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[Content note: Suicide. May be guilt-inducing for people who feel like burdens. All patient characteristics have been heavily obfuscated to protect confidentiality.]

The DSM lists nine criteria for major depressive disorder, of which the seventh is “feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt”.

There are a lot of dumb diagnostic debates over which criteria are “more important” or “more fundamental”, and for me there’s always been something special about criterion seven. People get depressed over all sorts of things. But when they’re actively suicidal, the people who aren’t just gesturing for help but totally set on it, they always say one thing:

“I feel like I’m a burden”.

Depression is in part a disease of distorted cognitions, a failure of rationality. I had one patient who worked for GM, very smart guy, invented a lot of safety features for cars. He was probably actively saving a bunch of people’s lives every time he checked in at the office, and he still felt like he was worthless, a burden, that he was just draining resources that could better be used for someone else.

In cases like these, you can do a little bit of good just by teaching people the fundamental lesson of rationality: that you can’t always trust your brain. If your System I is telling you that you’re a worthless burden, it could be because you’re a worthless burden, or it could be because System I is broken. If System I is broken, you need to call in System II to route around the distorted cognition so you can understand at least on an intellectual level that you’re wrong. Once you understand you’re wrong on an intellectual level, you can do what you need to do to make it sink in on a practical level as well – which starts with not killing yourself.

As sad as it was, Robin Williams’ suicide has actually been sort of helpful for me. For the past few days, I’ve tried telling these sorts of people that Robin Williams brightened the lives of millions of people, was a truly great man – and his brain still kept telling him he didn’t deserve to live. So maybe depressed brains are not the most trustworthy arbiters on these sorts of issues.

This sort of supportive psychotherapy (ie “psychotherapy you make up as you go along”) can sometimes take people some of the way, and then the medications do the rest.

But sometimes it’s harder than this. I don’t want to say anyone is ever right about being a burden, but a lot of the people I see aren’t Oscar-winning actors or even automobile safety engineers. Some people just have no easy outs.

Another patient. 25 year old kid. Had some brain damage a few years ago, now has cognitive problems and poor emotional control. Can’t do a job. Got denied for disability a few times, in accordance with the ancient bureaucratic tradition. Survives on a couple of lesser social programs he got approved for plus occasional charity handouts plus some help from his family. One can trace out an unlikely sequence of events by which his situation might one day improve, but I won’t insult his intelligence by claiming it’s very probable. Now he attempts suicide, says he feels like a burden on everyone around him. Well, what am I going to say?

It’s not always people with some obvious disability. Sometimes it’s just alcoholics, or elderly people, or people without the cognitive skills to get a job in today’s economy. They think that they’re taking more from the system than they’re putting in, and in monetary terms they’re probably right.

One common therapeutic strategy here is to talk about how much the patient’s parents/friends/girlfriend/pet hamster love them, how heartbroken they would be if they killed themselves. In the absence of better alternatives, I have used this strategy. I have used it very grudgingly, and I’ve always felt dirty afterwards. It always feels like the worst sort of emotional blackmail. Not helping them want to live, just making them feel really guilty about dying. “Sure, you’re a burden if you live, but if you kill yourself, that would make you an even bigger burden!” A++ best psychiatrist.

There is something else I’ve never said, because it’s too deeply tied in with my own politics, and not something I would expect anybody else to understand.

And that is: humans don’t owe society anything. We were here first.

If my patient, the one with the brain damage, were back in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, in a nice tribe with Dunbar’s number of people, there would be no problem.

Maybe his cognitive problems would make him a slightly less proficient hunter than someone else, but whatever, he could always gather.

Maybe his emotional control problems would give him a little bit of a handicap in tribal politics, but he wouldn’t get arrested for making a scene, he wouldn’t get fired for not sucking up to his boss enough, he wouldn’t be forced to live in a tiny apartment with people he didn’t necessarily like who were constantly getting on his nerves. He might get in a fight and end up with a spear through his gut, but in that case his problems would be over anyway.

Otherwise he could just hang out and live in a cave and gather roots and berries and maybe hunt buffalo and participate in the appropriate tribal bonding rituals like everyone else.

But society came and paved over the place where all the roots and berry plants grew and killed the buffalo and dynamited the caves and declared the tribal bonding rituals Problematic. This increased productivity by about a zillion times, so most people ended up better off. The only ones who didn’t were the ones who for some reason couldn’t participate in it.

(if you’re one of those people who sees red every time someone mentions evolution or cavemen, imagine him as a dockworker a hundred years ago, or a peasant farmer a thousand)

Society got where it is by systematically destroying everything that could have supported him and replacing it with things that required skills he didn’t have. Of course it owes him when he suddenly can’t support himself. Think of it as the ultimate use of eminent domain; a power beyond your control has seized everything in the world, it had some good economic reasons for doing so, but it at least owes you compensation!

This is also the basis of my support for a basic income guarantee. Imagine an employment waterline, gradually rising through higher and higher levels of competence. In the distant past, maybe you could be pretty dumb, have no emotional continence at all, and still live a pretty happy life. As the waterline rises, the skills necessary to support yourself comfortably become higher and higher. Right now most people in the US who can’t get college degrees – which are really hard to get! – are just barely hanging on, and that is absolutely a new development. Soon enough even some of the college-educated won’t be very useful to the system. And so on, until everyone is a burden.

(people talk as if the only possible use of information about the determinants of intelligence is to tell low-IQ people they are bad. Maybe they’ve never felt the desperate need to reassure someone “No, it is not your fault that everything is going wrong for you, everything was rigged against you from the beginning.”)

By the time I am a burden – it’s possible that I am already, just because I can convince the system to give me money doesn’t mean the system is right to do so, but I expect I certainly will be one before I die – I would like there to be in place a crystal-clear understanding that we were here first and society doesn’t get to make us obsolete without owing us something in return.

After that, we will have to predicate our self-worth on something other than being able to “contribute” in the classical sense of the term. Don’t get me wrong, I think contributing something is a valuable goal, and one it’s important to enforce to prevent free-loaders. But it’s a valuable goal at the margins, some people are already heading for the tails, and pretty soon we’ll all be stuck there.

I’m not sure what such a post-contribution value system would look like. It might be based around helping others in less tangible ways, like providing company and cheerfulness and love. It might be a virtue ethics celebrating people unusually good at cultivating traits we value. Or it might be a sort of philosophically-informed hedonism along the lines of Epicurus, where we try to enjoy ourselves in the ways that make us most human.

And I think my advice to my suicidal patients, if I were able and willing to express all this to them, would be to stop worrying about being a burden and to start doing all these things now.

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209 Responses to Burdens

  1. Sarah says:

    I felt like a burden.

    Then I discovered John Stuart Mill and Milton Friedman and they said “People deserve to determine the course of their own lives” and “you own yourself” and stuff like that and I started entertaining the idea that I deserved to live, by virtue of being human.

    I’m not sure what “society” owes individuals, or what individuals owe society; I don’t trust my intuitions on that point. I just think that it is horrible for a human being’s spirit to be broken, period, and I think life is better than death, period. And the intuition of “you deserve to live,” “you are a person,” “you are endowed by your Creator with certain inalienable rights”, “human dignity”, that sort of thing? REALLY IMPORTANT. NOT AT ALL OBVIOUS OR SOMETHING TO BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED.

    I have been surprised by how many people have not encountered or grokked Humanism 101. But then again, I grew up in a liberal educated American household and I didn’t get it until I was 18. It’s a very big deal.

    • suntzuanime says:

      If these truths are so self-evident, why are they not at all obvious? That’s always bugged me.

      • Levi Aul says:

        I would say that they’re something like mathematics (specifically, the rules of mathematics that follow from the axioms our universe happens to follow): not pre-installed in the human mind, but able to be derived eventually by anyone with enough time and motivation to think about it. Part of the knowledge-base inherently derivable from the starting point of being a mostly-neurotypical human.

        (This is basically the same point Eliezer’s Metaethics sequence makes about morality.)

      • pneumatik says:

        I assume that “self evident” was used to say the truths weren’t going to be proved or defended. All following arguments would be derived from or based on those truths, but the truths themselves were self-proving.

  2. James Miller says:

    Can you get a sense of worth from playing video games? Some of the multi-player games I have played had shockingly competent and dedicated alliance leaders. I bet they got the same kind of sense of worth that cavemen tribal chiefs received.

    • Scott says:

      Absolutely. A major draw of games like World of Warcraft (at least, for some of the players) is teaming up with four or nine or twenty-four members of their tribe/guild to execute a complicated and well-rehearsed strategy that makes maximum use of the group’s diverse skillset in order to bring down a powerful creature and receive valuable loot from its corpse. It’s exactly like hunting an elephant!

      • Said Achmiz says:

        Too bad that loot has been post-scarcity-fied. Designing loot distribution systems, and then discussing/arguing/politicking about them, was one of the fun parts of guild life.


        Everything I Know About Incentive Structures, I Learned From World of Warcraft

        • Lilakoi says:

          Arguing over loot distribution systems — or, rather, listening to other people argue over it, because I never join in — is just stressful for me. I’ve also seen it lead to the breakup of more than one guild. Never occurred to me that some people find it fun!

    • Joe Katzman says:

      “Some of the multi-player games I have played had shockingly competent and dedicated alliance leaders.”

      Not always a coincidence. One of the major leaders in Eve actually worked for the US State Department. He was killed in Benghazi.

      Reading that story made me think that the Department of State should refuse to accept candidates until AFTER they had played a MMORPG of some type and risen to a leadership position. Now that would be a country one screwed with at one’s mortal peril.

  3. Said Achmiz says:

    That was beautiful.

    I’ve seen it said that whether your natural talents, and the skills toward which you are disposed, or happen to find most natural and most emotionally or cognitively rewarding, are the sort of thing that society finds useful, is a matter of luck. Luck, that is, of being born into the right historical era; in the past, or in the future, what is useful today may not be, and what is useless today may, in another era, be valued.

    In a virtue-ethical framework, it does not seem like it is any less virtuous to possess, and to perfect, the currently-not-useful skills, than the currently-useful ones. Am I any less human for being really good at illuminating manuscripts, and not so good at writing Javascript code, if it’s 2014 instead of 1014?

  4. Ialdabaoth says:

    Thank you.

  5. Izaak Weiss says:

    Have you seen CGP Grey’s new video about automation? [] This is kinda a tangent, but it’s another way that makes humans dependent, and another reason to implement a basic income guarantee.

  6. Said Achmiz says:

    And now, a comment from the devil’s advocate.

    Scott, the picture you paint of the past is — not explicitly, but by implication, in its negative space — a rosy one. Is it really true that everyone could live happy, content lives a hundred thousand, a thousand, or a hundred years ago? Do you think more people live happy and content lives today, or back then? Were the lives of hunter-gatherers not nasty, brutish, and short? Our anthropological studies today suggest that they were (as is the case in some extent hunter-gathering tribes, such as the Yanomami). What about the lives of people in the Middle Ages (in that peasant farmer’s world)? Were disease and death not rampant? Didn’t women die in childbirth regularly? Didn’t children die all the time? Weren’t there horrific, bloody wars, with casualty percentages that would utterly shock us today, that utterly dwarf the collateral damage of modern warfare?

    You know all of this, because you say it yourself, in your arguments against Neoreaction. So I know I don’t have to convince you; I’m merely pointing it out. Putting that together with this post, you seem to be saying:

    “Yes, in the past, life was horrific. But your chances of living a happy, content life was more uniform across the range of human cognitive ability; it didn’t drop off sharply as your IQ went below a competence waterline that left much of humanity gasping for air. Society has steadily increased your overall probability (from behind the veil of ignorance) of being safe and happy and content, but should you pierce the veil and find yourself to be in the left tail on certain dimensions of human variations, you will find that your chances of happiness (relative to the society average) have gone down.”

    Is this a fair reading? And if so — is it really a bad thing?

    • I’m pretty sure Scott is saying that this is a good thing on net—but that we still owe it to those who got screwed over by the change to mitigate its negative effect on them as much as possible.

      • The Anonymouse says:

        //Humans don’t owe society anything. We were here first.//

        Of course, Scott’s bold statement goes both ways. If you say that we owe something to those who got screwed over… well, isn’t my (or yours, or his) relationship with other humans pretty much the definition of “society”? And if I, therefore, owe something to them, the ones on the long left tail, haven’t we gone all the way around the Mobius to where you’re saying, ‘humans don’t owe society anything, so humans owe something to other humans… that is, society”?

