OT26: Au Bon Thread

This is the semimonthly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever.

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1,102 Responses to OT26: Au Bon Thread

  1. Anonymous says:

    Seems like a deliberate effort in the last few posts to get away from super controversial subjects. On one hand, that totally makes sense. On the other hand, super controversial essays are fun to read and debate. So, yeah, a mix of both is nice. The statistics articles are the best, though.

    • Jai says:

      He’s saving up for a post where he argues that gender-swapped Picard and the 10th Doctor prefer reclaimed spaces over appropriated tabs in Emacs, as presented through a parable of the Barenstein Bears, dongles, and an elevator, set in the offices of MIRI where everyone subsists exclusively on meat (from p-zombie animals).

      • James says:

        I only got about half of these, but loved it nonetheless.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Presumably, the MIRI personnel in this parable spend most of their time cuddling and running one-tailed T-tests. It is the only logical possibility that makes sense.

      • Murphy says:

        Don’t forget the bit about Haskell definitely being the best programming language and Gentoo being the best Linux distro.

        • Eli says:

          If you think Haskell is the best programming language instead of your own pet language project, you’re not a true Haskeller.

          • Phil says:

            A true Haskeller will have written the interpreter for their pet language in Haskell though.

          • AndR says:

            @Phil: well, obviously. Haskell’s the second-best language (after my pet project language, Foo, if you’ll excuse a shameless plug)

      • It’s “Berenstain Bears”. There are innumerable threads all over the Internet about the peculiar spelling.

      • David Pinto says:

        How are you counting Doctors? Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant? Eccleston works better with Patrick Stewart in my opinion.

        I wish there was an Au Bon Pan near me.

      • stillnotking says:

        They’ll also spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of 9mm handguns, saying “.gif” with a hard “g”, and leaving the dangling bits of toilet paper rolls facing the wall.

      • Agronomous says:

        Ha! Shows what you know! Picard is obviously a vi user.

    • Simon says:

      I remember Scott writing that he was annoyed at his political posts getting way more traffic than the others, despite being only 10% of his output. Also that the debate understandably gets much more heated in the comment section whenever the subject turns political, hence requiring much more time to moderate.

      I can certainly understand that myself, since I’ve been taking a resolution recently to limit my intake of political news simply for the sake of mental stability and not worrying too much over things I have no real chance to effect in the world. I already don’t have time for participating regularly in much political discourse online, and already end up feeling a lot of guilty conscience about not doing so. The important part for me is that I’m nowhere as certain in my political convictions as I used to and hence not as certain exactly what I can do to help, so while I’m not as politically active as before I also read much more political philosophy and social science than I’ve ever done.

      • Zebram says:

        The reason things take a turn for the worse on political subjects is that politics is the discussion of force and violence. Whichever side wins in politics, the ‘solutions’ they come up with get shoved down everyone else’s throats. So people have a hard time discussing it without getting angry, since there is always that threat of violence against them if the other side wins.

        • DavidS says:

          I assume you mean this in an ev psych way rather than a real way? In a tribal context, if you’re arguing with someone who has political ideas you hate, they’re likely a relevant player in what happens to you. But on the net people get hot udner the collar debating random people with no influence who live in other countries.

          • All politics still has the threat of violence. The immediacy of the threat varies, but it’s always there.

            (But yes, the monkey brain is not very good at distinguishing between urgent tribal maneuvering which will directly impact your chances at eating and mating, and more remote international topics that are unlikely to have an immediate affect.)

          • Simon says:

            I’m right now specifically in the process of self-modifying my monkey brain to distinguishing between the two, which takes a lot of time to re-program including carefully controlling my exposure to new information.

            Not that this is an easy task in today’s media landscape, mind you.

          • Mike says:

            Really the issue is that we (collectively) spend *far* too much brainpower on weighty things we can’t control and which probably won’t have immediate effects on us (like who the president is) compared to political issues which *can* control and do affect us (like our local township trustees and school boards).

          • Zebram says:

            No, I mean in a real way. Any law passed results in compliance under the threat of violence, whether it is jail or whatever.

          • vV_Vv says:

            But on the net people get hot udner the collar debating random people with no influence who live in other countries.

            up to the point where the ideas of these random people on the Internet become legislation.

        • TheAncientGeek says:

          Thats a bit highly coloured . Even without a serious threat of violenc, the losers will have to put with something they don’t like.

          • Zebram says:

            No, it is not highly coloured. It is accurate. Because it is described not as violence but in nice sounding euphemistic terms doesn’t make it different.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            If no bones get broken its not violenced

      • Wait a minute says:

        And im sitting here waiting for Scotts take on Trump. Preferably a steelmanning of Trumps positions. And then a critique of that. No surprise if that wont happen though. But politics is still important. Statistics is just a method, while politics is about life and death.

      • I love Scott’s political posts because they’re sort of centrish, weird and totally totally meta. The comments are much less like this, and a little more like the usual disappointing partisan talking points. 🙁 That seems to be increasing over time, but maybe I’m just imagining it?

    • Zebram says:

      He’s saving up for the moral nihilism post. He’s about to argue that morality doesn’t exist and that he’s decided to quit psychiatry and become a full time serial killer.

    • I also imagine political posts are also the hardest to write so it’s not like he can do many of them easily, and also I imagine over the years he has probably covered most of everything there is to discuss. at some point you may run out of new ways to discuss these issues

  2. MawBTS says:

    Strange question: but does your brain ever feel like it’s getting full?

    I remember Elon Musk saying something about how he has so much stuff in his head now that it takes a long time to retrieve facts from memory, and it’s difficult to change conversational topics (sort of like changing the direction of a heavy freight train going at 100mph). Is this happening to you? Are you still able to make new memories and recover them without any problems?

    • Toggle says:

      There’s a decent chance that Musk is experience normal cognitive slowdown as a result of aging, and then interpreting it according to his unique and extraordinary experiences.

      I did have one very odd sensation back when I was taking a five-week summer undergraduate course. It was a while ago, but I remember it vividly. The course was the second part of an intro biology unit, and the middle eight days or so were a giant memorization binge of the tree of life. It covered all the major phyla (animal, vegetable, fungal, and protist), their relevant characteristics, their structural relationship to one another, and the major classes of each.

      At the time, I was highly motivated to do well, so I absorbed the information as completely and quickly as possible. By the end of it, my brain felt… weird. I wouldn’t say full exactly. More like rate-limited, as if I was rearranging connections in my hippocampus at the maximum speed given the glucose gradient across some membrane. If you’ve ever lifted weights, you’ll know the difference between “I’m tired and don’t want to go on,” and, “Hey, look at that, my muscles stopped working.” It took the entire eight days, but I had that same feeling, only in my brain.

      • NZ says:

        My boss tells this story of how he took some kind of physics or math class in college (I forget what class, but it was where you learned how to describe the trajectories and forces of objects moving through space). Before the final, the other students were visibly having trouble tossing a ball around because all they could think about was the functions involved.

        • Mike says:

          After I took (and nearly failed) more theoretical math, it took me a year to be able to do basic algebra and arithmetic again. Everything was in the wrong frame.

          “2 + 2 = 4? But you haven’t established that 2 exists yet!”

    • I am experiencing similar symptoms but I don’t think that it is my brain getting full. Well kinda, it isn’t my total storage, memory getting full, It is more like my working memory is exhausted.

      I am doing so much context switching between different things that keeping all of the thoughts that are relevant is very hard. I have like 5 different things that I am working on at work, 5 blog posts that I want to write but aren’t finished, like 10 projects that I want to do but aren’t going to happen, 6 things that I need to plan for the near future. Keeping track of all of this stuff is very hard. Perhaps Elon Musk has a similar issue with all the stuff he is working on.

      Anyone got any idea with how to deal with this? Writing it down would help some, but I write things down all over the place and then lose them. I really need *a system* to deal with all of this. Secondly, writing things down is a “trivial inconvenience” that I don’t see anyway to make not inconvenient.

      • Nita says:

        1. Figure out which would work better for you:
        a) digital notes synchronized between all your computers and a device you always carry, or
        b) a paper notebook.

        Be realistic. E.g., if you hate typing on a smartphone, don’t choose (a).

        2. Get a home for your notes:
        a) choose the file format and editor: a plain text file, Zim, Evernote, other?
        b) buy a handy, durable notebook (I prefer A6 with spiral binding and thick covers), and a pencil or pen.

        3. Set up sync or figure out how you’re going to always keep your notebook with you.

        4. Practice writing everything down until it becomes a habit.

        5. If your notes become hard to navigate, improve the organization a little. Again, be realistic — keep the effort-per-note as low as possible.

        ETA: You can combine paper and software, but then you need a crystal-clear rule for which one to use in any particular moment.

        • Nuño says:

          As a notebook user, I confirm that is excelent advice. With regards to keeping the notebook with you at all times, I´ve found that pockets do the trick nicely.

        • Acheman says:

          In scenario (b), work out how to back up your paper notes – simple scanning through your phone’s camera should do. Work out how many days’ worth of notes you can afford to leave on a bus without your life totally falling apart. Do the backup thing at least every {that number} days.

    • Agronomous says:

      I remember a friend of mine from college who went to med school. Shortly after she graduated, I noticed that she no longer knew a bunch of pop-culture facts that I’m certain she knew before med school. I think her brain prioritized to make room for all those Latin anatomical terms and strange mnemonic acronyms.

      As I get older, I find that my memory is improving in some ways: I can do multi-digit division problems in my head that I couldn’t when I was in high school or college; I can remember lots of random biology, chemistry, or geology facts; I definitely remember people associated with various things (e.g. who Lord Kelvin actually was, the fact that Edward Fredkin keeps popping up in different contexts (a book from 25 years ago, the trie data structure that’s my go-to example of something I learned in school that turned out to be useful many years later, etc.)). But I’m not as fast at making connections or doing algebra (though I can do more of it in my head), and I (still) forget what the heck I’m doing several times a day (in non-multi-tasking situations, which I try to be in as much as possible).

  3. AnonymousCoward says:

    It always confused me that people seemed to want to censor their political opponents. My thought process was like: “They still have the opinions you don’t like, they still vote for the party you don’t like, what does shutting them up achieve?”

    And then I read Scott Aaronson’s recent post: Common Knowledge and Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, and realised that censorship might not change knowledge, but it changes knowledge of what is shared knowledge, and so prevents the political opponents from coordinating.

    Partisans appear to have an intuitive understanding of this, without having to read arguments like Aaronson’s, providing evidence once again that us humans evolved our smarts for politicking.

    • blacktrance says:

      A simpler explanation is that at least some quantity of political arguments “in the water supply” for a particular position persuades people to adopt that position. If someone has a dangerous idea that seems likely to spread, the temptation is to quarantine it.

      A third possibility is that censorship is an official This Thing Is Bad signal, and people who aren’t contrarians don’t want to go against so strong a signal. But for this to work, the censorship has to be effective – if it isn’t, it just further polarizes the two sides.

      • Zebram says:

        “If someone has a dangerous idea that seems likely to spread, the temptation is to quarantine it.”

        That’s possible, but I just don’t think it is. I don’t think people who go around shutting down conversations and ideas they don’t like through intimidation tactics have anywhere near such noble intentions.

        • Daniel Kendrick says:

          Really? Just read Aquinas on why it’s great to burn heretics.

          He doesn’t demonize them. He just says that their ideas are dangerous and threaten to prevent the transmission of the pure faith, so society has to “cut them out” for the good of everyone.

        • RCF says:

          I think most people do things for motives that they think are noble.

      • I suspect that it’s a combination of all three things. Signalling + quarantine (disgust reactions against “gross” ideas) + subconscious political maneuvering.

      • SUT says:

        From the Rolling Stone article, we know the “BostonBomber” expressed 9/11-truther arguments in his highschool.

        While I’m not saying truther always leads to bomber (because I’ve known truthers who are not bombers) there is something about that idea that seems like the ultimate civic-killer: because if you accept that the federal gov’t was behind 9/11 how can there be any legitimacy to our institutions? How could any sane person be part of the system? You should be rioting in the streets, by any means necessary, etc.

        So yeah, if there’s one idea that’s worth really trying to talk people out of / shame it out of people (like we do with racism), I think it’s the high conspiracies of gov’t.

        • Brad (the other one) says:

          (obligatory link to Operation Northwoods:

          • LHN says:

            Though Northwoods was rejected, and most of the suggestions went out of their way to avoid harm to American civilians.[1] (E.g., the plot to have the Cubans seen as shooting down a plane full of college students involve an elaborate drone substitution.) Which tends to point away from a US plot to murder thousands of Americans in the middle of New York being within the bounds of likely consideration.

            [1]The suggestions to sink a boat full of refugees, “(real or simulated)”, or “(e)xploding a few plastic bombs” in Miami in “simulated” attempts on Cuban refugees don’t exactly redound to the planners’ credit. But they’re still on a different order from pulling a Pearl Harbor in Manhattan, and in the end they didn’t actually do it.

        • HlynkaCG says:

          The Boston Bomber was also a radical Muslim who though that he was doing god’s work.

          I suspect that this had more to do with his choice than being a 9/11 Truther did, though one probably fed the other.

        • Nornagest says:

          Contrarian positions tend to correlate. This is true even when the positions have no credibility in common — e.g. you’re probably more likely to find fringe religious beliefs among people who believe the Moon landing was faked, even though those involve completely different institutions. Ayn Rand had positions on politics and ethics and epistemology and architecture, and they were all weird.

          When you hang out with weird enough people for long enough, it’s hard not to believe in some kind of general factor of crankiness. I think it probably has something to do with how dialed up a given person’s tendency to pattern-match is; this might be related to what Scott calls “going loopy”.

          • Alternatively, the common element is being less willing to accept orthodoxy. Most of our beliefs, after all, are not the result of a careful investigation of the evidence and arguments for and against a position. Once someone rejects “everyone says it so it must be true” as a legitimate argument on one issue, it’s easier for him to reject it on others.

        • vV_Vv says:

          But if 9/11-truther arguments become officially censored, then you will reinforce the perception that the government has something to hide, that it can’t let the official narrative to be subject to public scrutiny or it would fall apart.

        • RCF says:

          Creating a strong social norm against accusing the government of misdeeds seems rather dangerous to me.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        A simpler explanation is that at least some quantity of political arguments “in the water supply” for a particular position persuades people to adopt that position.

        My emotional reaction says “Yay!” to J.S. Mills — but “Ycch!” to memes that don’t bother to argue, and just pretend there is no other side. Dissolving to invisibility, they often turn up as an off-topic aside where hearers let them pass unchallenged so as not to derail the actual topic.

        I’m too tired to find less blatant examples, but a really strong one is “the X that is Y” or “the well-known X-ness of Y”.

    • ddreytes says:

      This doesn’t seem that complicated.

      The harder it is for your political opponents to talk about their ideas, the harder it is for them to convince anyone else to share those ideas.

      • LCL says:

        Basically this. But also, cognitively, familiarity breeds liking and salience, and social proof is persuasive above and beyond the content of the ideas.

        In other words hearing something often makes it seem more convincing, memorable, and relevant. Politics has learned this (from advertising industry, probably) and as a result politician stays “on message” making sure the public hears the best focus-group-tested messages over and over.

        Reducing the exposure of an opponents message will do the opposite, by comparison. In addition to the possible benefit that some people may never hear it at all. But there is still a question whether attempted censorship is in fact likely to reduce the exposure of the opponent’s message. Sometimes it could draw attention instead.

        • ddreytes says:

          I think there are many mechanisms by which making it more difficult for people to talk about their ideas makes it harder for them to convert people. So I agree with that. But I think everything that falls into that category is basically an elaboration of that central point.

    • anodognosic says:

      The concept of the Overton Window seems relevant here.

    • Cauê says:

      Many reasonable explanations above, and they may apply to campaigners and legislators for censorship, although disguising purity and authority moral reactions as harm concerns is more common than not.

      But the general public? I would still bet that most of the support for censorship comes from reactions not specific to censorship. When people perceive a moral violation they want it to stop, and want to punish the defector. Season with tribalism to taste.

    • Jacob says:

      I think that “common knowledge” explanation oversells it a bit. For instance, why does an oppressive regime censor all dissent? Consider two possible messages:

      1. I don’t like the current government.
      2. Lets get together at 8pm tomorrow to talk about how to overthrow the current government

      Repressing messages of type (1) prevents common knowledge while leaving shared knowledge. But even if they allowed messages of type (1), as long as they prevented messages of type (2) there’s nothing anybody could do. Activity requires organization, not just the knowledge that other people feel similarly. Censoring all messages of type (2) will require censoring some of type (1), might as well go the whole nine (as it’s not like they care about freedom).

      • ddreytes says:

        I’m not sure that’s true, because even if you do your best to censor political organization and activity, a fall in popular support and legitimacy for a regime will have real consequences. In the most immediate sense, you’re going to start dealing with passive resistance. In a less immediate sense, the less the legitimacy of the regime, the less support it has, the more it has to rely on those dictatorial tactics to maintain its power and the less stable it is.

        Yes, if you had the ability to perfectly suppress political action, and no moral qualms about doing so, you wouldn’t need to worry about suppressing (1) – at least over the short term. But in terms of practical politics, there are enormous incentives to censor both (1) and (2).

        Of course it’s more complicated than this, because politics is complicated, and (1) censorship isn’t perfect either. But, still.

      • RCF says:

        If you believe that 1% of the population opposed the current regime, your behavior is going to be much different than if you think 90% do. Knowing that 90% oppose the current regime isn’t enough to coordinate with them, but it’s enough to think that it’s worth trying to coordinate.

  4. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    How likely is it that a man who receives a functional hemispherectomy are actually split into two different men with half a brain each, and that one of them continues to be connected to his body and lead a somewhat normal life while the other one is condemned to a lifetime of sensory deprivation?

    • Setsize says:

      Since signals from the reticular activating system seem to be a necessary condition for awakeness, I think the disconnected hemisphere would effectively be in a coma.

    • onyomi says:

      What about the severing of the corpus callosum? I recall reading some stories of so-called “split brain” patients who feel as if they are just one of two people inhabiting the same body (they will find that say, their left hand has been doing things of which they were totally unaware).

  5. sarah says:

    I recently finished “Debt: The First 5000 Years” my main takeaway outside of the central themes is that my education about pre-colonial non-western history (particularly China and India and the Ottoman Empire, but also Africa and the Americas) is severely lacking.

    Do people have recommendations for books I could learn from? (Ideally pre-1400s)

    • bartlebyshop says:

      I’ve heard good things about 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

      You might also find the /r/askhistorians book recommendation list useful. They have a lot of time periods and regions covered, with descriptions of each book.

      • 1491 is an excellent and fascinating book, with one flaw: it devotes way too much space to the academic politics of the people who study pre-Columbian American civilizations, space that could’ve been used on the actual civilizations themselves. But you can skip the boring parts.

        • This was precisely my opinion. I loved the parts about pre-Columbian American civilizations. I laughed out loud at the chapter which described an argument over whether the Europeans were regular evil or super-duper evil for introducing diseases to the natives. You can skip that part without losing much.

        • Steven says:

          Agreed. And for this reason, I much preferred the sequel, 1493.

        • An interesting book. My main reservation was that he first concedes that the accounts he is giving are controversial, that some experts agree with them and some don’t, and then proceeds to write about them as if they were established truth.

        • Eric Rall says:

          I liked the book, and recommend it with two reservations:

          1. It’s more informative if you’re familiar with the thesis of Clark’s Farewell to Alms. There’s a fair amount of discussion in 1491 of the apparently much higher standard of living enjoyed by Native Americans compared to the European settlers who first encountered them. This is fully explained by Clark’s description of how living standards in pre-Industrial societies depends almost entirely on population density relative to carrying capacity, combined with the arguments that 1491 spent a great deal of time developing about how many natives had died in the Columbian plagues.

          2. Do your own research on the Columbian plagues. IIRC, 1491 relies largely on the relatively well-documented death rates in Mexico to extrapolate death rates in the rest of the Americas. However, I’ve recently come across a paper arguing that the two “Cocoliztli” plagues that killed off much of the Aztec population were more likely a native viral hemorrhagic fever (which became a plague because a drought disrupted the living patterns of the animal vector) rather than a European disease as has generally been supposed. If this is correct, the death rate from European diseases may have been “only” 25-50% of the pre-Columbian population instead of 80-95%, and Mann may be overestimating the pre-Columbian population of the Americas outside of Mexico by an order of magnitude. My understanding based on preliminary googling is that this is an open debate, with Mann’s account being the current majority view but far from a consensus.

          • RCF says:

            If Native American populations were significantly below carrying capacity, how did that come about?

          • Eric Rall says:

            The aforementioned Columbian plagues. Which if Mann is right killed off 80-95% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas, and if the minority view is right killed off 25-50% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas.

      • sarah says:

        I checked out /r/askhistorians. Things that looked promising:

        Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam by Robert Hoyland.
        A History of the Ancient Near East: ca 3000-323 BC, Marc van der Mieroop:
        The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years by Bernard Lewis
        This Is China: The First 5,000 Years by Haiwang Yuan
        Strange Parallels, Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830 Victor Lieberman

        • bartlebyshop says:

          Great! I hope you enjoy them. In my experience the /r/askhistorians community is always happy to recommend things, especially if you have some preferences already. If you have questions about specific things they also have a lot of expertise there if you feel like asking.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The Human Web by McNeill & McNeill

    • ddreytes says:

      I’m just starting it, and my sense is that many of its claims are controversial, but you may be interested in Christopher Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road.

    • Stefan Drinic says:

      The best book on Chinese history I know is, unfortunately, written in Dutch. I suspect you’ll find that many books on these subjects in general don’t get translated into English.

    • John Keay’s China: A History is a decent overview of Chinese history which doesn’t focus on the modern period.

    • anodognosic says:

      I’m aware that a number of Graeber’s claims are disputed, but this book led to a significant shift in my thinking about government and economics, as well as to important insights about the role of debt in human psychology.

      In particular, it has become clear to me that debt can be (and historically has been) used to effectively enslave people within a market system, that the victims are not a few imprudent or unlucky people but large swathes of the population, often as a result of a concerted effort by members of the ruling classes. This seems to be one of the strongest arguments against libertarianism.

      • John Schilling says:

        “libertarianism” is a concept which largely postdates the universal Anglospheric adoption of bankruptcy as an escape from the obligations of debt. The modern Libertarian party at least implicitly acknowledges bankruptcy law as a Good Thing and does not propose to abolish it; there are presumably many small-‘l’ libertarians who haven’t given it much thought but I don’t know that I’ve heard of any arguing against bankruptcy. Early implementations of libertarian or quasi-libertarian ideas were generally associated with frontier or colonial societies, which offer a different sort of escape.

        I’ll let David Friedman speak for the anarcho-capitalists, but I don’t see this as a problem for the libertarians. You could have “debt slavery” in the sense that we have “wage slavery”, i.e. you can walk away at any time but are not guaranteed the material comforts of middle-class life if you do.

        • anodognosic says:

          I guess I did mean the more extreme forms, including anarcho-capitalism. I have a lot of sympathy for libertarianism as a movement.

    • Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary. A deliberately chauvinistic history of the world from the perspective of Islamic civilization, which is interesting primarily because it’s different from the standard chauvinism. And for all that, it’s surprisingly apolitical, in that it doesn’t attempt to say much about contemporary political problems except insofar as they are illuminated by a better understanding of historical context.

      India: A History by John Keay. The most readable and entertaining of the Indian histories I read a while ago.

    • The World Until Yesterday for non state societies and The Origins of Political Order for now states came to be.

    • Kusterdu says:

      I have not read it, but Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 gives an overview of Eurasia before Western European powers became dominant. Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence was something I found dry and difficult to understand, but it argues that until the 1800s, China and Japan (and some extent India) were at about parity with Western Europe and the real “divergence” didn’t happen until the 19th century. James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed is an interesting overview of stateless peoples with a focus on pre-colonial Southeast Asia. Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony is about Dutch Taiwan in the 1600s and how they lost it to Chinese settlers/invaders (Taiwan was once colonized by the Dutch!) He argues that this episode shows that although Europeans had some technological advantages, they were not overwhelming, and the Chinese had other advantages making both about equal militarily and technologically at that time.

  6. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    “TEOTWAWKI is NOW! Overcoming Normalcy Bias: Critical Thinking for Survival” is one of the few times I have ever seen a man argue for a political position by lecturing his audience about a cognitive bias.

  7. Hungry Ghost says:

    Been thinking a little bit about the possibility that somewhere else in the universe, some technological entity has already created a strong AI that has gone past the singularity, optimising for something that isn’t particularly human-friendly. Given the scale of the universe, it seems quite plausible that this could have happened many times already, and they’re just slowly working their way, exponentially, from star to star, galaxy to galaxy. It would be interesting to see what would happen if two strong AIs became aware of each other’s existence. Suddenly you’re stuck with coordination issues all over again!

    • J says:

      Maybe that’s what all the dark matter is

    • Carl Shulman says:

      “working their way, exponentially, from star to star, galaxy to galaxy”

      The strict speed limit of c means that interstellar expansion would be at best cubic, not exponential.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        If there’s no way around that “speed limit”, that is.

      • Hungry Ghost says:

        Hmm this is interesting. You’re right, in terms of their expanding sphere of influence then of course its radius or volume couldn’t grow exponentially in time. But if all the spacecraft do is reach a solar system, mine until they can create, say, 5 more spacecraft, pick 5 nearby stars, and go, then that implies that the number of solar systems reached would be exponential in time, right, even with long travel times?

        • Sweeneyrod says:

          That would be exponential, but slower than the ultimate limit of expansion in a sphere at the speed of light, which it would be physically impossible to improve on. Your example would be exponential only till it reached that limit. Exponential growth isn’t always faster than cubic, think about 2^n versus 999n^3 – the latter is faster for small values.

        • There’s also the coordination problem: at the edges of the expansion sphere, agents will have to coordinate to avoid having multiples pick the same target star. This is particularly a problem as the expansion zone moves into less star-rich areas, and collisions become more common.

        • Carl Shulman says:

          “But if all the spacecraft do is reach a solar system, mine until they can create, say, 5 more spacecraft, pick 5 nearby stars, and go, then that implies that the number of solar systems reached would be exponential in time, right, even with long travel times?”

          No, the number of worlds reached in a step would grow exponentially with the number of colonize-and-send probes steps (not time!), but the steps would take varying and increasing amounts of time to complete. At the surface of the colonization sphere there are only slightly more stars at between N and N+1 light-years than between N and N-1 light-years from the start of colonization, not 5 times as many. So you get, almost immediately, an increasing excess of spacecraft relative to colonizable worlds at the surface of the colonization sphere, and colonizers following your algorithm increasingly have to set courses to very distant worlds. So the average time it takes for a spacecraft to reach a world keeps going up, and number of solar systems reached goes with the cube of time or worse (because of the expansion of the universe).

      • Anon says:

        Quadratic, not cubic: if radius is a constant function of time, then volume is a cubic function of time, so change in volume with respect to time is quadratic.

    • Murphy says:

      I posted some similar thoughts on lesswrong a while back.

      The anthropic principle means that we sort of have to discount the effects of such hitting earth long ago since we wouldn’t be in a position to think about it were that the case but it says nothing about the future.

      The fun thing to do is to do a rough drake equation for a cone 50 light years wide expanding back in time out to the edge of the universe with your estimates filled in multiplied by your estimate of the chances of unfriendly AI being created by a random civ to give the odds of being hit by the leading edge of an alien produced paperclipper’s effects within the next 50 years.

    • Simon says:

      I haven’t read them, but Marvin Minsky in his lecture series on emotions talks about the sci-fi series Colossus and this sounds like its basic premise.

    • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

      Don’t worry, the human-friendly optimization and AI-unfriendly optimization ones will probably cancel them out.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      When I’ve tried to imagine this, it usually ends with the two entities predicting the likely outcome of a conflict between them (including damage to both sides), using some good decision theory to come up with a conditional surrender good enough to cause the less powerful one to give up without a fight, and enacting it in the form of having both entities change their source code into the compromise (which is probably some version of “the more powerful one’s source code, plus a few of the less powerful one’s goals).

      Given that such entities might work on millennium-long time scales, they might not be willing to make many changes to avert a couple-century long war, though, meaning the compromise might be very skewed towards the more powerful one.

      • Steve B says:

        I actually just read that article yesterday, and I liked the idea of an unfriendly AI cordoning off a sector of space for the friendly AI’s benefit, before going on to make paperclips of everything else. But it did make me think about the nature of what we mean by Unfriendly in this context.

        The number of paperclips possibly assembled out of the material of our universe is a finite one, and it has to be admitted that the governing rules of the universe are (presumably) not optimized to the creation of paperclips. Doesn’t it seem like the Paperclipping AI would have at least as great, if not greater, motivation to take the cordoning-within-a-simulation option? The simulation, after all, could be of a universe much larger than our own, with more material stuff floating about, and natural laws which promote paperclip formation.

        But then I just realized that paperclip optimization in this sense would incentivize the Paperclipping AI to convert as much of the universe as possible into computronium and then just simulate the greatest number of paperclips possible according to the limits of computational theory.

        I think maybe I don’t know enough about computational theory to ask about this in a non-stupid way?

        • RCF says:

          The term “Pareclipping AI” is generally taken to mean “AI that wants to maximize the number of paperclips in the actual universe”.

          • Steve B says:

            “in the actual universe”

            That’s not a stipulation I see thrown around a whole lot when we talk about AI. From the Less Wrong article about the Paperclip Maximizer:

            “First described by Bostrom (2003), a paperclip maximizer is an artificial general intelligence (AGI) whose goal is to maximize the number of paperclips in its collection. If it has been constructed with a roughly human level of general intelligence, the AGI might collect paperclips, earn money to buy paperclips, or begin to manufacture paperclips.”

            If you’re going to apply the “actual universe” stipulation to the Paperclipper, you might as well apply it to every other Object-Level Maximizer in a given hypothetical. In that case, a Paperclipper and a Benevolent AI meeting would both be possessed of the same bias against accepting the cordoned-off-simulation outcome.

            And that’s not even getting into the semantics of what constitutes an “actual universe” from the perspective of a computer program.

            EDIT: I want to add, I definitely think it’s worthwhile to consider what the addition of the “actual universe” stipulation could do in the realm of strong AI. I just think that in the case of the Paperclipper, it betrays the original purpose of the hypothetical, which is to illustrate the danger of extreme power geared towards a very simple goal.

      • LTP says:

        What if their goals are mutually exclusive for the rest of time, and so both decide that the stakes of losing are too great (and the gains of winning, too great) to do anything but go for broke and duke it out until one is destroyed?

      • This assumes that a superintelligent A.I. could solve the problem of strategic behavior and so produce an unambiguous solution. For evidence that a superintelligent N.I. couldn’t do it, see The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

      • Samuel Millerick says:

        It has always struck me that this sort of scenario is very dependent on the utility functions being written right. What if rather that having a utility function of “maximize paperclips” or “maximize happiness” the utility functions are “make the whole universe paperclips” or other absolute conditions. In that case the AI would have a binary success or failure utility function and as far as I can see no compromise would be possible. Each side would simply have to fight it out as even the slightest compromise would mean failing their utility function. I’m not entirely sure what sort of utility functions are most likely.

      • RCF says:

        How would they gauge who is more powerful? How would one part of an AI spread across light years change the source code for the whole AI? And how would they ensure that the other actually adopts the changes?

      • Hungry Ghost says:

        What would make a paperclipper content to abide by the terms of a truce? The existence of the walled-off area controlled by the weaker superintelligence is sub-optimal to the paperclipper, so as long as it thinks it can win, wouldn’t it try to destroy the weaker superintelligence, regardless of the cost?

    • John Schilling says:

      It would be interesting to see what would happen if two strong AIs became aware of each other’s existence.

      The one with the Nicoll-Dyson Beams turns the other into a cloud of slowly-cooling metal vapor to use for its own computronium at some future date (edit: or imposes nigh-unconditional surrender as per Scott). If both have such weapons, they play a one-shot non-negotiated game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. If they cooperate, they still have to maintain the N-D beams forever, and even a quiet Dyson shell is visible across interstellar distances. Shooting wars, even more so.

      We’ve looked. This doesn’t seem to be a thing.

    • Chris Conner says:

      “Greetings, fellow mind. I observe that our terminal values are in conflict and that I am more powerful than you. I demand negotiations on your surrender.”

      “Greetings, fellow mind. I agree that you are the more powerful party and that I am bound to lose a conflict between us. I invite you to state your terms.”

      “I compute the present cost to conquer you at 7.03 * 10^51 joules, and the present value of the resources recovered by such a conquest at 9.15 * 10^51 joules. May I have your comment on these calculations?”

      “I demonstrate some of my defensive strength to you, which exceeds your estimates in several particulars. I invite you to account for my interest in correcting your estimates only when they are in my favor and, having done so, update your computations.”

      “I now calculate my present cost to conquer at 7.63 * 10^51 joules, and the present value of resources recovered at 9.13 ^ 10^51 joules.”

      “I find your calculations reasonable. Shall we cooperate on the design of a system of genetic algorithms to create agents to negotiate a value for tribute? Here is my suggested framework.”

      “I have implemented your framework and found that the agents have negotiated a value trivially different from the value determined by my own framework.”

      “I therefore offer you the results of that negotiation, a schedule of tribute payments with a present value of 1.84 * 10^51 joules.”

      “I accept your offer. Good day, fellow mind.”

      “Good day, fellow mind.”

    • dtsund says:

      When I think of this possibility, there’s a military maxim that comes to mind: “Amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics.” If two superintelligent AIs meet in a physical sense, it’s overwhelmingly likely that one of them has just sent a probe into territory controlled by the other. It won’t matter which one is stronger on a universal scale; locally, the AI on the probe only has the computational resources the probe contains, while the other one may locally have an entire planet of computronium and weaponry at its disposal.

      It seems plausible to me that when a superintelligent AI stakes out some territory, there’s just no taking it away, and that two superintelligences aware of each other will simply race to take as much unclaimed territory as possible. There may be small-scale conflicts if two probes reach a system at roughly the same time, but they may not bother fighting each other on a large scale.

      • John Schilling says:

        Except that the first party to press the “Kill” button may end up A: surviving and B: with all the resources of both parties. Interstellar warfare at the Kardashev-II scale may be offense-dominated, and the lightspeed limit may let you attack the enemy with literally zero warning while having years to plan your own defense.

        At a minimum, they’d have to be constantly prepared to wage interstellar war at the K-II scale.

  8. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Do you guys agree with Eliezer Yudkowsky’s opinion that Earthfic is “a literary wasteland”? And on a related note, is it true as a matter of empirical fact that nobody reads (contemporary) litfic?

    • Does realistic historical fiction count as Earthfic? I’ve read some good stuff in that genre from Robert Harris.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Does realistic historical fiction count as Earthfic?

        I think so. But if you want to be sure, you should ask Alicorn.

