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The Price Of Glee In China

[Epistemic status: Overly simplistic treatment of a horrifyingly complex topic; I can only hope I haven’t missed enough to completely embarrass myself]

I.

Noah Smith reviews recent economic research suggesting that globalization was a net harm to working class people in rich countries like the US; he tentatively suggests this could justify a weak form of protectionism. But Scott Sumner argues that’s the wrong way to look at things. Globalization fueled China’s transition from a poor agrarian economy to an industrialized modern nation. A billion people were lifted out of poverty, an accomplishment Sumner calls “the best thing that ever happened”. This is far more important than the less dramatic costs imposed on the US. Therefore, even if we agree globalization hurts the working class of rich nations, it’s still a morally defensible policy since it benefits the needier working classes of much poorer nations.

On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other, here’s happiness in China over the past fifteen years:

Measuring happiness is really hard, but the Chinese result seems as robust as any. You get the same thing if you ask about satisfaction versus dissatisfaction. Brookings analyzes five different series of happiness data and concludes that “the Chinese became less happy during their growth boom”. The New York Times agrees and says that “Chinese people’s feelings of well-being have declined in [this] period of momentous improvement in their economic lives”. And this seems to be worst among the poorest Chinese:

Nor does this seem to be an effect from our happiness research just not being good enough to capture changes in happiness even if they occur. There’s good evidence that increased income within a country increases happiness, and various other things have been found to be effective too. I would even argue we can find happiness changes in nations – recent surveys have found Iraq and Syria to be the least happy nations in the world, and I doubt this was true before those countries’ respective wars. It seems to just be national GDP per capita that doesn’t do anything.

This is Easterlin’s Paradox, the observation that a country in general does not get happier as it becomes richer. This is very controversial, with statisticians analyzing and reanalyzing data and crunching it a bunch of different ways. In the latest volley in this eternal war, Easterlin’s side came out with data from 37 countries over 30 years, including many countries that underwent spectacular growth during that time, and confirmed their original conclusion.

There are certainly graphs like this one that propose a nice clear log relationship between income and happiness:

But I find the exact breakdown much more interesting:

Here we see a lot of cultural variation in this apparent happiness-income relationship. For example, Latin American countries are consistently poor but happy; Eastern European countries are usually richer but sadder than African countries, et cetera. Looking at the original graph above, you’d expect Chinese growth to make them much happier; looking at this graph, you notice that China’s three rich neighbors – Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea – are all about as happy as China. South Korea, despite making five times more money, is less happy than China is. If China’s income quintuples, why would you expect it to look like France or Ireland rather than South Korea?

Just to rub this in a little:

A UN report theorizes that although richer countries tend to be happier, this is more likely due to factors other than income, like freedom, social trust, and stable families. These may be stable on scales much longer than income is, and may be related to culture.

II.

Let’s assume for a second that all this is true. National income does not matter for national happiness, and if China’s growth continues to skyrocket then in twenty years it will be as rich as Japan but not an iota happier than it is today. What do we do with this kind of knowledge?

Or let me ask a more specific question. Suppose that some free trade pact will increase US unemployment by 1%, but also accelerate the development of some undeveloped foreign country like India into hyper-speed. In twenty years, India’s GDP per capita will go from $1,500/year to $10,000/year. The only cost will be a million or so extra unemployed Americans, plus all that coal that the newly vibrant India is burning probably won’t be very good for the fight against global warming.

Part of me wants to argue that obviously we should sign the trade pact; as utilitarians we should agree with Sumner that lifting 1.4 billion Chinese out of poverty was “the best thing that ever happened” and so lifting 1.2 billion Indians out of poverty would be the second-best thing that ever happened, far more important than any possible risks. But if Easterlin is right, those Indians won’t be any happier, the utility gain will be nil, and all we will have done is worsened global warming and kicked a million Americans out of work for no reason (and they will definitely be unhappy).

Or since most of us don’t get the option to sign trade pacts, here’s a more relevant question. Suppose we are effective altruists. We have the opportunity to cure disease (at relatively high costs) or boost national development (at relatively low costs). Assume the numbers work out such that if we took a simple ‘development = good’ perspective, then donating to the development charity would be a no-brainer. Should we donate to the disease-cure charity anyway?

A couple of years ago, I learned that people who were paralyzed in car accidents took a few months to adjust to their new situation, but after that were no less happy than people who were still healthy and abled. Then last December I learned that this was an urban legend, that people who were paralyzed in car accidents were mostly as miserable as you would expect. But for those few years while I still believed that particular factoid, I was a little creeped out. Was a doctor who helps car accident victims recover their function wasting her life? If people got genuine enjoyment from driving drunk at 95 mph while shouting “WOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”, was there any reason to make them stop, since they weren’t really hurting anybody?