        Unless somehow you divorce “society” from “all of the persons who live in the world,” I’m not sure how we can say society owes people something, but people don’t owe society.

        • Said Achmiz says:


          Continuing the devil’s advocacy — if you are a “burden” on “society” in any concrete sense (like Scott’s example 25-year-old with brain damage), then other people — actual individual humans — have to sacrifice some of their happiness and well-being in order to allow you to live the way Scott advocates that you live (in his last paragraphs).

          Right? Like, it’s not just that you’re a burden on some abstract “society” and this is somehow abstractly wrong/bad. We’re talking about being a burden on actual specific people, requiring them to take something out of their lives to enable yours. What do those people owe, and to whom? What is owed to them, and by whom?

        • Levi Aul says:

          Society is the framework of laws and bureaucracies we build atop tribes to make things work way, way beyond Dunbar’s number as well as they do. Society is corporations and governments and rules encoded in phone support call-trees. Society is still people, but it’s people acting in large numbers according to role scripts with the effect of simulating entities that optimize for things other than “what humans think is right to optimize for.”

          We, as individuals and as tribes, owe nothing to we as a cellular automaton emulating rather stupid but sufficient overminds. The overminds owe us for emulating them.

        • Said Achmiz says:


          I’m not sure if that was a reply to me or to The Anonymouse, but in any case:

          Ok, so the “overminds” owe us. How do we go about collecting on that debt? It’ll involve specific people doing specific things, won’t it?

        • Salem says:

          Why, it’s almost as if…

          I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

        • Multiheaded says:

          God damn I hate the Witch.

          Mustapha Mond was right. Everyone does belong to everyone else. In a way. Abusing ties in one direction while neglecting them in the other puts you out of reflexive equilibrium with society – whatever your ideology says about that. “Caring” and “nurturing” paternalism is still a violation of this state of interconnectivity if the factual underlying flow of power is skewed and disbalanced; that its abusiveness masquerades as feeling and caring shouldn’t hold us from true feeling and caring.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          “Volksgenosse, das ist auch Dein Geld!”

        • Multiheaded says:

          ^ Haha, yeah.

          (Ialdabaoth, please, there’s no need go off again about how you supposedly mean this unironically. You are loved. I know it’s a cry for attention, I know it’s valid; we would like to give you attention. You are wonderful.)

        • pxib says:


          Happiness and well-being aren’t necessarily zero sum. “Sacrifice” is far from inevitable.

          There are a lot of people who get their greatest enjoyment out of taking care of other people, helping those who cannot help themselves, and providing support to those who need it.

          In absolute fiscal terms, somebody may absolutely be a “burden” on “society”: better discarded and replaced by a better use of resources. A “burden” in absolute emotional terms? Considerably rarer.

          The small tribe, or small town, could afford a little fiscal sacrifice in order to feel good about taking care of their own. Large-scale anonymous modern living makes that a lot harder to manage.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          (Ialdabaoth, please, there’s no need go off again about how you supposedly mean this unironically.

          Nah, I kinda don’t have a leg to stand on in that regard; as of January I currently make a solidly middle-class lifestyle in the middle of a very low-cost area, and provide a local community college with a level of expertise and skill that is otherwise simply unavailable in the local market. I’ve been personally responsible for improving the quality of technical education for about 4500 rural students in the past 6 months (mostly by freeing up their 600 or so instructors to do their job instead of worrying about administrative minutea that can and should be automated); coming out and complaining about parasites wasting the resources of the fruitful and deserving would be landing on ABSOLUTELY THE WRONG SIDE of my ethical calculus.

        • Multiheaded says:


          Great of you!

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      High infant mortality maybe but not so short lifespans. Around 70 if you make it to age 15.

      As for nasty and brutish – I have no idea. Scott has disputed this before.

      Of course it can’t be disputed that life back then was more nasty and brutish than life now (on average).

    • Nornagest says:

      Were the lives of hunter-gatherers not nasty, brutish, and short? Our anthropological studies today suggest that they were (as is the case in some extent hunter-gathering tribes, such as the Yanomami)

      This is not an uncontroversial question, particularly when you’re talking about the Yanomami: I’ve seen just about every aspect challenged of the picture of Yanomami society presented in e.g. Better Angels of our Nature, from the level of violence (consensus seems to be that it’s very high but exact rates are fuzzy; contrarian views also exist) to their status as hunter-gatherers (they do a lot of hunting and gathering, but also cultivate a lot of plants on a small scale). I think the strongest argument against relying on extrapolation from contemporary ethnography, though, is simply that agriculture won hard; if it pushed forager lifestyles into marginal environments, we should not therefore be surprised if modern or near-modern foragers lead marginal lives.

      The picture we see from skeletal evidence is one of preagricultural foragers as healthier and longer-lived than later agriculturalists (until the Renaissance and in some places the Industrial Revolution), but somewhat less so than modern industrial civilization. The role of violence is even more controversial, but strong evidence for warfare doesn’t appear until the Mesolithic; there are, however, Paleolithic skeletons showing evidence of homicide.

  7. Piano says:

    Is there ever a situation in which someone should almost definitely kill themselves, or can everyone be saved by Jesus and regain a reasonable ability to “cultivate traits we value” (in themselves or others)?

    • ckp says:

      Being trapped in some kind of situation with a vanishingly small chance of rescue, where your options are long protracted death or quick death.

    • ozymandias says:

      If they genuinely want to.

    • Chris says:

      Euthanasia in the case of a degenerative/terminal illness with a prognosis of extreme suffering is the obvious one.

      (Perhaps not unrelatedly, it turns out that Robin Williams had a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis.)

      • ozymandias says:

        I find it despicable that, for many people, Robin Williams’s death is a tragedy if they believe it is the result of an disease that literally makes it impossible to feel joy for a significant portion of one’s life, but an understandable out if one has a disease that lowers the rated life satisfaction of patients all the way from average to a tiny bit below average.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Well, Parkinson’s is a legitimate disease, while depression is a deadly sin, doncha know. (Seriously – the medieval sin of “Sloth” used to be a straight-down-the-line definition of depression.)

          If there is a God, the people who were supposed to be in charge of guiding the rest of us to Him through the ages are going to have a LOT to answer for.

        • R says:

          Having Parkinson’s is a tragedy, just as having depression is a tragedy. But with Parkinson’s, killing yourself is conceivably a rational decision, where you weigh the pros and cons of the disease and decide life isn’t worth it. With depression, killing yourself is a symptom of the condition, not only a rational response to it. Wishing someone with depression hadn’t killed themself is like wishing someone with Parkinson’s didn’t have muscle tremors. It’s not blaming them for the suicide, it’s wishing they hadn’t felt suicidal.

        • ozymandias says:

          Some people with depression want to kill themselves because they have distorted thoughts. Some people with depression want to kill themselves because their lives are intermittently constant misery and pain with no hope of reprieve. Suicide can be a rational response to pain even if the person is mentally ill.

        • Clockwork Marx says:

          I think that the biggest factor is the range of treatment options. There are so many med combinations that you could spend years trying to find something that works (it took me about three years until I found something decent).

          Having a physically degenerative disease almost always results in one’s suffering increasing over time (at best it increases very gradually). Chronic depression may never go away, but it’s not necessarily an inevitable downward spiral. Things do in fact often get better.

          Saying that no treatment could ever make life worth living is irrational because it’s making a claim to possess knowledge (all possible treatments will fail to sufficiently combat my depression) that not even psychiatrists could claim.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Clockwork Marx:

          If I told you “you can look forward to about 10-15 years of on-and-off periods (of varying lengths, some quite long) of nonstop suffering, at which point you’ll stumble upon a treatment that will stop that suffering”, would that seem like a pretty great prospect? Or not so great?

          Is it out of the question that someone might say “you know what, that doesn’t sound like a life worth living”?

    • MugaSofer says:

      Is there ever a situation in which someone should almost definitely kill themselves

      Absolutely. If it would save a greater number of people than they can save using their remaining lifespan. It’s exactly the same utilitarian calculation as killing anyone else, although the burden of proof is higher because it’s easier to optimize your own actions.

      However, as a general rule, if you find yourself seriously considering the possibility it is a valuable warning sign and you should pay attention to it. I try to automatically discount any judgements I’m making when I notice suicide sounds like a positive or neutral option – although that may not work for everyone?

      Sufficient pain will make people beg for death even when it’s completely temporary and they will definitely be glad they survived afterwards. It seems likely that most situations one might arguably be in bad enough pain/suffering are also, annoyingly, situations that cause some form of clinical depression in the subject. It seems to use the same neurochemical mechanisms.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Society got where it is by systematically destroying everything that could have supported him and replacing it with things that required skills he didn’t have. Of course it owes him when he suddenly can’t support himself. Think of it as the ultimate use of eminent domain; a power beyond your control has seized everything in the world, it had some good economic reasons for doing so, but it at least owes you compensation!


    Two recent articles making similar arguments, which is helping the idea to precipitate into something tangible (in my head at least).

    [W]hy should the fact that individuals own their bodies and their labor give them permanent, bequeathable property rights in external resources that their labor did not create? Why should the mere fact that you exerted labor on a pre-existing object give you the right to coercively prevent others from using it, and why should it give them a duty to refrain from using it without your consent?
    Of course, not even Locke held that labor-mixing was sufficient to justify property. In order for an act of labor mixing to generate a legitimate property right, it also had to satisfy the so-called “Lockean Proviso” of leaving “enough and as good for others.” What exactly that means is a matter of some dispute. But one popular way of understanding it is that an act (or system) of appropriation must not make others worse off in order to be legitimate.

    And this opens up the door for a very powerful argument on behalf of property rights. Since property rights help us to avoid the tragedy of the commons, and since they facilitate the production and trade that makes economic growth and prosperity possible, perhaps the Lockean Proviso really does get satisfied after all.
    The Lockean proviso is an individualistic principle, not a collectivist or utilitarian one. Simply arguing that it benefits most people is not enough. If there are some people for whom the proviso is not satisfied, then those persons have a moral claim against the rest of us. And it is a claim of justice, not of charity.


    In the rights-based libertarian tradition, a situation in which one group of people has no other option but to work for another group of people is called “freedom” as long as that other group of people are called “property owners” and the working class is propertyless.
    How did these propertyless people get into the position in which they have to work for the propertied? Over a long history, property owners use the force of the legal system to force, coerce, or interfere with other people, establishing “property rights” without the consent of or compensation for the people they thereby force into a state of propertyless.

    This second article spends too much time griping about libertarians to get to the point of asserting that property rights (and our entire economic system) are a collective bargin that we don’t really have a choice of opting out of.

    I meant to have some kind of conclusion to all this, but alas, the idea has not fully precipitated yet, so I just have some notions floating in a vat of uncomprehension.

  9. Multiheaded says:

    Thank you, Scott.

    …I think I got something in my eye…

  10. lunatic says:

    This article is related to something that I’ve been concerned with. I’ve had a job teaching in a remote indigenous community in Australia, and as you may or may not be aware indigenous people in general have far lower education, employment and health outcomes compared to most Australians, and this is even more pronounced at remote sites (…kind of. It’s complicated).

    There is a lot of pressure to do something about this – official government policy on indigenous matters is titled “closing the gap”, there are reviews discussing how our bush schools are failing and we teachers relatively frequently get told by some people that we should be relating our students’ learning to employment or wind up talking to others with some wonderful “new” ideas to solve the employment problem.

    The thing is, most of the talk seems a bit fake. Our students generally have very low literacy skills for their age, as well as a lack of understanding of whitefella conventions that’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Sometimes, a trainer comes out to do a technical qalifications with students, but even technical certificates make serious demands on literacy skills and I can’t help but feel cynical about qualifications that appear to be obtained chiefly through students copying words from a board onto their own paper. The prospects with a lot of other lines of whitefella work are even worse. This is not to say that there’s nothing for anyone, but there’s not much and it’s probably not for most. Sometimes I enjoy my teaching, and I think enough of myself to believe that my students do gain or improve some of their skills in my class, but I do not believe that it is to a level that could lead to employment for most of them.