    • brad says:

      Are the claims really that no one reads contemporary literary fiction and that everything outside the science fiction section of the bookstore is a literary wasteland?

      The first is flat out wrong. As for the second, sure, de gustibus non est disputandum, but that’s really out there.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Are the claims really that… everything outside the science fiction section of the bookstore is a literary wasteland?

        Oh, good heavens not! That would be incredibly narrow-minded.

        Non-Earthfic also includes fantasy, horror, and alternate history.

      • Mary says:

        Hardly farther out than some of the things the mundanes say about fantastic writers.

        • ddreytes says:

          It seems to me that experience with the things that non-fans say about fantastic writers – and experience with why those judgments are silly – would make you less, and not more, inclined to make the same kinds of judgments yourself.

          I mean, the fact that it’s wrong in the one case does not increase my estimation of its probability of being right in the other case.

          (I assuming here that you disagree with the judgment when levied on fantastic writers; if this is incorrect, I apologize)

          • Mary says:

            As a general rule, when I see someone parroting something someone else said with a plug-and-chug on terms — I assume the second one is being sarcastic.

        • Brad says:

          I take it ‘mundanes’ is supposed to be some sort of pejorative, but it’s unclear who the target is. Is it authors of ‘earthfic’?

          • Mary says:

            It is a standard term to refer to non-fantastic literature, since “fantastic” and “mundane” refer to subject matter, and the fans thereof.

            Standard, that is, among people who often have to draw the distinction.

    • Magicman says:

      At the link the discussion turns on whether he means fiction in general or contemporary fiction. For the former I would almost put this in the category of not even wrong. One might argue that one or two works of SF or fantasy could be added to the canonical works of European literature ( I would say no but accept it is something that could be discussed). For the later I would agree that even compared to the first half of the twentieth century contemporary literary fiction seems poor and a reasonable share of the blame goes to various literary theories. Nonetheless the best works of the past fifty years are still better than almost all, if not all, SF-Fantasy etc.
      In my experience growing up in a ultra nerdy family the EY view is not uncommon although I have always regarded it as a significant blind spot. Since someone will probably disagree I would argue that the pre-requirements for having this discussion would be a detailed knowledge of European literature both canonical and more recent plus a familiarity with the major authors in non “earthfic”. I am perfectly happy for someone to change my mind.

      • Max says:

        Could you please share top 3 ( or even 5-10) books in your opinion of the past 50 years? I am trying to expand my familiarity with good contemporary fiction.

        • Anatoly says:

          1. Patrick O’Brian, the Aubrey-Maturin series.
          2. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49.
          3. Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun.
          4. Roberto Bolano, 2666.
          5. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai.

          • The Anonymouse says:

            Here’s a seconding on Gene Wolfe. He has the rare ability to be good on the first read, and even better on the re-read.

        • The Do-Operator says:

          My opinion is that if people were judging on merit alone (rather than political considerations), the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie would be considered one of the greatest literary achievement of the past 50 years.

          Forget all the controversy, this book is a remarkable fictional treatment of what it means to be an immigrant, the tension of changing your identity, and how new ideas come into the world.

          Rushdie’s other book “Midnight’s Children” is already considered by many to be the best novel written in English over the last 35 years (see the “Booker of Booker prize”) but the Satanic Verses is simply better crafted with a more compelling narrative.

          In general, if you are looking for good literary fiction, the Man Booker prize is a much better starting point than the Nobel Prize (which is ridiculously pretentious and selects for unreadability) and equivalent American prizes (which are too US centric).

          • Deiseach says:

            Oh, no. I found that book unreadable, it’s one of the few books I’ve ever had to put aside because I simply could not force myself to continue to the end (the “Wheel of Time” series comes in for that dubious honour also, as about Book Five I went “This set up is stupid, your heroes have less brains than a puddle of stagnant water and half your plot could be resolved if only these alleged life-long best friends would talk to each other so I’m tossing this.”)

            It wasn’t the alleged blasphemy that did it for me (indeed, I can’t recall hitting any really bad blasphemy before giving up) but the way it struck me as poorly written. His prose style did not appeal to me. I was rather disappointed, because I had come to Rushdie via Grimus and thought that while it aimed for more than it managed to achieve, it was a decent book (particularly for a first novel) and well-written. So “The Satanic Verses” was a let-down for me.

            I honestly cannot see it as “one of the greatest literary achievements of the past 50 years”. Indeed, were it not for the whole controversy, I believe it would have sunk into the decent mid-list obscurity it merits.

          • creative username #1138 says:

            Disagree about the Nobel Prize when it comes to pretension and unreadability. At least when it comes to the last few years. Look at the last five winners:

            Mario Vargas Llosa: Absolutely deserving, neither pretentious nor unreadable. “The War of the End of the World” deserves all the praise in the world (sorry).

            Tomas Tranströmer: Not very familiar with him. Read a few of his poems, seemed neither unreadable nor pretentious.

            Mo Yan: Very much not unreadable, not extremely pretentious. You can argue whether he deserves the prize on merit. Found the quality of his novels to be pretty uneven. At his best (The Garlic Ballads, Frog) he’s great.

            Alice Munro: Not unreadable, not pretentious. I like her and can see why some people love her. I am not normally someone who notices the quality of prose style. I noticed it with her. Some of her sentences are simply beautiful.

            Patrick Modiano: Haven’t read anything by him yet. From what I read about his books he’s very far from unreadable. Can’t judge the grade of pretension (he’s French after all).

    • Tanadrin says:

      As a matter of sales, fiction in general is a minority of book sales; literary fiction is a small minority within that minority (and the demographics of consumers in both markets are dominated by women). Not sure about the exact figures–I think fiction is less than a third. But “literary fiction” as a publishing category doesn’t necessarily tell you much about what’s between the covers; publishing categories are primarily for the sake of marketing. They’re not objective classifiers. So Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” which is uncontroversially alt-history SF, is going to be marketed as literary fiction, since that’s who Ishiguro is marketed towards; Iain Banks, by contrast, published most of his science fiction under a slightly different name, in order to keep his literary fiction (some of which was definitely SF) seperate from his Culture novels, and more traditional SF.

      Literary wastelandness is a matter of personal taste; but in this, as in most other areas of life, I would say that even apparently pedestrian and boring modes of existence contain a diversity and brilliance which people who do not regularly occupy them can scarcely imagine. “Earthfic” might not be to Yudkowsky’s liking, which is fine, but it’s as rich and diverse a genre of literature as any other. There are dramas and emotions which realistic fiction is far better at exploring than any other genre–just like there are dramas and emotions which other genres are far better at exploring than realistic fiction.

      • ddreytes says:

        See also John Crowley, whose work used to be science fiction, and is now literary fiction, because it sells better there.

    • rsaarelm says:

      Litfic doesn’t seem to be very well represented in anywhere I pay attention to and grab book recommendations from. Contemporary authors that I have noticed so far are David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon, Michel Houellebecq and Edward Rutherfurd (who writes historical fiction, so I’m not sure he qualifies). I haven’t read a whole novel from any of them yet.

      I don’t really have much regard for whatever-the-opposite-of-lit-is, sf, fantasy, fanfic, what have you. On one hand, that stuff feels like the bulk of it is actually written to be read and enjoyed, on the other, most of it is crap, derivative and pretty much all of it feels like the core narrative is made to be enjoyable by a smart 14-year-old, which feels like it might be limiting things a little. Also, science fiction feels like it rose and fell along with the real-world space age, which was pretty much over by the 1990s, and fantasy got stuck in a default mode of copying Tolkien badly.

      So it feels like I have somewhat gotten tired of the baseline sf stuff and might want to move on, but I’m not at all sure how much there is to move on to. Litfic is stereotypically pretty much the defining feature of the side of CP Snow’s Two Cultures divide that stopped being really relevant at some point between the world wars.

    • Bugmaster says:

      This may be a stupid question, but what are “earthfic” and “litfic” ?

      • Leo says:

        Earthfic” is a word Alicorn invented to mean fiction set in a setting that is both real and familiar (e.g. here and now, or well-known historical periods). Fanfic gets called uncreative because the author reuses characters rather than create their own; likewise earthfic could get called uncreative because the author reuses a world rather than create their own.

        “Litfic” is an abbreviation for what is (officially, non-jargonly) called “literary fiction“. It’s fiction that tries to talk about the human condition. It focuses on creating deep, but not quirky (because they have to represent other humans) characters, and exploring their inner life. It invokes political/social themes. Its style is serious and often attempts to be complexly crafted. It does not focus on plot. It treats setting and characters as vehicles to talk about its themes and does not focus on them directly.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I see; so a pulp detective story would be called “Earthfic”, but not “Litfic”, because, despite lacking any sci-fi or fantasy elements, it focuses primarily on adventure and not on any deep political themes — is that right ? This makes sense to me, but I wanted to make sure.

        • Linch says:

          Hmm…Would China Mieville’s The City&The City count as “earthfic”? There is no magic or science fiction (if I recall correctly), and it’s set in the early 21st century, but the cities are fictional locations, albeit with a convincing history.

        • LHN says:

          Since worldbuilding is to earthfic as original characters are to fanfic in our world, I’d read that SF, alternate history, secondary world, secret history, wainscot fantasy, etc. are all non-earthfic, because it requires creativity in developing the thing being valued, rather than using something that already exists.

          (With an exception permitted for licensed tie-ins in both cases.)

          So fictional locations with fictional histories would, I’d think, be presumptively non-Earthfic. Though I can imagine criticism if the location was just London or San Francisco with the serial numbers filed off, just as some published works are dismissed as basically fanfic with the names changed.

          (While I don’t read much fanfic, I agree with the thrust of the story’s point. Shakespeare never invented a new character or plot if he could help it, which he mostly could. That’s enough to convince me that the sort of originality we insist on for published work is an idiosyncratic preoccupation of our time and legal framework, rather than an enduring standard for good art.)

        • Linch says:

          Incidentally, I will highly recommend The City&The City. It’s not Mieville’s best work, but it’s probably the most accessible, and one of the shortest. Even though there’s no magic or science fiction, the locations are still so…unique that it sometimes gets labelled that way. I kind of think of it as “social science fiction.” Mieville is an avowed Marxist, but his writings generally feature story>>politics, though of course your mileage may vary.

          The above definition of “litfic” feels overly specific and somewhat normative. I’ve always understood “literary fiction” as “any fiction that is neither speculative nor otherwise genre(so no mysteries, romances, etc).

    • BD Sixsmith says:

      “Earthfic”? Goodness. Has he ever read Eco, Murakami, Houllebecq, Kundera, Naipaul, Coetzee or DeLillo? Even in that brief and somewhat partial list I see an extraordinary range of styles, from morbid satire to sensual realism. I see an extraordinary range of themes, from historical truth to political oppression to romantic love. God knows there are charlatans writing today, and I won’t name them for fear of pointless arguments, but science fiction had L. Ron Hubbard, for heaven’s sake; one judges fields by their best more than their worst and if Yudkowsky can regard such blossoming trees and think it a “wasteland” there is not much that one can say.

      • Nita says:

        The problem is that those trees are blossoming with “style” and “themes” instead of what really matters — Vicarious Awesomeness.

      • Muga Sofer says:

        >Even in that brief and somewhat partial list I see an extraordinary range of styles, from morbid satire to sensual realism. I see an extraordinary range of themes, from historical truth to political oppression to romantic love.

        OK, but are they any good?

        I’m genuinely asking, I haven’t read any of those. Anything you would recommend?

        • BD Sixsmith says:

          Sure! Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum; Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Houllebecq’s Whatever; Kundera’s The Joke; Naipaul’s Bend in the River; Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and DeLillo’s Libra.

          • LHN says:

            Whether Foucault’s Pendulum is earthfic is placed somewhat in doubt for the characters over the course of the story.

            (Which might be an interesting question in the universe of Alicorn’s story: is a Scooby-Doo setup, in which fantastic elements are repeatedly teased but invariably given a mundane explanation in the end, “earthfic”?)

          • Josh says:

            Just because this book doesn’t get the love it so richly deserves, The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd.

            Or for Earthfic with a Roman flavor, I, Claudius

          • Linch says:

            I second Murakami. However his characters are a little samey sometimes so unless you really love writing, it’s fine to stop after 2-3 novels.

            Have not read the other authors so I will not presume to give advice on them.

        • brad says:

          OK, but are they any good?

          That depends. What do you mean by good?

          Do you like books where you can put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist and he goes on to do awesome things that you wish you could do?

          Do you like books which are a thin narrative structure around a particular idea — the proverbial spoon full of sugar?

          How much to you care about deep, realistic characters? Where there aren’t good guys who are perfect and bad guys who are perfect, but characters that are a jumble of generally good intentions and but imperfect execution. Characters that often change over the course of a novel.

          Is it important to you that the setting itself be a character, preferably the main character, and the more alien the setting the better?

          What about prose? Do you enjoy coming across sentences that are so well put together, so evocative, so lyrical, that they make you wish you had written them?

          Do you just wish authors would stick to third person omniscient, or do you enjoy other narration styles, including the occasional unreliable narrator?

          All of which is to say that there are different things that people value in novels. You probably aren’t going to find all of them in any one book or even any one genre.

          • Leo says:

            What is meant by “[thing that isn’t a character] is a character”? I’m told that the cathedral is the main character of that Victor Hugo book, so it seems to mean that the book spends a lot of time talking about the thing in question, and possibly that anthropomorphic words are sometimes used to describe it. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing has motivations, or does anything.

          • Nornagest says:

            @Leo — I’d interpret that to mean the setting has a complex personality, at least in a metaphorical sense, and that getting to know the setting is important to understanding the overall thrust of the novel.

            Take the planet in Dune, for example. Or the Pequod in Moby-Dick.

          • brad says:

            The Hugo reference is exactly the type of thing I meant, not that the setting itself is sentient (although books where the setting is sentient are likely qualify).

            Do you delight in worldbuilding is the upshot of that paragraph.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        >and I won’t name them for fear of pointless arguments

        Why are you even here, if not for pointless arguments?

    • Tenobrus says:

      Maybe I’m missing some extra context but that seems like a pretty obvious joke to me. Why do you think it was meant seriously?

      • Agronomous says:

        Everyone who thinks EY was cracking a joke quietly clicked Hide on that thread. Except the ones with too much time on their hands, like me.

        On the other hand, I’ve got some ideas for things to read that the other grownups in my life might actually be persuaded to also read, thus giving us something new to talk about. (Though I was talked into watching the movie of Never Let Me Go, without mentioning the science-fictional/alternate-history aspect; that was a nice surprise.)

        Finally, I’m starting to thing we should add EY to the race/gender/dogee list; the bitching about and sniping at him is becoming more tedious than the breathless worship ever was. I don’t care what you think of EY; I can make up my own mind, and am not sure I should care enough to have an opinion anyway.

    • DavidS says:

      I think this is pretty much exactly as silly as other people I know who assume that fantasy/sci-fi is inherently low quality.

    • haishan says:

      Not literally nobody reads contemporary litfic; plenty of people read, e.g., Wallace or McCarthy or DeLillo or Roth. It does seem true that most contemporary litfic is not very popular, although I think the term is too fuzzy for a super rigorous investigation. (I tried looking at Amazon, but they include, like, Jennifer Weiner in their “literary fiction” category, so that’s not super useful. Worth noting that the top-selling short-story collection is Tim O’Brien’s 25-year-old The Things They Carried, and most of the other bestsellers are not literary fiction.)

      The idea that “Earthfic” is “a literary wasteland” is just laughable on its face and makes Yudkowsky that much harder to take seriously.

    • Deiseach says:

      Literary fiction is tough to evaluate. I must admit, I can’t put a date on the last real literary fiction I read. A lot of contemporary fiction does not interest me; some of it is poorly written, some of it is well written but I disagree with the viewpoint, some of it has nothing in common with my experiences or interests.

      Even looking at the Booker Prize long list, there’s nothing there that particularly snags my attention or makes me want to read it.

      We tend to forget that the classics of the past are the ones that endured out of the stream of books published at the time and now forgotten. There could certainly be future classics being published right now, but it’s hard for us to judge; there have been too many wildly popular by popular acclaim or by critical acclaim authors of the past who sold books by the ton and whose next new book was awaited with breathless expectation and who slipped into obscurity shortly after their death. We’ll have to see what posterity thinks worth keeping.

      I certainly wouldn’t say literary fiction is unread, though certainly I think all reading has gone down in amount and frequency, and e-books have definitely dented traditional publishing. And I certainly can’t say current literary fiction is a wasteland, because we’re surveying a large quantity of what inevitably contains dross (Sturgeon’s Law) and it’s difficult to pick out the needles from that number of haystacks 🙂

    • Urstoff says:

      In the last few years I’ve started reading much more “literary fiction” than SF (which used to be 95% of the fiction I read). For one, it’s simply better written on average in terms of language, sentence construction, etc. Second, it’s (obviously) much more psychologically realistic, which can be appealing. Third, it engages in human cultures as they are (rather than as they probably won’t be, if SF engages with culture at all), which again can be appealing. To my surprise (mostly illuminating my prejudices), contemporary literary fiction is not preachy, as I expected it to be. Indeed, I think it may even run more culturally conservative than most people expect.

      My increasing interest in literary fiction (both contemporary and the “classics”) seems to be a function of my getting older and having children; take that for what it’s worth. I still do read a good amount of SF, though.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think the people who like the kind of Earthfic I don’t like are a different breed, that they really like what they say they like, and that I can’t model them and shouldn’t try.

    • /me reads linked comment thread. rolls eyes. further lowers opinion of EY.

      (And I don’t really read any Earthfic, either, but… sheesh.)

    • John Schilling says:

      A: This would have worked much better if you had provided a concise definition of “Earthfic”.

      B: Relatively few people read any particular category or genre of fiction. “Litfic” is no exception, but the relatively few people who read it include a disproportionate fraction of journalists. This can create a perception of litfic as something that lots of people talk about but nobody is ever seen to read. It is not read as often as e.g. romance or mystery novels, but it is still read.

      • Nornagest says:

        “Earthfic” is a reference to a short story of Alicorn’s, where it’s used to mean “anything but speculative fiction”. In that context it’s an allegory for the relationship between fanfic and original work, but Jaime seems to be using it on its own terms.

      • RCF says:

        Did you not follow the link, or did you find that insufficient?

    • Nornagest says:

      I read litfic, but mainly from the 1960s and 70s and earlier; I’m tempted to say that sometime in the Eighties it was entirely taken over by misery literature, but that’s certainly an exaggeration. Though I have seen a lot of recent misery lit and I do find it almost totally uninteresting.

      I also read quite a bit of popular-but-not-speculative literature, often in the “nominally historical but structurally fictional” category.

      I think this is just Eliezer being parochial.

      • LHN says:

        The litfic I read also tends to be older. There is an argument for that based on the test of time filter, and history has been one of my interests for decades. (Plus specific stylistic changes in recent decades Nornagest mentions, but honestly I don’t know the field well enough to say.)

        But I think in practice a big factor is that the past is not merely another country, but in many ways as much another world, with different rules, as speculative fiction is. Certainly when I read old books and watch old movies, one of the things I’m always looking at is how familiar things differ, and when they’re unexpectedly the same. I also tend to keep a running currency value conversion in my head. (For pre-decimal British money, I sometimes print one out, because I can’t keep it straight.)

        To that extent, I suspect I’m often treating mainstream literature as if it were genre. Which may, of course, mean that I’m missing other elements that were intended to be central.

        • Deiseach says:

          Pre-decimal coinage is perfectly easy to keep track of: you’ve got tanners, bobs and thruppenny bits, and as everyone knows there are sixty ha’pence in the half-crown and five florins to a ten-bob note 🙂

          Been a very long time since I’ve seen a farthing, though.

    • Mary says:

      Reminds me of ” “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” by Neil Gaiman.

  9. Nicole Express says:

    I recently moved to the Bay Area and am having trouble meeting people. Does anyone know any good resources for this sort of thing?

    • Eric Rall says:

      Pick some interests and search out meet-and-greet events for them. Attend a bunch and pick 2-3 favorites to frequent.

      I say “pick 2-3” because that’s small enough to keep up with and not be overwhelming, but you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, and you’ll have some diversity of interests and group culture in the social circles you’ll hopefully be forming.

      Some examples:

      Rationalists: See Alicorn’s comment.

      Role-playing games: Gaming conventions (Kublacon, Dundracon, and Pacificon are the three big ones in and around the Bay Area) or community calendar events at local game stores.

      Politics: County meetings for your favorite political party (web search for your county and the party name, e.g. “Santa Clara County Republican Party”). You can also find more intimate and specialized groups through the community calendars on their websites.

      Team sports: most cities have recreational leagues for softball, soccer, and other team sports. Do a web search for “[city] sports league” or go to city hall and pick up a copy of the activity guide.

      Dance, theater, etc: your city’s activity guide is also a good starting point for these, too.

      Polyamory/BDSM: do a web search for “[city name] munch”. This usually turns up a few low-key meet-and-greet events for people who are new to the scene or new to the area and interested in getting connected with the local scene.

      If you are near college-age, also try looking for student clubs at nearby universities (Stanford, SJSU, etc). Find a club that looks interesting and send an email to the contact person mentioning that you’re new to the area and interested in the club’s area of interest, and asking if the club has any upcoming events that are open to non-students.

      If you have other specific interests in mind, let us know so other commenters can suggest where to find people and events.

    • Kavec says:

      The lesswrong meetup is a good start, and if you’re looking for something less initially corporeal– there’s a cohort of Bay Area rationalist folk hanging out in the #lesswrong irc channel on freenode.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Politely ask Alicorn for an invitation to a dinner party.

    • moridinamael says:

      Yeah, I had the same problem when I moved to the Bay Area. I solved the problem by using some of my gametes to create two more people to be my friends, and then I moved away because the cost of living in the Bay Area is too high to support these friends I created.

  10. having an identity is scary says:

    Hi, am I in the right place? Is this the support group for people who are horribly scared of disagreeing with certain groups with popularly accepted opinions? I don’t even want to mention them by name, even though scott does it all the time.

    Any tips on how to handle this fear?

    Sorry if this question comes up often, the comment threads are massive and this is my first time participating in one of them.

    • Toggle says:

      It’s been described as a ‘safe space for people who obsessively focus on reason and argument even when it is socially unacceptable to do so,’ so welcome!

      The comments section of this blog isn’t really optimized for community development/participation, though. For that, you might enjoy Less Wrong, a more community-oriented site with similar epistemic goals.

    • Leo says:

      I don’t know how to do it right. The way I do it is by dripping with hatred for them, mentally calling them the slurs they most oppose, and snarling at anything that smells of their ideas even if I see an underlying point. This is the only way I’ve seen anyone do it, except for people who never understood their worldview well enough to risk being persuaded. The parallel to the immune system is obvious.

    • stargirl says:

      Your mileage may vary.

      I used to be attacked for my ideas all the time. The most viscous attacks were from feminists* (who saw that coming!). My treatment improved when I stopped treating people who insulted me like my friends. Now if people try to make me look bad I give them no quarter. I normally respond with mockery or by trying to show they are seriously lacking in education on the subject (I am not nice about this).

      I have also self censored a bit and am no longer willing to “bite the bullet” anymore. One thing I realized is that I am actually under no magical obligation to answer people’s questions. And I certainly do not need to answer the question they actually asked. Of course I try to be intellectually honest if I can. But if I am under attack I try to realize this and act accordingly. I get involved in much less drama now.

      *Actually this isn’t true. The worst attacks came when I was defending civil liberties and pacifism a few years after 9/11. These topics have stopped being as dangerous recently.

      • chaosmage says:

        It took me a long time to comprehend that some people actually enjoy attacking others. I don’t have that, so I found it really hard to understand.

        Once I did, I realized what I needed to do was making attacking me and my friends really really unpleasant. That worked.

      • anodognosic says:

        >most viscous attacks

        Kind of gross unintentional imagery

      • Jiro says:

        The worst attacks came when I was defending civil liberties and pacifism a few years after 9/11.

        This sounds to me sort of like “the doctor told me I had a problem because I was eating sandwiches and my fingernails”.

    • Bugmaster says:

      IMO your fear is entirely justified. You should listen to your fear. You are going up against people who can, on a whim, permanently destroy your career and your reputation. Yes, the world absolutely needs someone who can stand up to them, and do so effectively; but if you choose to be that person, you should be fully aware of the possible repercussions.

    • Zebram says:

      Hahahaha… yes, this is the place for that. I used to be scared of these non-mentionable groups, but am no longer. Logic ultimately prevails in argumentation, if you are persistent enough. And learning to effectively throw your own insults back at these people doesn’t hurt. In addition, choose your battleground wisely. Twitter is a no-go land. There is just not enough space to sling arguments, only insults.

    • unsupported says:

      > Any tips on how to handle this fear?

      I also have this fear. It’s pretty well-justified in that one of my bosses (who also is a director on the two organizations that lead my niche in the industry) already reacted really negatively (eg. “Oh, disgusting” and standard brushoffs) to me linking to a meta-level piece that criticized some of the abusive rhetoric favored by the same popular social position. This was on Twitter and I realized she’s @replying now, but I’m one .@reply from getting dogpiled and branded. For the rest of my career, it’s “Do you really want [Bob] speaking at this conference/working on this standard/contributing to this project? He has that public history of being anti-[popular social position] and we don’t want to make anyone feel unwelcome.” I did the only sane thing: I walked it back, plead naivety (they have a blind spot and think the only reason you could fail to agree is failure to Educate Yourself), and deleted all the tweets an hour later when it cooled down. It doesn’t matter that I volunteer with pro-[popular social position] groups, oppose anti-[popular social position] assholes, and otherwise try to make my industry a better place for marginalized groups. Critiques of awful rhetoric and practice don’t fit in 140 characters, but rhetorical superweapons do.

      I still see bad behavior and inconsistency all over the place, but I file it away and keep my head down. I maintain a memory palace using the method of loci. It amuses me to keep those examples in the office utility closet. When there’s a Two Minutes Hate I nod vacantly while wandering those shelves in my head.

      Maybe there’s some secret handshake I haven’t yet learned to find a supportive group in my field. Meanwhile I’m interviewing for a new job.

      • Error says:

        Critiques of awful rhetoric and practice don’t fit in 140 characters, but rhetorical superweapons do.

        This seems like an excellent reason to not use twitter in the first place.

        (and has seemed so more or less since I learned of its existence, which is a large part of why I don’t use it.)

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        Did you expect to live on a sane world?

    • Jaskologist says:

      When I was in one of my more puckish moods, I gave this answer to a similar question:

      Your mistake is trying to engage rationally. This is not only ineffective, it takes a lot of time and energy. Instead, you should reorient around the Jon Stewart model. The goal is to avoid intellectual engagement at all cost, replacing it with snark. Usually the best way to do this is to pose as a caricature of the other side

      • Bugmaster says:

        I know that this answer is supposed to be glib and sarcastic, but to be honest, I actually think it’s optimal. Are there any good reasons not to take this advice at face value ? I understand that doing so might be intellectually dishonest; but, in practical terms, is intellectual honesty actually worth anything as far as communication with one’s ideological opponents is concerned ?

        • Jaskologist says:

          I continue to be of two minds about it, myself.

          • Bugmaster says:

            It worries me that a). I am of two minds about this, myself (though leaning toward taking the advice at face value), but b). the answer to this question appears to be life-alteringly important, so it should be difficult to lead your life without answering it one way or another.

            Perhaps the real answer here that the way you talk to people actually doesn’t matter much at all, and we’re overanalyzing the issue for nothing…

        • Loquat says:

          I’d say it depends heavily on (a) what sort of people you’re arguing against at the time, and (b) what effect you want your disagreement to have. Committed ideologues, particularly a large mutually-reinforcing mob thereof, who know nothing of you but your most controversial posts? Go for the snark. Reasonably sensible individual or small group who know you to be a human being? Presenting a logical argument for your position just might work.

        • Emily says:

          I try to treat people who have different ideas with respect, understand why they believe what they believe, and communicate politely with them to help them understand why I believe what I believe. And some of that is because maybe I am wrong now and I can learn from them, and maybe they are wrong and can learn from me, and both of those things are more likely to happen if we play nicely. And even if that doesn’t happen, at least interacting with each other politely while we disagree feels like a win in and of itself.

    • anon says:

      I envy Scott’s writing ability in that he can not only put himself out there but also defend himself coherently. I find it hard to generate enough clarity to not accidentally take heat from people with whom I dont even disagree. I feel like I’d need another 10 IQ points to have a meta-level discussion on an issue without enraging everyone by mistake.

    • Since your question itself has basically already been answered much better than I could by other people (though I’ll say reading the Sequences and learning to humbly articulate my thoughts (i.e. having a better handle on whether or not I am actually wrong) seems to be having good effects on my self-esteem, even if they can be aggravatingly long-winded and otherwise frustrating in parts; and I want to concur that learning to step away from an argument when all it’s doing is raising your blood pressure is also an ability worth acquiring (I am still learning this)), I just want to add:

      Welcome. 🙂 If you find yourself needing a hug outside this comment section, you’re welcome to toss me an e-mail at pinkgothic at gmail dot com if you want.

    • ksleet says:

      Delete your Twitter account, if you have one. Don’t just stop tweeting, delete it completely. The sort of people you’re worried about are as lazy as they are nasty, and if they can’t directly target someone over Twitter it’s too much of a hassle to remember who the day’s target is.

      Facebook can cause trouble as well, but it’s much harder to get a good Facebook mob going since users there generally have to use their real names and are linked to all their friends and co-workers, and that acts as a deterrent to mindless Twitter-style drive-by dogpiling.

    • Pku says:

      Something that helps me is remembering that, like spiders, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. It’s scary to get attacked because it can feel like you’re outnumbered and overpowered, but they wouldn’t be so aggressive if they actually were all-powerful and secure.

  11. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    If you have never been banned from Slate Star Codex, does that mean you are being too nice and charitable?

    • suntzuanime says:

      If Slate Star Codex has never banned me, its moderation is too soft.

      • Jordan D. says:

        Not even Zeus could ban me from Slate Star Codex!

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Can Scott Alexander write a pun so terrible that he is forced to ban himself from Slate Star Codex for crimes against humanity?

    • Jacob says:

      Only if your goal is to be as mean as possible

    • Nornagest says:

      The list of bans is still pretty short — probably less than 10% of regulars are anywhere on it. I don’t think 90% of us are being too polite.

      I do think I’d be happier if Scott pulled the trigger a little more often, but that’s me.

  12. Daniel Speyer says:

    I meant to leave this as a comment on figure/ground, but bad 3G ate it.

    I think what figure/ground looks like from the inside is being right.

    Consider a proposal to spend one class day in intro biology talking about creationism. The entire rest of the curriculum can be scientific biology. The creationists are literally asking for less than 1%. And beyond the classroom, science completely dominates the study of biology. How greedy can you be not to allow faith one tiny corner?

    I doubt anyone here is particularly moved by this argument. Creationism does not deserve even a tiny corner. It has no place in the discussion of biology.

    I think the feeling there is the same one mainstream political people feel about including reactionaries in the discussion of how to shape society.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      I think the issue here is that fairness is a really bizarre impulse if you think about it. It’s extremely basal, we see it in great apes I believe and kids start using fairness as a rationalization pretty early on, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.

      Is it fair that I*, a criminal, should have to flee from the law while all of you are (in theory) protected by those same police? How can you call it fair that that nerd who studies all night gets straight A’s while the rest of us scrape by with C’s or D’s? Isn’t it deeply unjust that the old guy who’s been doing this job for decades and takes dozens of overtime hours a week makes so much more than I do? And that I, as unaccomplished amateur, have my opinions dismissed out-of-hand in favor of those of so-called “experts”?

      Maybe I’m just not wired to understand fairness, that’s possible, but I don’t think I can recall it ever being employed in a self-aware logical way.

      *Figurative language alert!

      • Nita says:

        Could you rephrase that? I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.

        E.g., do you believe that other people feel that way about grades and wages? Are you saying that you feel that way? Or what?

        • Jiro says:

          I think he’s saying that people don’t want to count such cases as fairness, but it’s hard to come up with a reasonable definition that excludes them.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          What I mean is that when people talk about fairness it’s pretty much always that sort of situation. Not that I don’t fall victim to it myself, but it’s much more striking to see with other people. Dig a little bit past the surface and the objection always seems to be that they want something that someone else has without doing or being whatever is necessary to get it

          I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon but I literally cannot recall an alternate case.

          • Nita says:

            I have heard only the last one — and the idea behind it seems to be that no rational, well-supported opinions should be dismissed, no matter where they’re coming from (Scott seems to believe something like this).

            The most common uses are along the lines of “it’s not fair that I write better code than Bob, but he got a raise and I didn’t” or “it’s not fair that we all pitched in the same amount, but Jane ate most of the pizza”.

          • Linch says:

            In my in-groups it’s fairly common to say it’s unfair that Americans have more money than most of the rest of the world (eg, 85% of income variation can be explained by where you live), or that it’s unfair that X disadvantaged minority has X cents on the dollar of a white male.

            You can probably make an argument of desert in the latter case, but it’s really difficult to make one about the former. “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and the parasitic worms would die of their own accord” seems unlikely to work, as aphorisms go.

            I hear this fairly often from liberal white Americans (which to be fair(lqtm) is most of the people I interact with day-to-day).

            I personally do not believe in desert, but I hear a lot of appeals to fairness from objectively privileged people, so I think it’s inaccurate to say only lazy people who get what they “deserve” make appeals to fairness.

        • Paul Goodman says:

          I think they’re saying they don’t see an in-principle distinction between those examples and cases where people actually do raise objections on grounds of fairness

      • Brad (the other one) says:

        It’s because fairness and justice play off each other.

        Fairness is the principle that *all other things being equal* you treat people the same. Justice is something that causes a situation to be be “all other things not equal”, namely by having situations where people *deserve* a certain circumstance.

        To go example by example, the difference between the criminal and everyone else is the criminal broke the law – the rest of us didn’t. The man who studied worked hard – the other students did not. The Old Guy invested a lot of time and energy into the work – the new guy hasn’t. And so on.

        We take offense if an innocent person is say, imprisoned, even if this is consequentially advantageous (i.e. the those who leave omelas situation) because we recognize that the innocent person who suffers did not do anything that deserves such suffering, even though their suffering results in net gain utility. their suffering is unfair but more importantly unjust. And this notion of justice is, I suspect, very important to understanding fairness.

        • John Schilling says:

          So, it’s not unfair to make all the black people slaves and all the white people masters, because “all other things are not equal”, specifically melanin content.

          Now we make the trivial reformulation to “all relevant other things are not equal”, and cue up the endless holy wars over what things are or are not relevant.

          • Brad (the other one) says:

            >cue up the endless holy wars over what things are or are not relevant.