(I admit I’m skipping over factors like how paralyzed people can’t earn any income to pay into the tax system and stuff, but I’m just saying I would be pretty creeped out if that were the only reason we should avoid car accidents.)

Again assuming I haven’t made some simple calculation mistake, I can think of three ways to go from here. First, abandon consequentialism entirely (I understand that having children will likely decrease my happiness, but I still want to have children because I value them for non-utilitarian reasons). Second, switch to a consequentialism based on non-subjective things like maximizing development and industrialization as a terminal goal (Really? Even if everyone hates it? Does it matter what the factories are building? How about paper clips?). Third, switch to preference utilitarianism.

Preference utilitarianism is tempting and I was kind of in favor of it already, but I don’t find it completely satisfying. Suppose I myself am an Indian peasant. Should I have a preference for my society industrializing? If I’m not going to be any happier after it does, and supposing there’s no inherent moral value in industrialization, why bother? And if Indian peasants want their country to industrialize anyway, aren’t we as Americans allowed to say we don’t take their preference that seriously? If some hippie said they wanted to go on some Spiritual Yoga Nature Retreat that would turn their life around and bring them constant bliss, but we knew it was a complete fraud that wouldn’t help them at all, would we still feel a moral obligation to help fund that hippie’s retreat? How are the two situations different?

There’s a risk of being patronizing here – telling the Indians “Oh, you don’t need to industrialize, it’s not so great anyway,” even while we ourselves enjoy our nice food and flat-screen TVs. If we were to actively try to keep the Indians from industrializing, that would be pretty awful. But that’s not the argument at hand here. The argument at hand is “are we morally required to sacrifice our own economy in order to help the Indians industrialize?”, and I feel like that’s a hard sell if industrialization doesn’t really help the Indians.

And there’s also a risk that I might be misdefining happiness. Maybe every way economists have hitherto measured happiness is hopelessly deficient, and there’s some ineffable essence of happiness which, if we could get at it, would increase during national development. I admit that all of these subjective well-being indices are kind of sketchy and change a lot with the wording that you use or don’t use.

A final option for rescuing common sense might be acknowledging that economic progress doesn’t change happiness yet. That is, there are ways to convert economic (and closely linked technological) progress into happiness, but most countries are not making use of them – either for political reasons, or because they don’t know about them, or because we haven’t gotten enough technological and economic progress to reach them yet. This seems probably true to me – if nothing else, a technological singularity ought to help – but this situation looks a lot different from the situation where incremental progress increases happiness. In particular, it would make us want to concentrate our resources on increasing technological progress, perhaps in the richest economies, rather than trying to help poor countries in particular.

None of these possibilities really appeal to me, and I am forced to acknowledge that happiness research remains a very strange field whose conclusions make no sense to me and which tempt me to crazy beliefs and actions if I take them seriously.


I guess we’re done fighting racism. Good job, guys.

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782 Responses to The Price Of Glee In China

  1. M@ says:

    I’m guessing you mean last fifteen years in the first paragraph.

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  2. Does the definition of happiness remain stable as income increases? We might be comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.

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    • Mariani says:

      People obviously didn’t define 1/10th of today’s happiness (crippling depression) as happiness when people only had 10% of today’s income, which was only about a century ago.

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      • Nornagest says:

        Utility is usually modeled as logarithmic in money; we don’t observe Warren Buffett being irrationally bubbly all the time. So if the log base is between, say, 2 and 10 (I don’t remember the one any published models used), that would give us something like 33% to 50% rather than 10%.

        That doesn’t sound totally insane to me, though I expect even a logarithmic breakdown would have both simple and positional components and only the simple ones would matter if you’re comparing between eras (maybe between countries too).

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        • Anonymous says:

          If utils are log-dollars, U=log M + C, and you want to take log change in money and get percentage change in utility, the base of the log is irrelevant; what matters is C, i.e. what you define to be “zero” on the util scale.

          If dollars-to-utils is logarithmic and you set C=0 (i.e. define having zero utils to be having one dollar,) then a person with 1,000,000 dollars has twice as many utils as a person with 1,000 dollars, regardless of the base of log used.

          On the other hand if you define zero utils as having 0.000001 dollars, then a person with 1,000,000 dollars has only 25% more utils than a thousandaire.

