceable to the plant. Somehow, over probably hundreds of years, the people living in manioc's original range figured out a way to leach out the poison, without understanding the underlying chemistry - so if you asked them why they did it that way, they wouldn't necessarily have a good answer.
Now a bunch of Africans growing and eating manioc as a staple regularly get cyanide poisoning.
This is offered as a cautionary tale against innovating through reason, since there's a lot of information embedded in your culture (via hundreds of years of selection), even if people can't explain why. The problem with this argument is that it's a nonsense comparison. Continue reading →
Stories such as Peter Singer's "drowning child" hypothetical frequently imply that there is a major funding gap for health interventions in poor countries, such that there is a moral imperative for people in rich-countries to give a large portion of their income to charity. There are simply not enough excess deaths for these claims to be plausible.
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 →
There are a few points I didn't make in my post on blame games because they seemed extraneous to the core point, which are still important enough to write down.
The Hierarchy game is a zero-sum game in which people closer to the center expropriate from people farther from the center, and use some of those resources to perpetuate the power imbalances that enable the expropriation. Players that fail to submit to expropriation by higher-level players are punished by those more-powerful players, often through intermediaries. Players that fail to help members of their class expropriate from those beneath them are excluded from their class, and often coordinated against more overtly.
This game isn't inherently majoritarian, - instead, it allows smaller groups to stably expropriate from larger ones, because every player has a short-run incentive to go along with the arrangement. Feudalism is a simple example of the hierarchy game. Modern states almost always have some hierarchical arrangements, such as the police and military, and (less formally) economic class. Continue reading →
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.
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.
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 →
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 →
(Excerpts from a conversation with my friend Mack, very slightly edited for clarity and flow, including getting rid of most of the metaconversation.)
Ben: Just spent 2 full days offline for the holiday - feeling good about it, I needed it.
Ben: Also figured out some stuff about acculturation I got and had to unlearn, that was helpful
Mack: I'm interested if you feel like elaborating
Ben: OK, so, here's the deal.
I noticed over the first couple days of Passover that the men in the pseudo-community I grew up in seem to think there's a personal moral obligation to honor contracts, pretty much regardless of the coercion involved. The women seem to get that this increases the amount of violence in the world by quite a lot relative to optimal play, but they don't really tell the men. This seems related somehow to a thing where the men feel anxious about the prospect of modeling people as autonomous subjects - political creatures - instead of just objectifying them, but when they slap down attempts to do that, they pretend they're insisting on rigor and empiricism.
Which I'd wrongly internalized, as a kid, as good-faith critiques of my epistemics. Continue reading →