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Unspoken Ground Assumptions Of Discussion

To say a thing is implicitly to claim to believe it. This has chilling effects on one’s exercise of free speech.

@fakeysaysthings

1. Are you trying to present the correct balance between positions (“judge mode”) or present one side of a case (“lawyer mode”)?

Suppose you believe in moderate conservativism. Do you explain the best points of liberalism and conservatism and why the tradeoff leads you to a moderate conservativism? Or do you argue that liberalism is evil and conservativism is great? What if your listeners are moderate liberals, and you think a balanced appraisal would cause them to take the average of their view and your view and end up at centrism, but the second would cause them to take the average of their view and your (hyperbolic) view and end up at moderate conservativism?

2. Do you mean exactly what you say (“the pointing finger”) or are you trying to grope towards a hard-to-explain concept (“the moon”)?

Writing philosophy is really hard, sometimes impossible. Often the best you can do is throw out some things that aren’t exactly true or relevant, but which, when read, might help lead somebody to a difficult discovery. Some people pointed out on my Moloch post that a lot of the Malthusian examples I gave weren’t that Malthusian in real life, or had simple solutions. I agree. I was trying to point towards an idea of systems that couldn’t optimize themselves even when their individual participants were smart and well-intentioned. Likewise, someone who objects to the Prisoner’s Dilemma on criminological grounds, or points out that the police aren’t allowed to interrogate prisoners in that particular way, is missing something that has nothing to do with law enforcement.

3. Are you trying to describe how things work in the real world, or the underlying mechanism beneath them?

Very similar to the above, maybe the same. Consider economists trotting out their proofs of supply and demand curves and the laws of the market. Maybe no industry responds to things in exactly that particular way, and there are all sorts of weird things going on like lack of information, signaling games, regulation, et cetera. But the economists aren’t trying to say “this is exactly how the real world works,” they’re trying to say “Here is one underlying mechanism that powers things in the real world, which then gets altered by a lot of other things.”

4. Are you pointing out a specific problem, or trying to contribute to an abstract intellectual discussion about Movements?

Brought up in Weak Men Are Superweapons. Suppose you’re talking about how a lot of anti-gay pastors turn out to be gay themselves. If your point is that we need a better hiring process for the position of “anti-gay pastor”, fair enough. If you’re trying to discredit the entire concept of being against homosexuality – or worse, the entire concept of religion – then at best you’re several steps short of an argument, and at worst you’re just spouting ad hominems.

5. Are you declaring something is definitely correct (“theory”), or bringing it to people’s attention as an idea worthy of consideration (“hypothesis”)?

One of the most annoying things I see is someone proposing a really insightful possibility about how the world might work, and someone else saying “This is dumb, you don’t have nearly enough evidence to prove this, you’re just shooting your mouth off”. Of course, everything starts as a hypothesis with less than enough evidence to be completely proven. It’s only after something has been proposed that people are able to study it further. What do they expect – that a theory bursts forth fully formed onto the Earth with hundreds of supporting papers and experiments by a community of scholars who have been working totally in secret until that time? People tend to bring up this objection only when the hypothesis is something they want to nip in the bud for political reasons, before anyone pays attention and tries to gather evidence. This is also annoying in the case of a mostly-unsupported orthodoxy that demands any challengers come up with a mountain of support before they can be taken seriously. But it also means that when you come up with an idea you think is probably wrong, and want to open it for discussion so people can tell you why, it’s hard to do so without people accusing you of trying to push it.

* * *

I think a lot of logical fallacies, confusions, and Arguments From My Opponents Believe Something stem from ambiguity – either real or maliciously invented – in these unspoken grounds. For example, the weak man fallacy (or false accusations thereof) is almost impossible to avoid because of ambiguity about (4). Anyone operating in Lawyer Mode on (1) can be accused of “bias” or “only seeing one side of an issue”. Anyone in Hypothesis Mode on (5) can be mocked for telling “just so stories” or not understanding the value of evidence. And anyone trying to explain underlying mechanisms in (3) can be told that “the real world isn’t as simple as your calculations, you autistic geek”.

I don’t think I consistently stick to one side of either of these dichotomies, which probably makes things really confusing.

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61 Responses to Unspoken Ground Assumptions Of Discussion

  1. Pingback: Links | Nation of Beancounters

  2. Emile says:

    Suppose you believe in moderate conservativism. Do you explain the best points of liberalism and conservatism and why the tradeoff leads you to a moderate conservativism? Or do you argue that liberalism is evil and conservativism is great? What if your listeners are moderate liberals, and you think a balanced appraisal would cause them to take the average of their view and your view and end up at centrism, but the second would cause them to take the average of their view and your (hyperbolic) view and end up at moderate conservativism?