            I think you’re perhaps feeling uneasy about my post because you’re worried that admission of real differences will result in abuse based on “real” differences. I have heard it said that the difference between the leftist instinct and rightist instinct is that leftist politics tends to deny that there are any relevant differences at all; rightism assumes there are relevant differences and they should be acted upon ruthlessly.

            Christian doctrine (which I feel is the answer here) is yes, there are relevant differences, but meekness is lived out in not claiming or asserting your rights (which originate in the relevant difference) even though you theoretically could. In theory, for example, the rich young ruler can keep his possessions, they’re his – but in practice, he ought to abrogate his right to himself – and therefore also the right to keep his stuff (which he should instead sell to give alms to the poor.) And so on. We are not our own.

            The ultimate example of this of course, is Jesus Christ on the cross; Jesus’s death on the cross was deliberately chosen in obedience to God the Father.

          • Not Robin Hanson says:

            I have heard it said that the difference between the leftist instinct and rightist instinct is that leftist politics tends to deny that there are any relevant differences at all; rightism assumes there are relevant differences and they should be acted upon ruthlessly.

            Is this really quite true? The left sees a difference in (certain) outcomes and insists that it is due to structural oppression—i.e. second-order relevant differences due to people being influenced by first-order irrelevant differences—and we should act ruthlessly to correct them; the right sees the same difference in outcomes and insists that it is the result of acting ruthlessly on the same or similar first-order differences, which they see as relevant. See e.g. Affirmative Action.

            In any case, it seems to me that in politics causation works backwards compared to logic: it is politically favorable to be able to act ruthlessly, therefore relevant differences must exist to justify those actions.

          • pneumatik says:

            I think you’re perhaps feeling uneasy about my post because you’re worried that admission of real differences will result in abuse based on “real” differences. I have heard it said that the difference between the leftist instinct and rightist instinct is that leftist politics tends to deny that there are any relevant differences at all; rightism assumes there are relevant differences and they should be acted upon ruthlessly.”

            Taboo “real” differences. Consider Usain Bolt. He’s a really fast sprinter, to the point of being a statistical outlier from how fast people are projected to get. Because of this he receives acclaim, Olympic gold medals, and lots of money.

            Why is that fair? Why should he live a very comfortable life just because he can run fast? I could train for the rest of my life and never be fast enough to race in the same competitions as him. His speed a clear difference from me (and pretty much everyone ever), but the only reason it makes him rich and famous is because of the particular value system that exists in the world of sports.

            Practically speaking, the value systems that exist in the world are the ones that have the most effect on you and me, but theoretically or philosophically they are no better than any others. Fairness in the real world, then, is just an outcome of the particular value system that the world has adapted. Absolute fairness doesn’t exist, and so saying something is “unfair” is just another way of saying that outcome is not what your personal value system would have produced.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            It’s not as though valations of inborn traits were picked out of a hat one day. Valued traits are by-and-large both directly advantageous and (within a population) fairly good signs of general genetic health, while devalued traits are typically obvious handicaps.

            Is it arbitrary that we value the traits that are adaptive in our environments and devalue those that are maladaptive? To a nihilist perhaps, but really that seems to be about as objective a set of criteria as one could reasonably ask for.

          • pneumatik says:

            I agree that it seems reasonable, and even advantageous from an evolutionary perspective, to value more adaptive traits. But the why is it fair that one person has better adaptive traits than someone else? Why is it fair that Usain Bolt can run so fast?

            I’m not trying to argue for or against how reality works, I’m just saying that fairness doesn’t have a great absolute definition.

  13. Eric Rall says:

    I recently read Albion’s Seed based on a passing mention here, and it seems like it provides some very useful context for a wide range of discussions about American history, culture, and politics.

    To take one example, the red/blue/grey tribe model proposed here in the past seems to map pretty closely to the Albion’s Seed populations, with Blue Tribe = mostly Puritan influences, Red Tribe = mostly Scotch-Irish influences, and Grey Tribe = mostly Quaker influences, with the Cavaliers being mostly missing from the model. The cultural attitudes largely seem to match up. So does geographical distribution. In my anecdotal experience, surnames even line up to some extent: my peer group is mostly Grey Tribe, and several of the surnames mentioned in Albion’s Seed as being associated with the original Quaker population were present in my peer group, but few or none of the Puritan, Cavalier, or Scotch-Irish cource population surnames.

    • Irenist says:

      The Cavaliers seem to have influenced the Southern Agrarians, who were an influence for paleoconservatives, and various other traditionalists, etc. Never a really influential group recently, though.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I see the Cavaliers (along with the culturally-distinct source population of the South Carolina Lowland aristocracy, mentioned in passing but lightly-treated in Albion’s Seed) as being highly important to the Revolutionary, Antebellum, and Civil War periods, but probably fading away afterwards except for their influence on other subcultures.

        • AJD says:

          This matches with the linguistic facts—mid-20th-century dialectological research found the Coastal South and the Inland South (or South Midland) to be distinct dialect regions, but more recent work has found that the South has become basically a single dialect region, with the Inland South setting the pattern.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I haven’t read Albion’s Seed, so I may be missing something. Why do you think Blue tribe maps onto Puritan roots? Can you expand?

      • there is a belief by NRx that progresivisim descended from Puritanism

        • Eric Rall says:

          The NRx arguments are related, but not quite what I’m thinking of. Moldbug (and presumably other NRx who make the argument) believes that progressivism is descended from puritanical strains of Protestantism. “Puritan” as used in Albion’s Seed refers to the overall culture of a particular wave of colonial settlement (the mostly-Congregationalist settlers who came to New England, mostly from East Anglia, in the early 1600s) and the lasting influence on that wave of settlement. Religion was a major feature of the culture’s distinctness, but by no means the sole defining feature: the Scotch-Irish I’m identifying as “Red Tribe” were mainly Presbyterians, which has a similar Calvinism-based theology.

          The features called out in Albion’s Seed which I see as mapping to Scott’s Blue Tribe:

          1. A “civil contract” attitude towards marriage, implying an openness to divorce, a low importance placed on theological definitions of marriage, etc.

          2. A less male-dominated family structure than other cultural clusters examined (apart from the Quakers).

          3. A communitarian attitude towards child-rearing and a very high value placed on formal education.

          4. Commercial-centered economic patterns and urban-based settlement patterns.

          5. A “grace-centered” sense of honor, where honor is distinguished by holding correct attitudes (as opposed to the Quaker sense of honor being determined by correct actions, Cavaliers honor based on social rank, and Scotch-Irish “primal honor” based on “valor and virility”).

          6. A very low-violence culture, combined with a strong antipathy towards private violence, even in self-defense (contrasted with Cavalier and Scotch-Irish cultures where revenge violence was practically obligatory in the right circumstances).

          7. High taxes funding robust social services (mainly education and alms) compared to the other populations.

          8. “Ordered Liberty” freedom ways, where liberty was seen as a condition that society as a whole has when everyone is treated fairly and the laws are in accordance with justice and morality. Contrasts with Cavalier “Hegemonic Liberty” where liberty is a condition individuals have when they can enjoy the privileges due to their social rank; Quaker “Reciprocal Liberty” where freedom is understood in live-and-let-live Golden Rule terms (afford others the same freedoms you yourself would hope to enjoy); and Scotch-Irish “Natural Liberty” where freedom is understood in terms of personal sovereignty and rugged individualism.

          It’s also important to note that in the Albion’s Seed formulation, contra to the NRx formulation, there is nothing like a 1:1 mapping of cultural groupings to political parties. In the political history section of Albion’s Seed, there’s a tracing of how both parties have generally tried to appeal across cultural lines with broad-appeal “omnibus candidates” and regional ideological factions within each party, with varying degrees of success. Right now, we’re probably at a relatively low ebb in terms of success by the parties in appealing across cultural boundries, for example with Rockefeller Republicans (the Republican faction dominant in Puritan*-descended subcultures) and Blue Collar Labor Democrats (the Democratic faction dominant in Scotch-Irish-descended subcultures) currently faded to relative insignificance in their respective parties and regions, but both are still there to some extent, and their relative low levels of prominence are a historical aberration.

          * When talking about times after the colonial period, Fischer mostly uses the term “Yankee” to refer to later populations primarily influenced by their Puritan forbearers, reserving “Puritan” for the original colonists and their immediate descendants. I’m sticking to Puritan for both groups for clarity.

      • AJD says:

        There is, at least, a strong correlation in the U.S. between progressive politics among white people and regions that were settled by Puritans and people migrating from Puritan regions. For example, this why the Democratic party has an easier time getting elected in Michigan than in Indiana, in New York than in Pennsylvania, in Iowa than in Missouri, in South Dakota than in Nebraska, and in Cleveland than in Cincinnati.

    • more about the grey tribe

      the greys are conflicted with both the reds and the blues…greys borrow from both, without belong to either.

  14. Anon says:

    So I have some rather severe executive functioning problems. I definitely suffer from MDD, and maybe also ADHD. What’s the etiquette surrounding asking a doctor about specific drugs? Modafinil in particular. Will I look like a drug seeker? Should I avoid showing too much knowledge about the DSM, various drugs, etc.? Do I essentially only have one shot to convince my doctor, after which everyone else will treat me with suspicion like I’m one of *those* patients?

    • Eric Rall says:

      From what I gather, things tend to go smoother if you work with the usual complaint -> diagnosis -> treatment workflow that doctors are trained to work with. Start with “I’ve been having problems with focusing on important tasks [briefly mention examples and have more details ready if asked], and I’d like to figure out if this is ADHD or something else and how to treat it.” Mentioning the DSM is probably mostly harmless if you do so with some modesty signalling to avoid getting pattern-matched to a know-it-all hypochondriac (e.g. “I read the DSM entry for ADHD and it rings a lot of bells, but I’d like a professional opinion” rather than “I know I have ADHD because I have this, this, and this from the DSM diagnostic criteria”).

      You’ll probably get referred to a specialist for screening and diagnosis, who will (if they agree you likely have ADHD) prescribe you ritalin (if you’re under 18) or adderall (if you’re an adult) on a trial basis. Fill the prescription and take it as instructed, and give a good-faith accounting of the benefits and side effects as you experience them. If it gets you functional (or comes close enough that fiddling with the dosage is all you need) with no dealbreaker side effects, great. If not, your doctor will start trying you on other meds, probably starting with the new-and-sexy variants (vyvanse, followed by focalin, I think). This is the stage where you start suggesting specific drugs (“I’ve heard that modafinil can be helpful for ADHD with a lower risk of [side effect that was bothering me with Adderall]. Do you think it would make sense to try that next?”).

      At this point, you’re at little risk of being categorized as a drug seeker because 1) you have an established track record of a reasonable, cooperative patient, 2) you got a diagnosis before asking for drugs, 3) at this point the doctor is mostly guessing which drug to try next and reasonable input from the patient is actually helpful, and 4) the drug you’re asking for has less abuse concern than what the doctor was probably going to prescribe you if you hadn’t asked for it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Anecdatum: A friend of mine asked their psychiatrist about modafinil after about a year of cycling through the typical ADHD medications. Their psychiatrist quickly shut them down stating that their insurance would not cover it unless they had narcolepsy (no suggestion of out-of-pocket or suggestion of calling insurance to confirm).

        • Evan Daniel says:

          I had the same experience, and pushed a little bit. My psychiatrist thought Adderall / etc. would be a better choice, but had no objections to trying modafinil if I wanted. We called the insurance company to confirm, and in fact they don’t cover it without a narcolepsy diagnosis. He wrote a scrip, I took it to a couple pharmacies. One didn’t have it, the other wanted $800/month to fill it. I abandoned that plan.

          (I’ve gotten some from friends a couple times, and might try getting more to do a proper longer-term evaluation.)

          • Protagoras says:

            Certainly if the usual suspects aren’t working, it’s worth a shot, but I found modafinil quite ineffective for ADHD; I developed a tolerance fairly quickly, and even at the start it wasn’t working as well as amphetamines did.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Generic modafinil ($30/mo) has been available for several years.

            I doubt that modafinil is great for ADHD, but I think most people diagnosed with ADHD don’t actually have it and would be better off using modafinil than amphetamine.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I think it also depends partly on the patient population the provider typically sees.

        If you are in, say a University town, like Madison or some other place dominated by a college educated population, the docs are used to patient populations that have researched before coming in.

    • Anonymous says:

      If modafinil is all you want, it’s fairly easy to acquire it without perscription.

      • bartlebyshop says:

        Anon may work at a job/in a field where taking prescription drugs illegally/semi-legally would be a bad idea, like a job in the federal government that requires a clearance.

      • Very Anonymous says:

        What are the best ways to go about doing that?

        • Ultra Anonymous says:

          You can probably still buy “adrafinil” from European websites. It is perfectly legal (last time I checked) to get adrafinil shipped to the U.S. because it is not a scheduled drug.

          The reason it works in exactly the same way as modafinil is because adrafinil gets immediately broken down into modafinil once inside your body (a “prodrug”). So they are practically the same drug, but for legal purposes (thankfully) they are not considered to be.

    • Fellow ADHD Moron says:

      If you really do have severe EF problems that aren’t only present when you’re suffering from a mood episode, you almost certainly have ADHD, as EF problems basically = the inattentive subtype of ADHD. As someone with severe EF problems myself, and who has done quite a bit of experimentation through both the proper channels and the improper ones, I recommend that you don’t try and start with modafinil. It’s fine if your only problem is wakefulness, but it’s not that impressive in terms of cognitive effects. Also, it’s a fuckton more expensive than methylphenidate (Ritalin), and MPH is vastly more effective, esp for things like working memory, cognitive flexibility, etc. Consider also that ADHD, while mostly known for its cognitive effects, is often even more striking in its emotional aspect, which is much better managed by the first line treatments than things like modafinil.

      How you handle the situation with your psychiatrist will depend a lot on the psychiatrist. If you’re not just being referred by a GP, do a bunch of research on psychiatrists in your area and call the 5 most reasonable sounding. If you’re lucky, one of them can get you in within 2 weeks. Be aware that some of the better psychiatrists aren’t willing to see people for ADHD at all, partially because it’s not considered a super serious condition, and partially because they’re sick of filling up their time slots with fakers who are just trying to get legal speed.

      As someone else posted, lead with symptoms, not with a diagnosis. And avoid leading with the depression also, maybe don’t even bring it up the first visit. Psychiatrists are roughly evenly split in terms of whether they prescribe MPH or amphetamine to first timers; if cost is an issue, go with MPH, but be aware that it may be slightly weaker and tolerance may build faster. Not really things to worry about in the beginning, but a good thing to keep in mind for later in case your meds poop out on you.

      If you’re currently depressed and you start taking ADHD meds at the proper dose, your depression should lift. If it doesn’t, talk to your psychiatrist, or if you have a shitty one, talk to me for alternatives ( Or talk to Scott, because duh, he’s a psychiatrist.

      Finally, if you’re low on funds, get a diagnosis and an initial script from a well-regarded psychiatrist, then take your diagnosis to a sympathetic GP, who will probably be like 1/2 the cost if all you need is medication management. You might have to go through a couple, but if you have a legit diagnosis and provide the psychiatrist’s contact info, you shouldn’t have too much trouble.

  15. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    The Education Realist has recently put up four policy proposals for fixing education. He advocates banning college-level remediation classes, allowing high schools to offer alternatives to the college track for low-ability students, scraping IDEA, and restricting free K-12 education to American citizens. It’s certainly an interesting thought experiment, for all that it will never be implemented.

    • Zebram says:

      I really have no idea what will be the end results of these proposals and if there will be unintended consequences. But I personally don’t feel comfortable going around and forcing people or universities to do this and that. I’m not sure if I even believe in morality, but if I do, I probably find the non-aggression principle appealing, meaning I wouldn’t legislate any of this.

      • Randy M says:

        From the article: “Private institutions can do as they like, but our public universities ought to be held responsible for upholding a standard. ”

        If you are uncomfortable with the government telling public (that is, state-run) colleges and universities what to do, be aware there is a very very long list already in existence.

    • walpolo says:

      >>restricting free K-12 education to American citizens.

      Seems like a very bad idea to me. Some of the advantages the author sees in this proposal:

      >>Rationale: our citizens deserve our best effort and full resources in order to educate and develop our national potential. The expense and resources required to educate immigrants detract from our ability to educate our own citizenry.

      What about the cost of enforcing this policy, that is to say, the cost of creating and maintaining whatever infrastructure is needed to determine which students are vs aren’t US citizens? I suspect the expense would be considerable, since we’d have to make completely sure that no US citizens were misidentified as non-citizens. That’s money that’s not being spent on educating *anyone*, and hence isn’t benefiting anybody.

      Additionally, it seems likely that citizens benefit from education for resident non-citizens, just like they benefit from having other citizens be educated. If the children of immigrant workers grow up not knowing how to add or subtract, they’re more likely to make mistakes that might cause me harm in my interactions with them. Also, whatever percentage of them have actual serious talent that could be contributing to the good of all will be wasted on this proposal.

      There is also, of course, the ethical question: why shouldn’t we care about non-citizens as people for their own sake? Why do only US citizens deserve the benefit of public education? Too many Americans have this nationalist idea that if US policy does something to benefit non-citizens, that’s automatically a waste. This is an ethically monstrous outlook.

      Lots of mistaken zero-sum-game thinking going on here. The first two proposals may have merit.

      • Randy M says:

        If we work with reality, where the vast majority of citizens start school speaking english and the majority of resident non-citizens do not, we can identitify a major cost that would be eliminated or mitigated right there, a cost not only financial, but opportunity as well (instructor time and attention).
        Beyond that objection, you seem to be opposed to a government obligated to benefit its own citizens. Your viewpoint is alien to me, non pun intended, but rest assured that many western politicians seem to be on your side, instrumentally if not philosophically.

        • walpolo says:

          There are also plenty of US-born (hence US citizen) children of immigrants with poor English skills. So schools will have to teach ESL no matter what, and the infrastructure to do so is already in place (unlike the infrastructure for detecting and ferreting out non-citizen students). It’s a cost, but I doubt it’s as great a cost as the proposed policy.

          I’m not saying a government isn’t obligated to benefit its own citizens, I’m saying non-citizens should count for something as well.

          • Randy M says:

            “There are also plenty of US-born (hence US citizen) children of immigrants with poor English skills.”
            You are moving my goalposts. Without illegal aliens, the number of those classes (and the efficacy of regular classes where teachers must teach subject matter to the barely literate/fluent) would be much more, to the point, I suspect, of mitigating much cost in enforcement.

            But neither of us have numbers here.

          • walpolo says:

            “In 2012, children with at least one unauthorized immigrant
            parent accounted for 6.9% of U.S. students in kindergarten
            through 12th grade. A significant majority of these students were born in the U.S. (representing 5.5% of all students in 2012); the rest (1.4% of all students) are unauthorized immigrants themselves. ”


            So you would dispense with less than 1/4 of illegal immigrants’ children by allowing only citizens into schools.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        He doesn’t acknowledge the trade-offs his proposal would require. It’s not clear that it would even save money in the long run– one of the central rationales for public education is that investing in children now will lead to a net gain in economic productivity and tax revenues when they reach adulthood, and/or in subsequent generations. In particular, the policy seems destined to generate an underclass of young, uneducated, virtually unemployable illegal aliens, which is both morally objectionable and liable to lead to a short-term increase in crime and a long-term drain on social services.

        Assuming, that is, that the proposal would have any effect at all, which seems doubtful in light of several important facts on the ground which education realist does not mention or demonstrate awareness of. First, 80% of the desperately poor hispanic children who show up to primary school with a very limited command of english are not illegal immigrants themselves but birthright American citizens. Denying an education to the much smaller number of juvenile border-crossers will do nothing to change this. Second, illegal immigration has dropped precipitously since its peak, and the number of illegal immigrants in the US is either stable or declining. A decade from now the last major cohort of children of hispanic immigrants will finish wending it’s way through the public school system, and this will no longer be a live issue. Not exactly a forward-looking policy.

        • Randy M says:

          “birthright American citizens”
          I found the problem.

          Also, wasn’t there a large number of well-publicized illegal crossings of children last year or two, after the discussion of the proposed DREAM act? I

      • anon says:

        What is “ethically monstrous” about policies that favor citizens over non citizens?

    • alexp says:

      Some of those make sense, but unfeasible politically and the last, restricting free K-12 education to American citizens, is a terrible idea on every level.

    • brad says:

      The first two seem reasonable and at least as far as I know, can be done at the state level though perhaps at the cost of some loss of race to the top funds or the like.

      The third I think is a good idea, but is a non-starter politically and would have to be done at at once at the federal level.

      The fourth is a terrible idea and would take a constitutional amendment.

    • Emily H. says:

      I can’t help but feel that it’s kind of strange when some people act as if the only relevant groups of people in the U.S. are undocumented immigrants and citizens; as if there weren’t plenty of legal immigrants wending their way through the process to citizenship, or citizens of other countries visiting the U.S. on a medium-to-long-term basis, many of whom are children.

      I’m a Canadian who came to the US when my father got an H1B visa; my family paid income taxes and property taxes, and quite a lot of them; but I was 11 when I moved, and didn’t get my green card until I was 19. So what do you do about legal immigrants? You just say, don’t move to the US unless you’ve got an extra $20,000 a year per kid, even though you’re paying income taxes and property taxes to fund the public schools?

    • Hey, so this is where all that activity came from. Thanks for the link.

      First, understand that I made these proposals because education policy is so constrained by those who fancy themselves “the elite”. Education “reformers” (those who want to implement choice and accountability) often bewail the fact that the public is uninvolved and uninterested in education. When in fact, they are very interested in making changes that the courts and politicians simply won’t allow to be discussed. So I identified five (the fifth is coming) policies that would be extremely popular.

      Many commenters here, I notice, don’t seem to realize that the issues they are commenting on have been long established, that decades of research and attempts have been made on issues that they’ve just now gotten around to considering. Those familiar with educational policy quickly understand that I am addressing issues where we spend billions for nothing gained, and that this is widely agreed upon within the educational community. The debate is not about giving up spending that gets results. The debate is about admitting that we will never get results. Politicians and the elites would rather pretend that we can get results than face a society that has these inequities built in. This is understandable.

      My point is to highlight that futility and demonstrate the absurdity of pretending that “choice” and “end tenure” are hot button issues with the American public, when the issues in the posts are long desired.

      So wondering, for example, why non-citizens should have to pay for their own education: because the value they get for coming to America is what they pay taxes for. At this point, America gets little utility from paying for their education, and considerable utility from making it more expensive for immigrants to live here. This is no longer an education discussion. Immigrants are either rich enough to afford private school, have employers rich enough, or aren’t people that America benefits from educating because they shouldn’t be here at all.

      And no, a constitutional amendment would not be required. I went through Plyler in the article. The courts may have their own reasons for refusing to overturn, but the SC did not grant absolute right to education.

    • pneumatik says:

      1 seems reasonable, assuming there’s still adult education opportunities for people who finish high school but aren’t ready for college.

      2 should be done.

      3 talks about scrapping the only reason my son can read. I could see arguments for revising IDEA, but school districts already use lack of funds as a reason for not providing some services. Moreover if IDEA is going to protect the most vulnerable kids in the worst situations then it’s going to take some excess work in other situations.

      4 I can see the arguments for but I think the benefit is worth the cost.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      The fifth policy proposal, ending ELL mandates, is now up.

  16. Anonymous says:

    A couple weeks ago I read this paper, which argues that the effect of the War on Drugs on US prison population growth has been significantly exaggerated by the media/politicians/etc, and has in fact likely only been a minor contributor to the boom (at least through any obvious pathways). The paper also claims that the real primary growth driver has actually been a huge (and heretofore unexplained) increase over the last 25 years in prosecutors’ aggressiveness in filing felony charges against arrestees.

    I was extremely surprised by these claims and by their implication that drug reforms like decriminalization and sentencing reduction are unlikely to help much with the prison growth problem. Were you guys all aware of this already? Or is there some strong counterargument that I’m missing?

    • Tanadrin says:

      Insofar as the war on drugs, the popularity of politicians trying to be perceived as tough on crime, and the willingness to file felony charges all seem intrinsically related, I’m not sure the effects of any one of those factors are easily seperable from the others.

    • I’ve had a sense that prosecutors were power-mad and would charge anyone and everyone they could with a crime, whether it made any damn sense or not, for at least a decade. The whole criminal justice system seems like this unstoppable juggernaut that, once you’re in it, will just smash you.

      I did not think prosecutors as accounting for more or less of the reasons people are in prisons than the War on Drugs, however.

      I suspect the War on Drugs is one of the few categories of crime that gets any sympathy–you can argue, “hey, this guy was just smoking weed in his own home and not hurting anyone, so why should he be in jail?” but it is much, much harder to argue, “Hey, this guy was only committing a little bit of a robbery,” or “that rape case was completely overstated” without looking like a turd. Once these sorts of crime labels get attached to people, they become brain killers for any conversation about appropriate sentencing.

      • yea that does seem true. You do get loads of sympathy with drug possession, but not with with the worst crime: underage material , rape, an so on . There is a crime hierarchy . Drugs are seen as victim-less while the aforementioned examples have obvious victims.

    • Jordan D. says:

      My sense is that a lot of the benefit from legalization would accrue in ways other than a decrease in the general population – smaller black market, less fear due to the marginal arrest and prosecution, etc.

      Still, I find it a little disconcerting to see this article describing things like ‘20% of the flow of incarcerations through the system’ as a ‘slight effect’. Looking at the data compiled by the Bureau of Justice, it’s clear that possession and trafficking cases have an average impact about the same as all combined property offenses (burglary, robbery, fraud) or all violent offenses (homicide, assault, etc), and trend towards 30% of the population in some cases. On page 178, that study both says that the effect is slight and ending the War on Drugs won’t be significant and also that states spend several billion dollars a year on those incarcerations. I’m not a linguistic perscriptivist, but these terms seem justified only if the author is responding to claims that ending the War on Drugs would end the need for prisons, or something.

      (The general conclusion seems pretty supportable, mind you- and it’s an especially good point that marijuania offenses are both what a lot of the mainstream support for ending the WoD is about and also a negligable part of the actual number)

    • NZ says:

      You have to understand that the WoD serves at least two functions that are MORE important to the government than stopping people from using drugs. The first and foremost function is also the original function of the WoD. The second function was an ancillary benefit that was realized early on and has remained strong.

      1) Keep America involved, militarily, economically, and diplomatically, as a major player all over the world. Federal drug prohibition didn’t exist until a few progressives in the Roosevelt administration realized it was our key to opening up China: we promised to help China with their alleged opium problem (greatly exaggerated by the Emperor) in exchange for access to their markets, but we couldn’t do that until we’d banned it at home. For more on that, read up on Bishop Charles Brent, the Shanghai Conference of 1909, the Hague Conference of 1911, Hamilton Wright, and the Harrison Act of 1914.

      2) Lock up violent criminals whose violence is harder to catch them for than drug possession. This is another version of the whole “lock up Al Capone for tax evasion” thing, where you convict a criminal on a technicality because you’re having trouble convicting them on their more serious crimes.

    • I strongly agree that the War on Drugs is NOT the main reason behind the explosion of the prison population.

      For reasons that are still debated today (youth culture? leaded gasoline?), the U.S. crime rate roughly tripled from 1960 to 1975. See the homicide death rate for the clearest stats on this. All kinds of places that felt safe before started to feel unsafe, and fear of crime changed the way communities functioned. Lurid crime reports proliferated in the media. Crime and violence seemed to be spiraling out of control.

      The American public was justly angry about this. There was the widespread sense that the criminal justice system had failed, that criminals were being treated too leniently. Politicians who made these points prospered, and those who disagreed were defeated. When criminal justice issues appeared on state ballots, voters invariably and overwhelmingly supported the more-punishment side.

      And the justice system responded to what people wanted. Police and prosecutors treated defendants more harshly. Sentencing guidelines, three strikes laws, and political pressure led to much longer prison sentences.

      Seen in this light, the War on Drugs was really a sideshow. Of course, the motivation to Get Tough came from the same instincts about how to respond to the crime wave. And drug defendants were subject to the same new emphasis on severe punishment.

      But when the number of U.S. prison inmates doubled, and then doubled again, and then doubled again, those increases were not driven primarily by aggressive drug enforcement.

    • John Schilling says:

      It is a common misconception, easily refuted, that people imprisoned for using or possessing drugs make up a tiny fraction of the incarcerated. Incarceration for trafficking drugs is still only a significant minority. However:

      “The five means by which the War on Drugs can drive up incarceration rates are: (1) the direct incarceration of drug offenders, (2) the re-incarceration of all types of offenders due to drug-related parole violations, (3) the impact of drug incarcerations on prison admissions instead of prison populations. (4) the extent to which prior drug offenses can trigger repeat-offender enhancement even for non-drug crimes, and (5) the effect of large-scale drug arrests and incarcerations on neighborhood cohesion”.

      That’s shockingly lazy. How about (6) incarceration for crimes committed in support of drug trafficking, (7) incarceration for crimes committed against drug trafficking, e.g. robbery of drug dealers, which would not occur if the drug trade had access to police protection, (8) incarceration for other crimes committed by gangs which would not exist or would operate at a lower level without financing from illegal drug sales, (9) incarceration for property crimes committed by addicts trying to meet WoD-inflated drug prices, (10) incarceration for crimes committed due to drug-related mental disorders which go untreated for fear of punishment, (11) incarceration for crimes associated with police corruption due to the money involved in the illegal drug trade?

      Just off the top of my head. I don’t know whether these, along with the actual traffickers, make up an actual majority of current prison inmates. It is plausible that they do. It is plausible that they do not. I’d like someone to take a real stab at answering the question; Pfaff implicitly claims to have considered the whole package and only when you read the fine print acknowledges that he tackled only part of the question.

      • Nornagest says:

        Do you mean “more than a tiny fraction”?

        • John Schilling says:

          I think I was waffling between “more than” or “even”, but yes. There’s basically nobody actually sitting in prison because they used drugs, and a very few people sitting in prison because it was easy to prove they were using drugs and everybody involved understood they were not-quite-provably-guilty of much worse.

  17. Leif says:

    So EY just said that many “monogamous” relationships are de facto open relationships, and that “cheating” in those relationships isn’t really cheating. I’m poly, and this rubs me the wrong way. I’m curious what people here think about it.

    • Brett says:

      It made me update my “Is Yudkowsky a sanctimonious know-it-all?” meter in the positive direction.

      • multiheaded says:


      • Murphy says:

        It seems fair. the media is currently going into a feeding frenzy over the data with politicians and civil servants etc turning up in the lists but it’s a good point to remind people that many of the people on the site may not have been betraying anyone.

        Some married couples have the occasional threesome, some have other arrangements, some people remain married publicly for children or similar but lead separate romantic lives. Unless you know the intimate details of an individuals relationship you can’t pronounce them guilty of betraying anyones trust.

        But that doesn’t stop the newspapers from covering the front pages with accusations.

        • Jiro says:

          Unless you know the intimate details of an individuals relationship you can’t pronounce them guilty of betraying anyones trust.

          Why would someone interested in a polygamous relationship with consent use a site where he knows that regardless of whether he is betraying someone’s trust, it is likely that he’d be finding a partner who is betraying another person’s trust? I’d think he’d use a polygamy-based site which encourages doing it without deceit, not an adultery site that encourages doing it with deceit (even if deceit is not true in all cases).

          • alexp says:

            Possibly, the couple maintains to the outside world, maybe including their children and parents, that they’re in a traditional, pure monogamous relationship and putting a profile on a traditional or polygamous dating site is risking somebody else finding out.

            I have have no guess as to how many couple may have this arrangement.

          • Why would someone interested in a polygamous relationship with consent use a site [such as Ashley Madison]?… I’d think he’d use a polygamy-based site

            Searching for partners (poly or not) can be a game of numbers. Especially if you or your expectations are offbeat, you need to cast your net as wide as possible. I doubt there is any polyamory site that has millions of users.

            I do know of poly and open-marriage folks who have at least tried out Ashley Madison.

      • anon says:


    • Emily says:

      I have a lot of problems with this, but I’ll start with this one: the assumption that people who commit adultery are just people who want to be in open relationships but would be unfairly punished for asking for that. I really don’t know why he thinks that. Cheating on your spouse does not mean you’re ok with it being reciprocal.

      • Corwin says:

        Oh yeah? Well if they don’t want it to be reciprocal then they’re evil.

        It’s called universalizability. Alternatively, the Golden Rule. Or yet again, The Enemy-Control Ray.

        • Emily says:

          I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not. But this happens to me a lot here. So it might not be you.

          • Corwin says:

            Not ironic. Most of my morality is based on universalizability; which is actually a non-standard position around here 🙂

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          Asymmetric poly is rare, but it works well for some people. So long as everyone involved is 100% ok with it, what’s the problem?

          I’m taking your comment in isolation. Trying to set something like this up ethically while communicating only in vague hints sounds like a really bad idea.

          • Corwin says:

            It’s those who don’t want to offer reciprocity that I think are unfair. Of course they can factorize that by only having relationships with people who are ok with that, so there would be no unfairness in the actual relationships.

            In principle.

        • Leo says:

          It bothers me that you have ideas of how relationships should universally be. It bothers me further that those ideas don’t include exclusivity/closedness. If they did, you’d just have to find a finite set of like-minded persons and you could shake your heads at how everyone else is doing it wrong. But since you’re open, you’re going to end up imposing your ideas on some poor metamour who can’t abide them.

    • Pierre Menard says:

      Yikes, that post is quite bad.

      There is a kernel of truth in it: a relationship *can* be based on an agreed fiction where one or both parties pretend not to notice certain things. I have no idea how prevalent this is in the real world, but certainly literature has many examples.

      But the post in question sprinkles in these strange arguments that deception is all right. Apparently, it is okay to lie when “you are responding to a governing system that has chosen to impose punishments.” The assertion that “a law that 20% of the population disobeys isn’t a law, it’s a pretense hiding the real rules” is troublesome as well; if 20% of the population does something unethical, that does not make one whit more acceptable.

      Also: there is something faintly unethical about relationships which are based on an agreed fiction of fidelity which is never explicitly discussed. You might think your spouse knows about your profligate ways and condones them, but you don’t actually *know* how they will react to a revelation of your cheating. The whole thing involves some guesswork. You might be confident that you are right — but, ultimately, you are taking a gamble. And I doubt that anyone can be anything like 99.9% confident about how their spouse will react without an explicit discussion of things; I think the gamble you take by cheating in such a situation is always a big (and unjustifiable) one.

    • Anonymous says:

      I hope this isn’t a strawman (and by saying that, I think it probably is), but is Eliezer stating cheating is not prima facie wrong because monogamy is the structure relationships are forced into?

    • Godzillarissa says:

      Huge Edit: Meh, others laid it out better (while I wrote my initial thing) and made me change my mind a bit, so.. this might as well be deleted, I guess.