    What troubles me is that despite the ineffectiveness of “Closing the Gap” programs, they are still pursued with the desperate sense that they must be made to work because there are no alternatives. I don’t know how aboriginal people see things, but I suspect that they are somewhat aware of the attitude I’m trying to illustrate because I would guess that most messages that reach me also reach them in some form. I doubt, in any case, that “education and jobs” talk has the intended effect of encouraging local people to be strong, confident and seek whitefella knowledge and skills. I also wonder how it would feel, bureaucrats aside, to be in a position where the society that has now become the means by which you and your people survive and holds a significant amount of power to determine your futures also happens to be one that is nearly impenetrable to you and your people. This also troubles me.

    Incidentally, we have a very high suicide rate, and by all accounts ours is a community with some of the strongest cultural traditions and lowest rates of substance abuse (by this I mean to imply that I would guess it would be worse elsewhere).

  11. lmm says:

    The past was not a good time to be disabled. And if you’re arguing that society means this guy hasn’t had a spear in the gut when he otherwise would have, I find it hard to interpret that as a negative for society.

    You’re right that we will soon all need to come to terms with the fact that we’re taking more than we’re giving, can no longer contribute in any meaningful way. An unhealthy proportion of our self worth is tied up in our jobs, and soon we won’t have them, unless we come up with make-work jobs; some feel this has already happened to their job. But I don’t think “we were here first” is persuasive. If nothing else, the thing to which past people were supposedly contributing is progress, right? If the culmination of that is something worthless, doesn’t it make the contributions worthless as well? Is our argument really that past people weer able to entertain a pleasant delusion and society shouldn’t take that away?

    So I have to reverse the order of your advice. Let’s figure out what we want to do, what we can do as humans. And then let’s start to build self-worth on that.

    (Trite thought:we already have a large number of people, concentrated in particular areas e.g. Rhyll, who are long-term unemployed. The popular understanding is that they live in B&Bs and spend their lives watching TV. Presumably they’re not all depressed. Maybe we should look at what people who are unable to contribute in classical fashion do, figure out what they got right, and start doing that.)

    • Mary says:

      Here is a good look at the lives in question:

      Not all continuously unemployed, to be certain.

    • Anonymous says:

      > An unhealthy proportion of our self worth is tied up in our jobs, and soon we won’t have them, unless we come up with make-work jobs; some feel this has already happened to their job.

      I often feel that the best productive job for me would’ve been in Lowell Mills or in similar places in the textile industry. Unfortunately, those jobs were one hundred and seventy years ago.

  12. Thank you for this.
    I don’t think I’d have survived in a hunter-gatherer tribe either. I don’t think I have the motor-skills to feed myself. Although maybe I am overestimating the motor-skills required for a successful gatherer.
    Maybe I could have been a storyteller, and if my tribe was lucky and food was plentiful they would have fed me for my stories.
    But yes, I was here first.
    Probably fairly high IQ, or at least average (I was tested by an Ed Psych a few years back and my subtest results ranged from 99.9th percentile to 2nd percentile. She wouldn’t give me scores, just percentiles.) But too badbrains for job. I tried. I had a job for 7 months. I quit because they were threatening to fire me over he amount of time I took off and my difficulties with social interaction. And because every day I thought about killing myself so I didn’t have to go to work. One time, in my lunchbreak, I got as far as tying a belt around my neck.
    The students I worked with at my job – none of them will ever work. All of them were intellectually disabled. Most of them were autistic. Most of them had severe, drug-resistant epilepsy.
    They were awesome. All of them. They weren’t the reason my job sucked. I loved them. I am sad I won’t see them again.
    I am not giving up. I am camming, though I am not making enough to live on yet. I have money left from old job, don’t know what I will do when it runs out. I am looking for work. But if I cannot find it, I am still worth something. Even if I am useful to nobody else, I am useful to me. I make Objectivist Bisexual Taylor Swift headcanons. I masturbate. I eat delicious porridge. I read good books. I look at pictures of birds on the internet. Even if I am giving nobody else utilons, I am giving me utilons, and the utilons I give myself are wirth something.
    I have a close friend who is autistic and has severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and Post Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. She lives in her bed. She is often too ill to sit up. She is incontinent. Her husband, who is also autistic and mentally ill, is her full-time carer. He gives her meds, feeds her, dresses her, changes her incontinence pads etc. I would never consider her a burden or him. They live off state benefits, but they help people. Even just being kind on twitter, they help people. And one time they literally saved my life.
    I guess I can contribute through kindness, but it is sometimes hard believing that I am not ruining my friends’ lives by existing. But that is broken System 1 maybe.
    Gonna watch Buffy on Netflix. If I can’t give anyone else utilons, I will give me some.
    Thank you Scott. You are a good person. I am glad Ozy has you in zir life.

    • Sarah says:

      I like your attitude. You’re right. Go get those utilons!

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      That was very beautiful. I really wish you the best. I am very happy for the people who have Scot in their life too.

    • Joe Anonymous says:

      Don’t know what it’s worth, but I suspect that if you’re an intelligent woman (as queenshulamit appears to be), you can contribute lots more utilons to society by dating guys who are your intellectual peers than you can by working as a camgirl. I am kicking ass at the whole “contributing to society” thing (six figure income as a software developer, five figure donations to effective altruist charities), but I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating suicide for a different reason: I’ve never had a girlfriend.

      • ozymandias says:

        Working as a camgirl, if you choose the right niche, *is* dating guys who are your intellectual peers. Like, people don’t pay me because there is an absence of boobs on the Internet; they pay me because they want an Imaginary Girlfriend who wants to hear them talk about Star Trek. (Also there are various reasons why your plan would not work out for queenshulamit.)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Patient: “I want to die. I feel I’m a burden.”
    Dr. Scott: “We should force the taxpayers to give you money to sit on your ass.”
    Patient: “…”

    Awesome therapy you got there Scott.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      Why are “we” one group of people, and “the taxpayers” a different group?

      It seems to me that if you’re separating those concepts/groups, much less putting them in opposition to each other, then you have missed the point of this post.

      • spandrell says:

        That was me up there. Pressed the wrong button.

        Rephrase it: “You should get paid by society to sit on your ass.”

        I see now that the passive voice is used to avoid triggering anal people. Sheesh.

        The point is that a person who feels like a burden is not going to feel like less of a burden if you actually make them an official burden. Where’s your empathy, people? Theory of Mind, anyone?

        I’m not particularly against the basic income idea, but this is a stupid argument for it. There’s something to the idea that premodern societies were less alienating; but the data is pretty scant (I thought you fellas were very nitpicky about that), and even if you have slightly better odds of not being alienated by a soulless bureaucracy, the odds of your mother smothering you in your sleep were substantially higher.

    • ozymandias says:

      Spoken like someone who’s rather unduly confident that neither they nor anyone they love will wind up with brain damage.

    • g says:

      From the actual article that you might perhaps have considered actually reading before breaking out the mockery:

      There is something else I’ve never said, because it’s too deeply tied in with my own politics, and not something I would expect anybody else to understand.

  14. Ashley Yakeley says:

    Is it possible suicide is or was in the EEA occasionally evolutionarily adaptive? That depression and suicide are an evolved mechanism to respond to situations when you really are more of a burden to your kin than your likely future contribution? Such situations must surely happen on occasion, and must have done in the EEA.

    • Multiheaded says:

      Actually, I’ve heard of the idea that it’s more like a precommitment against (the more brutal kinds of) slavery; if you capture someone from another tribe and intend to treat them like shit and exploit them too much, but you know that they’re just going to lie down and die, this gives an incentive to treat them better.

      • Ashley Yakeley says:

        I don’t see how this kind of precommitment can work. I mean, if you actually get captured, it’s generally in your interest to survive, and not die just to vaguely dissuade your captors from capturing your kin.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Not if your treatment is brutal enough that you’re probably not going to breed either way.

        • Ilya Shpitser says:

          Do you pay in Parfit’s Hitchhiker?

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          “I” can’t be in Parfit’s Hitchhiker, because “I” am not a perfectly rational and perfectly self-interested agent.

          So since we’re not talking about the Parfit’s Hitchhiker situation precisely, could you please explicitly spell out what analogous situation you meant instead, that could have me in it?

          The two closest situations I could map it to are:

          1. I am me, and the traveller is another human being. In which case, yeah, I pay, because he deserves some money (but even if I couldn’t pay, then as another human being, I would hope that he’d rescue me anyways).

          2. I am me, and the traveller is a perfectly rational and perfectly selfish agent who is good at reading facial expressions AND good at predicting people. In which case, yeah, I pay, because that’s the only way to give that agent evidence that picking up humans pays off.

    • Nestor says:

      This was my reasoning a few years ago when I was depressed: Humans get depressed, it’s a consistent behaviour pattern. Depression is laying down the groundwork for suicide. Therefore it must be adaptive (Just so evopsych, I know). Probably in the context of a small group with limited resources, it’s adaptive for the individual to remove himself from the group when he estimates he has become a needless (And irreversible) drain on resources. This avoids the erosion of the altruism instinct in the group.

      Like any just so story, it can be argued, but I found it helped me. I’m not big on doing things because my instinct puppets me, so I found this reasoning lifted depression pretty effectively. Also no one is going to starve because I contunue existing.

      …it doesn’t work forever though. Eventually it just feels like a rationalization and the gut doesn’t believe it anymore.

      On another note, Scott I’m sure you must’ve read about the fish mortality rates being affected by antidepressant contamination, but in case you haven’t: link. It’s right down your street.

      • AR+ says:

        I’ve been under the impression that, “depression is laying down the groundwork for suicide,” is the incorrect basis for the mindset that all depression is illness, instead of a healthy coping mechanism that is fine as long as it doesn’t become permanent or appear without reason. Isn’t messing with these sorts of inbuilt safeties why anti-depressants cause suicides, because they remove the motivation-killing safety mechanism before they remove the sense of hopelessness?

        Well, maybe I’m wrong about all that. But I’ve figured that the normal sort of depression is largely adaptive to the extent that it prevents suicide. Conscious reasoning is very new and very stupid, for the most part. It makes sense to me that there would be a mechanism for the brain to say, “Oh shit, Captain Consciousness over there is thinking some messed up stuff. We’d better kill our ability to willfully carry out plans until they get back on track.”

        • Nestor says:

          I suppose some people might commit suicide on an impulse without any previous depression (The Imperial Japanese military comes to mind) but otherwise I would imagine most people progress from sad, to depressed, to suicidal ideation, to the deed itself. Scott’s mentioned people “too depressed to kill themselves” but surely that’s overshoot. You don’t kill yourself due to self preservation instincts, which need to be chipped away at for a good while before they’ll let you get away with self destruction.

          • Joe Katzman says:

            “Scott’s mentioned people “too depressed to kill themselves” but surely that’s overshoot.”

            Nope, well established observation. Sort of like the joke about marijuana smokers being harmless because if they do too much, they can’t get up to cause anyone problems. Depression saps so much energy that at its nadir, you’d kill yourself but it’s just too much effort to contemplate.

            It’s when the depression begins to lift, and energy returns, that a sufferer becomes a very serious risk. If you know a depressive, remember this because it could save their life.

        • ozymandias says:

          Lots of people who kill themselves don’t have major depression: for instance, borderlines and bipolar people kill themselves fairly often.


    • Anonymous says:

      Why would that matter/

  15. Anonymous says:

    Surprisingly, I think I agree with every word. Whatever civilization really is, it’s here for us, not the other way around.

  16. blacktrance says:

    “Humans don’t owe society anything. We were here first.”

    This cuts both ways. It is both correct and mentally healthy to not base your own self-worth on what you do for others. For example, you could live like a hermit in the mountains, never doing anything for anyone, and that’s completely fine – you don’t owe anything to anyone. And you don’t have to be a hermit for this to be relevant – as in the case of 25-year-old guy, he may be subsisting on handouts, but that doesn’t mean he should feel bad about it. At the same time, if you don’t owe people anything (because that’s what society is: people), that means that if someone is doing badly, you aren’t obligated to do anything to make them better off. You can do something for them, of course, but that would be an act of freely chosen benevolence, not the fulfillment of any kind of moral duty. People shouldn’t feel bad about not being productive, because the outputs of their productivity aren’t owed to others – but that also means that no one owes them the outputs of their productivity, either. Humans don’t owe each other anything – including a basic income. Or, to put it more succinctly:

    “You owe me nothing, so don’t feel bad about not doing anything for me. I owe you nothing, so don’t feel entitled to me doing anything for you.”