    (I agree, but am going off a bit of a tangent on this example)

    This can backfire! Say I’m pro gay marriage and pro gun rights, and my friend is pro gay marriage anti gun rights, so I follow the hyperbolic strategies and introduce him to all my conservative friends and send him conservative books and magazines (all are anti gay marriage and pro gun rights); he’s (miraculously) somewhat convinced and takes a halfway position: anti gay marriage and anti gun rights – so he counts as “moderate conservative”, like me, but his views actually moved further away from mine!

    Since the liberal-conservative axis actually corresponds to many more issues (the free market, welfare, immigration, foreign policy, ethnic minorities, religion, the European Union, the Arab-Israeli conflict, etc.), this is not that unlikely.

    However the strategy still makes sense if you take it on a single issue – say if I want to convince a liberal friend that I should be allowed to own a registered firearm, so say I want free sales of any weapon for everybody; and once he points out that’s stupid, I can “compromise” to the position I was already holding, and hope he feels obligated to compromise towards mine.

    And this leads to two bad things: a) an incentive to misrepresent what one really believes in the name of “moving the Overton window” (which in turn makes everybody suspect everybody else of doing exactly that, and thus not updating their beliefs), and b) because of group dynamics, some people actually start believing these extreme beliefs.

    Therefore arguing beyond one’s position/trying to “move the Overton window”/lawyer mode is Evil and should be judged the same way as pissing in the swimming pool or stealing your flatmate’s food.

    So, how does this fit in the above?
    1. Lawyer mode (dammit!)
    2. the moon
    3. underlying mechanism
    4. abstract intellectual discussion
    5. theory

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    • suntzuanime says:

      I’m not sure there’s anything to be done about suicide arguers saying crazy things in order to push the Overton window. Especially with internet pseudonymy meaning you have some hope of getting away with it and still having a sober reasonable identity to enjoy the fruits of the widened Overton window.

      The solutions I see are either to officially punish extreme views (illiberal, but a popular solution in countries less concerned with Freedom than the USA) or to let the chips fall where they may and let the Overton Window get ripped wide open. I used to think this was obviously a good idea, but now I wonder if maybe the Overton Window doesn’t do good work in keeping the inferential distances between people in society small and keeping a polite consensus so that we don’t all have to hate each other all the time. Perhaps a little bit of suppression of heterodoxy would help people get along with each other better, and we could stop before we got to full-blown Stalinism.

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      • Emile says:

        […] let the chips fall where they may and let the Overton Window get ripped wide open. I used to think this was obviously a good idea, but now I wonder if maybe the Overton Window doesn’t do good work in keeping the inferential distances between people in society small and keeping a polite consensus so that we don’t all have to hate each other all the time.

        I’m still in favor of that, and if there are more strict restrictions to speech, they should be around “ways of speaking” (not just insults, but also nitpicking, strawmaning, logical rudeness, etc.), and not content.

        I also think we should try to avoid one-dimensional thinking about politics; a “wide range of views” doesn’t necessarily mean from extreme left to extreme right, it can also mean views on a lot of orthogonal issues; projecting diversity of thought on a single political axis loses a lot of information, and encourages factional thinking.

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        • suntzuanime says:

          Restrictions on nitpicking, strawmanning, and logical rudeness are unpoliceable, or to the extent they are policeable it would require so much judgment by the police that it would essentially end up being official punishment of extreme views.

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        • Emile says:

          Yeah, I wasn’t thinking of “policing” by the actual police, but rather of social norms as implemented on the internet, talk shows, newspapers, public debates, etc.

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        • Deiseach says:

          What about plain ignorance? What do you do about that?

          A couple of days ago, I responded to a post on Tumblr (go ahead, mock, I have good fandom discussions there and stay out of the hipster/SJW end of the pool) which somehow managed to conflate Giordano Bruno, Copernicus, and Galileo: it was along the lines of “This is the 450th birthday of Copernicus, who said ‘Hey, how about if the Earth went around the Sun?’ and the Catholic Church said ‘Hey, how about we burn you at the stake?'”

          (I’m not going to argue on here about The Galileo Affair, I’m sick to the back teeth of it and possibly you people are too.)