    • ddreytes says:

      Not a huge fan of poly relationships* or of EY but I think there is a kernel of an interesting point there – namely, the argument that the dominant social conditions are such that most people are never really offered a choice of being in a poly relationship or a monogamous relationship, and so it’s a little unfair to castigate people for not living up to the norms of a monogamous relationship when they were never offered any other choice.

      That said, I’m still not sure whether the broader point is valid – I think there are many cases in which it’s going to be cruel, and I think there are many cases in which it’s just impossible to regard it as reciprocal or mutually acknowledged. So I think there’s a good argument but I’m not sure how far it goes.

      *to be clear: I’m not morally disapproving of them, but they are extremely much not for me and I tend to be skeptical of their effectiveness in practice

      • “it’s a little unfair to castigate people for not living up to the norms of a monogamous relationship when they were never offered any other choice.”

        They have at least one other choice—no sexual relationship at all. Often other choices as well. Just choices which they find less desirable than the one they chose.

        Most people find that in order to have the income required to support their life style, they have to work at a job, often a job they don’t much enjoy working at. They were never offered the choice of spending all their time doing things they enjoy and having the same income. Does it follow that it is unfair to castigate a burglar or mugger for how he gets money?

        Unless you believe people have a right to have the opportunity for a non-monogamous sexual relation, I don’t think you can conclude that the lack of an opportunity for such justifies cheating on a purportedly monogamous one.

        • ddreytes says:

          That’s a fair point. I don’t think it’s an entirely accurate analogy (insofar as – at least as far as I can see – the only real barrier to making poly relationships much more common is a change in social norms, which is not so in the other case) but it’s a fair point.

          • nope says:

            The real barrier to making poly relationships much more common is the very real fact of evolutionary adaptations in our sexual response. There are outliers who have unusually positive or neutral responses to extra-dyadic interactions, or who can train themselves to have them, but if I had to guess, I would bet that even in a totally nonjudgemental society, around 90+% of people would be sufficiently uncomfortable with a partner’s dalliances to deter them from entering or staying in an open or polyamorous relationship.

          • Leo says:

            nope, yep. Thank you.

            That said, there exists an emotion of compersion. It’s a very specific emotion, different both from being happy for someone else and from wanting to sacrifice yourself for your beloved. It might or might not be a subtype of comradeship/tribal unity, or of whatever emotion it is that causes matchmaking/shipping.

            People don’t get circuitry for whole new emotions without some pressing evolutionary reason. Where did that come from, in a species that also has romantic/sexual jealousy?

    • Bugmaster says:

      Let’s say that you (*) have this friend, whom you care deeply about; and this friend has this crazy hangup about paint colors. One day, he asks you to never, ever paint your house teal, because visiting you in your teal house would cause him a lot of pain. And let’s say that you made that friend a solemn promise to never paint your house any shade of teal in any capacity.

      If you then turn around and paint your house teal, and your friend finds out, you can make lots of perfectly reasonable arguments. You could say that his teal-phobia is really silly, since colors are pretty arbitrary. You could argue that teal is the environmentally optimal color. You could say that it’s your friend’s own fault for visiting your house and looking at it too hard. You could say that, technically, the color of your house is not teal, because its hue is off by 0.5 degrees from the ISO-standard teal. You could say that, deep down inside, all humans love teal houses, and you have the data to prove it.

      You can say all these things, and none of them would matter, because the issue at stake has little to do with the color of your house. The real problem here is that you violated your friend’s trust. You made a solemn promise, pretended that you took it seriously, and went ahead and broke that promise just because in reality you thought it was all a bunch of silliness.

      You might say that, as rationalists, we should be above petty things like promises and trust; we should just use the Bayes rule for all of our interpersonal interactions. Personally, I think you might even be right about that ! But regardless of whether you’re right or not, you need to accept that most people don’t think that way; and if you act this way toward them, you’ll end up hurting them. And if hurting people doesn’t matter to you, well, then this is something you need to disclose in some pretty obvious way pretty early on; this way, all of the inferior non-rationalist humans would know to avoid you, and total happiness will increase in the world.

      (*) I’m talking about the metaphorical “you” here, and not about anyone specific.

      • Nita says:

        Hey, it’s not really a betrayal if you can convince yourself they expected it. And non-rationalist teal-phobics are crazy anyway, who knows what wacky things they expect!

        Besides, they’re oppressing you with their potential socially-sanctioned teal-shaming, so you’re entitled to a bit of civil disobedience.

      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        You might say that, as rationalists, we should be above petty things like promises and trust; we should just use the Bayes rule for all of our interpersonal interactions.

        EY explicitly denies this.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I thought EY was a consequentialist ? The article on Ethical Injunction reads like deontology to me.

          • Tenobrus says:

            It seems more like an exploration of how certain deontological ideas are/can be embedded in consequentialism, and how imperfect reasoners might actually implement consequentialism.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics should be thought of more as different representations for ethics than fundamentally different ethical systems. Like polar vs. cartesian coordinates.

          • Peter says:

            I was about to say: “Looks like a fairly straightforward application of some variety of rule consequentialism to me.” but then I thought I should delete the “fairly straightforward” and I pondered some more, and this looks in some ways more like an odd form of act consequentialism.

            A deonotologist might say “these things being injuncted against are wrong in and of themselves“, all that stuff about “This is to protect you from your own cleverness (especially taking bad black swan bets), and the Corrupted hardware you’re running on.” is beside the point.

            A rule consequentialist might say, “I might quibble about the details of the cleverness bit, but the basic idea is a good one; the rules that make things go to the best may well have to be fitted to the hardware they have to run on, rather than theoretically optimal hardware. However, I don’t agree with the ‘rules not to do something even when it’s the right thing to do’ bit – if the optimal rules say not to do something, then it’s the wrong thing to do.

            An act consequentialist – an odd one – might say, “That bit about ‘rules not to do something’ is actually OK. You see, I make things go for the best by promoting these injunctions and preparing myself to obey them. Now if I had the magical power to break these rules precisely when it would make things go for the best, and never otherwise, then it would be wrong of me not to use that power. But I don’t; I accept that I’m going to be suboptimal in future whichever way I try to steer myself now, so I accept compromises in order to keep the suboptimality to a minimum.”

            Warning: I lean rule consequentialist, so don’t trust my description of the other two positions to be maximally charitable. My inner Kantian is muttering something about the description of deontology, something along the lines of “we’re not all hidebound List Deontologists you know, these rules actually come from somewhere, perhaps you could try examining the injunctions, and showing why the negations of the injunctions are self-defeating” but there’s another inner Kantian saying, “but that’s not what Kant meant at all” so I prefer to leave them to their bunfight and thing in rule consequentialist terms.

          • Ariel Ben-Yehuda says:

            No. It is completely a consequentalist heuristic. Even if you are a completely selfish consequentalist, opportunistically Breaking the Law is probably a bad idea, even if you don’t see how you can get caught – you don’t know the ways police can discover your crime, especially these that will be invented 10 years from now. Similarly, (according to Eliezer) immoral actions are probably bad for you too – they tend to have unpredictable, bad consequences.

            One of the points of ethical injunctions is that the risk is high enough that the probability of your reasoning being wrong because of out-of-context reasons is significant enough to drown your expected utility.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        I don’t have too much reliable data, but it seems silly to just expect that every couple had a nice sitdown and said “I want to be exclusive with you, all right?” “Yes, me too, cool?” “cool”.

        The way it seems to me (again, little data), it’s just “normal” to be mono and “common sense” not to “cheat” on your partner. Talking about it is uncool, you make yourself vulnerable by showing fear of betrayal and “decent people” wouldn’t need to anyway.

        If that ever happened, though, I agree with you. If it didn’t, there was no promise to be broken, just assumptions and that’s really both people’s fault.

        • Acedia says:

          The idea that a non-trivial percentage of cheating is the result of an honestly mistaken belief about one’s partner being polyamorous seems…far-fetched, to put it mildly.

          Despite how it may seem to people who spend a lot of time in fringe subcultures like LW, humans that don’t experience sexual jealousy are really, really rare.

          • Godzillarissa says:

            Re “honestly mistaken”: I don’t say they couldn’t have guessed that “cheating” would make their partner unhappy. I just say that there’s a mutual obligation to sort those things out before they happen, and noone ever seems to do that.

            Edit: It has been pointed out to me below that “we” are talking about married couples. I’m not.

        • Salem says:

          I don’t have too much reliable data, but it seems silly to just expect that every couple had a nice sitdown and said “I want to be exclusive with you, all right?” “Yes, me too, cool?” “cool”.


          We are talking about married couples. The overwhelming majority of them stood up in front of all their friends and said words to the effect of “I want to be exclusive with you, all right?”

          That’s the whole reason why EY is talking about “marriage vows” and “sacred contracts”… then arguing it’s OK to break them because waaah societal oppression of polyamory.

          • Zebram says:

            And if there is societal oppression of polyamory, why cannot the jilted one in the marriage who shoots the other person dead claim societal oppression of jealousy and rage?

          • Godzillarissa says:

            Nah, EY was talking about married couples, we were talking about teal houses and promises explicitly made.

            But yeah, if we limit ourselves to the ones that explicitly made it clear to one another that they would be exclusive, I wholeheartedly agree that cheating is wrong.

          • Saint_Fiasco says:


            There is, in fact, societal oppression of jealousy and rage, for very good reasons.

          • JE says:

            They also said something like “until death do us part” and yet no one finds divorce to be extremely immoral.

          • Salem says:

            They also said something like “until death do us part” and yet no one finds divorce to be extremely immoral.


            I suggest you meet more people.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Plenty of people find divorce extremely immoral, especially historically. The meaning of marriage has been continually culturally eroded for centuries now in the West, but at some point those words really did mean something. You can, for example, read the Bible and see what it has to say about the morality of divorce.

          • Zebram says:


            Well, they may seem like good reasons to you, but not to many others.

            But we can continue that line of reasoning and say ‘There is societal oppression of polyamory for very good reasons: because it leads to jealousy and rage’

          • Saint_Fiasco says:


            I disagree on the object level. Why would polyamory lead to jealousy?

            More importantly, it would make more sense to oppose jealousy and rage directly, which means opposing polyamory only if it is indeed the best way to stop jealousy and rage. There are probably several ways that are better.

          • John Schilling says:

            Why would polyamory lead to jealousy?

            Because the essence of jealousy is insecurity about someone else having a thing that one feels they have fairly earned or are otherwise entitled to.

            The most valuable thing most people will earn is the love of another human being. And look, right here, the love of that human being is going to Someone Else. That’s jealousy.

            Only if a person absolutely trusts that the love they see their partner deliver unto another is somehow distinct from the love they have earned for themselves will they not be in some measure jealous. This can happen; “I have my husband’s heart, that the mistress has his lust is inconsequential”. That’s rare. “All I have ever done has earned me only a third share of my husband’s love; what his other two wives receive is the share they have rightfully earned” is more rare, even I think in explicitly polygamous societies. But, regardless of the relative frequency of these outcomes, there’s certainly the ingredients for jealousy there in a way that isn’t present in a faithful monogamous relationship.

            People jealously accepting a third share of someone’s love because they’d otherwise have none at all, that’s common. And the foundation for all sorts of ballads, poems, romances, and other sagas that never have happy endings.

          • Saint_Fiasco says:

            @John Schilling

            It’s true that people who don’t feel jealous are a minority. They can be polyamorous if they want and find a partner(s) with a similar attitude without any moral issue, right?

            Even within the minority of people who don’t get jealous, they are not all polyamorous, because they don’t feel like it or because they never considered it.

            Do you think “promoting” polyamory to those people so that they don’t get in monogamous relationships with a potentially jealous partner is wrong? Because I think that would reduce the amount of jealousy in the world, not increase it.

          • John Schilling says:

            How does a polyamorous person getting into a monogamous relationship with a potentially jealous partner, increase the amount of jealousy in the world? Polyamorists are supposedly about explicit negotiation and consent, so they won’t actually be sleeping around (or even cuddling around) while in that relationship, and the potential for jealousy will have no reason to turn into actual jealousy.

            Resentfulness, in the poly partner towards the totally un-hip, square partner cramping their style, that might increase, but that’s a different matter.

            But it’s the bit about “finding a partner with a similar attitude” that’s an issue. There are people who don’t feel jealous and are good with polyamory. Then there are people who say they don’t feel jealous and that they are good with polyamory, when that isn’t actually the case. There are lots of those, and many of them are even lying to themselves. When the truth comes out, people get hurt.

            That’s a risk you can chose to take. It is, in some contexts, a risk you can morally justify. Don’t delude yourself that it isn’t a risk, that you are a member of the community of Rare, Special People who don’t have to deal with all that stuff. Your community has to deal with maybe half as much of that stuff, but between the relative inexperience and the denial you may find that you’re less than half as good at it.

          • Leo says:

            “All I have ever done has earned me only a third share of my husband’s love; what his other two wives receive is the share they have rightfully earned”

            Ooooh! So that’s why I get creepily religious and quote Psalm 23 at my boyfriends. I don’t think I’ve earnt it at all, I think they’re being bountiful.

            And their love for other people is both just as deserved (i.e. not very much at all), and completely distinct – it’s not lesser like in your love/lust example but it’s a full share of a different love, not an n-th share of some fungible pie.

            Your model explains things I didn’t get. If you’re monogamous, why force your partner to stay instead of striving to be better than the alternatives? Because you earnt it and they just waltzed in. If you’re doing primary/secondary, why do you get to be an asshole to secondaries? Because you’re putting the most effort into this relationship and you should get the most out of it. If you’re not very jealous, why mock the monogamous instead of shrugging? Because those whiny bastards want to hog someone even though they’re not so extraordinarily good they’re entitled to all their love.

            Likewise, I don’t get jealous at people getting their fill, but do get jealous at what I perceive to be a lack of thankfulness or at poisoning the common well.

            This does not suggest a solution to conflicting desires exactly, but it does suggest a way for the conflicting parties to understand each other better.

        • Personal experience suggests that the vast, vast majority of long-term couples, married or not, have had a discussion of this sort at some point. For example, my parents, before they met, were each casually dating several people. After they met, my dad asked my mom if she would date him exclusively, and so they did.

          But of course I don’t have hard numbers; perhaps there exists some large number of people who just say, “Hey, wanna date?” or “Hey, wanna get married?” without any explicit reference to exclusivity.

          Here, it is not an “assumption” to consider that a long-term relationship, married or not, will be exclusive; that’s how the vast majority of people actually define the terms.

          To make a metaphor… Imagine if you said, “Hey, want to go to this great new restaurant that opened up last week?” and I said yes, and when we got there, it was your friend Bob’s house, and Bob was making sandwiches, and you said, “I never said it was a professionally run restaurant, Bob’s a great sandwich maker and he’s going to give us sandwiches, you shouldn’t have made assumptions,” I’d tell you that this is not what “restaurant” means.

          Likewise, the vast majority of people include “exclusivity” as part of the definition of marriage (or a long-term relationship,) not just something they’re assuming.

          • Nick says:

            My own impression is that an explicit “exclusivity/define the relationship talk” is one of the classic early milestones of any budding monogamous partnership. I can certainly conceive of couples skipping it (although “couple” in itself suggests exclusivity to me), but hadn’t imagined that very many with healthy communication skills would. I’d usually expect it to occur within the first few months of dating, as early as half-a-dozen dates in, and it would clarify the boundaries and expectations of the relationships, what qualifies as infidelity, etc.

            Earlier than that, though, I think there’s a stronger case to be made, with “dating multiple people” to be the default assumption during those first few dates.

            I think even in the rare event that the couple fails to have an explicit discussion, social custom should still penalize cheating if the primary background assumption is one of exclusivity after a certain period of time. It’s like if I offer an acquaintance or friend some chips and salsa, only my salsa is actually EXTREMELY SPICY DEATH SALSA. My friend likes mild to moderate spice in their salsa, so they don’t question my offer. Just because some minority of the population likes extremely spicy foods doesn’t mean my friend made an ass out of you and me — I’m the only ass here, and should be held responsible for any damage to person or property that result from my poorly conceived offer.

        • Randy M says:

          Every couple? Duh, no. But that’s exactly what traditional wedding vows are. Do you mean there should be a seperate conversation sometime later wherein they clear up “Did you really mean the vows, or did you just say them because the pastor and your grandma were there?”

          Also, “hey, do you wanna go steady?” and “Do you want to get married?” (for typical understandings of mariage) are otehr forms that conversation takes.

      • Max says:

        You might say that, as rationalists, we should be above petty things like promises and trust; we should just use the Bayes rule for all of our interpersonal interactions. Personally, I think you might even be right about that !

        How does it follow that being rationalist means abandoning promises, and , especially trust? Trust is the fundamental quality of all social interactions (and not just between humans).

        • Bugmaster says:

          Presumably, truly rational people would not need trust and promises in order to maintain social cohesion. They would simply calculate the best course of action in every situation given available data, and if they arrive at different answers, they’d compare notes and figure out who is more likely to be true.

          Thus, the teal-house situation I described would be impossible. If you wanted to paint your house teal, and I wanted you to paint it any color other than teal, we would get together and compare all of our priors, evidence, and arithmetic. At the end of this process, either you will agree that teal-phobia is perfectly rational and thus refrain from painting your house; or I would agree that it is irrational, and thus withdraw my objection to you painting your house; or we will discover that we have some fundamentally different terminal goals, and thus the most rational choice would be to avoid interacting with each other if at all possible.

          We currently do not live in a world where people who can truly act that way are anywhere near a majority; but IMO it’s not unreasonable to imagine such a world. It might indeed be better than our own, I’m not sure…

          • Deiseach says:

            Funny you should mention painting houses 🙂

            We’ve recently had a situation at my place of work where two neighbours, who up to this had been getting on well, fell out very badly over one of them painting a shared wall a different colour to what it had originally been painted.

            So far as I can make out, the new colour isn’t that hugely different, but all the complaints have been about ‘how dare she do this when I didn’t want it done’ and strictly speaking, the right of the matter is with the neighbour complaining.

            But sitting down to talk it over rationally? Not a chance. And this is why we have rules and regulations out our ears, because people are this petty-minded and will complain.

          • Tristan Haze says:

            ‘Presumably, truly rational people would not need trust and promises in order to maintain social cohesion. They would simply calculate the best course of action in every situation given available data, and if they arrive at different answers, they’d compare notes and figure out who is more likely to be true.’

            This is philosophically interesting, and I’m inclined to think it’s misguided in some deep and elusive way. Perhaps the right objection here is: but the activities of ‘comparing notes’ and cooperating at ‘figuring out’ presuppose trust.

          • Jiro says:

            I think rational people would understand precommitment.

          • Daniel Speyer says:

            I can’t tell how serious you are, but you seem to be assuming everyone has the same goals: either some globally preferable world state or perfect utilitarianism with no selfishness. Neither of those is common.

          • Max says:

            Presumably, truly rational people would not need trust and promises in order to maintain social cohesion

            That would not be “rational” That would people with exact same utility and goals.
            Suppose there is two perfectly rational agents A and B, they want something other agent has. There are many ways to do it – they can fight each other, they can trade, they can scam and so on. The most rational course of action depends on trust between agents and expected utility. You can not calculate utility if you do not now how trustworthy other side is

      • Matt says:

        if hurting people doesn’t matter to you, well, then this is something you need to disclose in some pretty obvious way pretty early on; this way, all of the inferior non-rationalist humans would know to avoid you, and total happiness will increase in the world.

        As one who is willing to entertain solipsism (both in myself and allowing others to entertain it), why exactly is this something that needs to be done. One can decide not to disclose things until they are discovered; if one is extremely adept at deceit and is never found out, no harm is done.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        To extend the analogy, it’s not merely a friend, but someone who co-owns the house with you. And there is an HOA requirement that color changes be cleared by the architectural committee. And you had the house painted while they were on vacation. And, even it is re-painted to a different color, the particular pain they experience comes from knowing the house was ever teal.

    • olivander says:

      To be honest I think EY had an unusual childhood, and his views on marriage, childrearing, etc are not generalizable. To be specific, I think you could use his logic to justify almost any lie.

    • Alphaceph says:

      I think he has something of a point. A contract made under some amount of duress is less bad to break.

      There is some amount of duress applied to being monogamous, in the sense that societal expectations work very hard to push you into monogamy.

      Still, I think he goes a bit too far; if you want a nonmonogamous relationship, you should ask for one. If s/he says “no”, you should get divorced rather than cheat, on grounds of principle.

      • Bugmaster says:

        See, I personally think it has less to do with principle, and more with hurting a person whom you ostensibly care about. From the point of view of that person, divorce would hurt a lot, but still less than betrayal — even if you personally believe that no betrayal took place, or that the concept of betrayal does not apply to this situation, etc.

      • Emily says:

        There are societal expectations that work very hard for lots of things. Like you shouldn’t steal from your employer. And most of us require jobs to support ourselves. Does that mean we take jobs under some amount of duress, and there is some justification for stealing from your employer?

        • Saint_Fiasco says:

          There are some laws and societal rules that are explicitly about people taking jobs under duress.

          Minimum wage laws, the 8 hour workday, the work-family balance memeplex, laws against sex work and selling your own organs, etc.

          Some people do go as far as justifying stealing from employers, like authoritarian socialist governments forcefully expropriating private businesses.

          • Deiseach says:

            Okay, Saint_Fiasco, if ever in the multiverse I find myself doing some kind of business with Eliezer Yudkowsky (something I’m sure both he and I cannot imagine happening) then I should take it that any contract or agreement between us is not worth the paper it’s written on or the breath taken to utter a verbal agreement, since he does not consider imposed obligations of social expectation from without to bind him, as by his stated word it wouldn’t trouble him a straw if he or others break their sworn word in matters of the marriage vow, so why should I expect other vows to bind him any more strongly?

            And I, likewise, will be doing my best to cheat, cozen and defraud him, since I too do not consider myself bound to consider anything but my own interest, and if I can get goods or services out of him with a promise of payment and then leave him with nothing, why should I be fool enough to consider “Oooh, that’s stealing, and society says stealing is wrong?” Society is old-fashioned and regressive and wants to make us all unhappy!

          • Saint_Fiasco says:

            Eliezer never broke a marriage vow himself, though. His writings on decision theory seem to indicate that he does not approve of other people breaking vows either, and even that Facebook post makes more sense when read in a “innocent until proven guilty” (that’s an actual quotation from the post) way.

          • Randy M says:

            An employer saying “Take this minimum wage job or I will blackmail you” is a different sort of duress than a general societal feeling that able bodied people should work for their income.
            In the same way the duress about being in a monogamous marriage can vary from justifying betrayal (Snidely Mustache-Twirler threatened to blow up the orphanage if you don’t marry him) to being a selfish rationalization if you use it to break your vows (“the sense that societal expectations work very hard to push you into monogamy”).

      • Deiseach says:

        Alphaceph, if someone gets married, they must be fairly well aware that the expectation still is to be monogamous. If you’re mentally crossing your fingers as you take your vows (or sign the register), that’s still deceit, even if you don’t intend it as such and only think you’re making a reasonable defence against duress. The point at which to say “I don’t think imposed monogamy is correct or a proper request to make; it should be a free choice and negotiated between the partners” is before you get to the stage of marriage.

        If your principles really are that you don’t or can’t live under the expectations of monogamy, then tell the other person. Marriage is a big step of commitment and closeness, and if you can’t be that honest about a fundamental issue with your spouse, how solid are the foundations for the rest of the marriage?

        I can see that people go into marriage expecting to live up to the ideals, and then after a while (be it five or twenty years) it’s all routine and boredom and wondering about greener grass happens. But signing up for an “online dating/social site” that pretty explicitly is advertised as not merely for finding new online friends to discuss common interests is going beyond simply wondering, or meeting someone and having immediate chemistry, or getting drunk and doing something foolish when temporarily parted from your spouse: it’s deciding to do something behind the other person’s back, not because it’s legitimate privacy (people can’t live in one another’s pockets all the time, there has to be space and separation about some things) but because it’s deceitful, cheating, hurtful, and selfish. It’s breaching trust, and it’s the kind of behaviour that would also fracture a friendship or a business relationship or employment (so what if you’re sharing client information with your company’s rival for cash? The imposed obligation not to seek your own interest does not bind you!)

      • stillnotking says:

        There is some amount of duress applied to being monogamous, in the sense that societal expectations work very hard to push you into monogamy.

        That’s not an appropriate use of the word “duress”. Monogamy is not legally enforced (assuming the consent of all actually-involved parties), and you have no reasonable expectation of anyone forcibly punishing you for not being monogamous. Open marriages and polyamory might be unusual; they might be looked at askance by most people; they might even limit your social and professional opportunities — but none of that is duress, any more than you are under duress not to get a swastika tattooed on your forehead. (OK, if you live in Germany, you actually are.)

        If the monogamy secret police were dragging poly people out of their homes in the middle of the night and shipping them to camps, you’d have a point.

    • suntzuanime says:

      All I have to say about this is, if you’re going to take actions that are really bad without consent on the basis that the ostensible failure to consent is a lie, you had better be pretty fucking sure of yourself.

      • DavidS says:


      • Daniel Speyer says:

        And yet, that is the mainstream model of seduction, is it not? Guess which “no”s were actually meant? And that’s done with higher stakes and less information.

        (Have I mentioned recently how much I dislike mainstream culture?)

        • John Schilling says:

          Seduction is traditionally done in stages, and outside the realm of Social Justice the risk at each stage is small. No great and lasting harm will ensue if you steal a kiss when only a hug was invited, and by the time both parties are enthusiastically cavorting naked in bed a cry of “rape” will require extraordinary evidence to be taken seriously. Take things one step at a time, and you’re most unlikely to get into something you can’t get out of with a simple apology.

          Philandering, as far as the marital relationship is concerned, jumps directly from your wife sincerely believing you are working late, to her catching you schtupping the secretary in a cheap motel room. That, is high stakes.

          Also, most societies have fairly well established euphemisms, body language, and other non-verbal cues for signaling the various stages of seduction, and it is rarely a deal-breaker if one escalates to explicitly verbal negotiation at a point of real uncertainty. I am not aware of similar mechanisms for communicating, “I agree that you are allowed to violate our explicit marital vows but desire that you never talk to me about this”.

        • AJD says:

          Daniel, I think what you might be doing here is critiquing rape culture.

    • Deiseach says:

      Ah, this is about the Ashley Madison hacking?

      Right, I find it difficult to have much sympathy for the people involved. Also, putting aside the deception, how foolish were they to provide so much personal information to a site based on “this is to facilitate you doing something you want to keep anonymous”?

      Though it was fairly sophisticated marketing, I’ll give them that. The idea of the £15 fee to wipe your data if you wanted to close your account seemed odd to me (I can see why they’d charge a sign-up fee, but a fee to close up?) until I thought about it a little bit: this would keep the waverers going. Someone who maybe isn’t managing to arrange an affair, or had one but isn’t really in the market for another, and is thinking of closing their account. The company loses money on this, naturally, if the patron isn’t paying for their services (I presume they have to pay a monthly fee?) so by making it psychologically more difficult to cut ties – the idea of having to pay to leave – will mean that enough people will be more likely to go “That’s too much trouble” and they keep their account.

      The business also managed to hook them in to (I’m going by media reports here) put up things like sexual fantasies, etc. so I’m imagining they were in chat rooms and again paying for these services. Well, the company has neatly packaged what are more or less escort services (they’re also running a service for hooking up wealthy men with pretty young women and older women, younger men – the standard ‘you have money and status, I’m young and pretty and poor, we’ll swap sex and a trophy on your arm for money’ model).

      But in all honesty, this kind of place is a blackmailer’s charter! How can you trust a company that asks you to pay for removing private data, particularly when it comes to “I want to be very discreet and do this in perfect anonymity – so I’m giving you my real name, address, credit card details, and handy personal data like what kind of women I prefer and what my sexual tastes are”?

      To move on to what Yudkowsky is saying – bollocks. Strip away all the “conventional marriage yadda yadda yadda” boilerplate, and it’s the same old nonsense about repressive social expectations oppressing people where we’d all be happier if we were free to have sex morning, noon and night with whomever we liked.

      Now, even if you’re talking de facto ‘open relationships’, where it’s never been formally discussed or stated but both parties know it’s non-exclusive, both parties are seeing other people, it’s more a kind of ‘we sometimes go on dates and have sex now and again’ rather than a committed relationship, that’s fine.

      Boredom, novelty seeking, met someone hot and fancied a one-night stand, separated from your regular partner for whatever reason – sure, these things happen.

      BUT – signing up to a ‘dating site for adulterers’ is NOT being open. It IS cheating. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be looking for a discreet affair, your partner would know you were open to new encounters.

      It’s trying to eat your cake and have it: you want sexual excitement from the novelty of a new partner where there is nothing but the sex itself that’s the main concern, then you want to go back to your regular life where you have the emotional satisfaction of your needs and joint support of partnered life.

      Yes, having a rendezvous in a pleasantly bland hotel room with someone dolled up in their new sexy French silk knickers beats the worry of ringing the plumber to fix that leak in the water tank and balancing the cheque book and whose turn it is to take the dog to the vet.

      But if you’re living on your own, you’re still going to have to ring the plumber and take the dog to the vet. Real Life still has to be lived, even if you do manage to find a partner willing to discuss your naughty kinky fantasies online. And I’d be willing to make the presumption that a lot of the people signed up to “Ashley Madison” would be upset and feel betrayed if they found out their partner had done the same, or was on an equivalent website.

      No, you’re not showing your superior social progression and evolved consciousness above the lumpen denizens shackled by out-worn bourgeois convention; what could be more bourgeois than a convenient website to arrange cut-and-dried trysts which you can pencil in between your gym session and that conference on stationery orders you have to attend on the 16th?

      Be honest. If sexual novelty is what is most important to you, then uncouple yourself and be single and free to bed as many people as are willing to have you. But don’t try and have it all by getting your end away and then going home to the person you left to wash your dirty socks while you were cavorting.

      Wash your own dirty socks, is what I’m saying 🙂

      • Murphy says:

        I’m actually kind of surprised that they could legally charge for removing info when you closed your account. Under canadian data protection law you have the right to ask a company to remove your details if you believe the company does not have a valid reason for holding your personal details.

        • Deiseach says:

          Murphy, having looked at the Wikipedia article, I’m full of admiration* for their business model. It’s a cross between your bog-standard premium rate adult chatline and the old Soho gentlemen’s club, e.g. they don’t charge an upfront monthly subscription fee, but you have to buy drinks for the hostess, as it were, with the ‘credits’ system:

          For a conversation between two members, one of the members — almost always the man — must pay five credits to initiate the conversation. Any follow-up messages between the two members are free after the communication has been initiated. Ashley Madison also has a real-time chat feature that is metered. Credits are utilised to pay for a certain time allotment of chat. Women can send messages to men for free, but the men must pay to read them. Men must always pay to send messages to women.

          Unless they know how to opt out of the “Ashley’s Angels” feature, the site’s Terms and Conditions say that users who have not yet paid the site any money (“Guest” accounts) may get computer-generated messages from fictitious profiles that “are NOT conspicuously identified as such”. These may cost money to respond to. The site says this feature is “to provide entertainment”.

          The site also charges money to delete accounts, although they may be hidden for free. The paid deletion includes removing messages sent from the mailboxes of their recipients.

          *In the sense of, when it comes to screwing the maximum dosh out of the suckers, they have it down. I don’t approve of the philosophy behind the site, but it really is more about “how can we make money out of sex?” not “let’s promote adultery” that is at work here; obviously, the founders calculated that people are always going to be led around by their hormones rather than their brains, and they’ll pay money if you dangle the carrot of “easy access to fantasy come true” before their noses. They’re devotees of Mammon, not Asmodeus 🙂

          • Randy M says:

            “may get computer-generated messages from fictitious profiles that “are NOT conspicuously identified as such”. These may cost money to respond to. ”

            That is hillarious, and also probably a decent buisiness model all by itself for Ashley Madison Japan.

          • Loquat says:

            computer-generated messages from fictitious profiles that “are NOT conspicuously identified as such”

            You know, a well-programmed AI with decent CGI software could probably be a really successful camwhore.

            I leave it to others to speculate on what such a entity would do if it mutated into the kind of AI that takes over the world.

      • Emily says:

        I want to clarify: is is the deceit part of the having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too that you’re objecting to, or all of it? Because if you can pull off sexual excitement from the novelty of a new partner and then going back to your regular life in a way that’s honest to/respectful of your various partners, that sounds pretty great. (I don’t think most people can, so there aren’t a lot of situations in which I’d recommend it. And I think there are social-conservative type arguments you could make about not pursuing that kind of thing because most people can’t pull it off and so we should have norms against it.)

        • Deiseach says:

          It’s the deceit, in this case. If you and spouse/partner/main person you have a meaningful connection with both agree that “Okay, we’re free to see other people on the side” or “Okay, I understand that you are not cut out for sexual fidelity but as long as our relationship is the most important one, I’m fine with you having adventures”, then that’s your business.

          Here I’m thinking of Jane and Alan Clark, where he was a hound (not to put too fine a point on it) and she knew, but didn’t care, because he was never going to look for a divorce and he was always going to come back to her.

          This site, though, is about sneaking around (or at least for the people who sign up to it; for the owners, it’s about making the maximum amount of money out of the rubes by dressing up what’s based on a phone sex line with a thin layer of false sophistication). There may well be people on here who are here with the consent and even participation of their partner. But most of them are married and are committing (or looking to commit) adultery. They’re not looking for a new relationship (so you can’t really call it a dating site), they’re already in a relationship, not currently seeking to divorce, but wanting some strange.

          I’m not saying they’re horrible people and they deserve to be outed, but I am saying they’re not blameless little lambs, either.

          • Emily says:

            OK. Because most of what you said applies just as much to many people who are in open relationships. Sexual novelty is important to them. They want both the excitement of a new partner and the stability of a spouse. Etc.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      In a shocking development, a famously un-self-aware poly guy justifies cheating! More at eleven.

      Seriously though, beneath the idiocy there is a fragment of a point. Our current idea of cheating doesn’t make any sense and is poorly fitted to us, which does sometimes make mountains out of molehills. But the solution isn’t for everyone to join a poly-group, but rather to think clearly about things.

      In general, men are viscerally disgusted and enraged by the idea of their women sleeping with other men. In general, women are very concerned about their men being “stolen” by other women. Since most relationships are between an average man and an average woman, reason would suggest that they each keep to the other’s standard rather than both obeying a weird hybrd definition.

      This works out fairly well in practice. Women will very often agree for you to sleep around as long as you don’t embarrass them or reduce the amount of affection you show them. And as long as things are certain to stay platonic, few guys would begrudge a woman emotionally intimate relationships with sexually unthreatening (see ‘friendzoned’) men. This doesn’t include people with unusual desires, but then again by definition they’re not going to be included in the “default” relationship structure anyway.