          You may be tempted to conclude that “percentage change in util” is not a meaningful concept, or more generally that “percentage change” is not meaningful for any scale that does not have a meaningful zero.

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          • There is a meaningful zero to utility–the suicide point. At least for people who don’t believe that if they kill themselves they go to hell, or something else along those lines.

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          • Anon says:

            “There is a meaningful zero to utility–the suicide point. At least for people who don’t believe that if they kill themselves they go to hell, or something else along those lines.”

            And who have perfect rationality in the face of death, and perfect suicide methods available even though everyone else wants them banned. Oh, and no regard for social shame and the feelings of loved ones.

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          • onyomi says:

            “Oh, and no regard for social shame and the feelings of loved ones.”

            Presumably that is part of the calculation. Or, at least, there’s no reason it can’t be.

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          • Paul Torek says:

            I’m late to the party, as usual. But I side with Anon’s attitude and against onyomi’s. Sure, someone’s concern not to shame their family counts as part of that one’s utility – in the economist’s or game theorist’s sense of “utility”. But that’s not equivalent to that one’s happiness. And Scott was asking about happiness. And he was right to do so (rather than phrasing things in terms of utility).

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      • roystgnr says:

        A century ago, the child mortality rate was 20 times higher and the maternal mortality rate was 100 times higher. Yet self-reported happiness fails to budge. This probably doesn’t imply that those deaths weren’t sad.

        I’m pretty sure that people calibrate their self-reported happiness by asking questions like “how much happier or sadder would I be if I had my neighbor’s life”, not “if I lived a century ago or a century from now”.

        Figuring out the precise calibration mechanism might be important. E.g. trying to shield children from the worries of the world, which they couldn’t affect in the short run in any case, sounds like a kindness, but not if you’re just cranking their initial hedonic set point up too high and setting them up to be more stressed out for the rest of their lives.

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        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          If you expected to lose a few children, it probably wouldn’t make you as sad as if you didn’t expect to lose any.

          Societal expectations matter. Society expected you to accept losing a few of your kids. While these days parents are pushed to do extreme things for their children.

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          • Cliff says:

            I doubt it. Do you have kids?

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          • piercedmind says:

            @Cliff

            Contrast our attitudes to losing children with our attitudes to losing parents. Although not the same, the bond is very similar, but we do usually not grieve forever if the latter happens.

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          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Yes, I have kids. Right now I’d sooner face death myself than have one of them die. But a large part of that is societal. Society has made children financially and emotionally dear.

            In fact, let’s take that hypothetical further: if I had the choice of dying to save my child’s live, and people knew about it, I would feel socially compelled to take it instead of being a bad father.

            Now that I realize that I’m slightly resentful at society.

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          • The motivation to protect children’s lives is a much deeper genetic, cognitive one than it is just societal.

            And if you think your emotional connection with your parents is similarly strong to the one with your parents, I strongly suspect you do not have children. The two are very, very different.

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          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Did people 200 years ago feel the need to die for their kids if necessary? Wouldn’t it leave all your other kids without a parent?

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          • Helmholtz says:

            @Edward

            “Absalom, my son, would God I had died for thee.”

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          • piercedmind says:

            @David:

            In fact, I dont have kids, so my ideas were mostly speculation. I shall get back to you in something like 30 years (approximate point in time where computer skills>social skills in the marriage market).

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          • anonymous says:

            Edward Scissorhands, are you sure it’s e.g. society that makes you feel that way, and you haven’t e.g. got your natural feelings tangled up with society in some way? (like through the concept of “superego” or something, -or some other partial or whole conflation, maybe a more subtle one like “obligation” or duty which can be both moral and social/societal).

            I am partially curious, and partially just balking at the idea that it’s not natural to want to die for your kid. (There could be more important reasons not to (personally I don’t think so, and actually pretty much think the opposite, but it’s not relevant to the question), but parents naturally get wireheaded as hell to favour and sacrifice for their children, and to be biased towards their wellbeing. like, there might be rational arguments why something else is more important, but in the moment of choosing to let your kid die or yourself, I can’t imagine that a felt obligation or temptation to choose your kid, doesn’t have siginificant natural underpinnings, at the very very least)

            My argument against that would go something like this:

            1. A parent is ultimately reponsible for their children’s wellbeing in a way that they are not responsible for themselves. The child is the creation of the parent, and usually dependent on it, certainly for some time.