    • bi guy says:

      This view of morality causes thousands of people to die of preventable causes every day.

      • blacktrance says:

        Whether or not that claim is true (I would argue that it isn’t), that doesn’t mean that this view of morality is wrong. This may sound brutal to you, but the view that people have these kinds of obligations towards each other sounds brutal to me.

        • David Hart says:

          Pretty much ever since I heard of the
          Rationalist Taboo, I have been of the opinion that it should more-or-less automatically apply to the word ‘morality’ (and therefore related terms like ‘ethics’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the value-judgement sense rather than the purely factual sense etc. I know you didn’t bring it up first, but I still think it worth saying.

          I would put it to you that a world in which we (or ‘society’) incurs an obligation to make life less crappy for those who, through no fault of their own, cannot be economically productive (so long as it manages to tamp down on freeloading) is simply a preferable world to be in than one in which this doesn’t happen, and those who cannot support themselves are just left to starve.

          If you think that you would feel being required to contribute in taxes so that people don’t starve as being brutalised just as much as being actually left to starve, then I’d say that is an interesting quirk of your psychology, and if more people were like that, then your system might actually be preferable, but as it is, I strongly suspect that you are very unusual in that (though if I’ve walked in an enormous typical mind fallacy here, hopefully people will put me right) … and either way, however productive you now are, you cannot guarantee you always will be, especially if the fears that Scott shares with CGP Grey in the video linked above by Isaac Weiss come to pass in the near future, of a majority of humans being rendered economically unproductive in the foreseeable future by advancing technology.

        • blacktrance says:

          I would put it to you that a world in which we (or ‘society’) incurs an obligation to make life less crappy for those who, through no fault of their own, cannot be economically productive (so long as it manages to tamp down on freeloading) is simply a preferable world to be in than one in which this doesn’t happen

          Preferable according to what? “Preferable” is a 2-place word. Person A could certainly prefer a world with a basic income to a world without one, and Person B could have the opposite preference, but there’s no sense in which there’s a “preferable” outside of these individual preferences, or why Person B should endorse something contrary to his preferences.

        • David says:

          Person A could certainly prefer a world with a basic income to a world without one, and Person B could have the opposite preference

          I thought you might come back to me with something like that. Okay, how about if I define ‘preferable’ here as being preferable to the majority? If a majority of people are Person A’s, and a minority of people are Person B’s, then assuming their preferred policies are mutually exclusive (and assuming the suffering felt by person A’s when they starve to death through inability to support themselves through no fault of their own is roughly comparable to the suffering felt by Person B’s when their tax money is used to support people who would otherwise starve to death – which I find unlikely, but let’s run with it for now), then a world which implements policies to support people who cannot otherwise support themselves is still a world that contains less suffering than one that doesn’t implement such policies.

          If even that isn’t enough, it should still be possible (though more difficult) to set up a system whereby everyone contributes to the upkeep of those unable to support themselves, except that people like you, who are genuinely traumatised by having to contribute to the wellbeing of the economically unproductive, are exempt from having to do so (again assuming that we can minimise freeloading – you would need some system of psychiatric testing, I suppose, to sift out those who are genuinely mentally anguished by contributing to a social safety net from those who are merely being stingy).

          If even that isn’t enough – if someone was traumatised not just by having taxes levied from them to support the unproductive, but merely by the knowledge that anyone, anywhere was being taxed to that end regardless of they themself being exempt, then at the thick end of that wedge you would be describing a person whose equanimity was entirely contingent on other people starving to death. I assume you are not in that position, but even if you were, it would be better for more people overall if such people were effectively ignored when formulating public policy, and suitable distractions placed before them to try to help them forget that society was providing a social safety net. Though that suite of distractions would be a part of that social safety net, so it would need to be very subtle.

          Also, and unrelated, does anyone know of a way to sign up for comments only in response to a comment you yourself have made, rather than all subsequent comments made by anyone ever? Disqus seems to manage it, and it would be a colossally inconvenient thing not to include, so I can only assume I’m missing something obvious.

        • blacktrance says:

          You’re approaching this from a utilitarian perspective, and I reject utilitarianism in favor of Hobbesianism. It’s not a question of who’s more traumatized and what causes more suffering in net, but whether the laws are rationally justifiable to those who are subject to them, i.e. a policy is justified by it being in the interests of those who live under it. So, if a basic income wouldn’t be in someone’s interest, it would be unjustified to tax them to fund it. For example, if a basic income isn’t in my interest, then there is no relevant difference between the government taking my money to fund it and a mugger taking my money to buy himself a TV – if someone is taking my money against my will and using it in a way that doesn’t benefit me, regardless of where that money is going, that act is not justified to me, so I won’t endorse a government that has that policy.

        • Multiheaded says:


          That’s not so nice of you!

        • blacktrance says:

          It doesn’t sound very nice, but this is something that’s difficult to say without sounding brutal – but I’ll give it a try.

          In saying that it’s not a question of who’s more traumatized or who suffers more, I don’t mean that people’s suffering doesn’t matter. It does, very much so. It means that whatever is done to help those who are suffering must be justified to whomever is doing the helping. Utilitarianism would make sense if humanity (or all beings capable of experiencing utility) were one super-individual, but it’s not – it’s comprised of many different individuals with different desires, different preferences, etc. You may want to help people in some specific way, but your neighbor may want something different – maybe he wants to help people in a different way, or maybe he wants to accumulate goods for his personal use. You could ignore his preferences, try to take his stuff, and use it as you see fit – but your neighbor could do the same to you. You could try to convince him to use his stuff to help people in the way that you want, and maybe you’d succeed, but if you wouldn’t, then the only remaining options would be a state of potential mutual hostility, or giving up on taking his stuff in exchange for him agreeing to do the same for you, and to deal with him peacefully if he’ll agree to be peaceful too. On one hand, that means that his stuff is off-limits to you, on the other hand, it means you’re free to use your stuff as you see fit, without worrying about your neighbor taking it from you, so you can help people without being afraid. Even better, you can now cooperate with your neighbor in mutually beneficial trade, so you can be more productive, and help people even more if that’s what you want.

          This generally means that you can’t be used for other people’s ends against your will. Maybe it’d be nice to force people to donate more to charity (though others disagree), but this framework also protects you against being forced to do things you’d really hate, e.g. participating in aggressive nationalist wars, protecting the jobs of the poor-by-local-standards-but-rich-by-global-standards at the expense of the really poor, being forced to discriminate against whatever social group happens to be low-status, etc.

          Finally, there’s the matter of conceptual clarity: if you value people not suffering, relieving suffering is a value for you – other beings’ suffering being bad isn’t something built into the fabric of the universe. Indeed, there are no values built into the fabric of the universe. Other beings may have values different from your own, and if you want to create social structures in which they agree to participate, these structures have to further both your values and their values. This may seem limiting, and it is – but the flip side of it is that if they want to build such structures, they have to appeal to your values too.

          @Multi – better?

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Pretty much ever since I heard of the
          Rationalist Taboo, I have been of the opinion that it should more-or-less automatically apply to the word ‘morality’ (and therefore related terms like ‘ethics’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the value-judgement sense rather than the purely factual sense etc.

          I agree completely. In fact, it seems to me as if the only factual difference of opinion is between people who believe in naive moral realism and people who don’t. The latter argue a lot among themselves, but they have only definitional disagreements and non-compatible utility functions; they agree with all the actual facts.

      • The Anonymouse says:

        Blacktrance’s idea being that you just don’t get to have it both ways. You can’t relieve people of their felt burden by telling them that they owe others nothing, and then relieve them of their practical burdens by proclaiming that society (read: other people) owes them something.

        Either I owe society certain things, and society owes things back to me; or I owe society nothing, but then have no claim on other peoples’ things. Which do you dislike more: feeling guilty because you are not contributing to a group from which you demand contributions, or the idea that you have no entitlement to other peoples’ time/labor/affections?

        I’m ambivalent here. I just don’t like the as-argued inconsistency.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      To a utilitarian, however, this account is incoherent. Acts of freely chosen benevolence and fulfillments of moral duty are not relevantly different, as far as utilitarianism is concerned. (i.e. there is no such thing as the supererogatory in utilitarianism.) This may be a mark against utilitarianism (to some people), but insofar as one accepts utilitarianism (which many people here do? I think? I mean, I don’t, but…), the whole moral duty vs. benevolent altruism distinction is meaningless.

      (Disclaimer: I actually agree with what you say, in a certain sense that I’m finding hard to express, and also disagree in a certain other sense that I’m also finding hard to express. I definitely want to think about this view some more.)

      • blacktrance says:

        Acts of freely chosen benevolence and fulfillments of moral duty are not relevantly different, as far as utilitarianism is concerned.

        I’d say that as far as utilitarianism is concerned, the moral duty to maximize world utility is all that there is, leaving no room for freely chosen benevolence. So a utilitarian could plausibly say that, yes, being a burden is morally wrong (at least for most people in the First World), because as painful as it is for you to work and be productive, you can still increase net world utility by working and donating your money to charity. The utilitarian would say that you shouldn’t feel guilty about not being productive, but nevertheless it’s a fact that you should be productive if at all possible, at least in the current state of the world, and if that makes you feel guilty, that’s bad but it’s nothing compared to malnourished children suffering from malaria.

        But I’m no utilitarian.

        And I’m curious to hear your further thoughts.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      if you don’t owe people anything (because that’s what society is: people)

      Unrelated to my other comment: I think this part is true in general but not correct as a response to Scott’s post.

      Why? Because while you and I know that (at least as far as moral obligations go) society is people, and “society” as an entity, apart from the people in it, is not real, not everyone knows that (or agrees). There are many people who have some (more or less nebulous) view of “society” as something that is “more than the sum of its parts”, some greater thing that transcends the individuals within it; and many of those people think that it’s to society in this sense that they owe something.

      I believe that is the sort of thing Scott was talking about — both in the sense that his patients believe themselves to be a burden on “society” in that abstract manner, and in the sense that when Scott says “we were here first”, he also meant society in this abstract manner. (Otherwise, it’s a bizarre sentiment: if society is just people, how can we have been here first?)

      • blacktrance says:

        There are many people who have some (more or less nebulous) view of “society” as something that is “more than the sum of its parts”, some greater thing that transcends the individuals within it; and many of those people think that it’s to society in this sense that they owe something.

        This would suggest – though this would probably be impractical – that correcting people’s ontological conception of society would often make them stop feeling like a burden. That’s possible, but it seems implausible to me – I would expect that if corrected, people would just say that they feel like a burden on their families and/or the taxpayers, both of which are groups of individuals.

        Otherwise, it’s a bizarre sentiment: if society is just people, how can we have been here first?

        Your interpretation of the post makes sense given the rest of it (the part about hunter-gatherers and such), but I initially interpreted “We were here first” as a poetic way of saying “We’re what really matters, and it exists to serve us”, or “Any particular relation between individuals is justified by it being good for the individuals involved in it, individuals living together and doing stuff with each other is society, and therefore if some relation isn’t beneficial for you, it’s unjustified.” (This isn’t the most precise way to put it, but it’s 4 AM. What I’m trying to get at can be described as “libertarianism on Hobbesian grounds”, except it’s also social and not just political.)
        Also, there’s the trivial answer that we (as in humans, not as in specific individuals) were here before we were organized into any kind of society.

    • Sarah says:

      This was my working assumption — “if I take care of myself and pay my own way, nobody can call me worthless.” I am not sure how to extend it to people who literally *cannot* pay their own way, though. Because that does happen. And I don’t think they should be suicidal either. Probably there’s a sort of “human dignity” that is about the capacities common to all humans; or people can have merits besides financial self-sufficiency. Something in that neighborhood.

    • Anon256 says:

      Those who do better in modern society are obliged to make some sacrifices to help those who do worse, as part of a timeless bargain with the luddites of the past, who could have prevented modern society (and all its benefits for the average) from ever existing if they truly believed the future held only misery for people like them. Reneging on this bargain now would not only be unjust, but would jeopardise the wellbeing of people like us in the future, since in the long run we’ll (almost) all be obsolete burdens, and depend on others to uphold the bargain in turn.

  17. I wonder whether feeling like a burden is partly a matter of the typical mind fallacy– doing things is hard if you’re depressed, so a depressed person is apt to assume that everything which is done for them is just as hard for the people doing it.