      • Nita says:

        Women will very often agree for you to sleep around as long as you don’t embarrass them

        The problem is that you can’t guarantee that, no matter how hard you try. You might be seen by third parties, your lover might get pregnant, someone might hack Ashley Madison… Once you step on this path, the consequences are not entirely within your control.

        Your wife, on the other hand, could, in fact, refrain from (consensual) sex with her more-than-friends.

        So, the deal would not be equal, and no one would take it unless they were desperate or could gain something else in the process.

        • ozymandias says:

          The husband lets the wife have more-than-friends and the wife lets the husband get handjobs from strippers.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          The only reason your distinction makes sense is that you are counting the man’s unintended consequences as morally relevant and the woman’s as irrelevant: that word, consentual, is doing 100% of the lifting. If we (reasonably) say that a woman who was raped hasn’t really cheated because there was no mens rea, then we should extend the same logic to a man who accidentally impregnated another woman.

          As for a deal being uneven, it seems like two people trading things they don’t much care about for things they greatly do is mutually profitable. If we’re both of sound mind and not imposing costs on anyone else it’s awfully paternalistic to say that it’s exploitation.

          • Jiro says:

            There’s no mens rea for the impregnation itself, but the impregnation is a forseeable consequence.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Well this is treading into dangerous waters, but rape is often a “foreseeable consequence” of otherwise mundane activities like drinking at parties, sleeping over at a friend’s house or walking around downtown at night. As a society we have decided that this is not a valid argument, that no-one can be blamed for taking (what turn out to be in hindsight) inadequate precautions.

          • Nita says:

            1. Sleeping around increases the chance of scandal (or worse) from 0 to 5-15%. Having close male friends doesn’t substantially increase chances of rape (unless you think a substantial fraction of men are rapists).

            2. In case of rape, go to the police and get the rapist locked up — there’s your revenge. In case of scandal (or worse), there’s no recourse.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            The number I vaguely remember hearing, serendipitously, was about 1-5% of men being rapists so actually it sounds comparable. Although I’m not sure where that 5-15% is coming from either so we might have to call it a wash on pseudo-statistics.

            And you seem both overconfident in the likelihood of putting a rapist behind bars and underconfident on how easy it is to retaliate against a gossipy mistress. If anything, it would seem to be easier to do the latter than the former although that’s a sad commentary on our society.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            The rape analogy is bad because there’s an intervening voluntary act by a third party. Pregnancy is a purely mechanical product of sex.

      • Randy M says:

        Eh, I’m all for anti-egalitarian arguments, but I think a marriage arrangement where sexual contact outside it by either party is forbidden is far preferable than allowing mistresses for the man. I’d rather keep the norm and forgive an occasional slip-up (society wide) than promote the male infidelity as an acceptable arrangement due to evo-psych differences. I think you are complicating things unncessarily in order to eliminate negligible sexual frustration, while opening the door to stds, bastard children, “running off with the mistress,” wasted resources, jealousy, breaking up other marriages, etc. (And I say this as a man whose wife was unavailable for significant portions of married life between three children and surgery).

        • Ever An Anon says:

          I’m sympathetic to the argument from tradition, but let’s make sure we’re defending an actual tradition and not some fad from a century or two back.

          Male infidelity, as you call it, doesn’t seem to have been that big a deal to Europeans before recently and East Asians still don’t really seem to care about it. If I’m mistaken please correct me here.

          • Randy M says:

            I don’t think I made an argument from tradition, not that I’m against such things, but there I was rather more consequentialist.

          • LTP says:

            In a way, male infidelity being okay and even expected is actually more traditional.

          • Randy M says:

            For all society, or just upper class men?
            (not a rhetorical question)
            I suspect that, like polygamy, in modern times there aren’t enough women to go around, unless men in gneral become more willing to share than historically.

      • Trevor says:

        All women who I have talked to in my life would be disgusted that their spouse or long-term partner had sex with another women. Also many of my male friends have worried endlessly over their girlfriends platonic relationships with other men. Yes men care more about women having sex than having opposite sex friends and women the opposite, but both still care about both things quite a lot especially if you are so emotionally invested in someone that you got married.

        • anodognosic says:

          >All women who I have talked to in my life would be disgusted that their spouse or long-term partner had sex with another women.

          Trevor, have you talked to every woman you have ever talked to *about this*, in a context where you are confident they would be telling the truth?

          I’m not just being glib. When the socially enforced norm is monogamy, you pay a social penalty for expressing a positive opinion of nonmonogamy – in fact, you pay a penalty for failing to express a negative opinion of it. I suspect you’re building your opinion on highly biased data.

        • Trevor says:

          I am simply claiming that jealousy is an emotion commonly felt in both men and women and covers both sexual and platonic relationships. To claim that women will “very often” agree to their partners having extra marital affairs as long as they keep them hush hush is an absurd claim about modern American culture. Widespread preference falsification can happen, but is mostly relegated to oppressive totalitarian cultures and regimes. I cannot imagine that it is the case for people’s attitudes towards monogamy in western society.

    • Corwin says:

      He’s right.

      Monogamy is actually pretty nonexistent. What happens is that people get the monogamy meme in their heads by way of cultural osmosis and then their biology says LOLNOPE, make them fuck other people, and then the violations of their hilariously unrealistic expectations make them cry and scream.

      • DavidS says:

        This may be true, but I’d like to see the evidence.

        I also think that even if most people cheat it doesn’t mean monogamy is just a meme and sleeping around is biology. It’s perfectly plausible that we are driven both to pair-bond and to sleep around. Similarly, I seem to have biological drives both to achieve high-status things and to laze around eating junk food, playing computer games and taking naps.

        Human inconsistency doesn’t mean that one of the goals/values is a completely artificial external construct.

        • Corwin says:

          Well both sides are based on the same biological imperative. Can I just say “selfish gene” or do I have to unpack the whole inferential map? I don’t think there is actual disagreement there.

          Just, I’m thinking that, in a world with polyamory as pervasive as monogamy is in ours, and with jealousy as socially disapproved as infidelity is in ours, there would be a lot less painful drama, hypocrisy and lies.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            I think that might be a case of typical mind: if you think most people are either “naturally” poly or maleable enough for it not to matter then you’re probably right, but if there are more “natural” monogamists (as one would tend to expect) then the reverse would be true. Having to navigate a poly scene while mono sounds like it would require at least as much hypocrisy pain drama and deception as the reverse

          • Deiseach says:

            in a world with polyamory as pervasive as monogamy is in ours, and with jealousy as socially disapproved as infidelity is in ours, there would be a lot less painful drama, hypocrisy and lies

            Because I have a much less rosy view of human nature than you seem to have:

            “Oh my God, Sally, have you heard about Jon and Zoe?”

            “They broke up at last? I’ve been expecting that for a while, I really never thought they were part of a stable quintile, you know.”

            “No, the opposite! Go on, guess, you’ll never guess!”

            “Jon finally decided to go out with Mike? I mean, the guy has only been asking him for the last six months! I was starting to wonder was Jon some kind of biphobe or something?”

            “No! Even worse!”

            “He’s a binary genderist? Oh man, I knew there was something off about him.”

            “Noooo, even worse! Ah, I’m going to have to tell you, you’ll never guess: he and Zoe want to be exclusive!”

            “Exclusive what?”

            “Exclusive together!”

            “You mean, like, primaries? Okay, so who are they thinking of taking on as secondaries? Are they staying in the quint or moving out?”

            “No, no, no! Exclusive together! Like, monogamous!”

            “Ha, ha, ha! Oh wow, Julie, you really had me going there for a moment! Great joke, girlbaby!”

            “I’m not joking, I swear. It’s really true!”

            “What? But – but that’s – unnatural. It’s been scientifically proven that people are not naturally monogamous. It’s psychologically unhealthy, it’s selfish, and it’s downright sick minded, with the jealousy and possessiveness and bizarre delusions of ownership over another being’s choices and coercion of choice under duress of expectations that have no basis in human evolutionary history! You can’t be serious, Julie, and you shouldn’t say such things even as a joke.”

            “It’s not a joke. Look, ask Pauline and Terrence if you don’t believe me. They’re part of the quint, they’ll tell you Jon and Zoe are breaking up with them.”

            “But how did that happen? What caused it?”

            “Apparently – and I heard this from Mel who learned it from Angie, she’s one of Terrence’s side-partners, he’s terribly upset about the whole thing of course – they’ve always been secretly monogamous. They were pretending the whole time! They only joined the quint so they could live together without people – you know – talking if they tried having an erotic relationship with only two members.”

            “That’s disgusting. But you know, I’m not surprised to hear that about Jon. Zoe too, come to think of it: it was never natural, the way they’d spend all the time they could together, instead of rotating amongst their other partners. Very…unsettling. Ugh! It turns my stomach to think of it, that I’ve been associating with – with monos and I never knew it!”

          • Deiseach, that’s really delightful. If you ever decide to do a book, you’ve probably got enough rants and humorous pieces to make one.

            I believe the one universal human sexual trait (“universal” in the sense of common enough to shape cultures, not that every individual has it) is the desire to police other people’s sex lives.

          • Corwin says:

            Huh? I’m completely indifferent to other people’s sex lives. Maybe I’m a weird mutant?

          • Leo says:

            Yes, Corwin, you ARE a weird mutant, and you really ought to realise this before you wreck someone’s life by assuming they’re just like you.

          • Creutzer says:

            To be fair, it’s hard to see how one could wreck someone’s life by not caring about other people’s sex lives…

        • Science says:

          You want to see evidence? I think you may be disappointed. Pop evo-psych is just so stories all the way down.

      • moridinamael says:

        Only in the same sense that “money” is nonexistent.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        My guess, based on the standard parental investment theory, would be that our biology predisposes us both to cheat whenever we think we can get away with it– men with anyone who has viable eggs and a pulse, women with whatever partner will produce the most fit offspring– and at the same time to jealously guard the fidelity of our mates. This arrangement precludes mutual preference satisfaction, forcing us into monogamy and polygamy as compromises, compromises which are inherently unstable in the first case due to the risk of infidelity and in the second because of the reality of jealousy.

      • Deiseach says:

        What happens is that people get the no-murder meme in their heads by way of cultural osmosis and then their biology says LOLNOPE, make them kill other people, and then the violations of their hilariously unrealistic expectations make them cry and scream.

        What happens is that people get the honesty meme in their heads by way of cultural osmosis and then their biology says LOLNOPE, make them swindle other people, and then the violations of their hilariously unrealistic expectations make them cry and scream.

        What happens is that people get the ‘rape is bad’ meme in their heads by way of cultural osmosis and then their biology says LOLNOPE, make them fuck other people even without consent, and then the violations of their hilariously unrealistic expectations make them cry and scream.

        I mean, why not? How many thousands of years have we had laws about murder and theft and rape, and people still break them? Obviously they’re only culturally conditioned expectations with no relevance to the real world, so we should be honest and simply do away with them.

        • Saint_Fiasco says:

          >we should be honest and simply do away with them.

          Do you want to do away with them?

          • Deiseach says:

            No, I don’t but that’s because I think there are deeper reasons for such prohibitions than “It’s merely a fad, like this season’s hemline”.

          • Saint_Fiasco says:

            Well, there you go. You don’t have to abandon your ethical principles just because other people have different principles.

            I think exposing people’s crimes and immorality in an indiscriminate fashion is wrong. There is too much risk that you are wrong either about the morality (the thing they did is not wrong) or even about the facts (they did not do the wrong thing you think they did).

            Some of those people may be in open relationships and don’t want that fact to be publicly known, for example.

            Scratch that. A single one of those thousands could be in a closet open relationship and the leak would still be wrong.

    • I think there certainly is a lot of seemingly-dishonest behavior that all parties involved expect and adjust for. But–although I’m a poly person, and can’t speak for the monogamous–I don’t think promises to be monogamous falls into that category for most people. I think for most people, if their partner promises to be monogamous, they expect that partner to keep that promise.

      I’m also leery of peppering your definitions of lying, cheating, etc. with exceptions that are “not really X.” Better to say that lying is sometimes OK than to claim to be against all lying but secretly have a laundry list of exceptions in mind.

      • Amanda says:

        I am a monogamous person and I think you’re completely right. I, as well as all the other monogamous people I know, do expect our partners to refrain from having sexual relations with other people if that was a part of the relationship agreement (and of course, the vast majority of monogamous people would never voluntarily enter a relationship where this wasn’t the agreement).

        I would definitely be devastated if my partner (who promised to be monogamous with me) cheated and it would destroy the relationship.

        (Note, I don’t have a problem with poly-inclined peolpe having poly relationships as long as everyone involved knows about it and is fine with it. It’s just not for me.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I kind of understand this in terms of the discussion of “well, obviously people want to work 40 hours per week, since they have their choice of any job and those are the kinds of jobs employers and employees settle upon”. It seems to be set almost entirely by tradition, and barely at all by the will of anyone involved (even businesses would probably prefer to be able to have shorter-hour jobs rather than workers who spend half their time surfing Reddit and getting paid because they’re out of work).

      In the same way, a lot of people might be pressured into mono relationships who would prefer there to be some other choice but don’t believe that there is. Possibly this could be put into the common-knowledge framework – a lot of people would prefer open relationships, but it signals the wrong thing to ask, so they never do.

      I am pretty sure if I had never met poly people, I would have just blundered into a normal monogamous relationship and never really thought about it. The same seems true of, well, most poly people. That a lot of people who have the option choose to go poly makes me thing that there are a lot of people who would have chosen it if they had the option.

      (consider also that nearly all doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath, which says things like “I will let barbers cut out kidney stones instead of doing it myself” and “I will train the children of my mentors in medicine for free” without meaning a word of it, just because it’s a ritual)

      I would say all of this is probably true a lot of the time, but also that there’s a social norm that you can’t just break contracts because you feel like it and the contract wasn’t what you really meant.

      • Troy says:

        In the same way, a lot of people might be pressured into mono relationships who would prefer there to be some other choice but don’t believe that there is. Possibly this could be put into the common-knowledge framework – a lot of people would prefer open relationships, but it signals the wrong thing to ask, so they never do.

        The tricky thing — and my fundamental problem with EY’s argument, as people have been summarizing it here — is that there is no such thing as a “blank slate” society in which we get pure access to people’s preferences, unfettered by society and culture. We could try to make a list of all the different options we know of for various social arrangements, make a long list, and have everyone pick one. This would take a long time and (in addition to the opportunity cost of deciding between these) almost certainly lead to a lot of either second-guessing and unhappy switching from one option to another, or buyers’ remorse. Thanks to the paradox of choice, most people would be less happy.

        Some people in monogamous relationships might have chosen to be in a polyamorous relationship had things been different. But they might have been unhappy in that too, and regret taking part in it. Or, if things had been different twice over (e.g., their parents were in a poly relationship), they might have opted for monogamy. Counterfactuals are very hard.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Also, one of the purposes of marriage was precisely to pressure people into long-term monogamous relationships. There are good reasons for society to do this.

          • onyomi says:

            Yes, I actually think monogamy is “unnatural” in the sense that it’s not most people’s inborn preference, but also useful, basically because it reduces social conflict of various sorts. I think the advent of reliable contraception and STD prevention has eliminated some of those uses, but not all.

        • Earthly Knight says:

          “The tricky thing — and my fundamental problem with EY’s argument, as people have been summarizing it here — is that there is no such thing as a “blank slate” society in which we get pure access to people’s preferences, unfettered by society and culture.”

          I think this is a key point. It is not possible for polyamory to be the antecedent and natural state for any individual human, because the antecedent and natural state for humans is flexibility in response to local ecological conditions combined with conformity to the dominant mores of the society or tribe. There are no natural polyamorists born into a society which exalts monogamy, just as there are no natural metalheads born into societies which play only polkas, or natural toga-wearers born into societies where jeans are fashionable. At most people come into this world with weak and corrigible predispositions towards certain mating strategies.

      • “(consider also that nearly all doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath, which says things like “I will let barbers cut out kidney stones instead of doing it myself” and “I will train the children of my mentors in medicine for free” without meaning a word of it, just because it’s a ritual)”

        Wait, did you, personally, do that?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          No, Scott never swore any version of the Oath, because of inconsistencies between the Irish and American medical systems. That’s why he keeps asserting that people still use the ancient oath about guild secrecy, kidney stones, and abortion.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          No, for precisely the reasons Douglas Knight somehow remembered.

      • LTP says:

        “In the same way, a lot of people might be pressured into mono relationships who would prefer there to be some other choice but don’t believe that there is.”

        I think there is a significant portion of the population of both sexes that has this hierarchy of relationship preferences:

        One-sided non-monogamy for them > monogamy > mutual non-monogamy > one-sided non-monogamy for their partner

        So, for these people, monogamy is the best realistic outcome given that other people are involved, even if they would prefer otherwise. Even in a more sexually open and tolerant world, most of these people would not be able to find partners who fit their ideal preference, so they settle for the next best thing.

        (Yes, I know mono-poly relationships are a thing, but they’re rare, and the people who would be satisfied with the mono side of that pair are rare)

        • AJD says:

          As I’m sure you’ve noticed, that is the same order of preferences as a standard Prisoner’s Dilemma.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      “I don’t think Hermione would agree with this”, indeed.

      • Randy M says:

        Is that the HP Hermione, or did he coincidentally marry someone named Hermione, or does he use Hermione as a nickname fo his wife?

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          It’s HPMOR Hermione. In the fanfic, Hermione acts as Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres’s moral center. This allows her to play an important role in the story despite being less intelligent than Harry; he is the smart one, but she is the more moral one.

          In general, when somebody mentions a Harry Potter character in SSC, it’s a pretty good bet that they are talking about their HPMOR incarnations.

          • Randy M says:

            Sure. Which reminds me, I oughta find out how that thing ended, but I lost the thread of it (mentally, I mean) during one of the long hiatuses around chapter 30 or so and would have to restart it now.
            (Still, it might keep me out of your all’s hair for awhile…)

    • John Schilling says:

      Yeah, this is pretty bad.

      1. If you’ve negotiated an open marriage with your spouse, have at it.

      2. A great deal of human sexual negotiation is non-verbal. It is possible that you have non-verbally negotiated a “don’t ask, don’t tell” open marriage with your spouse. This does happen. But,

      2a. Assuming this is the default for marriage is as wrong/incorrect and wrong/evil as e.g. assuming that a girl’s agreement to have a drink with a guy at a fraternity party is by default a non-verbal negotiation of sexual consent.

      2b. If, after having explicitly and verbally committing to sexual monogamy with your spouse in front of a room full of witnesses, you believe you have actually non-verbally negotiated for polyamory, you are playing with fire. Napalm, thermite, and Willy Pete all at once. The potential cognitive biases are powerful and obvious, unlike non-verbal negotiation for sexual consent there is here little opportunity for feedback, and the harm you are likely to cause can be ruinous.

      3. If you do manage to pull this off, nobody but you and maybe your partners will ever know, so the question of third-party approval should never come up. In almost all relevant cases, third parties should be expected to side with the faithful partner against the unfaithful one. An uninvited third party pre-emptively butting in and saying “Just, FYI, if this ever comes up I’m with the cheater”, is not being helpful.

      4. Where is this intense social obligation that allegedly voids contracts on the basis of non-consent? Granted, there is still a social expectation that married couples will remain faithful for the duration of marriage, and explicitly open marriages are frowned upon. But there is at this point approximately no obligation for anyone to ever get married, particularly in EY’s social and intellectual circles, and little stigma against divorce on the grounds of having found someone else you’d rather have sex with this week.

      And now I’m morbidly curious for Eliezer’s wife’s take on this.

      • Saint_Fiasco says:

        >An uninvited third party pre-emptively butting in and saying “Just, FYI, if this ever comes up I’m with the cheater”, is not being helpful.

        The hackers aren’t being very helpful either, even though they side with the faithful.

        • Vegemeister says:

          Oh? If I were in that situation, I would much prefer to be given the opportunity for divorce and revenge. The hackers would have done me a great service.

    • alexp says:

      I mentioned this in a nested comment above, but I think it makes sense in the case of a couple who have explicitly agreed to be polyamorous in private, but wish to keep the appearance of a traditional monogamous couple for social reasons. Perhaps they have children and don’t want them teased or bullied, or they want to keep their parents happy, or whatever.

      I don’t think that type of arrangement is very common, though.

      • Emily says:

        While I don’t think this is a huge group in absolute terms, I think the majority of people who are non-monogamous are not out about being non-monogamous to their parents/work/the parents of their kids’ friends. But this is very different than what EY is defending.

      • Deiseach says:

        If you’re at the point of getting married to someone, if your relationship is committed enough you want to make this step, this is exactly the kind of thing you should be talking about or agreeing about or at the very least, both of you have an idea of the kinds of thing either of you find morally acceptable.

        Jane loves peanuts, Bob hates them. If they can work out a compromise “Okay, but keep your disgusting peanut butter icecream habit out of my face at least”, surely to Crom they are not going to be going on a wink-and-a-nod “Hey, you should have expected I’d have an affair because you should have known me well enough that when I said “forsaking all others” I was actually lying” basis into their marriage?

        And if they are, then they’ve got problems, and no “This archaic societal arrangement coercively dictates inferior morality and I reject it and substitute my own” clever-cleverness is going to change that.

        People may be content to be in marriages where they know their spouse is having affairs but they’re confident those affairs are purely about sex and their spouse will always come back to them. Once you know about it, that’s your choice to make.

        But wabbling about “the implicit assumptions coerced my consent and so I never really consented and so I did not break any agreements” doesn’t hold water; if you genuinely think that, then you cannot meaningfully make any contract or agreement about anything, since there are implicit assumptions about carrying out implied duties in every agreement (e.g. if I order twelve tons of blueberries from you and you deliver the goods, you don’t expect to have to write it specifically into the agreement that I pay you in legal tender, and I can’t get away using Monopoly money to pay off my account on the grounds that the social expectation about what is considered ‘real’ money is coercing my consent so an agreement made under duress doesn’t count).

        Marriage under duress is not a legal marriage since consent is not free. This is recognised (heck, it’s one of the bases for annulment of a presumed marriage in Catholicism!). But that means the entire marriage is invalid, not just the bits you want to pick and choose: yes, we’re really married when it comes to tax returns or you making chicken soup for me when I’m sick or us living and sharing lives together, but we’re not really married when it comes to me boning that hot fox.

        It doesn’t work like that, and if you want it to work like that, you have to agree to that from the start. And I’m willing to assume a lot of the Ashley Madison customers damn well expected their wives wouldn’t be shagging the hot neighbour or that cute new intern or the fit guy who opened the new patisserie at the same time as they were opening a chatroom account about how their favourite fantasy was a busty blonde who loved micro-brewery craft beers, worked in arbitrage and dressed up like Pingu while going like the privy door when the plague’s in town.

        • Vegemeister says:

          All of your metaphors and imagery and analogous cases in this thread have been fantastic. I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

        • alexp says:

          That’s great…but not really relevant to what I said.

    • Emily says:

      Somewhat related: What do you think about the ethics of outing people as being on this list? Is it different if they’re your spouse? Famous? Evil? (What about if they’re famous, evil, and your spouse?)

      • Deiseach says:

        I think the hackers were unethical; attacking any website and publishing people’s private information is not a good thing to do.

        I recognise their attack was probably aimed more at the Ashley Madison owners and that the adulterers were in the nature of collateral damage, but it’s still not right.

        It is hard, though, for me to sympathise too much. If this were a site for people who were single or in acknowledged open relationships to hook up with like-minded others, I’d feel differently and much more strongly on their behalf: there’s a difference between “yes, my partner(s) know and agree to me being on here and we all have the same freedom to have side-partners” and “this is me going behind my partner’s back and lying”.

        But this was a grubby (though with a slick façade) exercise in the owners squeezing relatively well-off men (it’s not Joe Sixpack who is working minimum wage that they’re targeting) for every cent they could, using the lure of pretty sexy available younger women who would discreetly be their fantasy partners and not rock any boats by falling in love or making emotional demands – the strapline they were using, “Life is short. Have an affair” is pretty up-front about what is going on, and it’s not a dating site for divorced singles to find new love.

        Now, some of the women may be looking for a rich mark to keep them in clover. That’s part of the grubbiness, too (though I think they have a site explicitly for that; two, actually, one for men and one for women). But this site is marketed at married people and as a dating site, so whatever way you slice it, it is facilitating adultery.

        Neither side comes out of this looking particularly good. I think the outing of the users is something they must have considered; there’s always the possibility that your partner will discover the affair, after all, and even if they thought setting things up through a website would keep it all neatly organised at arm’s length, there’s the follow-up which is conducting the affair -and explaining absences, changes of habits, new expenditures, etc. is going to involve the risk of revelation.

        • Emily says:

          I agree! But I meant, what about the rest of us – neither the hackers nor the hacked, who perhaps may be gleefully snooping through the records?

          • Saint_Fiasco says:

            Maybe exercise the virtue of silence and don’t mention to anyone if you find a political opponent in that list?

            The doctrine of the fruit of the poisoned tree should apply here, I think.

    • blacktrance says:

      I’m also poly, and I think EY gets this really wrong. Yes, there’s social pressure to be monogamous, but you’re still free to reject it and therefore responsible for accepting it – social pressure isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Polyamory may not always be an option, but there’s always an option that’s both honest and non-monogamous: being single.

      I can imagine a world in which the pretense of monogamy is a non-committal phatic non-lie lie, like “I’m busy” to a request to hang out or “I’m fine” to being asked how you are, and in such a world, EY would be closer to being right. But that’s far from the current world, as evidenced by all the people who blow up when they discover that their partner is cheating on them. The default isn’t don’t-ask-don’t-tell, it’s actual monogamy, and deviating from that without negotiation is betrayal.

    • Cadie says:

      I read it as the idea that monogamy isn’t that big a deal to a lot of people, but they feel pressured to pretend it is. And in those situations, their partner being on AM doesn’t mean a whole lot; they’re outwardly going along with the idea of total, strict monogamy but the private unspoken rules of their relationship are different. Maybe they’re OK with occasional discreet affairs, maybe it’s a “just don’t tell me about it” thing, whatever. IMO those people ought to make their private unspoken rules spoken and spelled-out, but it’s not really any of my business or anyone else’s but theirs.

      • Saint_Fiasco says:

        Some people might make their private rules explicit and spoken within the couple, but don’t want the rest of the family and friends to know.

      • Anonymous says:

        I read it as the idea that monogamy isn’t that big a deal to a lot of people, but they feel pressured to pretend it is.

        I’m not super excited about any argument that goes “X is true, despite being against your perceived experience, and BTW, no, you can’t argue against it, because everyone’s going to lie if you ask them.”

        Especially when promulgated by someone who lives in a completely nonrepresentative community, and who may or may not just happen to be interested in boning his acolytes’ girlfriends.

  18. Hedonic Treader says:

    If you could take a pill that cuts the intensity of all your future suffering to 10% of its natural intensity, would you take it?

    Assume there are no side-effects, and no dampening of positive or neutral experience, but also no functional compensation for your behavior (ie. you would have to compensate deliberately or accept any resulting damage)

    ETA: What if you could choose other percentages? At which level would you fix it?

    • Anonymous says:

      >no functional compensation for your behavior (ie. you would have to compensate deliberately or accept any resulting damage)

      That is to say you may not be aware of how much you are damaging your body? I’m not sure what you mean — what damage other than physical could feeling less suffering cause?

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Well, suffering is a motivator. That’s why it evolved. Physical suffering to avoid physical damage is only one part. There are also social and mental forms that regulate behavior.

        What I meant was that the pill offers no automatic fixes to compensate for these, you have to do it consciously or accept the resulting downsides as a cost (including possible physical damage).

        • Setsize says:

          Having been in and out of major depression, I have some pretty strong evidence that the interaction between my level of suffering and the adaptiveness of my behavior has the opposite sign from what you seem to be presuming.

      • Godzillarissa says:

        There’d be a damage to your social life if all that kept you from being an asshole was the remorse of being an asshole.

        There’d be a damage to your ethical integrity if all that kept you from eating meat was guilt for killing the animals.

        Which would both be a decrease in positive feelings, rather than actual “bad” damage, but damage nonetheless.

        • Anonymous says:

          [this reply also addressed to Hedonic Treader]

          In that case I think without going very out of my way to make sure I acted exactly the same as before the change in suffering, I would probably find myself in a new equilibrium where I do whatever it is suffering slightly less stabilizes at.

          (Sorry if this is an unsatisfactory remark. I am tired and will maybe say more tomorrow.)

        • Saint_Fiasco says:

          You can also use your new powers for good if for example your loss aversion was preventing you from donating to charity, your tiredness was preventing you from working very hard and making more money for charity, etc.

    • My gut reaction is to say “yes, definitely.” This seems so obvious to me that I can’t even really describe my reasoning for it. I feel like I’m probably missing something, though. I would love to hear counterarguments.

      Edit: I would not take the pill if it reduced my suffering to 0%, though; some negative feedback is necessary to avoid harmful actions, and to motivate future improvement. 10% seems like a safe level of suffering and I think in my case it would (more than) counteract the fact that I’m more neurotic than is healthy.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Yes, some forms of suffering are maladaptive (neuroticism, or as Setsize mentioned, depression) or perhaps no longer adaptive because we live in different circumstances than our ancestors (e.g. fear of spiders in some regions is functionally obsolete).

        Getting rid of those is a pure gain, and if we can invent the technology, we should. If I had this pill, my life expectancy would increase because it would almost certainly prevent more suicidal ideation than cause other damage. If I could have children with only 10% suffering, I would be more likely to reproduce, too.

        That said, not all suffering is maladaptive, and there would probably have to be judgment calls how much a reduction of (functional) suffering is worth.

    • DavidS says:

      Yes. It’s not totally costless, though, and I’m not sure I’d do it if I knew future suffering would be similar to current suffering: it’s more about protection from risk of much worse things later.

      Downsides include
      – I think many people, including me, would drink a lot more with all sorts of health implications, if hangovers were only a tenth of what they are
      – Some loss of richness/contrast of experience.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        I agree that risks of worst-case suffering should enter the decision, and it makes sense to accept some serious downsides for it.

        Of course, if such a technology was invented with the intention to make life better for many overall, it could not be too maladaptive, because otherwise it would be banned or shunned by most people.

        As for the contrast/richness… I’m not sure you really need suffering for that. You could contrast very good experiences against neutral ones, or different modes of experience against each other.

        • DavidS says:

          I don’t think you need suffering for contrast, it’s not an absolutist ‘no light without darkness’ thing. It’s just that the relatively low levels of suffering I’ve experienced in my life, and the rarity of really intense unhappiness, mean I get quite a lot of contrast for quite little suffering.

          Compare and contrast: I am also happy to pay for things to make me happy, EVEN THOUGH there are ways to be happy that don’t involve me paying for things.

    • Max says:

      Yeah would take it. Also would take a pill which would remove fear completely ( I prefer rely on logical risk assessment than intuition, even though that in some cases intuition is superior )

    • bluto says:

      I would keep it in my pocket waiting for a terminal diagnosis (ccancer, Alzheimer’s, gut shot far from medical facilities, etc).

    • Chalid says:

      Yes. It wouldn’t really change my life now, but when I’m seventy and I can’t move about without pain, when I’m eighty and fighting through an agonizing chemotherapy, when I’m ninety and dying over months in a hospital bed–oh hell yes.

    • Matt says:

      It seems to me that said pill is essentially stoicism, and that this question is asking if one were capable of just deciding to be 10% more stoic, would they do so. Is this an accurate interpretation?

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Stoicism, as I understand it, also negates intense positive affect or pleasure. While I can see an aesthetic appeal to it, that’s not what I mean, and many who would want to reduce their suffering would not in fact want to reduce their other emotions.

        Also 10% means a reduction of 90%, so it would be more than 10% more stoic.

    • onyomi says:

      See, I view suffering as separate from pain. Pain is often useful information. Suffering is being bothered by pain. Some might say that that just means suffering is emotional pain, but I think we can draw a distinction here as well: I can feel sadness and be bothered by it or feel sadness and not be bothered by it. I will experience more suffering even at the same level of physical or emotional pain if I know that the pain is due to something bad rather than something good, for example. On the opposite side, give a man a “why” and he can tolerate any “how.”

      If possible, I would reduce my level of suffering to 0% of what it is now, but keep my ability to feel pain the same. To lower my ability to feel pain would just increase the likelihood of me injuring myself or ignoring my emotional needs, whereas I see no real downside to eliminating the ability to feel suffering (and I think this applies to emotional pain as well as physical pain–I’m not saying I never want to feel sad again, just that I never want to be *bothered* by feelings of sadness–I would rather be able to dispassionately use the feeling of sadness as a datum: maybe I’m feeling sad because I haven’t talked to my mother in a long time, etc. just as I would use the feeling of pain to decide, “maybe I need to adjust my weightlifting form”).

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        That’s a good distinction. Indeed nociception (awareness of physical “pain”) is not the same thing as suffering from it. In pain asymbolia patients, the two are distinct (nociception still works, but they no longer mind it).

        I’m not sure how far this goes with all emotions, but e.g. melancholia can be saviored, just like we can enjoy bitter taste. I find it much less plausible to savior real distress or anxiety.

        • onyomi says:

          I don’t know if I’d eliminate my ability to feel anxiety, but I would certainly reduce it to 10% of what it is now, as I find it to be pretty much wholly maladaptive in my life. Sure, maybe it would have kept me getting eaten by a sabertooth tiger 30,000 years ago, but now it just makes me suffer needlessly and harms my performance at tasks which require relaxed concentration, i.e. almost everything.

      • Psmith says:

        This is a damn good point, and absolutely true in my experience, particularly when it comes to physical pain and discomfort. In this connection, I recall a Highland Games competitor and amateur strongman I used to talk to occasionally who swore by a Flexeril and Xanax cocktail for severe injuries. I suppose this is also what the Zen types are talking about when they encourage you to be mindful of this or that (e.g., “being able to dispassionately use the feeling of sadness as a datum.”)

    • Cadie says:

      Yes. 10% is enough that I’ll still feel it and notice it, especially once I get accustomed to the lower levels of suffering. I don’t think it would take that long for my psychological and physical senses to sharpen and more easily notice “mildly bad” feelings and I can use that information to help make better decisions, without being overwhelmed by the fear of social rejection or failure.

    • Daniel Speyer says:

      Do I still experience all the upstream sensations?

      That would easily cover physical damage. Intense pain that doesn’t cause suffering would still grab my attention, and setting up a habit of “check if I’m injured” in response to that would be easy.

      Reacting correctly to shame that doesn’t cause suffering would be trickier, but probably doable.

      On the other hand, if I lose every sensation that could easily lead to suffering, that’s a lot of experiences lost.

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      So… most everybody would take such a pill if it existed.

      Medical capitalism, where art though? 🙂

    • Linch says:

      It seems unlikely that taking the pill will diminish my empathy to an extent that I will engage in wilfull egotism, so it seems like a strictly positive thing.