          I don’t know if that post was mainly/purely anti-Catholicism, or was meant to be a crude kind of SCIENCE GOOD! RELIGION BAD! effort, but I really did feel like bashing my head against the desk, because these are the upcoming generation, the Bright Young Things who believe in all the right and good things like pro-gay rights and equality and nonbinary smash the patriarchy overthrow capitalism and freedom of choice and the whole lot.

          And yet they don’t even think in soundbites, they have a vague mashed-together notion of ‘the past’ as one lump of Evil Church Evil State Oppression and maybe recognise a few names that they’ve seen thrown around (perhaps they half-paid attention in school, perhaps they’ve just picked them up from the popular culture) and they have no idea other than “My side is self-evidently right so your side is not merely wrong, it’s deliberately evil”.

          And no historical knowledge. I wouldn’t mind getting into a fight over “View X versus View Y” and at this stage I don’t mind the common insults, but what makes me despair is that they have so little idea that they’re wrong because they’re ignorant of the facts, and they don’t even care.

          So what do you do, when you see (for instance) “Republicans are all evil!” Since I’m not American, I have a very different reaction to that and my immediate reaction would be “No, I don’t support the IRA but I do support a 32-county republic” and then have to remind myself “Oh, no – they’re talking about American politics.”

          Most of them are very young (if they’re in their early 20s, it’s as much as they are) but what is depressing is that they’re not thinking, they’re parroting The Party Line and because they hold what they consider to be the right, true and good views, that means they don’t need to think or research what they say, they just know it’s true.

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        • Ano says:

          Responding to Deiseach, leftists in general have a long history of anti-Catholicism. Indeed, the original leftists were the anti-monarchists of the French Revolution who also opposed the privileged position of the clergy at the time. If leftism is understood as opposition to established social hierarchy, whether grounded in gender, race, or class divisions, it seems natural that leftists would also lean towards opposing the Catholic Church. You don’t get more “established hierarchy” than the Catholic Church.

          Secondly, it’s not clear that these tumblr leftists necessarily have a more nuanced understanding of gay marriage or capitalism than they do of Catholicism. They might believe in all or most the Right and Good Things (whatever they are), but I don’t think that’s necessarily because they are critical thinkers or somehow more intelligent and rational than everyone else. So they’re just as vulnerable as anyone to believing that the Catholic Church burnt Galileo at the stake or that Giordano Bruno was some kind of proto-scientist, if not more so because they already have distrust towards religion over issues such as abortion, contraception, or gay rights.

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        • Patrick Robotham says:

          @Deisach, Ano

          Speaking as a leftist (who’s fighting an internal battle between charity and contempt towards the right), some (not all) conservative positions really do strike me as so wrong that one either has to be stupid or wicked to uphold them. The differences between the historical record and tumblr’s viewpoint feel negligble: it’s like the difference between someone killing five people or ten, either way they’re a murderer.

          I’m being rescued from unthinking contempt by the fact that some anti-left stuff is pretty convincing. See: The wickedness of postmodernist intellectuals, the advantages of GMO crops and nuclear power, IQ is a thing, markets work, regulatory capture, etc.

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        • Multiheaded says:

          @Patrick:

          The libertarian strains tie the latter two into their anti-capitalism.

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        • Oligopsony says:

          It was not-particularly-libertarian strains that came up with the concept of regulatory capture – that a concept thought up by communists should be popularized by liberals/libertarians is sometimes brought up as an irony, but it doesn’t really seem so to me – it’s a theory that brings up a failure mode of mixed economies, which they both have some issues with.

          And of course there’s the history of ideas moving in the other direction, starting with the Ricardian socialists of whom Marx was but the most famous.

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        • Oligopsony says:

          Sometime between then and now, anticlericalism went from being a correct position (against the Church as a major propertyholder and material prop of the old regime) to an incorrect one (against religiosity as an ethnic marker.) This much is obvious.

          I feel like I need to think more though about how this relates to the shift during the same period of right’s discourse from theology to biology. Hmm.

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        • Captor says:

          Oligopsony, the concept of “regulatory capture” was not invented by communists. Or prove me wrong.

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        • Deiseach says:

          I don’t mind being hit over the head with real wrongs that were done, but when it’s a whole lump of what is poorly-digested ‘nearly sure I read it somewhere’ sludge that you can’t even call facts, then I get irritated.

