Tag Archives: cosmopolitan

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

Effective Altruism is not a no-brainer

Ozy writes that Effective Altruism avoids the typical failure modes of people in developed countries intervening in developing ones, because it is evidence-based, humble, and respects the autonomy of the recipients of the intervention. The basic reasoning is that Effective Altruists pay attention to empirical evidence, focus on what's shown to work, change what they're doing when it looks like it's not working, and respect the autonomy of the people for whose benefit they're intervening.

Effective Altruism is not actually safe from the failure modes alluded to:

  • Effective Altruism is not humble. Its narrative in practice relies on claims of outsized benefits in terms of hard-to-measure things like life outcomes, which makes humility quite difficult. Outsized benefits probably require going out on a limb and doing extraordinary things.
  • Effective Altruism is less evidence based than EAs think. People talk about some EA charities as producing large improvements in life outcomes with certainty, but this is often not happening. And when the facts disagree with our hopes, we seem pretty good at ignoring the facts.
  • Effective Altruism is not about autonomy. Some EA charities are good at respecting the autonomy of beneficiaries, but this is nowhere near central to the movement, and many top charities are not about autonomy at all, and are much better fits for the stereotype of rich Westerners deciding that they know what's best for people in poor countries.
  • Standard failure modes are standard. We need a model of what causes them, and how we're different, in order to be sure we're avoiding them.

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National Identities

Warning: mild spoilers above the fold, big spoilers below. There is no way to describe this book without spoilers.

The protagonist is a detective solving a mysterious murder. A body has turned up in the fictional Eastern European city of Beszel. The problem: the body has been dumped across an international border; the victim lived in, and was almost certainly murdered in, the neighboring fictional Middle Eastern city of Ul Qoma.

These aren't like East and West Berlin, or Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, sharing a single contiguous unambiguous border. The cities occupy the same physical grid of streets with borders and "shared" areas crisscrossing the literal topographical ("grosstopic") area. Only some unfathomed and possibly unfathomable force prevents the citizens of each city from perceiving and interacting with each other. It's not just that it wasn't legal to dump a body across the border - it shouldn't have been possible at all.

I cannot tell you what makes The City & the City, by China Mieville, so good without spoiling the whole thing, but I will tell you that it does not betray the trust of a reader who expects mysteries to be about something. This is not Lost. There really is a secret to the Cities, it makes sense, and it is big enough to justify the story. To the right kind of reader, this is recommendation enough - if so, go and read it.

The big spoilers are below the fold.

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