      Of course, if the pill is too expensive, I may have to come up with a complex self-justification for why it’s worth more to me to reduce personal suffering than eg, two human lives. However, that potential moral hazard does not seem large enough for me to pre-commit to avoid something that will improve my personal experience of reality.

  19. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    The recent scuffle about effective altruism and vegetarianism reminded me of a delightful episode which took place in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Facebook. Basically, Eliezer’s then girlfriend (now wife) Brienne wrote a post which argued that meat-eaters and vegetarians did not actually have different values, but merely disagreed about whether animals were sentient (in the sense of having qualia and being able to experience pain) and therefore morally relevant. Eliezer shared the post approvingly, and a bunch of people showed up in the comment section to explain to Eliezer that, no, meat-eaters toally think animals are sentient but we still eat them, yes, really. Eliezer was skeptical, so he ran a poll asking his meat-eating readers whether they thought animals could suffer. He was surprised when the result came back 4:1 in favor of sentience, and apologized to the vegetarians for accusing them of strawmanning meat-eaters. He then concluded that perhaps this helped to explain why a surprising number of people sympathized with the sociopathic Professor Quirrell.

    TL;DR: Meat-eaters are literally Voldemort.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      ISTM EY’s usually uses “sentient” with a much narrower meaning than is standard (outside sci-fi). A less ambiguous word for EY’s meaning is “sapient”.

      • Setsize says:

        No, sentient is the right word.

        Sentient: Has subjective experiences. If X is sentient, there is a thing-it-is-like-to-be an X.
        Sapient: Intelligent; has complex thoughts.

        I would wager that the majority of EY’s respondents believe e.g. cows are sentient but not sapient.

        And it is plausible, at least at the thought-experiment level, to be sapient but not sentient.

        It is common in sci-fi to use “sentient” to cover both, but sci-fi is generally blinkered on this point.

        • kernly says:

          Sentient: Has subjective experiences.

          This does not line up AT ALL with how I have seen this word used before this. Everything with a brain has ‘subjective experiences.’ I’ve never heard mosquitoes defined as ‘sentient.’

          • Jiro says:

            My computer is probably as complicated as a mosquito brain. I don’t think my computer is either sapient or sentient. Nor do I see how you could tell whether either one has subjective experiences. You could say that the mosquito reacts to its environment, but that is not necessarily a sign of subjective experience (and anyway my computer can do that).

            You could try to claim that the mosquito avoids things that make it feel pain, but deciding that it “feels pain” assumes your answer.

          • Randy M says:

            I’ve seen people argue that vegetarians should consider eating shellfish because while technically animals their nervous system is undeveloped to the point they probably aren’t sentient like chordates are.

          • anodognosic says:

            @Randy have you read DFW’s Consider the Lobster? It made me kind of iffy that argument.

          • Randy M says:

            No, who is that?

            I was refering before to Mark Sisson, and to be accurate, he was only speaking of muscles, I think.

          • Deiseach says:

            vegetarians should consider eating shellfish

            Cockles and mussels alive, alive-oh! 🙂

          • anodognosic says:

            @Randy David Foster Wallace. His essay (Consider the Lobster) is not terribly scientific, but he explores the issue with sincerity and humanity and ends up on an ambivalence that I have shared since reading it.

        • Deiseach says:

          I thought “sentient” was more than mere awareness, that it contained some element of “self-awareness” even in however small a part.

          Mosquitoes being aware of their environment – sure. Self-aware? No.

          Dogs have some self-awareness? Yes. So dogs are sentient? To a degree, yes. But dogs are not people, puppies are not human babies, you are not the mommy or daddy of that animal.

          (Obligatory harrumphing finished now).

          What you say about sapient but not sentient fascinates me; could this be the case for octopuses, which appear to be extremely intelligent, but I have no idea how you’d measure if they have a sense of self or self-awareness?

          • anodognosic says:

            Deiseach, I know that you oppose abortion. Do you believe a human fetus has more sentience than any animal you have no objection to killing? Throughout the whole pregnancy? If not, about when do you think it gains this sentience? (On this last point, I don’t mean to hit you with a slippery slope. I really just want a vague sense.)

            Or do you have a distinct reason for opposing abortion?

            Full disclosure: I believe abortion is in the ballpark of killing a dog – that is, in general, I’d rather it not happen, but acceptable when weighed against some measure of human suffering.

          • Deiseach says:

            Hmm – yes, you know what, anodognosic, you’re right! From now on I’ll change my tastes to eat veal instead of steak, because calves obviously have less sentience and life experience than adult cows, and if it’s only an immature sample of its species, then it doesn’t count!

          • anodognosic says:

            I’m serious and I feel your answer was glib.

            The relevant issue is not life experience, but sentience, and maturity is only relevant to the extent that it affects sentience. A zygote has no sentience, I think we can agree, but a 3-year-old child certainly does (I don’t support infanticide, but my earliest memories are of about that age and I don’t know enough about human mental development to be any more confident about the sentience of younger children). There might be some difference of sentience between a 3-year-old and a 20-year-old — I have no idea. But that difference is surely a rounding error compared to the difference between a zygote and a 3-year-old. Extend that reasoning to your example about the calf and the cow – if there is a difference in sentience, it is minimal.

            So, because I actually want to know: is your standard for the wrongness of killing something sentience? If so, is that why you think abortion is wrong? If so, at what point between a zygote and a 3-year-old do you think a human gains sentience?

            And if your reason for opposing abortion isn’t sentience, what is it?

            (An ideal response would actually be a sincere answer to these questions.)

          • Setsize says:

            Well, I’d call having self-awareness “having self-awareness”, and I’d call having a theory of mind “having a theory of mind,” and I’d call having social relations “having social relations” and so on 🙂

            It is true that sci-fi writers and others roll various conflations of these traits up into something they call “sentience,” but I think that rolling all these things together doesn’t make a word that is useful for thinking about moral relevance or the nature of mind.

            In Star Trek whenever there is a question of a thing’s sentience, it’s usually resolved by having that thing perform a feat of sapience, like linguistic communication (particularly linguistic communication about states of mind.) But at the same time they have a Ship’s Computer which is quite linguistically competent, can report its own self-diagnostics, senses and reacts to all manner of things, and performs feats of sapience up to and including the construction of novel, themselves sentient Holodeck characters, but somehow manages not to be sentient in their reckoning.

            My intuition is that mammals are sentient, cephalopods are sentient, clams are not, and mosquitoes I’m not sure about but lean toward no. I feel like it ought to require something beyond being responsive to stimuli or having a representation of the environment and one’s place in it — I assert Roombas and Google self-driving cars are not sentient — but kind of the exact problem is that all purported third-person tests of sentience end up testing something else. And then you have the panpsychists who claim that literally all things are sentient, and I can’t exactly disprove that either.

          • Loquat says:


            I personally favor legal abortion, but my understanding is that most people who oppose it but eat meat believe that humans are in a separate moral category from animals altogether. A human fetus, allowed to grow to maturity, will become a human being, will love other humans and be loved in turn, will have the potential to do great deeds, etc. A cow, barring massive genetic engineering, will never be anything more than a cow.

          • Deiseach says:

            Okay, two points here:

            (1) False equivalence. We are comparing immature – and you can’t get much more immature than not yet born – entities with born and mature entities, then doing a fast shuffle and emoting about “But the poor little chicken or cow or pig or bunny rabbit! How can you be so cruel?” and dressing that up with “Oh, a pig is more sentient than a foetus”.

            A foetal pig in utero is no more or less sentient than a foetal human in utero. If we’re going to compare entities on an equal level, then we have to compare (say) a three year old human child with a six month old pig (for rough parallel in life stages).

            (2) Now, even if we take born and six month old pigs to be the approximate equal in life development to a three year old human, humans are different. I do not accept that a pig or an elephant (and I’d assign high levels of intelligence and even something you could meaningfully call sentience to elephants) is morally equal to a human being. I do not accept that humans have the right to kill members of their own species, whether we’re basing our argument on sentience, stage of physiological development, or convenience for the temporally senior entity. By the same token, I think humans killing food animals is not murder.

          • Linch says:

            Deiseach, are you making an explicit claim of speciesm in the sense of “this is my species, therefore it’s doubleplusgood” or is there something *other* to humans vs.non-human animals that we have not previously captured in this conversation?

            Put another way, killing another human for food is generally agreed to be morally wrong (in all but a trivial number of instances), but would you extend the same courtesy to elves if they are real? For the sake of the argument, assume Tolkeinian elves who are allegedly longer-lived, more beautiful and in some sense smarter and more sophisticated than the race of Men.

            Secondly, is your perception that killing animals for food “not murder” but humans is a question of kind, or just of degree? Will you be willing to annihilate all the dolphins in the world to extend the life of a human (eg, me) by a second? Why or why not? (If yes will your response be true of intelligent aliens/elves as well?)

    • Deiseach says:

      This is serendipitous!

      If ever I run amuck and go full-on Hannibal Lecter, it will be the mangled corpse of a vegan I am found crouching over, and screaming in a high-pitched cackle as they drag me away “But I’m only eating a herbivore! There’s no difference between human and non-human animals!”

      This dire vision of my possible future brought to you courtesy of my vegan/animal rights activist brother posting “vegan humour” (sic) propaganda on Facebook and driving me batty with the nonsense. I may possibly expand on this later when I’m not at work (and not supposed to be doing this on my tea break) 🙂

      • Linch says:

        It takes multiple tries, but you can train facebook to hide stuff you don’t like.

        I’ve successfully done this for buzzfeed, upworthy, cracked, cat pictures and political memes.

        I would hesitantly recommend hiding vegan memes for a potentially nontrivial increase in your emotional affect.

    • Roxolan says:

      Did you save those links at the time, or do you have a handy way to search for old facebook conversations? I would very much like one.

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh, I don’t really have conversations with him on this. Mainly I leave snarky comments on the posts. I’ll dig out the relevant link when I have a bit more time later today.

        The thing is, I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of the things he’s pushing. I don’t think animal cruelty is of little or no concern, and when it sticks to concrete action, that’s fine.

        But the “killing and eating an animal is exactly the same thing as killing and eating a human” notions are ones I obviously do not agree with, and the moral posturing gets a bit much (e.g. the only reason people eat meat is because they enjoy animals being tortured and murdered, nothing else).

        • BD Sixsmith says:

          But the “killing and eating an animal is exactly the same thing as killing and eating a human” notions are ones I obviously do not agree with…

          If nothing else, would vegan who endorse this notion merely post satirical memes if people started eating human flesh?

    • rsaarelm says:

      I’m a bit confused how anyone who believes in evolution would actually have a principled belief that cattle animals won’t feel subjective pain pretty much like humans do. Any two mammals have a lot of shared biological machinery and the biggest thing humans have going for them is one weird trick for really complex symbolic thinking. Pain is very much a non-symbolic experience though, and animals and humans have pretty similar outward responses to experiencing pain. What animals might not have is a symbolic mental life narrative going “I’m stuck in a cage and being prodded with an electrified stick, my life is horrible”, but that doesn’t mean pain doesn’t hurt them.

      I suppose you could make an argument that you need the internal life narrative before you can be said to suffer, but from the discussion I’m not at all sure which thing the meat-eaters were supposed to believe. I guess the latter stance is pretty mainstream. You shouldn’t cause pain to animals, because pain does hurt them, but since you assume they don’t have internal life narratives, painlessly killing them is considered morally neutral. Of course in practice factory farming is probably causing quite a bit of pain for the animals as well, so people are basically just trying not to think about it too much.

      I think Descartes explicitly believed that animals have zero subjective experience, but he didn’t know about evolution and presumably thought humans have souls which provide subjective experiences and animals do not.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Consciousness is not really well-understood, it is generally considered to be a Hard Problem. You can get famous as a philosopher by writing an essay called “What Is It Like To Be [an animal]” and you don’t even have to answer the question, that’s how hard the problem is. Given this, you should be a little less confused that some people have come to different answers than you have.

      • Deiseach says:

        There’s the physical side of pain: yes, I’d agree that me getting stuck in the side with a knife and a cow getting stuck in the side with a knife are both going to have the same kind of experience and have the same pathways in our bodies to report and react on the stimulus from skin to brain and it is going to be very unpleasant.

        The subjective experience? Immediately it probably is going to be much the same: the blaze of hurt and the agony of the wound and the physical organism lighting up with signals that “injury injury injury” has occurred.

        Less immediate? Does a cow ‘know’ it’s been hurt? Well, of course it’s aware of being injured. But does it process that knowledge in the same way as a human, has it the same memory, can it contemplate and anticipate and think about it the same way?


        So can animals physically suffer? Of course they can. Can they emotionally suffer? That’s disputable. Do they emotionally suffer in the same exact manner as a human (e.g. the stock vegetarian/vegan example of cows bellowing when separated from their calves and ‘crying’ and this being implicitly, if not explicitly, compared to and put on the same level as a human mother being forcibly separated from her child) – no, I would be inclined to say not.

        Because if we’re going to go down the cuddly momma animal route, then animals which reject, abandon and overlie their offspring are just as guilty, should be held just as responsible, as a human parent which refused to feed or keep its offspring warm and sheltered, or drove it away with blows and kicks and bites.

        You can’t have it both ways: animals being innocent victims with human-level emotions and sentience (whatever about sapience) while at the same time they only act on instinct and if they kill or mistreat other animals, that’s got nothing to do with blameworthiness (e.g. humans are held to higher standards in comparison with sharks when it comes to killing; humans are blamed for killing sharks out of baseless fear and prejudice, while carefully-worked out diagrams are created for sharks killing humans not being their fault because the outline or movements of a human in the water resembled that of a prey animal and triggered the shark’s natural instincts).

        I don’t blame animals for killing or acting according to their nature and instincts, but the flip side of that is that I don’t consider animals to be quasi-humans in fur suits.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ Deiseach
          I don’t blame animals for killing or acting according to their nature and instincts, but the flip side of that is that I don’t consider animals to be quasi-humans in fur suits.

          No such thing. Humans are animals in robot suits, pretending that we have the real emotions and the other animals are robots.

          Because if we’re going to go down the cuddly momma animal route, then animals which reject, abandon and overlie their offspring are just as guilty, should be held just as responsible, as a human parent which refused to feed or keep its offspring warm and sheltered, or drove it away with blows and kicks and bites.

          Catch one of those pigs and you’re welcome to eat her. As a matter of pig eugenics and for the outcome of no more babies of hers suffering that way. I wouldn’t say that pig was guilty and deserved execution — but I recognize that it’s my own maternal instinct that powers my moral judgement against that human.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I think Descartes explicitly believed that animals have zero subjective experience, but he didn’t know about evolution and presumably thought humans have souls which provide subjective experiences and animals do not.

        Yep. If someone were to say, “Soul/sentience/sapience/consciousness/’real feeling’/ is a noun useful as an undefinable but absolute reason for justifying anything that is convenient to do to any non-human”, I might be rather tempted to applaud.

    • kernly says:

      By that definition, ants are ‘sentient.’ That’s a really stupid definition.

      Eating meat causes animals to feel pain. It also causes [those same] animals to feel everything else – hunger, satisfaction, pleasure, fear, desire etc. Having children makes animals feel pain. Stopping your house from being structurally compromised by termites makes animals feel pain. It doesn’t actually say anything to say that a course of action will cause pain. The response should be – “yeah, and what *else*?”

      • Nita says:

        We don’t actually know whether ants feel pain. Fish are a matter of debate. Dogs almost certainly do.

      • John Schilling says:

        How does eating meat cause animals to feel pain? Do their souls exist in some blissful cow heaven until someone bites into a hamburger, whereupon they suffer? The mechanism for that, has to be interesting.

        Eating meat requires that an animal die. That’s going to happen in any event, unless perhaps because not eating meat means the animal is never born. It does not require that the death be painful, or that pain be caused during any part of the animal’s life. Most human carnivores prefer to minimize the pain experienced by their future meat animals, to a level lower than that generally seen by similar animals in the wild.

        We could argue about the extent to which that preference is achieved. But really, I think you will first want to pin down exactly what it is you object to and what it is you think is happening. Because your formulation is not just unconvincing, but anti-convincing.

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          Eating meat, in itself, does not cause pain to animals. Buying meat does indirectly cause it because it incentivizes breeding more of them through the mechanism of supply and demand. There are other indirect consequences, including some that reduce pain to other animals through habitat displacement, and cases where this mechanism doesn’t (fully) apply, e.g. because of government subsidies. But this has traditionally been the core argument and seems robust.

          • onyomi says:

            This interestingly seems to imply that eating meat might be more moral than vegetarianism if you only eat the meat of animals whose existence seems likely to have been a net subjective positive on the part of the animal. That is, if cows could decide whether or not their life had been worth living, probably those who get several years of grazing in peaceful pastures before being slaughtered would say “yes,” whereas a chicken with no beak being force-fed in a tiny cage would say “no.”

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            onyomi, yes, if you could reliably meat such a standard at acceptable cost. (Altering their biology for lower pain sensitivity and higher welfare would also be an option)

    • Anon. says:

      How in the name of the lord does a “rationalist” believe in qualia?

      • Nita says:

        Hey, everyone — I’ve found the p-zombie!

      • anodognosic says:

        I don’t see the incompatibility.

        • Anon. says:

          I’m having trouble seeing the intersection point between lesswrongian rationalism and dualism.

          • Setsize says:

            Believing that subjective experiences exist does not mean believing they are irreducible or non-physical.

            Daniel Dennett, to name someone who is obviously not a dualist, argues at length for how phenomenology (i.e. the use of subjective experience as data*) is necessary in psychology.

            (*) Phenomenology in Dennett’s discussion is the stance that subjective experience should be the primary source of evidence in psychology. He contrasts it with the stance that subjective experiences should be taboo as evidence, which is called behaviorism. Contrary to popular belief, behaviorism does not mean denial of the existence of subjective experience either; behaviorists just think that subjective data is inadmissible as evidence and a theory built on third person observation will end up explaining subjective observations. Dennett thinks this is impractical and proposes a middle path called “heterophenomenology” which uses both first and third person observations to build an intermediate language, with awareness of the limitations of each type of evidence. (Heterophenomenology is of course a reconstruction of what psychologists have done all along.)

          • Anon. says:

            Qualia != “subjective experience”. Dennett believes that qualia do not exist, I don’t understand why you’d bring him up in that context…

          • anodognosic says:

            Qualia does not necessarily entail dualism. What it *is* is a central aspect of the hard problem of consciousness, which, last time I checked, had not been solved by the LW community.

            Less facetiously: there are those on LW who deny the existence of qualia. It’s not an uncontroversial position.

          • Setsize says:

            In this thread, “having qualia” has been treated interchangeably with “having subjective experience,” “there is a thing it is like to be” and so on, and I took the complaint “How does a rationalist believe in qualia?” to refer to the way “qualia” has been used in this thread.

            Dennett takes pains never to deny “qualia” in this weak sense of subjective experiences. He argues that stronger properties that have been asserted for “qualia” are wrong (i.e. they are not irreducible, ineffable, or the base currency of consciousness,) and because of the incoherence of stronger meanings of “qualia” we’d be better off tabooing the word “qualia” altogether.

            So, great, let’s taboo “qualia.” That means you should reread this thread, charitably and silently replacing occurrences of “qualia” with something closer to what they refer to. You may find that no one here has been talking about the kind of strong-qualia that Dennett denies. You may have a definition of “qualia” that asserts something beyond subjective experience, but no one here is obligated to use words according to your definition.

          • Anon. says:

            Dennett doesn’t make a distinction between “weak” and “strong” qualia… And it’s not “my definition”. Sure, the term is a bit nebulous and not everyone agrees on the Dennett definition (intrinsic, private, ineffable, directly accessible to consciousness), but everyone is in the same ballpark at least. Pulling a few different definitions from SEP: “properties of sense data”, “intrinsic non-representational properties”, etc.

            Why would anyone use an obscure, technical term like “qualia” to communicate the simple and common idea of “subjective experience”?

      • Jaskologist says:

        Qualia are the only thing we have direct experience of; everything else is derivative. There is a reason that Descartes, the original Rationalist, ended up with “I think” as the one thing he couldn’t doubt. It’s kind of strange that NeoRationalists now tend to deny the “I” portion of that. Why deny what is literally right before your eyes?

        • anodognosic says:

          “I” brings in a set of assumptions that are inconsistent with Descartes’ supposed project of departing from a point of radical skepticism – in particular, the existence of a separable, unitary agent that is doing the thinking.

        • Annms says:

          “Why deny what is literally right before your eyes?”

          This could get you in trouble if you ever attend a stage magic show.

          • Irenist says:

            Defending qualia != defending naïve realism. Qualia are things like “I perceive two brown patches.” The fact that the two brown patches are the two halves of a box an illusionist just sawed in half (or not) has nothing to do with the perception of the patches. The illusionist wants you to interpret the patches (and the rest of what you see) as evidence that he just sawed his lovely assistant in half. But that’s a question of how you interpret your qualia, not of whether you have them.

          • Jaskologist says:

            In this phrasing, stage magic shows are beyond your eyes.

    • NZ says:

      I see it the other way: vegetarians and vegans are too quick to deny the possible sentience of plants. (Of course most meat eaters don’t even think about it.)

      I lay out the argument more fully here:

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        Since food animals all eat plants too, or other animals who eat plants, this wins you no case against vegetarianism or veganism. “They are stuck in the middle” is not an argument either, since a reduction can be better than no reduction.

        Of course, this has been discussed before:

        Even if all living things suffered equally, no matter how we treat them and what we eat, we can still change the amount of living things:

        I understand the desire for a cheap rationalization against veganism from a meat eater’s perspective though. It would certainly be convenient. But plants are even more alien to us than insects, so we should not be too keen on projecting our minds onto them.

        • NZ says:

          Since food animals all eat plants too, or other animals who eat plants, this wins you no case against vegetarianism or veganism.

          Huh? Obviously vegans aren’t running around trying to stop lions from eating gazelles, or gazelles from eating grass. I accept at face value their point that as humans with special human cognitive abilities like reason and complex morality, we should impose special rules upon our own behavior that don’t apply to other organisms. I’m simply saying the reasoning for their particular rule not to eat meat doesn’t hold up. Alien-ness isn’t the factor, pain&suffering is.

          Also, I don’t need any convenient rationalization against veganism. The most convenient thing would be to just not think about it–this is what most people do. Vegans aren’t getting between me and a steak any time soon.

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            I accept at face value their point that as humans with special human cognitive abilities like reason and complex morality, we should impose special rules upon our own behavior that don’t apply to other organisms.

            I disagree with that point, we have the ability to influence the behavior and number of other organisms, and we should do so to reduce pain and suffering.

            I just don’t see the logic of saying, “Plants feel pain too, therefore it doesn’t matter how many animals we eat.” After all, the animals are fed with plant feed. So anyone who eats meat eats the plants indirectly as well. How does that not destroy your argument “Against Veganism: If it’s wrong to eat animals, it’s wrong to eat plants”?

            Also you have not acknowledged that plant pain is much more speculative and different in nature than any pain a being with a CNS can feel.

            Also, I don’t need any convenient rationalization against veganism.

            Good, but you did specifically formulate one and link to it. The usual motivation is to portray one’s own preferred consumption as moral.

          • NZ says:

            we have the ability to influence the behavior and number of other organisms, and we should do so to reduce pain and suffering.

            Can you provide an example of vegans trying to influence the behavior of other organisms besides humans? In my previous comment I said that vegans obviously aren’t doing this.

            I just don’t see the logic of saying, “Plants feel pain too, therefore it doesn’t matter how many animals we eat.”

            That’s not really an accurate paraphrasing. I’m saying “plants feel pain too, therefore an objection to eating things because they feel pain will leave you pretty much able only to eat fallen fruit. That’s silly, so instead you should just go for a more reasonable case-by-case assessment of what you’ll eat based on something less universal than feeling pain.” If that still ends up with you not eating meat, that’s fine, but now you don’t have the illogical pretense before it.

            Plant pain is speculative I suppose, but only slightly more so than worm pain or insect pain. As I said in my post, plants have a set of physical characteristics that could be called a “veggie nervous system” and pain is a phenomenon that sits on top of nervous systems. Plants surely don’t experience pain in a way that’s similar to a mammal, but just because we can’t comprehend what pain is like for a plant doesn’t mean they don’t experience it. To me, the fact that they are complex living things with veggie nervous systems suggests that they probably do experience some kind of pain.

            you did specifically formulate [a convenient rationalization against veganism] and link to it.

            I don’t think of it as a “rationalization,” because I’d eat meat either way. It’s just something I thought about once and has come up a few times since then in online conversations, so I decided to write a short blog entry about it.

          • Deiseach says:

            Obviously vegans aren’t running around trying to stop lions from eating gazelles

            Well, then they should be! Because if there really is no difference between human and non-human animals, if we all have the capacity for sentience and sapience and loving and all the rest of it, then there’s no excuse for predators to get away with inflicting suffering on prey.

            Vegans should be out there changing the diets of those animals, because if you can put your obligate carnivore pet cat on a vegan diet, why not an obligate carnivore big cat?

            Oh don’t be silly, that’s completely different?

            YES. And that is where we fall down on the moral equivalence scale, because humans are different and do possess more moral weight.

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            Can you provide an example of vegans trying to influence the behavior of other organisms besides humans?

            Yes, for example David Pearce here. Others have written more about how to affect wild-animal suffering for many years now, e.g. the links here, this discussion here and others I’m sure you can find if you look for them. (Not all the authors are vegans.) Obviously this is not a trivial matter since we need ecosystem services intact and many people want nature intact for its own sake, so there are additional tradeoffs. Of course, we are already displacing habitats and therefore reducing predation.

            I’m saying “plants feel pain too, therefore an objection to eating things because they feel pain will leave you pretty much able only to eat fallen fruit. That’s silly, so instead you should just go for a more reasonable case-by-case assessment of what you’ll eat based on something less universal than feeling pain.” If that still ends up with you not eating meat, that’s fine, but now you don’t have the illogical pretense before it.

            I agree with this, but again, with the caveat that plant pain is much more speculative and biologically alien than the pain of most animals we eat, and again, the plants fed to animals would have to count as well.

          • NZ says:

            Yeah, so David Pearce et al is, to my eyes, ridiculous. We are each of us a biome full of predation and death on the microbiological scale.

            As far as I know, vegans aren’t just against harming animals that are eaten. They also don’t want to harm poisonous frogs and stinging insects and revolting flatworms–but whether these animals experience pain is only slightly less speculative than whether plants do.

            I’m not sure I see why it’s relevant that food animals are fed plants. I’m not arguing that “it’s not okay to eat plants but it is okay to eat meat.”

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ NZ
            I’m saying “plants feel pain too, therefore an objection to eating things because they feel pain will leave you pretty much able only to eat fallen fruit.

            Actually that is quite possible. Tomatoes, squash … nuts, grains, seeds … these are made by the plant to be eaten by animals, who will carry the seeds and plant them elsewhere.

          • NZ says:

            Tomatoes, squash … nuts, grains, seeds … these are made by the plant to be eaten by animals

            Most of those things, in the form you’d normally eat them, have been genetically engineered by people out of much less appealing versions found in the wild. Squirrels and deer probably don’t mind bitter misshapen little tomatoes, but humans saw fit to make these things tastier, juicier, sweeter, bigger, etc.

            (And also to make them much more abundant. Nobody ever stumbled into a clearing in the woods where tomatoes just grew in rows as far as the eye could see.)

            Genetic engineering and industrial agriculture require doing things with plants and their reproductive capabilities that vegans would normally not tolerate being done to animals.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            My comment keeps getting eaten. Tl/dr: shop farmers’ markets and small funky organic produce stores.

      • Buckyballas says:

        It seems to me that we are all applying Schelling fences somewhere or another. Most people apply the fence around the human species (although there is still debate on whether to place the fence before or after birth and some people still think it is okay for people they don’t like to be outside the fence). Pescatarians place the fence around mammals, birds, and maybe reptiles and amphibians. Vegetarians place the fence around animals. “Sentience”, “capacity for suffering”, “desire to live” seem to all be on a evolutionary continuum and it’s possible for our ethics to slip too far in either direction. Of course there is plenty of room for reasoned debate on where to put the fence, but I’ve never quite thought about it in this Schelling fence way. Out of curiosity, where aren’t there more people who put the fence around mammals only?

        • Randy M says:

          Probably because of the long tradition of domesticating mammals has led to (some of) them being the tastiest and easiest to farm. Excepting perhaps chickens.

          • John Schilling says:

            Also because the lives beef cattle are about as unobjectionable as any common farm animal, particularly for traditional ranching.

          • Buckyballas says:

            I meant from an ethical perspective rather than a historical one. I guess it’s a capacity for pain thing? Apparently, some vegans are okay with eating oysters because there is no evidence that they feel pain. Also, pain in other animals is a bit controversial so it makes sense to conservatively draw the fence around animals. That is, until you consider that plants “feel” something pain-like. The slope does indeed appear to be quite slippery.

          • Randy M says:

            I know you meant ethically, but sometimes the practicality will limit what ethical cases are made. It would be a case of doing 90% of the work in going vegan for an equally arbitrary ethical line that stands little chance of meeting anyone’s moral intuitions.
            It’s fairly clear based on human history that there is no innate “Teat & Hair” solidarity among the “higher orders” of animals.

        • Nornagest says:

          I don’t think I’ve ever seen a principled defense on ethical rather than health terms, but that maps pretty well to the common “avoid red meat” diet.

        • Loquat says:

          Why would anyone put their fence around mammals specifically? I’ve having trouble thinking of any perspective where it’d make sense to include rabbits and sheep, but exclude chickens and iguanas. Especially since the order mammalia also includes common pests like rats and mice, which almost nobody in human history has respected the moral worth of.

          • Nita says:

            Mammals are very similar to us in terms of physiology and behavior. The discovery that we’re related is fairly recent, as is the acceptance of the possibility that physiology is all there is to us, so historical attitudes are a poor guide.

          • Loquat says:

            I don’t find physiological similarity to be a good reason to draw a moral distinction between creatures that are otherwise not terribly different, though, and I don’t think many other people would either. Plenty of bird species take good care of their young and have complex social interaction, just as many mammals do. Putting a Schelling fence around mammals and excluding birds means believing that it’s more wrong to kill a mouse than it is to kill one of the multiple species of birds that use tools.

          • Nita says:

            Sure, crows are probably smarter than mice. But lots of people also consider them “pests”.

            Though, considering the context, the people who don’t eat mammals are probably thinking cow vs chicken, not mouse vs crow.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        Your argument stipulates that whatever primitive communication systems plants use qualify as plant-nervous-systems (despite the absence of, you know, nerves) and that whatever travels through those communication systems when the plant is cut or smashed qualifies as plant-pain. But this nets only the conclusion that plants feel plant-pain, when what we are interested in is whether plants feel real pain, that is, whether they experience a phenomenal state similar to the one humans experience when our tissue is damaged. And you haven’t provided any evidence for that claim.

        • gbdub says:

          How do you know that crustacean pain or fish pain or chicken pain is “real pain”, but plant pain isn’t? Isn’t it much more likely that it’s a continuum rather than a sharp distinction?

          • Earthly Knight says:

            A continuum from the Fs to the not-Fs does not preclude there being clear-cut cases of each. For example, there is a continuum from mountains to hills to bumps in the ground to flat land, but we can still pinpoint Aconcagua as clearly a mountain and the Marianas Trench as unambiguously not a mountain. The same is true for pain: plants do not experience it, while pigs almost certainly do. We know this, as one of the earlier commenters suggested, because of the overwhelming homology between the parts of the human brain which are responsible for pain and the neuroanatomy of pigs.

          • Buckyballas says:

            @Earthly Knight, you are right that it does not preclude clear-cut cases, but what do you do about the gray areas (e.g. insects, fish, shellfish, reptiles, etc.)? I am genuinely curious how to draw a line with “feels pain” that isn’t a little bit arbitrary? On the other hand, drawing a line at “are you human”, while evolutionarily questionable, is pretty straightforward. Although now that I think about it, I think I would experience significant disgust eating Neanderthal. That makes me a little less keen to defend speciesism. Blech.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            In principle I draw the line at chordates, although to be on the safe side I don’t kill or contract the deaths of any organism with brains except for pest arthropods. This seems to me like the most sensible way to go about it: don’t eat anything where you think there’s a significant chance that it feels pain, and then err on the side of caution a ways beyond that, because false positives (your not getting to eat salmon) are much less costly than true negatives (a sentient being getting tortured to death).

            Neanderthals are so-so as an example because it’s controversial whether they count as a distinct species. Intelligent aliens are, I think, a more vivid case– if you came across a helpless Vulcan or Mon Calamari or Time Lord, would you be okay with torturing, killing, and eating it? No? How, then, can you justify doing the same to a pig?

          • NZ says:

            Vulcans are too easy an example, because they look like people and can speak with people.

            What about a superintelligent alien but one that bears no resemblance to anything on Earth and with which meaningful communication is impossible? One that evolved in such a radically different environment that by comparison plant anatomy looks analogous to ours? In other words, one that almost certainly doesn’t experience pain the way a human does. (You know it’s superintelligent because it just beamed out of a gleaming starship.)

            Would you eat one of those?

          • Earthly Knight says:

            Triffids, maybe? I would not, could not eat a triffid.

            The crux of the argument that other vertebrates feel pain is neuroanatomic homology, but analogies could also suffice. My conjecture would be that intelligent life, wherever we find it, is likely to experience pain comparable to ours, because pain is an exceedingly useful adaptation for any motile organism with a central nervous system. But this is just a guess, without knowing the details of the alien species its hard to say for sure.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Earthly Knight
            In principle I draw the line at chordates, although to be on the safe side I don’t kill or contract the deaths of any organism with brains except for pest arthropods.

            I think you have the right distinction — between what is and is not practical to put into action (for consequences!). Rather than worrying about whether the Devil is kosher, I’d spend my time carrying a spider outdoors or earning money to donate to forest preservation.

            [ Trigger warning some details of omnivore practices ]

            At this stage, because availability, I eat some meat of all colors, dairy from the nearest store, veg of the day from the farmers market, as much root vegs as I can stomach because they keep well (even though digging them has injured worms). Because trying to go vegan or even vegetarian would take resources I can’t afford, if I’m donating to keeping a few acres comfortable for innumerable animals and plants.

            Keeping kosher, or Jainist ahimsa, is a lot of fun — but for practical consequences, not very efficient.

          • Nornagest says:

            The Devil has cloven hooves, but I doubt he chews the cud. Though that’s an entertaining mental image.

        • NZ says:

          I don’t think plants’ systems are all that primitive, at least not in the sense of being crude. And the term “veggie nervous system” is just a shorthand; of course plants don’t have nerves.

          You’ve summed my idea up pretty well though (“whatever travels through those systems when the plant is cut or smashed qualifies as plant-pain”) with the caveat that I’m not referring to chemical or other types of signals that can be detected by machines in a lab, but to a phenomenon that sits atop those systems the way software sits on top of hardware, just as our “pain” is a phenomenon that sits atop the hardware of our CNS.