          Possibly because I was educated in The Old Days before education was meant to be fun :-)

          But it’s also disheartening, in that I’m seeing a generation where anything that happened more than fifteen or twenty years ago is all one big gray fuzz of “The Past” with no differentiation. As well, I’m seeing a lot of culturally comforting origin myths being passed off as the really true truth of history, and though I can understand why this is being done, it’s depressing that the whole Enlightenment project of reason, facts and what really happened is gone out the window.

          If you’re going to protest about the Evil Church that repressed scientific discovery and factual knowledge, then please get the facts right yourself.

          I don’t know hom many of you on here are not vegetarians, but even the meat-eaters amongst us would, I think, be a little agog if we discovered via time machine that two hundred years from now, Everybody Knows that people who ate meat got their supplies from the bulls tortured to death in the bullfighting arena, each ritual slaughter preceded by sheep having their throats cut so their wool could be harvested and hens being packed into cages then set alight so the crowd could enjoy the screams of dying creatures and be whipped up into the appropriate blood-frenzy for tearing apart and eating raw the bloody dead bulls afterwards.

          Meat is Murder!

          (I have a vegan brother who constantly posts anti-carnivore and pro-animal rights stuff on his Facebook and some of the crap is amazingly wrong, which he should know better, having lived in a country area for a period of his childhood. But it’s all for propaganda purposes).

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        • MugaSofer says:

          “I was educated in The Old Days before education was meant to be fun”

          Deiseach, as one of the Kids These Days you are presumably stereotyping about – that is, I’m a minor and I live in Ireland – holy shit yes you’re right this is a huge problem.

          I … honestly, I have no way of telling if it’s gotten much worse recently, but I constantly encounter this and it is insane. [EDIT: not the meat-is-murder thing, I’m a vegetarian and I have the opposite problem with that topic. The general issue.]

          I vaguely assume it’s some issue with the way mimetics function, but I have no idea what. It could be a deliberate Leftist conspiracy, for all I know. (In point of fact, it could be a deliberate Rightist conspiracy.)

          Does anyone have any ideas how to raise this specific aspect of the sanity waterline?

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      • Matthew says:

        but now I wonder if maybe the Overton Window doesn’t do good work in keeping the inferential distances between people in society small and keeping a polite consensus so that we don’t all have to hate each other all the time.

        This seems unlikely. The Overton Window on this blog (Marxists{————}Neoreactionaries) is vastly wider than the Overton Window of the US mainstream, but people do a much better job compensating for inferential distances here.

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      • Patrick Robotham says:

        @suntzuanime:
        If we are going to suppress, I want that suppression to be a liberal suppression. Contrast
        a) getting yelled at on Tumblr, being banned from commenting on your favourite blog, getting black looks from you friends and coworkers; and
        b) Being thrown in prison, having your books and pamphlets burned, having your website taken down, being beaten with clubs.

        There seems intuitively to be a big difference between things like a) and things like b). I think it’s that a) can be successfully resisted by people who know they’re right, and perhaps even harnessed for profit, whereas b) is just brutal and can be employed to censor regardless of moral convictions.

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        • suntzuanime says:

          Liberal suppression doesn’t work against suicide arguers. This seems to be, from your perspective, a point in its favor, but from where I sit, it means it just doesn’t work. When you say “a) can be successfully resisted by people who know they’re right, and perhaps even harnessed for profit”, you should substitute “think” for “know”. And yes, there is plenty of profit in preaching your extreme views to the choir. But again, I’m not sure that’s a good thing, because you get more of what you pay for.

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        • Nornagest says:

          There’s a big difference between A and B because A is what being persecuted by people with blogs looks like, and B is what being persecuted by people with police forces looks like. I don’t see a strong argument for tying this to ideology, except insofar as the most salient cases of left-motivated persecution, for most of this blog’s readers, come from people that have blogs and don’t have police forces.

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        • MugaSofer says:

          Contrast
          a) getting yelled at on Tumblr, being banned from commenting on your favourite blog, getting black looks from you friends and coworkers

          … getting physically attacked by protesters, getting sent threats of violence rape and/or murder, losing your job …

          I don’t think there are liberal/conservative forms of suppression. Weak/powerful forms of suppression, maybe.

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  3. suntzuanime says:

    Section 2 seems to have an orphaned sentence there at the end, for what it’s worth.

    Also you seem to be missing any mention of trolling, that essential spice in any intellectual curry.

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  4. Daniel says:

    Here’s one that bothers me: “every positive statement about X gets taken to mean you overall favor X, and every negative observation gets taken to mean you overall oppose X.”