    What do you make of this claim that hallucinatory voices are hostile in the US, but not in India or Africa? Aside from the detail that it’s making claims for awfully broad regions, it’s interesting that there are places where the voices aren’t (are less likely to be?) hostile.

    What you’ve said about the EA matches my notion (unlike the common notion at LW) that ostracism was very unlikely in the EA– people were more expensive to the group back then.

    At LW, ostracism in the EA is invoked to explain why people find ostracism painful now. I’m inclined to think that a ostracism is painful partly because loss of human contact is literally deadly for babies (see A General Theory about Love, which talks about relationships and biological regulation) and partly because (hypothetically) low status people in the EA *weren’t* ostracized, they stayed in the group and were pervasively harassed.

    Anyone know what happens to low-status people in modern hunter-gatherers? Or is this stuff more plausibly from the primitive agricultural societies?

  18. bi guy says:

    (people talk as if the only possible use of information about the determinants of intelligence is to tell low-IQ people they are bad. Maybe they’ve never felt the desperate need to reassure someone “No, it is not your fault that everything is going wrong for you, everything was rigged against you from the beginning.”)

    IME telling people that they have problems because they have a low IQ does not make them feel like they are not at fault, quite the opposite in fact.

    Other than that I completely agree with this post. There seems to be a lot of people who don’t see a problem with allowing the people unable to contribute to society to suffer. This is a mindset that is very alien to my value system.

  19. Seb Nickel says:

    Very interesting post! I would like to see what your argument looks like if you don’t metaphorically treat society as a being with agency. I would not be able to reconstruct your argument in literal terms, which I suppose means I don’t understand it.

  20. A bunch of disconnected points:

    There are a significant number of people who would just be dead in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, who are also a burden in the present. People who need expensive medical treatments to stay alive, people with significant birth defects, etc. Appealing to ancient adaptedness is not much of a help for those people.

    After that, we will have to predicate our self-worth on something other than being able to “contribute” in the classical sense of the term.

    Yes, absolutely.

    However, with respect to severely depressed people, I think this may be missing the point or getting causality backwards. I don’t think that the depressed have looked at their surroundings and determined that they are inadequate societal producers and therefore ought to die. Rather, they’re depressed, and “being a burden” is just something that their brain has cooked up as a rationale for why they ought to feel depressed. Getting them to reject that rationale does not actually accomplish anything in terms of making them less depressed. When I was severely depressed I called myself a “waste of carbon”, and there’s no way that you can convince me that the carbon wasn’t here before me. But there was also no rational content to my feeling of uselessness: it was merely a symptom of the illness, and treating it would merely have made the depression manifest somewhere else.

  21. Alexander Stanislaw says:

    Scott, I agree in full but isn’t this a rather deontological idea?

    Lets take a super simplified case. There are three people A, B and C who decide to switch from a hunter gather society to an industrial one. A and B each gain 5 utils from the change. C loses 5 utils. On Utilitarianism, this is a good thing – there is a net gain in utility. Do A and B owe C something because of some principle that “if you gain from an exchange that someone else loses out on then you owe them a portion of the profits”? Can that principle be defended on Utilitarian grounds?

    Maybe it can, so what if C neither gains nor loses any utils? Do A and B still owe her?

    If the answer is that A and B can sacrifice some utils to give to C (and end up giving her more than they lost) then why is history even relevant?

    I’m genuinely curious here.

    • R says:

      That case is too simplified; why would C agree to a change where she loses 5 utils? Let me propose another model: A, B, and C agree to create an industrial society — a set of buildings and customs and laws above and beyond the people within the society — so that their children, D through Z, will on average have +5 utils (and so that they can even have 23 children instead of the 3 that their current hunter-gatherer society would support). But this is an average; it turns out that W, X, Y, and Z end up with -5 compared to how they would fare in the old society. Yes, on the one hand, the old society couldn’t even have supported all four of them; but on the other hand, they’ve each been individually harmed by being born into an industrial society. And D through V don’t have to individually give up much in order to help W through Z; they still end up with a net positive change in utils.

      The recent video on automation mentioned in a previous comment basically argues that a post-industrial society — one with AI and robots and powerful information technology — will be one where the majority of people are like W, X, Y, and Z: unemployable “burdens.” And yet, those robots and AI and so forth will allow the work of only a few (say D, E, and F) to provide enough utils for everyone to have +5 net — if it’s shared among them. In such a society I don’t think D, E, and F could rightfully claim all the utils, just because they happened to produce them, since technology was so crucial to their being so productive. So what about the current, less extreme case, where a minority of people are societal burdens instead of a majority? Doesn’t society still owe them something? Maybe not a generous handout that dissuades them from even looking for employment, but at least enough so that they don’t kill themselves out of a sense of uselessness.

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        I do not see how changing the numbers resolves the issue of deontology vs utilitarianism. You’re still invoke two competing value systems namely:

        1: “Group A is harmed by some change, Group B is helped by some change, so Group B owes Group A something”

        2: “Group B would lose few utils by helping Group A so they should do so since Group A is helped a great deal”

        1 is deontology, 2 is utilitarianism.

  22. Deiseach says:

    Scott, this post is sounding very Papal 🙂

    Also, St. John Chrysostom, from his second sermon on Lazarus:

    Behold, then, it is said, the man and his works. This also is robbery – not to impart our good things to others. Very likely it may seem to you a strange saying; but wonder not at it, for I will, from the Divine Scriptures, bring testimony showing that not only robbery of other men’s goods, but also the not imparting our own good things to others – this also is robbery, and covetousness, and fraud. What then is this testimony? God, rebuking the Jews, speaks thus through the prophet: “The earth has brought forth her fruit, and ye have not brought in the tithes; but the plunder of the poor is in your houses,” (Mal. iii. 10). Since, it is said, ye have not given the customary oblations, ye have robbed the poor. This is said in order to show to the rich that they possess things which belong to the poor, even if their property be gained by inheritance – in fact, from what source soever their substance be derived. And, again, in another place, it is said, “Do not deprive the poor of life,” (Ecclus. iv. 1). Now, he who deprives, deprives some other man of property. It is said to be deprivation when we retain things taken from others. And in this way, therefore, we are taught that if we do not bestow alms, we shall be treated in the same way as those who have been extortioners. Our Lord’s things they are, from whencesoever we may obtain them. And if we distribute to the needy we shall obtain for ourselves great abundance. And for this it is that God has permitted you to possess much – not that you should spend it in fornication, in drunkenness, in gluttony, in rich clothing, or any other mode of luxury, but that you should distribute it to the needy. And just as if a receiver of taxes, having in charge the king’s property, should not distribute it to those for whom it is ordered, but should spend it for his own enjoyment, he would pay the penalty and come to ruin; thus also the rich man is, as it were, a receiver of goods which are destined to be dispensed to the poor – to those of his fellow-servants who are in want. If he then should spend upon himself more than he really needs, he will pay hereafter a heavy penalty. For the things he has are not his own, but are the things of his fellow-servants.

  23. pneumatik says:

    This is what Moloch does. He offers a world with many more people and much lower infant mortality, and perhaps eventually the ability to survive an extinction event. But the cost is ruthless efficiency and optimization of living feeling humans. Hopefully Moloch allows enough inefficiency to support people who can’t contribute as much fuel to Moloch’s progress. Because the optimization may be best when the system is designed around a small number of humans with particular skills and everyone else contributes best be staying out of the way.

  24. @JohnWBH says:

    Have you read “Debt the first 5000 years?” the first couple of chapters discus the origin of debt ad its ties into moral systtems, and especially the idea of a “primordial debt” owed by an individual to their parents/ancestors/gods/the state/the cosmos.

  25. Jaskologist says:

    Can you actually reason people out of depression?

    • ozymandias says:

      For some people, yes. It’s the only thing that works for me.

    • a person says:

      Yes, it’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

      • Alas, CBT doesn’t seem to work better than psychoanalysis, which doesn’t work better than placebo.

        (Concerning the equation of “reasoning people out of depression” and CBT, see my comment below.)

        • Douglas Knight says:

          You sound like you are making a standard statistical fallacy. It is quite common that A is not statistically significantly better than B and that B is not statistically significantly better than C, but that A is statistically significantly better than C.

          I don’t mean to imply that this is the situation in therapy, but if you reached your beliefs the way you sound like you did, you should reconsider.

      • ozymandias says:

        To be fair, it’s possible that challenging inaccurate beliefs is also a part of psychoanalysis and placebo therapy (I mean, if I were tasked to provide placebo therapy, I would challenge people’s inaccurate beliefs). Or that reasoning people out of depression works for some but not all people, and we don’t have a good test to figure out which.

    • pxib says:

      Reason is ultimately how I escaped depression.

      I noticed how much more effort it took to be sad, obsessing over my failures and shortcomings, than it took to relax and do something else. Occasionally the spiral of negative thoughts produced worthwhile realizations, but at overwhelming personal cost. The cost/benefit was terrible.

      So I was wasting an enormous amount of time and energy, leaving myself mentally and physically exhausted, when there was another option: Stop. As soon as I accepted that truth, not being depressed was actually easier than being depressed. It has been ever since.

      Brutal and obsessive self-analysis is still a tool I can use in order to help put my life in order when something feels wrong, but I no longer feel obligated to wallow there.

      I have since used versions of this explanation to help my brother and two close friends rethink their own spirals. Summarizing my realization as “Just snap out of it!” would be wildly unhelpful, but the more nuanced perspective seems worthwhile.

      • Thank you for writing this. It is worth noting that this procedure of reasoning yourself out of depression differs from standard CBT. The latter (as I understand it) challenges the truth of the beliefs that cause you to feel depressed. Your method, by contrast, challenges the usefulness of those beliefs.

        This illustrates that one can use both epistemic and instrumental rationality to combat depression (and that the efficacy of these two approaches may not be the same).

  26. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    I found this sadder and more beautiful than the Moloch post.

  27. Shmi Nux says:

    Huh, I didn’t expect you to advocate the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, not that it’s not a great slogan in theory. Though I did expect Multiheaded to have a field day with it here, not just tears and hugs. Whether we are at the post-scarcity level where this is possible and would not stunt further progress, I do not know.

  28. Viliam Búr says:

    Children or teenagers don’t get depressed just because they are not economically productive. They can get depressed by other things, though, so they have the capacity; it’s just not connected to productivity. What gives them this ability?

    I guess it’s because their answers to questions “Will my needs be met?” and “Will I have friends?” don’t depend on their economical productivity.

    Basic income could fix the first problem, and then the group with highest risk of suicide would be the nerds who are bad at being popular. Then we could try to fix the second problem using internet and moving the nerds geographically close to each other.

  29. Hedonic Treader says:

    There is a difference between not “deserving” to live and not wanting to live.

    I don’t want to live. Whether I “deserve” it or not is a completely arbitrary judgment.

    Why is it that society owes us the resources to keep living disabled, but not the respect for our autonomy to leave the decision to us, and us alone?

    “Depression is in part a disease of distorted cognitions, a failure of rationality.”

    How conveniently circular: You want to die, therefore you are wrong.

    • ozymandias says:

      To be fair, many people who want to die are genuinely distorted about whether this would be a good idea. I often want to die because I believe I am doomed to be miserable for the rest of my life; this is not actually a true assessment, it is just that my brain is bad at continuity of identity so “I’ll be sad for the next three hours” feels exactly the same as “I’ll be sad for the rest of my life.” Similarly, many people with major depression don’t alieve that the depression will lift, although it probably will. Perhaps more relevantly for the post: a person who believes they ought to die because they are a net drain on society may not actually be a net drain and– Scott argues– even if they are, they should continue to be alive and supported.

      On the other hand, I find the idea that mental illness can’t make life worth living to be deeply in denial about the realities of living with severe mental illness.

      So while I also support easier access to suicide for everyone, I think that there’s a reasonable case for requiring psychiatric examination and a waiting period before one kills oneself.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        A waiting period is fine, but “psychiatric examination” will simply be another outlet for ideologists to say, “Naaah, that guy should live (we have decided)”.

        Can you honestly imagine a Scott Alexander personality to ever sit down, perform a “psychiatric examination” and then declare that the other guy should have the right to decide for himself?

        The point being that it will always be arbitrary, which is the opposite of what it should be – an inalienable right.