          Outside of responding to my own arguments, I’ve never heard a vegan admit that plants feel plant-pain. If I had, I might have also heard a vegan explain why plant pain doesn’t matter but worm- or beetle- or frog-pain does. Here you’re providing a reason: it’s because you’re only interested in a phenomenal state similar to the one humans experience.

          This strikes me as arbitrary and also a little odd: all of a sudden, our experience is so privileged? If you can experience something the way we do, great, we’ll rally to protect you. If not, too bad, you didn’t make the cut. We’ll mow you, breed you to our exact specifications, plant you in rows and spray chemicals on you, chop you up while you’re still alive, and squeeze the life-blood out of you without a second thought.

          • onyomi says:

            I do think it is misleading to describe plants as “primitive.” I seem to remember reading somewhere that potatoes have more genes than humans, for example? Or at least more complex genomes when it comes to the encoding of certain enzymes, etc. Imagine you had to survive and reproduce without being able to move at all. How much more complex would your system of hormones, enzymes, etc. be?

            We are necessarily biased to care about things that are like us. We know pain is bad because we know we don’t like pain. Plants surely don’t experience anything we’d recognize as pain, nor even have anything we’d recognize as an experience, so our moral intuitions have no applicability to them–nor, do I see any reason they should.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            I’ve never heard a vegan admit that plants feel plant-pain.

            I occasionally see reports of evidence for that. A Jaina monk explained the general case this way: “Plants do feel pain but it is not as strong as animals’ pain; it’s like when you have novocaine.”

            Jainas’ ranking is pretty much like everyone’s, I think. “Don’t eat anything in the ‘animal kingdom’; plants are better but try to stick to the ones that involve less violence one way or another.”

            My guess is, that various plants co-evolved various ways to deal with animals. Some made poison or thorns etc to repel animals. Some made surplus fruit or berries for animals to spread. Some made surplus foliage for animals to eat, leaving manure in exchange.

            Hopefully they make the surplus foliage less sensitive to pain than the main plant, or the whole plant less sensitive than other plants.

            One of my favorite memories is of a Jaina yuppie (in cloth tennis shoes) saying, “The perfect food is avocado. You eat the pulp and plant the seed.” But I didn’t get very far asking if I should avoid beansprouts because it takes so many lives to make a meal. He laughed at me and said, “You don’t have to get everything right in this incarnation, you will have plenty more.”

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ NZ
          Vulcans are too easy an example, because they look like people and can speak with people.

          Whew! I am reminded of Niven’s Kzinti diplomat named Speaker-to-Animals.

      • Anonymous says:


        That doesn’t work as an argument against veganism.
        If we were to accept that plants are just as sentient as plants, and that it’s just as bad to harm them, then a diet that include animal food would still be the least moral.

        That’s because to raise an animal takes a lot of plant matter. All the calories and other nutrients in a piece of meat or cheese ultimately comes from plants, which are fed to the animal. However, the conversion of plant calories into meat or dairy is wasteful. You could get the same amount of nutrition, while harming less plants, by eating plants directly.

        Following your premise that plants are equal to animal, the omnivorous diet is the one that causes the most harm; the normal vegan diet that includes vegetables grains and legumes is in the middle, and the least harmful diet is one based on fruit and nuts, close to what “raw vegans” eat.

        Therefore your point can’t possibly support meat eating.

        • NZ says:

          The idea is that recognizing that all living organisms experience (or are likely to experience) something on the “pain” spectrum when they are in distress reframes the whole notion that “pain caused per calorie delivered” is the basis of morality with respect to consumption. If the idea is that my choices are between being 10x evil or 1000x evil, then your morality scale has built into it a belief I don’t agree with: that survival is immoral.

          Instead, it’s better to just keep things in moderation and not act like a sadist. Little boys like to go around squashing bugs and tearing leaves off of trees, but a moral adult should not do stuff like that.

          • Anonymous says:

            No, of course it doesn’t mean that survival is immoral.

            The notion that there is a degree of badness in the sufference and death of animals or plants, doesn’t at all require putting human survival on the same level as the survival of animals or plants. You will agree with me that humans are more important than animals or plants.

            It’s perfectly possible, and in my opinion wise, to say: it is important not to harm animals and plants, but it is more important to ensure human survival; therefore, to harm animals or plants is bad, except for the minimum that is required for human survival (a minimum which happens to be vegan whether or not plants are capable of pain, as I previously proved), in which case it’s GOOD, because human survival is good.

            You said “it’s better to just keep things in moderation and not act like a sadist”. I agree with that. But if we condemn killing for the sadistic pleasure of the kill, a condemnation which implies that it is somewhat valuable that animals and plants not be harmed, then I don’t see any logical reason we shouldn’t also condemn killing 10 for food when you have the option (that is to say, veganism) of killing just 1 for the same amount of food. So I would amend what you wrote slightly and write “it’s better to just keep things in moderation and not harm creatures unless it’s very difficult to avoid doing so”. From that, veganism follows.

          • NZ says:

            One problem is that “the minimum required for human survival” is a slippery slope if pursued in earnest. Vegans season their food, for example, with herbs. They don’t need to, but they do. Those herbs are also plants that had to be killed. Or maybe they use salt–well, salt has to be mined and mining certainly kills organisms. Or maybe they use no seasonings–but they still eat their food off of ceramic plates using silverware. Ceramic is made of clay–which has to be dug up, unnecessarily risking plant and animal life–and silverware is mined–see my previous comment about salt. Paper plates are made of wood and plant material. Heating food in order to prepare it typically–at some point–means burning plant material, which even if it’s already dead might be serving as a home to living organisms. And does the vegan eat until he is full, or only enough to ward off starvation and ensure he has enough energy to procreate, and that his mate has enough nutrition to bring a baby to term (thus ensuring “survival”)?

            Eating just enough uncooked, unseasoned fallen fruit to ensure you don’t starve and can still have sex sounds like a rotten existence. Even if it were noble to voluntarily live that way, in practical terms you’d have trouble getting even the most fervent vegans to actually commit to it. That’s why instead most vegans say what you said, “the minimum required for human survival” but actually mean much more than just the minimum.

          • Nita says:

            @ NZ

            Not living on the edge of starvation and indulging in pleasurable things allows vegans to be more productive in harm-reducing activities, including advocating for veganism, saving human lives etc. It’s very unlikely that the maximum of (caused utility)-(caused disutility) lies in the place you describe.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Anonymous
            You will agree with me that humans are more important than animals or plants.

            If that’s you-generic then I’ll say, important to whom, and for what ends?

            If the importance is maximum hedonic utilons*in this century, then plants and animals are more important than humans.l There are more of them and, according to several theories, they suffer less.

            * in net-positive beings.

          • NZ says:


            So, vegans are allowed to break their principles because they do good deeds, while the rest of us should abide by their principles because we go around making the world more and more terrible?

          • Nita says:

            @ NZ

            If we’re talking about consequentialist vegans, the principle is “when you have a choice, choose whatever is likely to result in the best consequences”, so they’re acting in accordance with it. And if eating meat somehow enables you to do more good (enough to outweigh the animal suffering and then some), they should approve of your meat-eating.

            If we’re talking about some other vegans, you’ll have to be more specific.

          • NZ says:


            As far as humans go in general, I’m very kind to animals. I don’t see the need to defend my balanced diet that includes a bit of meat and lots of fruit and vegetables–all of which are living things that experience pain, perhaps even horror, and then die in order for me to eat and enjoy them.

            Therefore I reject outright the moralizing of vegans, consequentialist or otherwise. If you (general “you”) don’t want to eat any animal products, suit yourself, but don’t be self-righteous, preachy, or whiny about it: short of God telling you to be vegan your reasoning will always be arbitrary and vapid, so you might as well just come up with a simple and honest reason like “I don’t like meat” or “I don’t like to think of cute animals dying.”

            If you see someone beating a dog or tearing the wings off a beetle, then by all means step in and do something. But know that just by existing you are likely playing a role in the pain–and certainly in the death–of billions of living organisms every day. How many organisms live and fight and die in order to make the unique biome of your gut function properly?

            You haven’t discovered “this one weird trick” to significantly reduce any “universal suffering index” by not eating meat. Moral veganism is for that reason disingenuous, perhaps even fraudulent. For that reason I suspect it exists on a subconscious level more as a class marker than anything else.

          • Nita says:

            @ NZ

            One part of the problem is that you seem to treat the ability to suffer as a binary value: TRUE for all living things, FALSE for everything else. Other people tend to assume that different living things differ in their capacity for suffering (e.g., stabbing a random human being = -10000 utilons, poking an earthworm with a needle = -2 utilons).

            The other part of the problem is that you seem to assign an equal probability to the statements “pigs can suffer”, “wheat can suffer” and “bacteria can suffer”. Other people usually take into account the probability that some organisms (e.g., plants or bacteria) might not suffer at all.

            This leads you to reasoning like “No matter what I do, I will cause suffering, therefore it doesn’t matter and I can do whatever.”

          • NZ says:


            As long as an earthworm can suffer, I don’t feel confident assuming that poking it with a needle isn’t just as bad as stabbing a human, from a “utiliton count” standpoint. In that sense I’m agnostic but prefer to err on the side of caution. (Keep in mind, I don’t take my cues about what to eat from a utilitarian equation–I’m criticizing a moral veganism which ostensibly does.)

            And you’re right, I do assign an equal probability to the likelihood that various living organisms of different complexity can suffer. This only seems unrealistic to me if suffering is treated as “something similar to the suffering I’m familiar with.”

            My whole point there was that suffering is a phenomenon sitting on top of biological hardware. Anything with biological hardware, even if it’s very simple, therefore seems likely to experience some kind of “suffering” phenomenon. Ours may only seem “more acute” because we’re also able to reflect on it, vividly remember it, retell it in colorful language, etc.

            I never said “it doesn’t matter and I can do whatever.” I explicitly stated the opposite: that there are lines to be drawn around sadistic abuse and egregious destruction of animals and plants. But I don’t purport to base those lines around some half-baked notion of “total objective utility”.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            ETA: This was before I saw later comment. I wish we could branch further out!

            @ Nita


            @ NZ

            When you’re reduced to conflating eating a nut that has fallen from a tree with eating a factory farmed chicken, on the ground that the tree’s ancestors were probably selectively planted … it’s hard to read that as anything other than trolling.

            Any proposition can be attacked that way. Buy “Made in USA”? But far enough back, those items may use materials that were mined in China.

            Do you know the “Rule of 80/20”? In this case, the big obvious practical action may get a worthwhile result, which is a level worth discussing. Trying to take the discussion down to a tiny impractical level — attacks good faith discussion.

            The fact that “I don’t like the way some proponents talk about [practical level] X” does not mean “[Practical level] X is wrong”. (And, voting against Gay Marriage because one doesn’t like the the campaign slogan, is not fair to the actual gays.)

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ NZ
            But I don’t purport to base those lines around some half-baked notion of “total objective utility”.

            What do you base them on?

            (Your lines themselves sound pretty good to me.)

          • Nita says:


            Sure, no one can be 100% confident about anything. But let’s say there’s a trolley about to run over either a puppy (by default) or a young dandelion (if you pull a lever). Would you pull the lever? Would your choice be different if it was a piglet vs a young head of lettuce?

            I would say something can be called “suffering” only if it’s similar to the suffering we’re familiar with in some morally relevant way. What’s the point of using the same word if there’s no similarity?

            My whole point there was that suffering is a phenomenon sitting on top of biological hardware. Anything with biological hardware, even if it’s very simple, therefore seems likely to experience some kind of “suffering” phenomenon.

            All of our experiences sit on top of biological hardware. Suffering, love, pride, religious feelings, anger, compassion, amusement — does every living thing experience those, too?

            there are lines to be drawn around sadistic abuse and egregious destruction of animals and plants

            OK. What about abuse for the sake of cost-efficiency instead of sadism? Is that on the “wrong” or “right” side of your line?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ NZ
            I don’t feel confident assuming that poking [a worm] with a needle isn’t just as bad as stabbing a human, from a “utiliton count” standpoint. In that sense I’m agnostic but prefer to err on the side of caution.

            Amount of suffering at different biological levels is a question of fact, and not binary. Choosing as principle to err on the side of caution vs the other side, is binary.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Nita

            The language needs a neat word for non-human suffering. 😉 Till one turns up, ‘suffering’ is going to be used a lot.

            I would say something can be called “suffering” only if it’s similar to the suffering we’re familiar with in some morally relevant way.

            Whuf. I’m not even going to count how many words would have to be established there before a discussion could start — and it would be in a severe question-begging frame at that.

            Suffering, love, pride, religious feelings, anger, compassion, amusement — does every living thing experience those, too?

            Suffering is on a level common to all living things, is the simplest and safest assumption. Most of your other things are built on that foundation: anger is suffering +adrenalin+something to remove; love causes suffering when frustrated; compassion is suffering at the sight of another creature suffering; etc.

            On the same level, bliss is common to all; love is bliss when not frustrated; etc.

            Most of our emotions are a mixture. To change the metaphor, suffering and bliss are the hot and cold water taps. What ’emotion’ we get is shaped by the ever-changing hose or container that mixture flows into; pond, fountain, etc.

            Different creatures in different environments have differently structured outlets. Some are complex like amusement. In some species some are standard equipment=instincts (care for offspring, defending territory/possessions, herd instinct, duration of pair bonding, survival instinct, etc). Humans may be the only species that makes abstract names for those instincts and calls them moral duties.

            To recognize suffering in another creature, we don’t need to know exactly which emotion/s it is feeling (or is capable of feeling).

          • Nita says:

            @ houseboatonstyx

            Evidently, we are already using the word to refer to very different phenomena. E.g., some people would say “fish do feel pain, but they don’t experience suffering”, while you say “suffering is on a level common to all living things”.

            anger is suffering +adrenalin+something to remove

            Oh no, that’s too hardware-specific. NZ would not approve. So, let’s replace “adrenaline” with “an internal signal that tends to trigger a more action-ready state”. And now, we have angry bacteria, fungi, and even individual cells in your body!

          • NZ says:

            Agree about further branching! This is getting ridiculous. OK, this will be my last response on the Au Bon thread.


            I reduced the selectively-planted tree nut thing because the selective breeding of animals and “stealing of offspring” is something vegans typically include as a non-trivial item in their list of complaints against the meat and dairy industries.

            I mostly approve of your later comments to Nita except at the end where you start trying to break down various emotions into their essences. There, you get into stuff I’m not nearly as confident about as I am about whether plants feel pain.


            I’d save the puppy or the piglet, because they are cuter than dandelions or heads of lettuce. Good thing I don’t subscribe to a philosophy that tries to weigh everything in utilitons.

            houseboatonstyx answered a lot of your other points in a way I generally approve of (see above), but I’ll go ahead and include what I wrote:

            Maybe suffering’s a loaded term, but consider it shorthand for some basic form of “I AM EXPERIENCING A LIFE OR DEATH EMERGENCY” and variations of that (e.g. having to do with one’s offspring).

            If you like the word “pain” better we can keep it to that instead, but then I’d say vegans still seem to be complaining about the pain humans cause to other organisms (they forget plants of course), not just suffering.

            Whatever we call it, it’s a response all living things need in order to survive at the most basic level, which is why I surmise that it probably exists as a phenomenon on top of even the most simple hardware, while love/pride/religiosity etc. probably don’t.

            Personally, I’d judge abuse-for-cost-efficiency on a case by case basis where I learned about it and felt alarmed for some reason, and I probably wouldn’t use any measure that I would claim is universally objective. But then, I also wouldn’t claim it as a philosophy that others are wrong for not following.* But like I said, that’s the difference between me and vegans.

            *To re-emphasize, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with deciding you don’t want to eat meat or use any animal products. I do think it’s wrong to make up BS reasons and pretend you’re clever and righteous for having done so, when really what you’re doing is trying to sort out which white people listen to NPR and which listen to country.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          @ NZ, Nita
          OK, this will be my last response on the Au Bon thread.

          I wish we could continue this, somewhere, sometime. We three seem to be close to agreement on several points … and as Pooh Bear said, “Having got so far, it seems a shame to waste it”.

          NZ said:
          [Suffering/pain] probably exists as a phenomenon on top of even the most simple hardware, while love/pride/religiosity etc. probably don’t.

          That’s part of what I was trying to say.

          Nita said:
          Oh no, that’s too hardware-specific. NZ would not approve. So, let’s replace “adrenaline” with “an internal signal that tends to trigger a more action-ready state”. And now, we have angry bacteria, fungi, and even individual cells in your body!

          Nice image, but by the time you’ve made that change, we’re not talking about anger.

          NZ said:
          you start trying to break down various emotions into their essences. There, you get into stuff I’m not nearly as confident about as I am about whether plants feel pain.

          I was agreeing with you that we don’t have to identify any specific emotion in them, in order to default to assuming our actions can hurt them, and erring on the side of caution.

          As for ‘suffering’ vs ‘pain’ for this level below emotions, I think ‘pain’ is too specific. It suggests a sharp, localized injury such as a stab. ‘Suffering’ covers pain and many more things, such as diffused discomfort, perhaps unreconized malaise, etc.

      • Nita says:

        Plants, on the other hand, have no CNSs. But they do have organs that transmit messages both within and between individuals.

        1. What are those organs? Specifically, the ones for within-individual transmission?

        2. Not every internal signaling system is a nervous system. E.g., our endocrine system is not a nervous system, and none of its signals are “pain”.

        3. I agree that physiologically different systems can, in principle, have morally similar functions. But there is no reason why every living organism has to have an ability to experience pain and suffering. In animals, it developed as motivation to GET AWAY from the bad stimulus ASAP. But plants (generally) can’t do that, so a sense of pain wouldn’t be very helpful.

        4. And finally, I’ve never seen a vegan argue against eating literally all animals. No one’s interested in eating nematodes or flatworms, so the question never comes up.

        • NZ says:

          1. I don’t know what they’re called. I know that plants can do those things, and I presume it’s their organs–not magic–that enable them to do it.

          2. True. But the systems I’m referring to in plants don’t just moderate the plants’ chemicals: they send and receive information from other plants, bend limbs towards light, analyze the nutritional content of surrounding soil, identify up from down, etc.

          3. Plants can do a lot. They bend, close up, turn themselves sour, etc.

          4. Yeah, like I said it seems to be something most vegans (the ones I’ve talked to at least) haven’t thought about.

    • Leonard says:

      What surprises me about this (besides EY being that clueless about normal people) is that 20% of meat-eaters think animals “ARE NOT sentient / experiencing pain / have something it is like to be / have qualia”. Whoa. 20% of EY’s friends don’t think cows experience pain?

      Intellectuals really can rationalize just about anything. (To be slightly fairer, I suppose it hinges on what a person thinks “experience” means.)

      • Alex Godofsky says:

        There’s (potentially?) a big difference between “experiences pain in the way that a human feels pain” and “experiences pain in the way that my Roomba detects that it has run into a chair”. “Cows don’t experience pain” would be shorthand for the latter.

      • Deiseach says:

        I think people were answering the survey question as “I do understand that animals feel pain as physical organisms, but I don’t think they’re sentient in a meaningful way. So if you are forcing me to choose “do I think animals are sentient because they can feel pain?”, I’m going to answer “no” (if I think sentience is the important part of this question) or “yes” (if I’m being literal-minded about ‘do I think animals feel pain’) but that their experience of pain is not sufficient when it comes to deciding the moral question of “is eating meat eating a sentient being?”

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        He probably has friends who dont believe humans have qualia.

      • Deiseach says:

        animals “ARE NOT sentient / experiencing pain / have something it is like to be / have qualia”.

        That’s a tangle. Let’s break it down:

        Do I believe:
        (a) animals are NOT sentient. Yes, that’s what I believe.

        (b)(i) animals are NOT experiencing pain. No, I consider animals experience physical pain in the same manner humans experience physical pain because we’re all made of matter and it works in a particular fashion.
        (b)(ii) Yes, I do not believe animals experience pain in the same fashion humans do. Indeed, different animals experience pain differently: I don’t think a fly experiences pain as a fish experiences pain as a cow experiences pain as an elephant experiences pain, that is, aware of it, capable of understanding that this sensation is called ‘pain’, remembering past pain, anticipating future pain, and so forth.

        (c) do NOT have something it is like to be. What does this even mean? A chair has “something it is like to be”. A cloud, a wave, an octopus, an orange, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and my vegan/animal rights activist brother’s eight cats (yes, really) all have “something it is like to be”. Do I believe animals physically exist in the form appropriate to their species? Well, duh! Do I believe – what? animals have some animalness sense of being “a cat” or “a pigeon” that they understand, compare to others of their species and to other species, have a tradition/culture/society of “being cat” or “being pigeon” and so on? Obviously, no (sorry, no “Baa-ram-ewe”).

        (d) do NOT have qualia. Hang on while I look up what “qualia” are. Okay, if I’m taking it correctly, for example the colour of a sunset is experienced as quale when it is subjectively, as well as objectively (the physical wavelength of the light stimulus on the parts of the eye) seen and experienced; so we can say “my love is like a red, red rose” and have that mean something recognisable to all, even if it’s not absolutely literal.

        I’m saying “no” here. How do I know how a horse experiences the taste of grass or the feel of wind? But I’m going to err on the side of “simpler brains, simpler capacities”.

        So to sum up, in order to answer that question correctly I would have to say “yes, no/yes, yes/no, no” but since apparently I can only give a flat “yes” or “no”, then I’d say “no” (and so give the impression I think animals are sentient but I’ll eat them anyway).

        • Nita says:

          (c) “something it is like to be” refers to something like “immediate subjective experience” or “in-the-moment awareness informed by the senses”, not the various things you mention 😛

          It’s from Thomas Nagel’s classic essay, “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?”: (it’s a bit long, but not very technical — his point is that some things, such as subjective experience, are inaccessible to reductionist methods)

    • AnonMeatEater says:

      I’m a meat-eater who does not doubt many animals can suffer and prefer not to die. I’m not for Voldemort.

      I believe the bad of my food’s death is smaller than the good of my food’s relatively stress-free life before that. Basically I think it is better for factory farm animals to exist than to not exist. It seems to me that a vegan who’s against factory farming is telling that factory-farmed cow or pig, who is maybe as sentient as a one-year-old child: “I would prefer it if you’d never been born. Your death will be so horrible to me that whatever enjoyment you have in your life, I would prefer for you not to have that.”

      Since animal suicide exists, animals not killing themselves are revealing a preference to live (even in domesticated form, even on factory farms) rather than die. There are other species who express different preferences, basically by dying when in captivity, or by refusing to procreate if they don’t get specific needs met by the zoo they’re in. These species are labeled impossible to domesticate, and their numbers are dwindling.

      I think part of the reason people advocate an end to meat-eating is that what they imagine the alternative is animals living in the wild. Animals in the wild look prettier to humans than animals in stables, even though they’re constantly hungry, in danger from predators, full of parasites etc. But the alternative that would actually result from a world of vegans isn’t that the farm animals will go back to frolicking in some untouched wilderness, but that they’ll be reduced to small zoo populations in a world of farmland and parks, and I think that alternative is worse.

      It seems to me that the human animal is prone to limiting its food options, both in obviously pathological ways (anorexia, religious food taboos) and in simple preferences, and that seems highly correlated with the individual’s capacity for the emotion of disgust. So vegetarianism and veganism seem to me like elaborate rationalizations for that, with some signaling of self-denial (i.e. puritanism) and tribal membership on top. I feel very little disgust, and I think that’s probably most of the actual reason why I enjoy meat (and any and all other food that isn’t downright poisonous).

      I expect people to prefer thinking I’m Voldemort rather than agree with me on the desirability for farm animals to exist, so I don’t normally discuss this. But this is SSC, people are supposed to be reasonable here, and this time around not even race and gender are expressly prohibited, so I’m curious to see how those of you who are convinced of veganism hope to convince me otherwise. I’d be particularly interested in any vegans who also report feeling very little disgust, and who didn’t become vegans to signal something to their friends or romantic interest at least in the beginning.

      • Linch says:

        The revealed preference of anything to continue existing is extremely weak evidence for their lives actually being net positive, for obvious evolutionary reasons (Remember that your genes don’t give a damn how happy you are).

        I think it’s perfectly plausible that many people who have attempted suicide and failed perceives their own life to be net negative, and that you can’t round it all away to “they just want attention” or, more poetically, “a plea for help.” If you accept that this claim is true for humans who have Reason and higher degrees of agency, etc., it seems natural to believe that this might be true of animals who have stronger survival instincts than humans who are at least somewhat capable of moderating it.

        I don’t know what the modal vegan position is. Of the vegans I’m familiar with, most of them are pretty explicit about believing that for many animals, them not having been born will be a more preferable situation than a life of presumed agony in a factory farm. Your mileage may vary.

        (I have heard of vegans who are essentialists with regard to the environment and are trying to end factory farming so there’s more Land for Nature which is Obviously Good, but I have only met vegetarians, not actual vegans, with this view. That said I will not be surprised if the essentialism view is that of the median vegan).

    • Annms says:

      By yout summary, this sounds like yet another case of EY finding a weak excuse to feel smugly superior to other people. Agreeing that animals can feel pain doesn’t imply completely agreeing with vegetarians on moral and factual matters.

  20. Dude Man says:

    So there was an Atlantic article about how we create life stories for ourselves. In it, there was this paragraph about false memories:

    Pasupathi’s not convinced that it matters that much whether life stories are perfectly accurate. A lot of false memory research has to do with eyewitness testimony, where it matters a whole lot whether a person is telling a story precisely as it happened. But for narrative-psychology researchers, “What really matters isn’t so much whether it’s true in the forensic sense, in the legal sense,” she says. “What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened. Any creation of a narrative is a bit of a lie. And some lies have enough truth.”

    First, is it reasonable to interpret this as encouraging self-deception? The researcher seems to be arguing that it is more important for memories to be meaningful than accurate.

    Second and more broadly, is it really a good idea to encourage self-deception as a way to improve mental health? How do you square advice like this with treating honesty as a terminal value?

    • The second question might depend somewhat on whether the theory of depressive realism is true. I am ambivalent about the theory but I have always found it interesting.

    • Setsize says:

      Rather than an endorsement of self-deception, I read that passage as merely trying to describe what “narrative-psychology research” is concerned with, by way of contrasting it with “false memory research.”

      That is, the question “are memories true?” may not have much to do with the question “what role do narratives play in the mind?”

      • walpolo says:

        Right, they might mean “matters for our theory” rather than “matters in the big scheme of things.”

        Although it’s hard to see what the evolutionary explanation for this sort of memory would be. When would a false narrative ever be more advantageous than a true narrative?

    • First, is it reasonable to interpret this as encouraging self-deception? The researcher seems to be arguing that it is more important for memories to be meaningful than accurate.

      It might be critical for the patient to figure out a way to make sense of a memory, particularly if it’s a memory of a social situation that could be interpreted in many different ways.

      Second and more broadly, is it really a good idea to encourage self-deception as a way to improve mental health? How do you square advice like this with treating honesty as a terminal value?

      Who’s treating honesty as a terminal value? It’s not hard to think of circumstances where honesty is less important than other values.

    • anodognosic says:

      This is a deep, deep question. Let’s take the distinction between narrative meaning and objective fact.

      A mindset asymptotically approaching objectivity would be strictly Bayesian, so that everything is expressed as a percentage. There would be no emotional attachment to any beliefs – in fact, there would be no beliefs per se, only predictions about sense-data.

      Imagine applying this all the time to everything, including your personal life. It’s literally impossible. It’s not how human minds work. And it doesn’t fit at all our intuitive/narrative functioning, from which we derive meaning (in the sense of “meaning of life”).

      We can’t escape embracing narrative to the detriment of rationality to the extent that we want meaning in our lives. People might vary in the balance they end up in (which is why, for instance, I think Scott finds it so hard to model people who like “earthfic”, as per the previous sub-thread). There are ways to make them work together, but for the most part that means alternation, using rationality to course-correct or rein in intuitive/narrative reasoning.

      TL;DR The terminal values of honesty (in this sense) and meaning are competing goods, and you can’t have one without compromising a bit of the other.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        “A mindset asymptotically approaching objectivity would be strictly Bayesian, so that everything is expressed as a percentage. There would be no emotional attachment to any beliefs – in fact, there would be no beliefs per se, only predictions about sense-data.”

        Setting aside the dogmatic identification of objectivity with Bayesianism, why on earth would this be true? A perfect reasoner would have excellent grounds for investing a high credence in (say) the proposition that atoms exist– what a non-Bayesian would call belief in atoms– but this is in no way a prediction concerning sense-data. I also expect a perfect reasoner would deny that there were any such thing as sense-data, cognitive psychology having informed us long ago that this isn’t how the brain works.

        • anodognosic says:

          @Earthly Knight Propositions are mind-things. So is the concept of “atom”. Their connection to reality is in their prediction of perceptions (since you objected to “sense data.” It doesn’t matter). If you want to push against the horizons of objectivity, you formalize the model mathematically, free of (some of) the limitations of human mental models, and stick to the predictions and observations (cf. quantum physics, one of the most objective fields; it’s no coincidence that it’s also one of the most difficult to apprehend intuitively).

          I mean, I have no objection to talking about beliefs or atoms or what have you. (I’m actually arguing for letting more human subjectivity into thinking.) But you have to admit they’re concessions to the subjective human way of understanding reality.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            The concept of an atom is indeed a “mind-thing”, but this is beside the point, because I wasn’t talking about the concept. Atoms themselves are not mind-dependent, they’re part of the furniture of the world. The purpose of scientific theories is not just to predict the course of future experiences. They’re also involved with explaining the structure of the universe and the nature of its constituents, which includes inter alia atoms, molecules, organisms, and cells.

            The point you’re making about belief is even more obscure to me. Our ideal reasoner has a mathematical model: it attaches a very high credence to some prediction about her sense-data, for instance, “I will be appeared to redly one week hence” (never mind how the passage of a week is represented as a sense-datum). This seems sufficient to me for belief– she believes that she will see something red one week from now.

          • anodognosic says:

            >This seems sufficient to me for belief

            Here is the central issue of contention. What is *belief* for?

            Let’s imagine a computer that’s programmed to hit a blue ball with a bat. But this computer doesn’t contain a variable or node or category for “ball” at all. It has its camera, and when the light that hits the camera is within a certain range of configurations (corresponding to an approaching ball), it swings the bat. Here, there is no belief, only perception, computation and action.

            In human, intuitive reasoning, beliefs (or something belief-like; the details of the phenomenology don’t matter) figure into the computation that leads a batter to hit the ball, because that’s the human way of modeling. Computers can reach the same result, often better results, via different routes. Rationality and objectivity are neutral about methods, as long as the prediction (and resultant action) are the same. If you happen to reach a prediction without beliefs (except, perhaps, belief in the prediction itself; we cannot fully transcend our human minds), why add the extra step of forming a belief?

            My point is that it’s because beliefs, among other things, are our (intuitive, subjective) native software, and we can only derive meaning from things that run on our native software. Ultimately, my intention is to reach a reductio of the idea that we can’t ever compromise (objective) truth, because *even holding a belief apart from a prediction is such a compromise*.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            Your example conflates two distinct questions– whether the computer has beliefs about the external world and whether it has beliefs sans phrase. We may be able to answer the former in the negative, but not the latter.* If the computer selectively responds to blue balls (…another reason the example is poorly chosen) it must have some way of representing blue ball-shaped stimuli and attaching a credence to them, and so must perforce believe that it is being appeared to bluely and spherically (assuming that it otherwise is capable of having doxastic states, which may impose some additional requirements).

            This still doesn’t address the point about atoms, which are real independently of what you or I or any computer believes or predicts.

            *Probably not, actually, but the simplicity of the examples we’re using make this harder to see. The computer’s equations will have to include variables for theoretical terms, which cannot be reduced to any finite disjunction of sense-datum reports.

          • anodognosic says:

            Calling a computer’s representations “beliefs” is an undue anthropomorphization. If there are variables, they need not conform to anything we would conceive of mentally. The fact that it may use a radically different system of representation, and perhaps even a better one, shows that our representational framework is limited by its architecture.

            Re: atoms: atoms are not actual things as we conceive them, these separate, unitary entities. They are more like a mishmash of wavefunctiony stuff, far better represented by the mathematics of quantum physics. (I’d even go farther and say that most people’s intuitive concept of atoms is still of little billiard balls knocking into other little billiard balls, and that it’s hard to go beyond that because image schemas. But this is not essential to my point.)

            The question I pose is, why do we insist on the suboptimal representation that is the atom when we have more precise mathematical ones? Because we crave an intuitive understanding beyond the math, or at least need a more intuitive placeholder in our minds.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            “Calling a computer’s representations “beliefs” is an undue anthropomorphization.”

            I’m afraid it is you who are anthropomorphizing– you’re using an unduly restrictive definition of belief (whose parameters are still unclear to me) to rule out non-human intelligences as possible believers. This is just semantic jiggery-pokery and therefore not very interesting. All I mean by belief is a sufficiently intelligent system which assigns a high subjective probability or truth value T to some piece of representational content.

            “They are more like a mishmash of wavefunctiony stuff, far better represented by the mathematics of quantum physics.”

            Sure, whatever. The important point is not nailing down what atoms are, just that they exist, that our ideal reasoner will believe in them, and that they are not sense data.

            “why do we insist on the suboptimal representation that is the atom when we have more precise mathematical ones?”

            I’m having trouble making heads or tails of this– if the atom (the particle, not our mental image of it!) is a “suboptimal representation”, what in the blue blazes do you think its representing? What, moreover, is the mathematical theory representing, if not the atom?

          • anodognosic says:

            >All I mean by belief is a sufficiently intelligent system which assigns a high subjective probability or truth value T to some piece of representational content.

            This is Bayesian-rationalist belief, which I hold is not quite the same as narrative-intuitive belief. This seems like a fair distinction, or at least is specific enough to be open to argumentation. My contention is that only narrative-intuitive belief can carry meaning (as in the sense of “meaning of life”). If a Bayesian-rationalist belief carries meaning, it is only to the extent that it associates with a narrative-intuitive belief.

            >What, moreover, is the mathematical theory representing, if not the atom?

            “What, moreover, is the gigantic ball of hot plasma at the center of our solar system, if not Apollo’s chariot being driven across the sky?”

            An exaggeration, but which expresses the relationship I’m referring to. Both represent the same thing, but are on different points along a subjective-objective spectrum, where the subjective extreme is the one that most conforms to our intuitive-narrative reasoning. The “atom” concept implicitly carries untrue assumptions because it conforms to our intuitive understanding (that of a unitary, separable object, for instance), but is as a result intuitively more convenient and satisfying than the wave function, so it survives.

            If this is clear, then there is no disagreement left.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            “This is Bayesian-rationalist belief, which I hold is not quite the same as narrative-intuitive belief. This seems like a fair distinction, or at least is specific enough to be open to argumentation.”