    E.g., if you mention that the Soviet Union had terrific economic growth in the 1920s and 1930s, people immediately leap to thinking you might be arguing for Communism, and rush to make sure everybody still knows that Stalin’s government was terrible. Which is quite true, but not relevant if you were trying to analyze mechanisms of economic growth as opposed to advocate which political ideology people should follow.

    It’s the Halo/Horns Effect applied to arguments. It makes talking about nuances in contentious subjects very difficult.

    Something like “any argument that can be interpreted as an attempt to score ideological points, will be.”

    I guess the “unspoken ground” is “why is this salient?” What important questions does the content bear on, and how?

    You might think the nuance is salient because you’re curious how economic growth happens, but everyone else thinks the salience is that it might make Communism seem less bad.

    Something like: “when an argument’s salience isn’t obvious, people assume it’s meant as an attack or defense of some ideological stance they’re already familiar with.”

    And the more frustrated they are on the subject, the more they take anything you say as an ideological attack/defense.

    Salience: presumed ideological, until proven otherwise.

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    • Viliam Búr says:

      Maybe this happens because people are typicaly using the “lawyer mode” in political debates, which means that you would mention a positive statement about X only if your intention is to fully defend X. So they react to their “lawyer” model of you.

      (And the fact that a while ago you also said something negative about X is either forgotten, because it doesn’t fit the model in any way, or maybe considered an unsuccessful use of “pacing and leading” strategy.)

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    • peppermint says:

      Any argument can be construed as an attempt to score ideological points as long as there is an opportunity to smash the other apes and gain reproductive access to females. Which is why politics must be taken away from the apes as much as possible. That means monarchy.

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      • Hainish says:

        Non-primate monarchs? Alien overlords?

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      • Matthew says:

        Apparently, women never have ideological arguments.

        Nrxs say the darndest things.

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        • Andy says:

          Without evidence like statements from actual NRx, this is a strawman and you should feel bad about it. Especially because you can in theory trawl up some Jim-isms to support it if necessary. You can do better.
          (But I lol’d.)

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        • Piano says:

          Speaking as someone who has been accused of being Jim’s sockpuppet, I would disagree with your characterization, with the caveat that ideological arguments between men are usually more intellectually productive, and those between women are more subtle, as female hierarchies are more subtle than male ones. A group of smart female philosophers could certainly create great ideas, but the group would be more unstable; that’s why we don’t see many of them, and is one reason (aside from tradition) why the intellectual salon has typically been a predominantly male thing.

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        • Matthew says:

          Andy, I was replying to this:

          Any argument can be construed as an attempt to score ideological points as long as there is an opportunity to smash the other apes and gain reproductive access to females

          It follows directly from this that women’s arguments cannot be construed as ideological (since they clearly aren’t trying to secure reproductive access to other women). I wasn’t creating a strawman; I was drawing attention to the natural implication of Peppermint’s assertion.

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        • Matthew says:

          @Piano

          Speaking as someone who has been accused of being Jim’s sockpuppet,

          Really? I mean, I’ve found many things that both both JAD and you have said atrocious, but I don’t think you sound remotely similar. Not knowing anything about either of your biographies, I think JAD sounded 15-20 years older than you do.

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      • Andy says:

        Except when the apes then start fighting over who gets to be the monarch. The US has once had a civil war over the result of a Presidential election, in 1860. How many times has the English throne been up between multiple contenders? The Romans? The Persians?
        (I hate that I’m dredging up a point from the Anti-Reactionary FAQ, but this point needs to be made – with sufficient civilization and niceness ingrained, it is possible to avoid the Manichean ape-wars, better than monarchy.)

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        • Nornagest says:

          To be fair, there was only one Roman civil war between the reigns of Augustus and Septimius Severus: the Year of the Four Emperors, between Nero’s death and the establishment of the Flavian dynasty. That’s a period of about two hundred years, not too shabby. (There was a lot of violent intrigue short of war, though, and a lot of revolts and rebellions.)

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  5. Emile says:

    Another framing!

    You and I are having a discussion. But what game are we actually playing?

    A Trial/public debate, where we both argue for a side and expect a third party to judge us?

    Smalltalk, where we’re just getting to know each other a bit better?

    Speculation, where we throw a lot of ideas around and wonder which ones might be true?

    Collaboration, where we both share what evidence we have and try to figure out together which view is right?

    Courtship, where one side wants to please or impress the other?

    Teaching, where I want to explain to you how the world works?