        You did not choose to be born. You were forced to. You did not choose to have a brain that can suffer involuntarily. You were forced to.

        • ozymandias says:

          Um. I know the actual Scott Alexander and the answer to your question is “yes.”

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          Are we talking about the same person? The one who suggested inventing a device that measures people’s subconscious will to live so that they can be prevented from suicide? On this very blog?

          How about this: If you are right, then we contact Scott and he can clarify his position in a blog post in the future.

          Should all cognitively functional people (including those who are physically healthy) have the right to access the best suicide/euthanasia methods/services the market has to offer, without government intervention, assuming they have waited for at least six months after first communicating their decision?

          I say yes.

          You seem to say yes.

          Let’s hear what Scott says?

        • From this post:

          I am not claiming that suicide is never rational and that all suicides are stupid and impulsive, or that no one can ever legitimately want to die. I am saying those people make up a very small portion of suicides, and that the typical case is people who do it impulsively or in a state where they lack full decision-making capacity. And that the psychiatric system can be of huge help to this latter group, and that helping the former group is a different question which I do not want to talk about publicly for professional reasons.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Hedonic Treader: Yes.

  30. Society got where it is by systematically destroying everything that could have supported him and replacing it with things that required skills he didn’t have. Of course it owes him when he suddenly can’t support himself. Think of it as the ultimate use of eminent domain; a power beyond your control has seized everything in the world, it had some good economic reasons for doing so, but it at least owes you compensation!

    This is also the basis of my support for a basic income guarantee.

    A question. Lets take it as a given that society owes some compensation for removing the ability to survive on hunter/gathered skills. The question arises – what does society owe?

    To me, the obvious answer is a consumption level equivalent to that of a hunter/gatherer. Specifically, some basic unprocessed food, rudimentary clothing, and basic shelter – a cave or tent. Or at least the raw materials necessary to construct those things yourself. Society took those things away from you, society will now give them back.

    Is there an argument why society would owe more than this?

    • Matthew O says:

      I agree. Perhaps in the future a world government could set aside a huge preserve of land with a decent climate (not desert or scrubland, but temperate or tropical forest) for people who wanted to “opt-out” of society, and let them have at it. No government. No food-drop parachutes. Just them, each other, and nature.

      I’ve often thought to myself that, if I ever seriously felt like committing suicide, I would rather commit a “social death” than a true physical death. I would sign a “goodbye” note, tell people that I was leaving to another geographical place and never returning, and I would just skip town and live as a hobo. I would preferably always keep a cyanide pill on me just in case hobo life got too bad, but this way I would be able to escape all of the demands of life while perhaps still leaving open the door to a few little pleasures of life here and there–food, drink, dreams, the time to think. If being a hobo turned out to be hard, unsatisfying work in and of itself, THEN I would kill myself. But I figure that I would at least give it a shot.

    • Oligopsony says:

      Arguably what was also taken was social integration into and acceptance into a community. For better and for worse, of course, our formal mechanisms for redistributing economic resources are more developed than those for redistributing friendship.

      • I started to write about how great it would be if we could redistribute friendship, but then recoiled from the implications. If social support were fungible and redistributable, then it could be monetized, and the all of the economic forces of Moloch would come to bear on it. Right now, the poor can choose to have rich social lives even if they don’t have money. But if friendship were redistributable, then you could literally be too poor to have friends, since you would have to sell your friendship credits to buy food. (What would most likely happen, actually, is that most of the poor would choose to spend their money on friendship rather than whatever respectable middle-class people spend it on, in much the same way that they currently choose to spend their money on alcohol and drugs rather than college educations.)

        God save us from redistributable friendship.

        • Deiseach says:

          in much the same way that they currently choose to spend their money on alcohol and drugs rather than college educations

          Goodness me, I had no idea you could get a Harvard education for the cost of a slab of Dutch Gold lager per week!

          Look, do any of you on here know any actual poor people? As distinct from looking at us as anthropological specimens, or interacting with us in your day job capacity?

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Goodness me, I had no idea you could get a Harvard education for the cost of a slab of Dutch Gold lager per week!

          Who said anything about Harvard? 2 year local community college + 2 year local state university should be on the order of $20k (assuming $3k per year of community college and $6k per year of university) for a bachelor’s. That’s before counting grants and scholarships.

        • My comment was a glib allusion to a broad class of purchases that poor people tend to make which middle-class people don’t approve of. Of course, “college educations” and “drugs and alcohol” are the extreme ends of that spectrum and don’t apply to everyone, etc.

          And I do know some actual poor people. Much of my extended family, for instance.

        • Ilya Shpitser says:

          Deiseach, your point is well-taken but Harvard is really not a good example. A poor person will not pay a dime to go to Harvard, if they otherwise qualify.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        And we are going to ignore all the upsides of civilization? Like not being eaten alive by predators while you scream in agony?

        If we were truly fair in comparing, then even the replacement of wild animal suffering by evil Moloch should be taken into consideration.

        By the way, in the developed world, the social security net is tight enough that you get more than the minimum you would have gotten in the EAA. And no one prevents you from making friends, either. You have now more access to potential friends than ever before, online and offline. Even in the EAA, no one did this for you. Just look how less developed tribal societies treat Schizophrenics or other mentally ill troublemakers – not as rosy as you’d like to think.

        • Oligopsony says:

          And we are going to ignore all the upsides of civilization?

          Insofar as they’re not the topic of discussion, sure. I trust we can talk about the costs of civilization without the fear of being identified as anarcho-primitivists or whatever.

  31. a person says:

    Otherwise he could just hang out and live in a cave and gather roots and berries and maybe hunt buffalo and participate in the appropriate tribal bonding rituals like everyone else… (if you’re one of those people who sees red every time someone mentions evolution or cavemen, imagine him as a dockworker a hundred years ago, or a peasant farmer a thousand)… Society got where it is by systematically destroying everything that could have supported him and replacing it with things that required skills he didn’t have.

    I’m kind of confused. Does working a retail job, or taking orders at McDonalds, or being a janitor, or doing construction, or being a trucker require more intelligence than hunting or farming? It seems to me like the USA is full of necessary jobs that can be done by low IQ people.

    • My guess: It’s less that any of those particular job functions requires a high IQ, than that you can’t do any of them if you don’t have the baseline ability to hold down a job in modern society. And that requires a degree of emotional and social ability that you didn’t need in order to provide for yourself as a hunter or farmer in pre-industrial societies.

      • AR+ says:

        Well, as a farmer, maybe. But isn’t the fact that ability to successfully play ever more complex social games became the principle determinant of relative human mortality that allowed the runaway evolution of our massively over-sized brains in the first place? I fully expect that anybody who lacks the emotional intelligence for retail would end up dead pretty quickly among hunter-gatherers.

        However, it is also true that many such people would also have much higher emotional intelligence if they were raised in a more natural social environment than kids have to live in today.

      • James Miller says:

        “And that requires a degree of emotional and social ability that you didn’t need in order to provide for yourself as a hunter or farmer in pre-industrial societies.”

        Agreed if you delete the words “or farmer”. Lots of pre-industrial farmers probably failed to pass on their genes because they lacked the emotional ability to work long hours at boring tasks.

        • I… think that might not actually be true. Hunter-gatherers may have a lower level of intelligence-requiring technology, but they tend to have extremely complicated social structures. (See Australian aboriginal kinship systems for a typical example.) Being low IQ may be less of an issue there, but having emotional problems of a sort that prevents socialization is probably more of a handicap.

    • Anonymous says:

      Performing such jobs requires very little, but keeping the jobs is difficult for the mentally ill. There is a huge mass of people who can also perform the job and employers are quite happy to dump the unreliable or weird.

      I have an insane relative whose social worker got her a menial job with very understanding people. They don’t care about her normal level of weirdness and when it gets really bad, they tell her to go home until she has a note from her doctor. I think that’s how she’d be treated in a smaller community in the past. Whereas most employers today don’t want to think about how they could modify things to make use of her, even if there is something in it for them, like a lower salary. Such a modification is a real management cost. Systems today are efficient, but at the expense of flexibility.

      From several hundred miles away, this job seems like a miracle. For the last few years, there has been some concern that the company was going to fold and I have no idea how my relative can find another similar job. I hope the social worker has another up her sleeve. For all I know, she has tons. Finding such employers seems like a very useful thing for social workers to do.

    • Deiseach says:

      There’s a couple of elements to be considered here. First, what do we mean when we’re talking about “low-IQ people”? What score, what grade? How low? If what you mean is “stupid people, retards, cretins”, say so – but not being able to get a job as a computer programmer does not necessarily mean you’re stupid, just that you don’t have the maths/computational skills, the twist of mind that suits you for that. (How many of you can hand-milk a goat, if you were dropped into a situation where you need that skill to get a source of food? And does lacking it mean you’re stupid or “low IQ”?)

      Someone who had an accident or other incident that caused brain damage could have gone from normal IQ to dropped a few points. But that’s not the only consideration here; besides a loss of intellectual capacity, brain damage usually has other effects (I’m going from my experience in local government education provision, where one aspect of it did involve education and training opportunities for people with literacy difficulties to Down’s Syndrome to at least one of our clients who suffered an incident where brain damage occurred and he went from owning and running his own business to being dependent on social services).

      (a) Emotional difficulties. More labile, more tendency to have ‘melt downs’, less able to handle stress and change, less able to deal with boring, tedious jobs or work that involves sustained bouts of concentration. Taking orders in McDonalds means you have to be able to handle a lot of through-put and deal with some customers who can be assholes (this is my retail job experience talking here, as well). An employee who is likely to stomp off and be found huddled in a corner in the middle of the busy lunchtime shift is an employee who – in most modern businesses – will not get the support he or she needs to keep doing the job and will be let go.

      (b) Physical difficulties. Difficulty with speaking, walking, fine motor control. An employee taking calls in a customer call centre who is ‘thick tongued’ and the person making the call has to ask for someone they can understand to speak to them – again, not going to be kept on in the job very long.

      Disabled people are not unemployable, but they do need certain supports, And when we’re still struggling with the notion of making offices and public buildings accessible to those with mobility difficulties (a lot of places still have steps and don’t have wheelchair ramps), then especially in an economy where there are a lot of able-bodied people, and people with college degrees willing to take work below the level of their qualifications, then those who are not able to participate without extra cost will suffer.

  32. Ash says:

    Damnit I thought this was anonymous. If the comment field says my email wasn’t going to be published, it should NOT link to my gravatar!!!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not really sure what’s going on here, probably since you edited this post, but if you want me to delete it let me know. Also, if you know exactly what I can do to fix your problem, I will.

      • lmm says:

        This is a known problem with Gravatar. I would request that you keep Gravatar as I find it useful. Perhaps the note under “leave a reply” should be something like “Your email address will not be published but will be used to attach a Gravatar to your post. This means people can correlate your posts with posts you make on other sites using the same email address. Also, an attacker with access to substantial computational resources could recover your email address from the hash used to communicate with Gravatar. If you want to leave a truly anonymous comment, please use an anonymous email address, and do not use the same address on any other sites.”

        • Anonymous says:

          or just “Optional Gravatar”

          Paranoid people who don’t know what Gravatar means should know what “Optional” means and not leave an email address. People like the first commenter who have set up a Gravatar should be tipped off by the familiar word.

          I doubt more words will help.

    • Technically, the comment field is telling the truth; your email address isn’t published. However, an MD5 hash of your email address is published, which means someone who can guess what your email address is can find out if their guess is right. Or they might be able to use a rainbow table to find your email address.

      I suppose the comment field could stand to make clearer exactly what information about your identity is made available to the internet when you enter your email address.

  33. GroundhogDad says:

    Thank you – I think it is lovely that someone has said this and said it so well.

  34. Typhon says:

    « Depression is in part a disease of distorted cognitions, a failure of rationality »

    Is depressive realism bunk, then ?

    • Depressive realism is most likely one bias counteracting another. In a society of people who are generally inclined to be too optimistic, a less optimistic perspective can be of great value—but that doesn’t mean that someone who believes that they’re a worthless burden is necessarily justified in believing this.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t know enough about the research on depressive realism to say if it is universally bunk or not.

      But I will say that there is a gradation from everyday depression to depression with psychotic features, where for example the person believes they themselves are responsible for all evil, or they’re hideous, or they are infested with worms, or something else similarly representing how awful they are. Once you start talking about how you are infested with worms, I become pretty sure you’re beyond the stage of “depressive realism”. And like I said, this seems to me a gradient rather than a discontinuity, such that even mild depression contains some false cognitions sort of in this direction.