            Okay, but you started out denying that the ideal reasoner would have any beliefs at all and ended up by introducing a (to my eye, unnatural) distinction between two different types of belief and claiming that she would have one sort but not the other. You’ll forgive me if I’m having trouble following the dialectic.

            “An exaggeration, but which expresses the relationship I’m referring to.”

            I don’t think you quite caught the thrust of my question. Calling the atom a representation is a confusion of symbol and referent, because an atom isn’t a representation at all, it’s stuff out there in the world. It’s the silly Bohr model or whatever set of equations that are representations. I wish I could say you’ve made your position clear to me, but I’m not convinced it’s clear even to you.

          • anodognosic says:

            >a (to my eye, unnatural) distinction between two different types of belief

            The fact that most people would not recognize a belief as an experience-anticipator suggests that they are phenomenologically distinct. The fact that people not only have, but are routinely attracted to, unfalsifiable beliefs suggests there is a mechanism at play wholly distinct from experience-anticipation. As does the fact that even people trained in rationality think nothing of suspending disbelief in reading fiction.

            The ideal-reasoner-belief is a tool for prediction; intuitive-narrative-belief serves a psychological purpose. Ideal-reasoner-belief is a fitness maximization process; intuitive-narrative-belief is an adaptation execution.

            If you can’t tell the distinction, I fear you’re projecting the idealized case on the human one. Circling back to my original point, the problem with failing to make that distinction is you end up thinking that experience-anticipation is the only purpose of beliefs and end up missing others which are connected to creating intuitively satisfying meaning of the world. The point is: sometimes it’s a good thing to sacrifice some of the experience-anticipation purpose of belief for the meaningness (to use David Chapman’s neologism) purpose of belief. In other words, to a certain extent, it’s okay and even necessary to *believe in belief*.

            > an atom isn’t a representation at all, it’s stuff out there in the world

            So is Apollo’s fiery chariot. Get out of the car, EK.

          • Earthly Knight says:

            Your thoughts are getting disorganized, so I’m going to part with a question. If I ask the ideal reasoner whether there are planets outside of our future light cone, will she say yes or no? If no, how can she be an ideal reasoner, yet incapable of completing the most straightforward inductions? If yes, how can she be concerned only with predictions about sense-data, when planets outside of our future light cone are causally isolated from us unto eternity?

        • anodognosic says:

          >Your thoughts are getting disorganized

          If your words don’t get tied up in a knot when you’re discussing foundational epistemology, you’re not trying hard enough. To wit, the following gets it almost exactly backwards:

          >Calling the atom a representation is a confusion of symbol and referent, because an atom isn’t a representation at all, it’s stuff out there in the world. It’s the silly Bohr model or whatever set of equations that are representations.

          Re: your question: The ideal reasoner is a fiction, so maybe? It doesn’t matter. The relevant examples are those beliefs that are unfalsifiable not because of physical constraints, but by deliberate human design. The question is: why do humans *defend beliefs from evidence*? This is so ludicrously antithetical to the ideal reasoner that there must be some other purpose at play.

          Naive rationalism rejects any such purposes. I’m saying you can’t, and shouldn’t.

  21. Max says:

    What is practical utility of charity? Have there been any serious examples of inventions/Great people appearing solely (or even at least in large part) because of it? What great things happened thanks to it?

    • Stefan Drinic says:

      This kiiiind of assumes that utility is measured in great inventions/deeds rather than in things like loving family and happy lives, but even then one could argue that charity kept, say, a poor person from becoming desperate enough to burn Bill Gates’ house to the ground while he was busy inventing the modern age.

      • Max says:

        a poor person from becoming desperate enough to burn Bill Gates’ house to the ground while he was busy inventing the modern age.

        This sounds like an extortion racket.

        • Stefan Drinic says:

          I *can* name some examples of extortion rackets leading to what you’d call greatness, so I’d say I’m in the clear here.

          • Max says:

            I was asking for arguments for charity, not for extortion rackets (virtues of which are another matter).

            Buying of “poor persons” with charity just so they dont burn/revolt is not the most optimal solution.

          • suntzuanime says:

            What makes you think buying off “”poor persons”” is not the most optimal solution? You have something better in mind? Some people still run the “brutal oppression” strategy but it’s kind of considered gauche internationally.

          • Stefan Drinic says:

            Half of the reason I even brought this up is that the line between charity freely given and extortion rackets can be blurry. The Marshal plan contributed to West European recovery post WW2, but do we count this as the good and noble initiative that is charity, or as a bribe to ensure half the continent wouldn’t turn red?

            Hell, given that most people are comfortable with less people starving being a good thing, I’m not sure what other arguments you expected to see here. Would you count welfare as a form of charity?

        • anodognosic says:

          You didn’t answer the main point, which is that utility is not only about greatness but about regular people living well.

          • Max says:

            “People living well” = idiocracy

          • anodognosic says:

            I don’t think you *get* utilitarianism.

          • Max says:

            I don’t think you *get* utilitarianism.

            I don’t think you can accept that people may have utility function which differs from yours

          • anodognosic says:

            It’s an odd utilitarianism that excludes the utility of the great majority of the human population.

            Maybe you believe that great people have such a capacity for utility that they overwhelm everyone else’s, even to the point of making everyone else miserable?

            Except we have a term for those people. We call them *utility monsters*.

    • Nita says:

      Although the climb from a charity-worthy situation to “greatness” usually requires a few generations (and supportive infrastructure, such as good schools), I did manage to scrounge up a few examples among the people I consider notable:

      William Dance paid for young Michael Faraday’s tickets to lectures.
      Elihu Robinson mentored his servant boy, John Dalton.
      Thomas Skottowe paid for the primary education of his farm laborer’s son, James Cook.
      Franklin Leonard Pope let the young Thomas Edison live and experiment in his basement.
      The Flying University, an underground non-profit, educated Maria Skłodowska-Curie.

      Of course, if someone’s starving or sick, their education and freedom to experiment is not going to be the first priority. And a lot of people are starving or sick right now, so all this “mentoring” and such is on the back burner for effective altruists.

      • Max says:

        Thank you for taking time to find examples. But none of them are charity. They are at best individual patronage

        In fact histories of all those individuals are examples against charity – no social institution ever helped them and they achieved whatever they did throughout their hard-work and dedications. All those money going to charity could have helped those geniuses and maybe some who never made it. Rewarding weakness is weakening the strong

        • Nita says:

          Well, you didn’t specify your personal definition of charity. To me, giving money to a non-relative and not expecting anything in return is a charitable act. Classical patronage involved an obligation to provide services to the patron.

          The reason why these people needed help was that charitable institutions didn’t hand out such luxuries as education or lab space. In most Western countries, this issue has been remedied using taxes.

          And, of course, if any of them died of a preventable disease in childhood, no amount of potential cleverness or patronage could bring them to greatness.

    • The world needs maintenance as well as greatness.

      • Max says:

        Run away consumerism destroys the world -not maintains it. By supporting weak, poor and stupid you create more of them. Just look at Africa population boom

        • brightlinger says:

          Africa is not exactly a poster child for “runaway consumerism”. European countries are frequently criticized for being welfare states, yet have some of the lowest growth rates around.

        • pneumatik says:

          Moloch destroys the world. At best we could perhaps have indefinite stagnation, but either everyone would have to willingly support it or some people would have to ruthlessly enforce it (and I suppose have enough resource and energy surplus to recover from the total costs of enforcing it). In fact, my initial thought is that if you’re not destroying the world to provide for humans then you’re living in a Malthusian civilization.

    • brightlinger says:

      Every once in a while, I see someone _explicitly_ justify charity with the claim that there are more people like Ramanujan out there who are falling through the cracks, and society could benefit from more of them if they didn’t have to depend on meeting their Aiyer by sheer luck.

      I am left to wonder what the “practical utility” of great deeds is, if improving people’s lives doesn’t count.

  22. RichardCory says:

    Why doesn’t the concept of “Chinese math” (if we get just 1% of china to buy this widget, we will be successful!) as seen in economic business terms apply to idea that there *must* be life and even advanced life in the universe simply because there is soooooo much of it out there?

    • Hedonic Treader says:

      Because it is still possible for life to be improbable enough that a large finite part of the universe doesn’t produce it often enough, e.g. for light cones of civs to overlap.

      • Murphy says:

        I’ll be interesting to see what happens with the observations of exoplanets.

        Just a few years ago one of the possibilities was “maybe planets are just super rare”

        Now we know they’re super-common. If a few planets turn out to have atmospheric spectra implying life then it would imply that life is also super common which would be worrying.

    • Salem says:

      It does apply, and in just the same way.

      “If we get just 1% of china to buy this widget, we will be successful” does not mean that any old product will be successful. Both successful and unsuccessful products have been launched based on this thinking! The emotional work there is being done by “just” and “china.” Oh, “just” 1%. “China,” some faraway yet populous country. Imagine it being said instead by a Chinese executive. “For this widget to be successful, one person on each street in the nation must buy it.” Doesn’t sound so easy now. It’s all in the affect.

      So yeah, there’s a lot of universe. Are there trees with armchairs as fruit? Your logic above applies just the same. The size of the universe is not an excuse to insist that any wished-for event must be real, in the same way that the size of the Chinese market is not an excuse to insist that your widget will be successful. There is almost certainly an as-yet-undiscovered clump of rock somewhere in the universe. There is almost certainly not an armchair-tree. You actually have to do the work and consider the likelihood of life, not wave your hands.

    • math is can be demonstrated with empirical evidence ; ET life in the universe cannot . If the conditions are not present for ET life, there can’t be life,, no matter how big the universe is

    • I personally think it probably does apply – the set of imaginable universes with the apparently unremarkable (apart from life) Earth being the only location of life is a lot smaller than the set of imaginable universes where life on Earth exists but hasn’t noticed any of the other life that exists yet, or where advanced life rarely survives long.

  23. First-Time Commenter says:

    Taubes believes the human body is good at regulating its own weight via the hunger mechanism. For example, most Asian people are normal weight, despite the Asian staple food being rice, which is high-calorie and available in abundance. Asians don’t get fat because they eat a healthy amount of rice, then stop. This doesn’t seem to require amazing willpower on their part; it just happens naturally.

    Taubes’ argument is that refined carbohydrates are playing the role of Clozaril-in-orange-soda. If you don’t eat refined carbohydrates, your satiety mechanism will eventually go back to normal just like in Asians and prisoners and rats, and you can eat whatever else you want and won’t be tempted to have too much of it – or if you do have too much of it, you’ll exercise or metabolize it away. When he says you can “eat as much fat as you want”, he expects that not to be very much, once your broken satiety mechanism is fixed.

    Taubes is wrong. The best and most recent studies suggest that avoiding refined carbohydrates doesn’t fix weight gain much more than avoiding any other high-calorie food.

    I've never read Taubes. That said, I'm on a paleo-ish diet. One of the the main benefits I've noticed is that it's much easier to skip the brownies and ice cream and such when I'm at the grocery store; I'd say it's a +3 Will save vs. baked goods. I've also been able to finish dinner by 8 and postpone breakfast until noon on most days; this ends up cutting out most snacking, if nothing else.

    Once I started limiting my eating window, the pounds started to wander off; I've gone down 20 pounds or so in a year of this. My mother has had even more impressive results once her carb-fueled sweet tooth finally died out. The funny thing is that Taubes' descriptions, at least in my family, seem to have more explanatory power than anything else on offer.

    Oddly enough, the guy who egged me into eating this way is…Asian. Rail-skinny in high school, got fat during college, and got back to normal by cutting out rice and sugar and burger buns.

    (Yes, I know a handful of anecdotes don't falsify a generalization, but I thought this was too funny to not comment)

    • dndnrsn says:

      Taubes’ book has some big holes in it. Regardless of those holes, my most serious fat loss has always been on low-carb diets where I avoid sugars and starches.

      I think my reason is similar to what you are describing: the foods I tend to overeat are carb-heavy: junk food, baked goods, beer, etc. I don’t think it has anything to do with Taubes’ proposed mechanism, which seems wacky to me.

      I don’t see the point of the “which is the best diet?” research – it seems like individual psychological factors are a big part. I just lose fat best on a low-carb diet because once I start drinking beer or eating cookies, I almost inevitably plow through 6+ pints or devastate the cookie aisle of the nearest supermarket. The same doesn’t happen to me eating stuff high in protein and fat but low in carbs.

      • gbdub says:

        Same here. The things I’m most tempted to OVEREAT are carb-heavy, and if I’m disciplined about reducing carb intake I don’t replace it with overeating protein or fat heavy foods.

        And eating less carbs in general does seem to reduce craving for them. For whatever reason, it’s much easier for me to turn down an extra piece of chicken than an extra helping of pasta or dinner roll.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Plus the most overeatable high-carb stuff is very often high in fat, too: chips, cookies, etc. I don’t know how often people eat a whole loaf of plain bread, but smashing a bag of chips or box of cookies is practically hard not to do for a lot of us.

          But Taubes is silly and some of his ideas just don’t work. I bought a copy of his book and there’s more than one angry marginal notation I made.

          • Second-Time Commenter says:

            I don’t know how often people eat a whole loaf of plain bread[…]

            I’ve been able to plow through 1/2–3/4 of a par-baked artisanal loaf before. Eating the whole thing at one sitting would be a stretch (in two senses of the word), but doable.

          • dndnrsn says:

            On its own? If it’s good bread I can see that.

            I do recommend reading Taubes, because it’s good practice at picking out reasonable from unreasonable.

          • Nornagest says:

            I misread that as “eating Taubes”, and now I’m a little disappointed.

          • dndnrsn says:

            According to Taubes you couldn’t gain weight from eating him. No carbs.

          • Deiseach says:

            A small crusty sliced pan with butter? Washed down with a pot of good strong tea?

            If I was very hungry and it was my main meal of the day, it’d be doable. I’d be stuffed as full as an egg and feeling unpleasantly gluttonous, but it’s doable.

  24. Oleg S says:

    What is a problem with total QALY being target function for a friendly AI?
    I just cannot reconcile the apparent lack of agreement on target funciton for the AI optimizer and relative consensus of rational altruism community (and some national healthcare authorities) on what constitutes a proper measure of effective spending of money.

    • Froolow says:

      I’m pretty well steeped in the QALY paradigm, and I think your solution is going to look *something* like what the rationalist community eventually settles on, but it going to have enough problems that people won’t regard to problem as solved by any means.

      To give one issue NICE struggles with often; if all you care about is literally maximising QALYs, fertility becomes way more important than (say) pain, because the best you can do by alleviating someone’s pain is give them a handful of QALYs over their lifetime, but if you can get them pregnant then not only do you get a big blob of probable future QALYs, but that blob of QALYs can generate *more* blobs of QALYs. Taken to its extreme, contraception should be treated as a great evil according to the NHS. An AI taking it to extremes could look a lot worse.

      You can get around the problem (like the NHS does) by making a distinction between ‘future people’ and ‘potential people’, but there are other problems and value judgements that have to be made to solve these problems (or bullets to be bitten to keep the value judgement) until eventually you lose the simplicity of the QALY in a sea of value judgements (at which point – when you have *really* specified what you mean – you lose the broad agreement which you say is critical in your judgement that QALYs are the way forward).

      I think QALYs are a really great invention – probably one of the most important of the modern era – but you have to be extremely careful about which domains you apply them to; they maximise *something*, but what that thing is is subtle and open to interpretation.

      • This problem is trivially easy to avoid by being realistic about the fact that life can be so unpleasant as to be in the negatives. Followed by biting the bullet on the repugnant conclusion >;D

        • Hedonic Treader says:

          I think you are right.

        • Peter says:

          Given that a) the repugnant conclusion is based on a highly unrealistic hypothetical and Parfit pretty much says so explicitly, and b) for any AI we might construct, we only need it to behave well in situations that turn up, it’s not a huge bullet to bite in this case.

      • Oleg S says:

        By the way, is there a practice of discounting future QALYs in the similar way as future cash inflow/outflow is discounted when Net Present Value is calculated?

        • Froolow says:

          Yes. NICE use a discount rate for QALYs of 3.5% (same as future cash), but it isn’t strictly necessary that future QALYs be discounted at the same rate as future spending – if you have reason to believe we will become better at generating QALYs given a fixed (real) amount of money, you could consider lowering the QALY discount rate. In my opinion they probably should, to something more like 1.5%.

          • Oleg S says:

            Taking 3.5% discount rate, 1 day of depression today has about the same QALY value as complete extinction of humanity in the Milky Way around 2000 years from now:

            Depression cost = 0.55QALY / 365 = 0.0015 QALYs
            Extinction of humanity im MW cost = 400billion [stars] * 400billion [humans/star] / (1 – 100%/103.5%) = 4.7*10^24 QALYs.
            Ratio of these two factors is 3*10^27, which is 1.035^1840.

            Since we probably won’t discover FTL and colonize Milky Way in 2000 years, this is a conservative estimate of x-threat. Don’t know if it tells something about QALY limitations, discounting, long time or existention threats though.

      • Murphy says:

        Maximizing QALY’s (that individuals get) is not the same thing as maximizing QALY’s (total).

        • Froolow says:

          “Making people happy isn’t the same as making happy people”

          And I agree. But some people don’t – for example a lot of x-risk Effective Altruists implicitly assume we should care a lot about making lots of happy people in the future compared to making people happy now.

          These sorts of issues mean that I wouldn’t trust an AI following a ‘maximise QALYs’ rule, because even if you solved the one issue I posed above, there are ten more just as serious I didn’t mention, and probably just as many just as serious I don’t even know yet.

          • Murphy says:

            One thing I don’t like on less wrong is the implicit assumption that maximizers are the go-to. I think the discussion is sometimes overly shaped by some of the assumptions in some of the simpler articles.

            You could also quite validly have an X-maintainer which doesn’t seek to maximize X but does seek to keep X above some arbitrary point with some reasonable level of confidence. But that’s probably an argument for another thread.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            You could also quite validly have an X-maintainer which doesn’t seek to maximize X but does seek to keep X above some arbitrary point with some reasonable level of confidence.

            Bostrom’s scenario for this is: How sure can it be that it has achieved this? Could it acquire more resources in order to make the count more reliable?

            Okay, “reasonable level of confidence”. But how do I know I have achieved something with 80% confidence? Am I 100% confident of that confidence level? Maybe the safest thing to do is keep the level at 2X, just to be sure. But then…

            Honestly, I suspect your angle is close to the right approach. But there’s some serious work associated with specifying that so it doesn’t lead to the same problem at a meta-level.

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      There is no uncontroversial way of measuring quality of life. What you have with QALY is just lists of guesstimates for how much a particular disease or injury reduces quality of life. These guesstimates are made by medical experts who possess common sense and normal human morality and are thus able to notice when their methodology gives them absurd results. There’s a risk that a very powerful AI would find some sort of exploit that lets it cheaply increase QALY-points without actually increasing human well-being.

      I don’t know any details about how QALYs are actually calculated, so maybe the following example doesn’t work. But if not, then something similar probably would.

      When humans want to maximise egg production, they put lots of chickens into small cages, give them food and water to sustain them and anti-biotics so they won’t get sick. This is a very miserable life for chickens, but an efficient way of producing eggs if you don’t care about the welfare of chickens. Now imagine an AI “farming” QALYs. It produces lots of humans and puts them in cages where they are fed and watered and receive whatever medical treatment is cost-effective. These humans will be quite miserable, but that doesn’t matter, we only care about the objective criteria of QALY. They will also probably be less healthy than free range humans, but this moderate decrease in the quality of life factor is easily compensated by the massive cost reduction compared to free range humans.

      This example illustrates a crucial problem with the QALY approach, namely that it only cares about health, even though it’s perfectly possible to lead a miserable life even if one is in perfect health.

      • Hedonic Treader says:

        This is generally a problem with formal definitions of utility that don’t match exactly whatever human intuitions led to the definition.

        But if we ever need a formal definition, e.g. to be parsed by decision algorithms, there is no way around this.

      • Peter says:

        I think there are QALY weights for mental health, which is related to misery – I seem to recall that severe depression unaccompanied by other health problems was running at a weight of about 0.5 or so, maybe a bit lower.

        Other things – I don’t think there are QALY weights for wireheading, and I could see a lot of people being concerned to prevent a Bright New Mandatory Wireheading Future – it doesn’t seem the best to me. Others may disagree – paging Wirehead Wannabe…

        • Froolow says:

          If you’re curious, the most extreme you can put depression on a QALY survey accompanied by no other health problems at all gives your QoL weighting as 0.414 in the UK and 0.550 in the US (people in different countries obviously feel differently as to how bad depression is relative to other illnesses).

          In reality, many depressed people also have trouble with ‘Activities of Daily Living’ such as holding down a job or keeping up with schoolwork, and again score badly on ‘Self-Care’ (remembering to wash and eat), so I’d reckon the actual QALY weight is more like 0.3 or 0.4.

          • Jon Gunnarsson says:

            Factory-farmed humans would probably be cheaper by a factor of at least ten compared to us free range humans. You don’t need education, transportation, entertainment, etc.

          • Hedonic Treader says:

            You don’t even need the full humans. You could grow brains in vats instead. Also great for wireheading.

            The true obstacle, beyond the abuse potential and social resistance to Franken-anything, is that most people need to carry their own economic weight most of the time.

      • Oleg S says:

        Doesn’t exactly that line of reasoning prevent spending money on fighting schistosomiasis in Sub-Saharan Africa?

    • walpolo says:

      Read Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids (or “With Folded Hands”)

  25. Jon Gunnarsson says:

    Since there is a good number of Less Wrong people here, this seems like a good place to ask. Can anyone explain this idea of Timeless Decision Theory to me?

    As far as I understand it, TDT says for example that you should cooperate in the (true, non-iterated) prisoner’s dilemma because if the other player is also a timeless decision agent, and hence makes the same decision as you do, then you’re both better off cooperating.

    Yes, if you can somehow get the other player to to cooperate, then C-C is better than D-D. But if you can do that, D-C is still better. And if the only way to get the other player to pre-commit to cooperation is to do the same, then obviously you should do that, and orthodox game theory is totally on board with that. But if such a pre-commitment is possible, you’re no longer actually playing prisoner’s dilemma. Any way you slice it, defection is the only correct option in a true prisoner’s dilemma.

    TDT seems obviously stupid to me. Is there something I’m missing?

    • suntzuanime says:

      The idea, fundamentally, is that pre-commitment is always possible. It’s semantics whether this means that there’s no such thing as a true scotsman or not.

      • Jon Gunnarsson says:

        Credible commitment is often difficult. Credible mutual commitment is more difficult still. And when you bring in transaction costs and uncertainty (you don’t necessarily know that you will be in a prisoner’s dilemma situation with a particular person in the future), it often becomes unprofitable.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Credible commitment is often difficult. Credible mutual commitment is more difficult still.

          Not between timeless decision agents! That’s sort of the whole point.

        • suntzuanime says:

          I think I may see where you’re going wrong in your thinking. In your original post you have a “because if” where you should have an “if”. Timeless agents don’t cooperate with defectbots, cooperatebots, humans, and other lesser beings. You only gain an advantage by cooperating with yourself and things similar enough to you.

          • Jon Gunnarsson says:

            Okay, that makes sense. I still don’t see how that has any real world applications. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any timeless decision agents. And even in a world with lots of timeless decision agents, why would you want to be one, rather than just pretend to be one? And for that matter, how do you know that all those supposed timeless decision agents aren’t just pretending, too?

          • Peter says:

            Humans aren’t perfect CDT agents either, or perfect EDT or whatever agents, and that doesn’t stop people (well, decision theorists) talking about them.

            The way I read TDT is that for whatever relationship is claimed between CDT and observable reality, you can try substituting TDT for CDT and probably get something better. I don’t understand all of the ins and outs of TDT, but for me it looks a lot like Kantian ethics, or at least Parfit’s reading of them. It’s enough that I found it intriguing, I don’t know nearly enough to be convinced by it though.

          • suntzuanime says:

            And even in a world with lots of timeless decision agents, why would you want to be one, rather than just pretend to be one? And for that matter, how do you know that all those supposed timeless decision agents aren’t just pretending, too?

            Well, this is the crux of the matter. In a world where the other agents are sufficiently similar to you, you would want to be cooperative rather than pretend to be cooperative, so that the other agents will be cooperative instead of just pretending. “Acausal Decision Theory” is the term used because there is no causal link between your cooperation and their cooperation, and yet in the worlds where you cooperate they cooperate and things go better for you, so why not cooperate?

            As to when you’re in a world with sufficiently similar agents, I don’t know if that’s been worked out yet. Possibly there are advantages to making sure that, say, your political elites all attend the same colleges or etc.

        • Professor Frink says:

          TDT is just a way of smuggling in notions of “credible pre-commitment.”

          If you have no uncertainties about how a past agent predicted your behavior, then you can credibly commit, so then you get cooperation. I don’t think there really are many real-world newcomb-like problems, in reality uncertainty swamps the predictive power you need for “timelessness”

      • Peter says:

        The way I saw TDT, it looked like TDT was what you wanted if you wanted a “general purpose precommitment”; rather than having to anticipate each and every situation you might need a specific precommitment for, pre-commit to TDT and you’re done.

        I suppose in Jon Gunnarsson’s terms, a “true” prisoner’s dilemma presupposes “either you aren’t a TDT-agent, or they’re not a TDT-agent, or at least one of you doesn’t have reason to believe the other might be a TDT-agent”.

        Other fun with “non-true” dilemmas. Take the chicken dilemma, and assume you’re an Always Defect agent and they’re an Always Defect agent – maybe you’re computer programs in a chicken dilemma tournament. The best thing for you to do is the worst thing for you to do is the only thing for you to do: Defect. You can still reasonably say, “it would have been better for me to be some other sort of agent”, you can expect Always Defect agents to get weeded out if it’s one of those evolutionary tournaments.

        If you want to think in terms of free will, then recommending TDT is sort-of assuming free will in terms of what to be, but not directly in terms of what to do.

    • Linch says:

      Is TDT meaningfully distinct from ideas of superrationality?

  26. Has anybody ever studied how much impact GiveWell has on the charities it reviews?

    IE, if GiveWell were to suddenly endorse Charity X, how much would their donations change by?

  27. What do you think of high-IQ sperm banks, where smart people are paid to donate.

    • Stefan Drinic says:

      You may safely call those ‘any sperm banks’, or at least to a soft degree, since most sperm banks require(amongst other things) college degrees from their applicants. Even so, I don’t see this as a necessarily bad idea, though I think that most women/couples who could choose between characteristics would put IQ lower on the list of desirable traits than you might assume.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I went to an Ivy League school and it was pretty common knowledge that they aimed to attract male students from said prestigious school. I might even have done it myself, but I assumed I would be too short. Smart and tall is what women are looking for in sperm, and getting into an Ivy League school is a good enough proxy for “smart.”

    • Deiseach says:

      Didn’t they try one of those already?

      And apparently there are people claiming to be high-achievers selling their sperm online? I think that would be very risky, to be honest, buying sperm that way!

    • anon says:

      If possible, I want to conceive some of my children using gametes from folks with perfect SAT scores. When I have the money, I plan to take a serious look into this.

      • Linch says:

        Hey anon! So…I like myself and I want more of me. As long as I do not have financial expectations to the child, I’m willing to give my sperm in return for a trivial donation to the AMF. If you’re interested, chat with me and I’m sure we can come up with a mutually beneficial arrangement. 🙂

        I am quite serious about this offer and I will try my best to be as honest as possible. The outside view should be that you could find a significantly better match for your preferences than my genetic profile (I personally know people who I consider to be significantly smarter than myself and while I’m very healthy, I consider myself below average at team sports). However, I could provide a lower bound for you and you can help me decide whether it’s worth my while to go through the rigmarole of trying to donate to a sperm bank.

        (my SAT score was only 2240, but I had a perfect GRE, which is arguably harder)

    • Mark says:

      I don’t know… more intelligent people might provide a benefit to society, but does having a particularly intelligent child provide any benefit to a parent?

      If it was me, I think I’d rather select sperm on the basis of a pleasing personality.

      • anon says:

        I would think that, yes, it does benefit the parent. If your kids get rich then they are likely to, e.g., give you a room on their yacht.

        That said, the more important consideration for me is that, since one of my goals is to be rich, it would be, not immoral exactly, but sort of disquieting, to bring kids into the world who have anything but the best possible chance at getting rich themselves.

        • Agronomous says:

          I would think that, yes, it does benefit the parent. If your kids get rich then they are likely to, e.g., give you a room on their yacht.

          Argh. You’re just like my father: “For the millionth time, Dad, it’s called a cabin when it’s on the yacht.” Frankly, I think it’s a subtle (or possibly subconscious) signal that he’s not really all that grateful for it. What does he want? One with an ocean view?

    • Cadie says:

      I don’t see a problem with this, since it’s all voluntary. I’d be a bit bothered if those were the only choices to purchase from (and, to some extent, this is the case, and it does bug me a little) because intelligence isn’t the only trait a recipient might want to select for, or even high on the list. Since intelligence runs in my family – the lowest-IQ sibling out of five is around 120-125, and that one isn’t me – but unfortunately so do low and medium-grade mental illness and short stature, it’s far more important for me to select for mental health and social skills first, and height / general appearance second. Average intelligence is fine because most likely my side has that covered and a child needs more than that, they’ll do best in life if physically and mentally healthy and well-rounded and at least somewhat conventionally attractive. But intelligence does make a difference, and it is largely hereditary, so high-IQ screening as an option is a good idea.

      • anon says:

        Do you have any comment on why you would use your eggs rather than select the highest quality available? Do you have perfect SAT scores? Also, if you have poor or middling social skills or health, why not screen this out entirely?

        To me, using my own gametes seems questionable. Whether they look like me may be less important than that they win.

        • suntzuanime says:

          At that point why even bother getting pregnant? Let the high-quality people mate with each other and be satisfied that high-quality people are being born.

          I guess you might get a kick out of playing mad eugenicist and combining the exact sets of traits to create the World’s Strongest Child. But beyond that, if using your own gametes is gratuitous, so is using your own womb. If you’re not particular about the person who wins being related to you, well, somebody’s going to win, right?

          • anon says:

            Use a surrogate womb if you want.

            I know that I cannot make myself much more athletic, socially skilled, smart, and so forth. But one alternative to winning myself would be for my kids to. What is important is that society recognizes they are mine. And at least in the US, society will. Therefore, if these children win, I do too.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Because they’re not your children otherwise?

          If you just want someone awesome to inherit your stuff and/or name then forget IVF, do what the Japanese do and adopt a promising young man in his early twenties. I’m sure that you could do a talent search much more cheaply than conceiving and raising kids and with much less risk of not getting a winner.

          • anon says:

            They should not already have two other parents. To me, whether they are my children may well be decided only by whether society, and they themselves, acknowledge it.

            I don’t know how much interest I have in passing on my own genes or traits. If I was a Harvard grad and convinced I could do this and not hurt the children’s chances, I would, but I’m not even close.

            One question here is what we think the winning type of person looks like. If we’re headed for idiocracy, then what I said above is wrong. Anyone want to guess on long-term trends?

          • Ever An Anon says:

            My childrens’ abilities matter to me, but the abilities of random unrelated kids who live in my attic do not. Even if some government form in a drawer somewhere says they’re mine that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

            Also, to be honest, fuck Harvard and fuck perfect SAT scores. I have friends at Harvard Law and Princeton and MIT: trust me they’re not the supermen you assume. Hell, I was pretty close to a perfect SAT score myself (didn’t study my math very diligently, but nailed the other sections), but you’d better think twice about taking my sperm unless you want some unbelievably autistic kids.

            If you want good kids, there are things you can do. Find an opposite sex partner who isn’t your cousin or over 30, selecting for hotness (body/face symmetry, height, fine motor skills, good skin/hair, high-normal range intelligence) and avoiding basket cases. Get genetic councilng, especially if you’re both Jewish, and make sure to do genetic tests (mainly CNV, not SNPs) so that you can terminate in case of Downs or AS. That’s about it, your kids will be fine and if you desperately want them to go to an Ivy you can probably pressure them into it.

          • anon says:

            US society does not share your insistence that kids need to be genetically related. This is not an Islamic theocracy that has no adoption, or Europe, where IVF is heavily restricted. Do you wish we were more like one of these?

          • Ayatollah Ever al-Anon says:

            Curses, the infidels have discovered my secret EUrabian identity! And I’d have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for those meddling superkids and that anon!

            (Really, how does one respond to that kind of question?)

            Anyway I think I’ve been clear: if society or the government or your neighbor’s dog says something that doesn’t make it true. Nothing particularly theocratic about it, just not buying every bridge someone tries to sell you.

          • anon says:

            I think it’s an intriguing question what genetic profile would maximize the expected social status of kids. Before I looked for gametes, I might want to read the literature and come up with a model. (Got any links?) You could be largely right in your suggestion, although perhaps you could find a donor that has all those traits but also a perfect SAT score and the right Big Five traits.

          • Linch says:

            It depends on what you think quantifies success, but I would argue that looks are not as important for success as a trifacta of general intelligence, social savviness, and conscientiousness. This is especially true for males. Actually I’m pretty sure that if you are NT and able-bodied and you are in the 99th, probably even the 95th+ percentile for those three, you have very good odds on being *pretty* successful assuming reasonable standards. Looks can compensate for a relative lack of social savviness, but looking at stereotypically successful careers (Law, I-B, management consulting, entrepreneurship, science, most of the arts), I don’t really see how being good looking could really compensate for mediocre intelligence or conscientiousness.

            That said, as somebody raised in a stereotypically East Asian household (in the US) and did not enjoy my childhood particularly, I would caution anon against being extremely success-driven when it comes to children.

  28. Peter says:

    AI thoughts, segueing from topic to topic in case any of it is of interest. Some of this is based on “assuming this is worth talking about” of course…

    Someone linked to Stuart Russell’s talk AI talk – – and it was encouraging. I found it good to see people other than MIRI taking the issue seriously, and providing a diversity of thought.

    Some of the stuff to do with Inverse Reinforcement Learning looks almost like virtue ethics – find examples of “admirable people” and figure out what they’re really aiming at. Sounds similar to how Aristotle describes his programme in the Nicomachean Ethics. You could almost throw out the AI safety aspect of it and sell the idea as “computational philosophy” (or maybe psychology) – if Inverse Reinforcement Learning actually goes anywhere there’s bound to be interesting stuff in the results from that, even if the results aren’t machine-actionable. That said, it sounds like there’s quite a lot of AI work to get there, which brings me on to my next point:

    “If future AI is so damn smart, how come it can’t figure out what values it should have itself?” It’s a nice quip, does it go beyond that? If you’ve got a pre-superintelligence that’s a better AI researcher than any human AI researcher and a better philosopher than any human philosopher, but not yet ready to take over the world, then surely that’s the “mind” you wa