    Spectacle, where we just want to impress or entertain the audience and come off as the winner?

    … and many more.

    A lot of the time discussion doesn’t progress much because both sides are playing a different game (or even if they are, a third side shows up and throws things off track). Some things are valid moves in one game, and severe breaches in another. And people have different expectations about which games are worth playing, and which game the average conversation is.

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  6. kappa says:

    Likewise, someone who objects to the Prisoner’s Dilemma on criminological grounds, or points out that the police aren’t allowed to interrogate prisoners in that particular way, is missing something that has nothing to do with law enforcement. And people

    …and people…?

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  7. pwyll says:

    Suppose you believe in moderate conservativism. Do you explain the best points of liberalism and conservatism and why the tradeoff leads you to a moderate conservativism? Or do you argue that liberalism is evil and conservativism is great? What if your listeners are moderate liberals, and you think a balanced appraisal would cause them to take the average of their view and your view and end up at centrism, but the second would cause them to take the average of their view and your (hyperbolic) view and end up at moderate conservativism?

    In my experience, if on a 1-10 scale for a given issue your views are at “3” and the views of the person you’re trying to pull in your direction are at “7”:
    A. if you argue for position “1”, you’re likely to alienate them, and if anything move their views farther from yours.
    B. if you argue for position “4”, and instead of trying to make your argument all-encompassing, just focus on a couple of reasonable examples, you stand a good chance of moving them from “7” to “6”.

    Your mileage may (and probably will, depending on a whole host of factors) vary.

    Also, you’re probably likely to make the best case for your position if you argue what you actually believe.

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    • Ialdabaoth says:

      B. if you argue for position “4″, and instead of trying to make your argument all-encompassing, just focus on a couple of reasonable examples, you stand a good chance of moving them from “7″ to “6″.

      On the other hand, if you’re sufficiently skilled in the Dark Arts and your opponent starts arguing for position “4”, you probably stand a reasonable chance at convincing them to actually believe “4” while keeping yourself at “7”.

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  8. Thanks for the advocacy vs. hypothesis distinction, though I still see a problem with expecting people to entertain hypotheses dispassionately which would make their lives a lot worse if the hypothesis becomes policy.

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    • Ialdabaoth says:

      Thanks for the advocacy vs. hypothesis distinction, though I still see a problem with expecting people to entertain hypotheses dispassionately which would make their lives a lot worse if the hypothesis becomes policy.

      Well, actually, that’s not as difficult as entertaining hypotheses dispassionately which are *currently* making my life a lot worse *because* they are currently policy.

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      • Granted. However, it’s still an intensification of the same problem. How dispassionate is one obligated to be about that sort of thing?

        To put it in an impersonal way, should the fat man in the trolley problem kill himself to save five other people?

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        • Ialdabaoth says:

          It would certainly make the problem less awkward for the guy standing next to him on the bridge.

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          • It certainly would, but I find it interesting that the problem is framed as “who should I kill?” rather than “when am I obligated to get killed?”.

            Also, I’m inclined to think the fat man is in a wheelchair. It wouldn’t be easy to do precision aiming of someone who’s on their feet and weighs several times what you do.

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        • Ialdabaoth says:

          It certainly would, but I find it interesting that the problem is framed as “who should I kill?” rather than “when am I obligated to get killed?”.

          So, that’s a fascinating thing that I’ve never really consciously noticed before. I’ve always had an idea of it subconsciously, but this is the first time I’ve really stared at it straight-on.

          My natural investigation is always “when am I obligated to get killed?”, and you’re right – the average person’s is “who should I kill?”. I wonder what the difference is?

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          • I’m not sure that the trolley problem represents how the average person thinks, though I’m willing to bet it was framed that way to make it more palatable.

            I also suspect I noticed that oddity about the way the trolley problem was framed because I’ve spent years reading fat acceptance materials– this left me wondering whether someone fat is a more acceptable sacrifice, even though there’s also the practical point that a heavier person is more useful for stopping a trolley and it would be hard to shove a football player to his death.

            One thing I am sure of is that the only reason people can stand being weapons geeks is that they imagine themselves shooting/bombing/whatever rather than as the targets. On the other hand, that’s still not a statement about people in general– most people (and even, I think, most men) aren’t weapons geeks.

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        • Xycho says:

          Should he? Yes, if he’s a utilitarian and therefore has that value of ‘should’. Is it reasonable to expect him to? Absolutely not, particularly if he isn’t a utilitarian (or isn’t a very good one) and actually values himself more than five total strangers, which most sane people do.