      • Kate Donovan says:

        A year or so back I spent about a month poking at depressive realism on and off. I couldn’t find very many good studies, and it seemed to be an effect only in the lab, for contrived situations, for people with moderate depression, and specifically about the fundamental attribution error, not realism on the whole. (IIRC this was moderate depression as defined by score on the BDI-II)

  35. Bugmaster says:

    What is it with this nostalgia for ye goode olde days ? I don’t get it.

    Yes, this low-IQ individual is suffering in our modern society. The society where spear-to-the-gut violence is not merely outlawed, but considered monstrous in most places. Where many deadly diseases have been eradicated. Where slavery does not exist. Where people argue endlessly about raising the minimum wage — a concept that would be as alien to a medieval peasant as “calling 911 on your cellphone”.

    Yes, in ye olde days, there’s a chance that this guy could’ve lead a happy life gathering berries for his dinner. But there’s a much greater chance that he’d be dead, starving, or enslaved, just like anyone else, high IQ or not.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      This. Thank you.

      There’s a reason the largest human migration in history is going on right now: Chinese leaving their subsistence farms and hauling ass to the cities. (Despite all our bien pensant tut-tutting about how exploited they are.) The “good” old days sucked. For every latter-day mountain man actually hunting and gathering, there’s about 150,000 hipsters thinking it’d be so authentic to start up an organic farm while ordering take-out Thai on their iPhones.

      • There’s a lot of consensus here that being a hunter-gatherer (at least if you grew up with the skills, perhaps) is a much better deal than doing low-tech agriculture.

        Hunter-gatherer and low-tech agriculture shouldn’t be conflated as being the same sort of good old days.

        • Bugmaster says:

          As far as I understand, Scott Alexander posits that low-IQ individuals would be better off in both hunter-gatherer as well as low-tech agriculture societies, hence I saw not reason to separate them in my comment.

          That said, how low-tech are we talking ? I’m not sure where this consensus comes from, but if you compare caveman days to say, the Renaissance, IMO the Renaissance wins every time.

          In general, the cool thing about agriculture is that allows people to specialize. It makes room for the kind of people who rarely do anything immediately productive in their entire lives; instead, they spend their time on useless pursuits like scribbling numbers on a page, or looking at the night sky through a tube, or hooking up frog legs to stacks of metal disks…

      • Multiheaded says:

        @Anonymouse: agreed to a large part, although a lot of this is China-specific; some urban migrations, like in South America, appear to be more coerced (people are forced off the land by various things) and very desperate in regards to the infrastructure. Endless slums grow, etc.

        (Despite all our bien pensant tut-tutting about how exploited they are.)

        The liberals might. Leftists have a complicated perspective on the Chinese labour movement.

        As a completely uninformed foreigner, it’s hard not to feel optimistic looking at the courage and drive in the Chinese struggles, but so far it’s hard to say at which level these internal migrants’ exploitation will stabilize in China.

  36. mp says:

    Thanks. This is really helpful.

  37. Vadim Kosoy says:

    Is the historical justification your true rejection? That is, in a universe in which hunter gatherers never existed and modern society just popped into being, would the conclusion be different? Shouldn’t we just say that human lives/experiences have intrinsic worth therefore we should do whatever is necessary to have more of them?

  38. Michael R says:

    I don’t always agree with Scott’s opinions, but I just want to say that I found this post honest and clear and oddly moving.

  39. Clockwork Marx says:

    I’m not sure what such a post-contribution value system would look like. It might be based around helping others in less tangible ways, like providing company and cheerfulness and love. It might be a virtue ethics celebrating people unusually good at cultivating traits we value. Or it might be a sort of philosophically-informed hedonism along the lines of Epicurus, where we try to enjoy ourselves in the ways that make us most human.

    Looking at it from a more cynical angle, I imagine it could be similar to my experience in the retail industry: we serve as the background cast for other people’s lives. People voluntarily shop in stores rather then go buy everything online for a few reasons: habit/feeling uncomfortable w/ online shopping, the ability to get more sensory info on what you buy, the chance of finding a better deal on the clearance rack, ect.

    While the biggest driving force in sales is probably just impulsiveness (I just came in for “x”, but now that I’m here…). I have a hypothesis that the biggest source of positive psychological reinforcement is the chance to perform in front of a captive audience. If you’re elderly or a stay-at-home/single mom (I work in a department store, so these are my main demographics, but I’m sure the same thing happens with middle-aged men in hobby shops and nerds in game stores), interactions with cashiers and sales people may be the only real contact with other conscious adults you experience in the course of your day. It’s obvious that a good percentage of the people who come in are really happy just to have a chance to talk to someone.

    Even people with larger social networks want to shop before an audience. Self-checkouts can be confusing for some people, but their main weakness is that they can’t reaffirm your shopping decisions, haggle over prices due to loose threads, stand in awe of your fantastic couponing skills, or “read” the values your buying habits aim to signal.

    In short, what the service industry contributes to society is the creation of a stage where people can play out their preferred narratives, using the workers as both a supporting cast and an audience. The primary contribution is attention, people are hired to look away from their cellphones and take off their earphones while you talk at them.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      It seems like cognitively/socially impaired people would be bad at performing such services; neurotypicality is, in my experience, a requirement for retail sales positions, as it is a prerequisite for acting as exactly the sort of audience you describe.

      • Clockwork Marx says:

        Yes, you’re right. even the most basic job in this class (a Walmart greeter) requires a degree of emotional and cognitive stability that is beyond some people. It’s almost like society is paying people to minimize their presence in public life because they are just considered too difficult to deal with.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I am probably highly atypical, but I go to retail stores for only two reasons:
      1). I need to acquire the product quickly, either because I need it right now, or because it’s perishable, e.g. food.
      2). I need physical contact with the product in order to determine compatibility, e.g. shoe sizing or jacket fitting.
      In all other cases, I try to avoid the retail experience as much as possible, since it combines lack of convenience (retail personnel can sometimes tell you where a particular product is located, but they almost never know anything about the product itself) with deliberate spamming (despite knowing nothing about their products, they will try to upsell you on something). To make matters worse, most retail stores (except for grocery stores) have vanishingly small inventories. If you are looking for a specific product, such as a camera, or a video card, a book, or even a chair, then more often than not you literally cannot buy it at a retail store.


  41. Robin Hanson says:

    Before humans there were a thousand other species that were each made obsolete by successive species. They were all there first. You think we should go back and compensate them all for displacing them? How much would that add up to?

    • Multiheaded says:

      1) Ever heard of Tikkun Olam, Mr. Hanson?
      2) This came across as not just the cynicism we expect and want from you, but kinda ominous/mean, even.

      • Robin Hanson says:

        Huh? How is extending the argument offered further back in time cynical, ominous, or mean? You think it would be mean to compensate other species?

        • Fronken says:

          It wasn’t exactly signalling sympathy – to compare the humans Scott just built up as sympathetic and vulnerable to animals (who are so low-status as to render any comparison satirical and/or insulting.)

          Which, in fact, I infer you intended in the first place from the phrasing in your first comment.

        • Robin Hanson says:

          So expressing sympathy with animals is unsympathetic because humans were mentioned and any mention of animals in the context of humans is insulting to humans?

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Humans are Utility Monsters.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      There seems to be the critical difference that those species were not sentient, not self-aware, and thus there is no reason we would owe them anything even if we personally hunted down and killed every last one of them. (Do we owe something to the smallpox virus?)

      Edit: The other, also critical but morally less important, difference is: how would we go about making good on a debt to an extinct species? Scott is describing a debt allegedly owed to The People Who Are Still Alive, not past people.

      • Robin Hanson says:

        I’m pretty sure we can find lots of still alive cousin and descendant species of displaced species who are sentient and self-aware.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          We can? What are we talking about, here? Dolphins…? What other non-human species even could possibly possess self-awareness?

          Also, were you talking about species that were displaced by humans (in which case, how displaced were they, really, if their descendants are still around?), or by other species (in which case, why do we owe them anything?)?

        • Robin Hanson says:

          “Self-aware” is a pretty low bar, lots of animals pass. I talked about all the species that were displaced along the path to us.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          I think we must be talking about radically different things when we say “self-aware”. I am talking about the possession of a self-concept, the ability to think consciously, especially about oneself and one’s place in the world, etc. As far as I know, no non-human species (except possibly dolphins) qualifies.

          As for which species you refer to, I remain confused, and request some examples, please.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          @Said Achmiz:

          I think it likely that Dr. Hanson is talking about animals such as orcas and chimpanzees, which are known to have passed the mirror test.

        • Said Achmiz says:


          I see. If that’s the case, then as I’ve said before… the mirror test is certainly evidence, although not by itself conclusive evidence, of self-awareness in the sense I mean.

          However, this is all rather a tangent. I’d like to clarify that the reason I brought up the whole “sentience” topic was merely by way of commenting that nonhuman animals (in their vast majority) are not morally relevant, and so the notion that humans owe them anything seems nonsensical.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Well, environmentalism, at least of the “save the pandas” type, seems to be the belief that we should recognize we’re destroying the habitat/way of life of other species and allow them to at least hang on a little bit – by providing them with food and protection if need be. So you could say what I’m proposing is environmentalism for humans.

      But actually the metaphor isn’t perfect, because when we destroy another species we just kill them cleanly. What’s happening with a lot of the people I’m talking about is that they’re artificially maintained at near-subsistence level and legally forbidden to die (ie carted off to the psychiatric hospital when they attempt suicide). That seems like a very different approach and one that imposes more moral obligations.

      • Robin Hanson says:

        I expect that many descendants and cousins remain of the species displaced to make room for us, so there’d seem to be plenty of candidate species for compensation. “Compensation” sounds like more than just not further encroaching on whatever species remain, so it seems you are proposing more than stopping encroachment.

        You’d really be more ok with cleanly killing off the humans who can no longer support themselves? Or is it cleanly preventing them from reproducing that appeals?

      • The other thing that “we” (that is, various governments in the US) do, is give people help that’s very close to the subsistence level which will be cut off if they take risks related to being able to make a better living.

  42. Anonymous says:

    No one cares about being a burden to society in the abstract. People mostly care about being a burden *specifically* to parents, siblings, spouses, friends, children, and other people they care about. The people who shoulder that burden are often extremely short on resources.

    Society owing the burdensome person things in the abstract does not change the fact that *right now* they are being a burden to people already being stretched thin, redirecting resources that could go to children towards themselves, preventing people from reaching their full potential, and so on. This is especially the case for those with ongoing emotional issues which require a lot of energy and patience to navigate, like BPD (a disorder so difficult to deal with many therapists won’t even take those patients) or illnesses that require round-the-clock, emotionally draining care.

    Your mindset is makes sense a low scarcity environment, but not so much in the high-scarcity environment most of your patients are in.

    I wonder what you would tell a person who was afraid they were a burden to *you*, if they actually were a burden to you and were damaging your career, adding stress to your life, and so on? You’d have to lie, of course. Now flip the script and imagine *you* were actively draining your loved ones. It wouldn’t make you feel much better, being told that the same social contract which paved The Commons also owes us all something as human beings. What good is the abstract fact that “society” owes us something, if “society” isn’t actually making good on that promise and our parents, children, and friends (the only “society” most people have, generally) have to pick up all the slack? Keep in mind that picking up the slack, in a scarcity environment, often ends up meaning bad things like not getting into college.

    And do recall your post on infinite debt. When your neediness exceeds a certain amount, from whence will the “debt” be paid? Don’t forget that in real life, it’s individual people who shoulder the debt of loved ones, not tax payers.

    I guess my point is, while you are absolutely right on all counts about how things ought to work, even if you could convey this to your depressed patients I don’t think they’d feel better. The only people that will feel better upon reading this are people who feel really torn up over receiving welfare checks (which is almost no one)

    • Said Achmiz says:

      I posted a comment here expressing almost exactly these sentiments, so I agree, but this caught my eye:

      BPD (a disorder so difficult to deal with many therapists won’t even take those patients)

      Citation please? This seems like it would be outrageous, if true.

      • Anonymous says:

        This is just what comes up with a google search, though I admit you can find sources for anything these days.