          In the original construction of the trolley car problem, I don’t see that there would be any particular incoherence with the fat man firmly believing that you were right to push him, and still swearing and begging you not to as you did so.

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        • suntzuanime says:

          I think the framing of the trolley problem is actually intended to make it harsher, as in the “least convenient possible world” sort of deal. Giving your life to save others is, in many moral philosophies, considered an act of a different and better kind than killing someone else for the greater good.

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        • Anon says:

          Seconding suntzuanime. I am pretty sure that the reason it’s “should you kill” rather than “should you sacrifice yourself” is because the first problem makes it harder to get the utilitarian answer in most moral systems.

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        • Emile says:

          For what it’s worth, I don’t think pushing the fat man in front of the trolley is the Right thing to do – is there supposed to be a general consensus among consequentialists or utilitarians that it is?

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        • Nornagest says:

          One thing I am sure of is that the only reason people can stand being weapons geeks is that they imagine themselves shooting/bombing/whatever rather than as the targets.

          There’s a lot of different things I might describe as weapons geekery, but this seems badly noncentral to most of them. Maybe if you’re a geardo/mall ninja — that looks, at least from the outside, like pure power fantasy (albeit relatively harmless). But I get the impression that for enthusiasts of e.g. military aircraft it’s about aesthetics tinged with an exciting edge of fear, similar to what motivates people to watch sharks on the Discovery Channel, and that your average warbird enthusiast no more fantasizes about strafing a tank column than your average armchair naturalist fantasizes about swallowing a live tapir whole.

          Martial arts, my own vice, is more about moving your locus of control: a lot of people who get into it have been bullied, or come from unstable backgrounds in other ways. Most (and, I’d imagine, most practical shooters) hope never to use their skills, but feel more comfortable for having them.

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      • Elissa says:

        I agree with suntzuanime that the trolley problem is phrased as it is to maximize the discomfort of the “right” utilitarian answer. Think of it this way: no one is actually asking you to jump/push someone in front of a trolley. They’re asking you to publicly endorse a course of action. By saying “I would push the fat man” you are potentially taking a hit to your reputation for trustworthiness; by claiming you would sacrifice yourself you lose nothing, and signal caring and courage.

        (Even ignoring the deontological ickiness of murder, I suspect that most people, when they consider sacrificing themselves, have motivations other than sheer cold utilitarian calculus, which confounds the thought experiment. I am not sure how true this is of Ialdabaoth, and am willing to consider that he may greatly differ from the average person in how he evaluates such scenarios.)

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    • AR+ says:

      I’ve read enough Less Wrong to not expect anybody to discuss anything dispassionately. Nonetheless, doesn’t this concern usually show up when somebody is trying to get the entire discussion shut down? Hence the need to controversial-idea safe-spaces, where people can discuss things like that, and which everybody actually is expected, if not to be dispassionate, than to at least restrict their passion to forms that are not obviously contrary to epistemological hygiene.

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    • MugaSofer says:

      I actually strongly disagree with this.

      If I meet someone on the street who thinks that, say, I should be castrated – why, they are a dangerous lunatic. Keep them as far away from me as possible, thank you very much, even if I’m vaguely confident the threat of force is sufficient to protect me.

      If I meet someone who mentions that testosterone is correlated with violent tendencies, and that it’s an interesting question whether (if it would lower crime) we should consider castrating some fraction of the population … they sound like exactly the sort of person I want to have interesting conversations with.

      But, in fairness, I am significantly less likely to experience the first scenario than most people. That may well be the important component, rather than hypothetical vs. advocacy.

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      • Multiheaded says:

        The usual SJW angle is that who precisely that “someone on the street” is matters, and that it also matters who’s asking. Certain kinds of conversation/contact between certain kinds of people can produce certain kinds of power. (For example, the discourse on racial profiling looks very differently when it’s a white social scientist vs. a black father debating law enforcement’s view.)

        BTW:

        Zimring, for his part, is certain about the effectiveness of the proactive package. “Stopping people you don’t trust is an essential ingredient,” he says, adding, unapologetically, “It is part of owning and governing the territory you’re patrolling.”

        Less clear is how much stopping and frisking police should do, and how it should be done. “There are a lot of stops in any good big-city police department,” he says. “The real problem is testosterone. In New York City, stops and frisks became ceremonies of dominance. The tactic is invasive, inherently. It is degrading when it’s done wrong, when it’s testosterone-laden … What I don’t know is if … the dominance in those stops and the sheer volume of them were essential to the results.”

        (I might’ve quoted this before here, doesn’t matter; this is pretty chilling.)

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  9. ishi says:

    JUst glancing at this link i got from less wrong, partly because of points 1 and 5. Someone i used to know from a philosophy discussion group (who since has moved far away) announced one time because of this group discussion he had decided he was or had become a conservative (though he didnt say if that was economic, social or both). (As an aside he is from a relatively low income black family, and he got on my case when i said because of some of the gangs in the area where i live (i’m white) i ‘profile’ in a sense people if i’m walking on gang territory which also is across the street from a fairly middle class historically black university—i try to figure out who is a college student and who is selling dope or gangbanging; he felt that was racist, though the college students actually do the same thing and are very watchful of who comes on campus since there have been incidents).

    His view of conservativism which came from political philosophy partly was due to hannah arendt, who he thought was the greatest recent philosopher. Interestinlg Arendt was essentially a ‘syndicalist’—basically a kind of socialist, so i’m not sure how well he read her.
    So when people announce to me they are ‘conservative’, ‘anarchist’, or whatever, in general i dont think they have really researched their positions.

    Which brings to point 5. While i agree that if someone (eg Darwin, Einstein) proposes some new idea about the world may work, it shouldn’t be shouted down if it say, disagrees with ancient wisdom that the world was created in 7 days. The problem is most people who propose new ideas don’t do any research or very little (ie they read a couple of books, often pop literature) and then make their contribution which they often want others to support, and sometimes even work to develop further to flesh it out (when actually what this means is helping them document their reinvention of the wheel or help prove that Einstein was wrong or something). Conspiracy theorists come up with all sort of interesting ideas, but who has the time to spend on them?

    Alot of people do just shoot their mouths off (listen to talk radio). This also occurs it appears to me even at the ‘highest levels’ (eg scientific publishing)—i just read some physcis style model on less wrong discussion boards which appeared to be essentially correct in principle (but maybe not in details) but it is not really new since I have seen many similar ones. I guess one can think of this as a pet project—like if i have my own particular recipe for some well known dish, or play a cover version of some well known song my own particular way. Similarily one might label oneself some variant of conservative which noone else uses. BUt i am interested in general issues—so rather than learn your version of a cover song or recipe or politics, i’d prefer to say scan wikipedia, get the general case, and then check out all the variants, rather than learn your own dialect. (A dialect i see used in less wrong is ‘aversion fatoring’—-that looks to me to be a dialect or patois, but like ‘street talk’ or gang symbols or brand names, seems to be about producing an identity (in and out group) as much as furthering rational consideration of ideas. “You can’t be a man (by definition) if you dont smoke the same cigarettes as me’ (Rolling stones)

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    • MugaSofer says:

      “Conspiracy theorists come up with all sort of interesting ideas, but who has the time to spend on them?”

      I do! But then, I’m a student.

      There’s some fascinating stuff out there if you can be bothered, though. It really gives you a new perspective on how people’s minds work, seeing the patterns and overlap involved.

      (Also, I got to correctly call the NSA thing when it was first breaking, whereas at least one of my friends flat-out told me it was a crazy conspiracy theory and may be physically impossible.)

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      • Andy says:

        Off topic: If you’re on Facebook, the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR is an interesting group, mostly academics. Also the book ““The Global Grapevine” is really interesting. The primary thesis is that rumors, legends and conspiracy theories help people make sense of a world that’s rapidly changing.

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  10. ishaan says:

    Here’s a contradiction: I liked what you were doing with putting the “epistemic status” of the post in the beginning. However, as a matter of principle, I don’t think readers should trust writer to calibrate confidence. Epistemic status must necessarily be shown with citations, not told.

    I just realized the true purpose of those disclaimers is to clarify which of the categories you’ve outlined right here your post falls into. It’s not really “epistemic status” so much as a declaration of which rhetorical position you’re coming from. Which is a notion I really liked, without fully understanding why until now.

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  11. Alex Vermeer says:

    Awesome list. I definitely play the Judge like 99% of the time, and always get tripped up / annoyed when people are playing the Lawyer without declaring it (or without me noticing it).

    I think you missed a big one: Descriptive vs. Normative – Are you arguing about how you think things actually are in the world, or about how things should be in a better world?

    I find many disagreements are resolved (or at least steered in much more useful directions) when this kind of confusion is cleared up.

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