        It’s unfortunate, but I can’t even say I blame them. I picked that example because it runs in my family (seems to have skipped me, luckily) so I know it’s a thing that is both burdensome and can alter the life trajectory of burden-shoulderers. It’s really draining on everyone involved and not easy to treat. I just had to wrestle a knife away from a parent this morning, and now I’m going about my day and am not even particularly upset, because with BPD that’s just normal. It’s almost understandable that therapists want to avoid it.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        This is mostly true.

        Oddly, I like borderline patients and tend to get along with them pretty well. This is probably some disastrous countertransference issue I will have to be suitably embarrassed about later when I learn Real Therapy, but for now I am happy to take my colleagues’ borderline patients and they are happy to give them to me.

        • Anonymous says:

          (same anon)

          Well, if you ever happen to write a post on how to help BPD patients, I’ll read it very intently. I haven’t even been able to convince my parent that therapy / psychiatry is a thing worth doing and that it isn’t just for “crazy people”. It’s hard to even broach the topic of treatment or insinuate that there is a diagnosis and kinda-sorta effective treatments available without triggering an episode.

          Although, I suspect that a lot of BPD patients manage to keep their shit together when they’re in public or otherwise with someone they don’t know that well, so I’m not sure a family member can provide help in the same way. I know mine is extremely charming, intelligent, and generally impressive in public.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Are you BPD? If so, you might want to contact Ozy for their suggestions. Mine would be (via Ozy) a cheap DBT self-therapy workbook of Amazon. There are also some small studies showing a role for fish oil.

        • Anonymous says:

          I’m not BPD, my parent is BPD. When I said I have to convince them that therapy / psychiatry is a thing worth doing , I meant that I have to convince my parent that THEY should see a therapist or psychiatrist.

          My parent denies that the problem is primarily inside their head, and does the whole “everyone else is wrong”, or, in extreme situations, “everyone else is intentionally malicious”. As far as the parent is concerned, any suggestion that they have a disorder is an insult and an attempt to undermine them.

          I try to innocently work emotion management strategies into casual conversations, without explicitly talking about any disorders. To that end, I’ve read up on basic strategies DBT strategies. But the extent to which anything helps is limited when the person with the disorder doesn’t buy into the concept that their brain is lying to them.

          How does one contact Ozy?

    • ozymandias says:

      The only people that will feel better upon reading this are people who feel really torn up over receiving welfare checks (which is almost no one)

      is this true? I know a lot of people who qualify for welfare and don’t apply for it because they think they’re not poor enough to deserve it.

      • The Anonymouse says:

        I would imagine the number to be comparatively small, as those who qualify but don’t apply wouldn’t be counted in his measure of those who receive but feel bad about it.

        Thankfully, amidst some groups there is still a stigma attached to taking benefits out of the system/being on the dole.

      • Anonymous says:

        (same anon)

        You’re right.

        “almost no one” was shorthand for “out of all the people who feel guilty over being a burden, the subset who feel guilty specifically over getting welfare checks or other impersonal support is a tiny fraction”.

        It was not shorthand for “out of all the people who receive welfare checks, none feel badly about it”.

  43. DanielLC says:

    “Maybe his cognitive problems would make him a slightly less proficient hunter than someone else, but whatever, he could always gather.”

    Okay, but what about someone who couldn’t?

    I personally don’t have the sort of worldview where this argument means anything. I don’t owe the world anything. I’m not helping other people because I think I owe them something. I help them because I think their happiness is just as important as mine, and theirs is cheaper.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      But the question isn’t whether you owe people anything, or whether you should or should not help people.

      The question is: what does society (or “society”) owe people? Should society (or “society”) help people?

      Unless you, personally, can ensure through your own efforts that everyone in our society who needs such help, receives it… I’m afraid your personal choices concerning your engagement in charity don’t affect the matter at hand one way or the other…

  44. Oligopsony says:

    I would say the relevant counterfactual here would be nonexistence rather than different forms of society. It’s ontologically impossible for me to have been born as a peasant farmer or hunter-gatherer; I think even the strong hereditarians here would have to concede that a subsistence farmer or forager with my (or whoever’s) genetics would be less similar to me than any random WEIRDo would. So I can’t compare myself to that, I could only exist here. And yet my having come into existence is as unfree an act as they come, so the comparison should more properly be with nonexistence. If your primary reason for not committing suicide is that you feel even guiltier at the thought of imposing your death on people than imposing your life on them, then presumably you’re failing the test.

    (The Posner and Becker paper on effective suicidality convinced me that a huge number of lives are not worth living, perhaps even the majority through history, but that’s perhaps another conversation.)

  45. Julia says:

    During the Canadian experiment with minimum guaranteed income, mental health hospitalizations declined.

  46. Yarko says:

    How about this little twist of perspective: everyone has worth. That society doesn’t recognize this always, then – by the author’s own logic (“we were here first”) – it would follow that society’s measure of worth is faulty, as evidenced by the increased dis-ease, and that is what needs healing.

    How does that sound?

  47. Kevin Nall says:

    I like the thinking of Albert Ellis: The psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and was one of the originators of the cognitive revolutionary paradigm shift in psychotherapy. In addition, he was the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapies and was considered the second most influential psychotherapist in history (in front of Freud and behind Carl Rodgers).

    He believed (with controversy), as stated in his book – “The Myth of Self-Esteem,” that self-esteem is probably the greatest emotional disturbance known to humans. Self-esteem results in each of us praising ourselves when what we do is approved by others. But we also damn ourselves when we don’t do well enough and others disapprove of us. Self-pity is an extremely common cause of depression and arises from a belief that: (a) it is not merely sad, regrettable, and unfortunate when events do not pass as one hoped for, but that it is literally horrible, earth-shaking, and catastrophic; and (b) that emotional pain is inflicted upon us from without rather than from within.What we need more than self-esteem, Ellis maintains, is self-acceptance! He stresses that unconditional self-acceptance is the basis for establishing healthy relationships with others, along with unconditional other-acceptance and a total philosophy of life anchored in unconditional life-acceptance.
    Here are a few of his premises:
    • Bad mental health cause: negative thinking
    • Underlying irrational beliefs distort reality, cause psychological disturbance
    • Negative feelings of dissatisfaction occur when people do not get what they want.
    • Biological tendencies: think irrationally, cling to self defeating patterns, fail to transcend irrationality, low frustration tolerance, avoidance of pain
    • Why is not important, deal with present life only, no mention of past or future lives
    • Mind has irrational beliefs: illusory, absolutist evaluations of self, others and universe
    • Specific evaluations: couched in terms of must, should, ought, have to, got to
    • Core irrational conclusions include awfulizing, can’t stand it, damnation

  48. Ialdabaoth says:

    My current mood compels me to make a counterpoint. Here it is.

    A guy like me isn’t owed respect. Justin Bieber is owed respect. Paris Hilton is owed respect. Kim Kardashian is owed respect.

    A guy like me isn’t owed admiration. Donald Trump is owed admiration. Rudy Giulliani is owed admiration.

    I am not owed a living.

    I am not owed money, even if I provide a useful service.

    I am not owed a place to live, even if I pay for it.

    I am not owed food, even if I work for it, even if I pay for it, even if I grow it myself.

    I am allowed whatever is not taken from me, by the strained grace and undeserved compassion of my superiors.

    This is all self-evident because it can all so easily be taken away from me, and so often is.

    That which you cannot defend, you have no claim to.

    Catch 22 says they can do whatever we can’t stop them from doing.

    So what are you gonna do about it? Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!

    • Matthew says:

      Curious. I don’t feel like owe respect to any of the celebrities you cited, and I definitely don’t admire either of the two in the second set; quite the opposite. I feel like you’re employing a very idiosyncratic use of “owed” here. Maybe like saying I “owe” the police respect when they stop me without cause? But that’s obviously not the sense in which Scott was using it.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        Which sense has more predictive power?

        • Matthew says:

          That’s missing the point on purpose.

          Scott was using the term normatively, to suggest that we should change the way the world is. You’re using it in a (nonstandard) descriptive way to talk about the status quo.

  49. DrBeat says:

    Sorry, but this sounds like a bunch of words made to make people who aren’t depressed feel good about how they look at the depressed, and not a whole lot of relevance to the depressed.

    For one, you’re making an argument based on a different definition of “society”? The depressed person says “society” (if they even do use the word) as a short way of saying “all of the people around me who provide me support and suffer for my presence and to whom I pay little or nothing in return.” Talking about how our overall cultural and technological development has changed so certain people who would have been fine In The Hunter-Gatherer Days are now badly off has zero relevance to this at all.

    Argue for guaranteed minimum income all you want, but it’s got nothing to do with depression and it’s kind of insulting to think it does. Being a burden is not just about money, and having more money does not solve it. It’s about the people around you having to take time and effort and experience emotional distress due to their association with you. That can’t be bought off. You’ll still bring them down by being near them, they’ll still worry about your well being or if you got into trouble, they will pass up opportunities in order to try to reach out to you in a doomed effort to fill the bottomless pit of your mood state. You will be miserable and hate being alive, and the people you care about will be worse off than if you were not around. How does a check solve this any more than the standard meaningless therapeutic platitudes of “it will get better, just you see!”

    Hell, When can we say “X of the points at which you claimed things would get better have passed and things have not gotten better, I am allowed to notice that your claim has no relevance to what happens”?

  50. Tedd says:

    Almost everyone takes more from “society” than they contribute, strictly speaking. This is the harsh lesson of “I, Pencil,” and is probably at the core of what Obama was trying to say with his “you didn’t build that” comment. Most of us would experience a significant drop in standard of living if we suddenly found ourselves alone, naked, and tool-less in the wilderness. Even Isaac Newton acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of giants, and he was not reputed to be overly modest.

    But the realization of that is actually a very good argument against feeling as though you’re a burden. If there even are people who are a net positive in that sense, their proportion of the population is minuscule, so being a net positive contributor can’t possibly be the thing that justifies your continued existence.

  51. Mitch says:

    I think you have a really poor understanding of life in tribal societies. I doubt your patient would have lived his life happily gathering berries. If he hadn’t been outright rejected by a tribe for his lack of usefulness, he probably would have been killed. Why would anyone stop it? It may seem unfair for a mentally-impaired individual to be arrested for making a scene, but it’s far preferable to what would have been the reaction by the men in his tribe.

    You’re falling into the cryptosocialist trap of Rousseau’s noble savage. Primitive society is a substantial step back, and it’s somewhat terrifying that there are mental health professionals ignorant enough to think otherwise.

    The same could be said of a dockworker a hundred years ago, or a subsistence farmer a hundred-fifty years ago. Both would have struggled simply to survive. Why you think your patient would have been better off then is simply incomprehensible. Whatever disadvantages he has today, working part-time at the crappiest of crappiest jobs (or just living off welfare) is substantially safer, more rewarding and more lucrative than the work he would have found a century ago. He, like all of us, is blessed to be living in the time that he is (admittedly, his blessings are less substantial than most other people’s.)

    Finally, society does not owe individual humans anything. That’s because society does not exist independent of human beings. When you’re saying society owes something, that’s a superficial deception; what you really mean is that individual humans, with their own problems and concerns, owe something, and that you are going to take it by violence. Regardless of what you may think society owes, and regardless of your generosity with other people’s money, I believe individuals are in the right in pre-empting your violence with violence of their own.

  52. Cathal says:

    My problem with your “people were here first” argument is that its wrong.

    People who are disabled might have gotten along better than now at some points in history and worse in others. If a disabled person were born in ancient sparta he would have been left to die as an infant. Those days are over, so now he gets to survive if he chooses, at the expense of everyone else. What makes prehistoric times a more valid point in history to go back to than ancient Sparta? Because it was the starting point? If so, then does that mean anyone who would have done better then should be compensated at the expense of those who would have done worse? Maybe scrawny low testosterone intellectuals with good jobs today should owe something to the not impoverished but less well off macho men. Jocks would have made better cavemen after all. It’s not fair that society changed.

    This gets absurd very quickly.

    The solution is that “People” were here first, but whoever you are talking to was not. What does it matter what life would have been like for someone had they been born 10 thousand years ago?

    Moloch isn’t real; there is no entity “society” which you can hold accountable for such changes in circumstances. It’s not “society” who you are saying is obligated to support burdens, it is individual people who just like your patient had no control over the circumstances of their birth.