            As a kind of attempted proof of the duties involved obligating oneself to such sacrifice in a naive sense: if one has two children, one would want either to risk a known 50% chance of death for a 100% chance to save their sibling, right? First, purely on mathematical, utilitarian hard choice tie-breaking grounds, but also insofar as the idea sets an example for a standard of dedication and loyalty to one another and other more ephemeral, but I think significant and hard or impossible to duplicate, benefits. I see no reason why this would not hold for three, or five, or seven, children. (and it would certainly hold for one child, who should choose the 50% chance of death, rather than the 100%.)

            I think this somewhat objectively holds up to, at least, say, a 55% level. Maybe not for, say 70%, because asking someone to accept a clear majority-chance of death, is very psychologically different than accepting an even /near even one one (or less ofc).

            Almost certainly this doesn’t hold for a 99% chance, even in spherical cow theory, unless possibly-maybe if a family is religiously focused on self sacrifice, -it’s simply asking far, far too much. (or maybe if a family really seriously promotes peter singer style selflessness within its bounds).

            But in any case I think the 50% figure should be uncontroversial: A family isn’t necessarily in a position to demand this of their children, but I think any half decent family is in a position to ask it of them, or failing that to ask them to no-pressure-consider-it. (unless the other child is a total shithead or something)

            Given that- I think a parent has at least twice as much duty towards their children as a sibling has towards their sibling. I think it’s a good bit more than twice, but twice should suffice to establish that the default feeling (at least sometimes) should (not as an obligation, as people aren’t perfect, but as an ideal to, if not achieve, approach) be a willingness to do so.

            -There might be other reasons why such a reaction would represent an unwise course of action (most obviously: 1st, financial ones, if applicable, and having-a-father, ones). There are certainly reasons against it.

            I do think there are other even better reasons in its favour, such that the tradeoff only goes up rather than down from here, on net (typically), but that’s neither here nor there for the moment. One can acknowledge the naive feeling broadly illustrated by the idea that one has a duty to one’s children at least twice that of theirs to protect oneanother near-equally, -even if it is countervened by even more important balances of reality, -even significantly more important ones.

            -The feeling itself remains both common, and easily justifiable, especially if one analyses the situation purely in terms of the most (immediately) salient and sacred duties involved, so isn’t it natural then?

            And it also exists in wild animals, or something much like it does.

            And it would be very easy to accidentally CBT oneself into: e.g. if one says, feels, thinks, etc- something like “I would do anything for my kid”, and believes themselves/takes themselves seriously/holds this up as an ideal to aspire to, then they might easily consciously or subconsciously conclude that they would/should be willing to die for their kid, -that being both a thing, of which one would do any, -one has thought, and also the most naturally emblematic example of the principle/idea. That seems a very simple and possible transformation by which one might naturally arrive at the attitude even if one had no such, or little such such natural inclination.

            So all things considered my prior for it being an attitude primarily attributable to society is extremely low, though of course I can’t see the inside of your head (or the outside for that matter), and I suppose it could be exactly what transpired to originate that reaction.

            -So that’s my argument that it’s natural, -and in at least some sense naively moral-, finished, -pretty much. The following points are more pointed towards the idea that it is rational:

            2. The likelihood of this situation actually ever coming up is very low. The most important thing about one’s preferences here might not be how logical they are, and hence how well one will be ready to make the right move if the situation should arise, -but the emotional (and any other cognitive etc) effects of taking one side rather than the other: in the vast vast majority of situations, it won’t be the case both that one’s child is dying, and that the only way to save their life is to have one’s own beating heart extracted indiana jones style, for a transplant. Such choices do arise, but they’re probably around the order of likelihood of a plane crash, and the idea of being willing to die for your children, straight up, 1 for 1, seems pretty strong from an emotional standpoint, so if 24999/25000 that’s the only thing that will be relevant, it seems like a pretty clear balance of utility. To illustrate another way, is someone better off believing that they would die for their child (1 to 1), if we know it will never come up? Well that’s actually pretty close to the question here, because is it’s likelyhood on the level of undetectable “noise”, if it does happen one can always revisit the question in light of the immediate facts. No matter how strngly one defaults to one reaction or another, one is almost certainly going to examine the idea closely if the situation actually arises.

            So, for the sake of the emotional, motivational/attitudanil/whatever benefits, the most rational thing is to wirehead oneself towards a willingness to do so even if one thinks it’s a bad idea, for the sake of whatever modulation or leaning the analysis might impart to one’s mind.

            To put it another way, the tradeoff is not die for my child’s life vs prioritise other more important duties/own life. It’s choose to believe in dying for my child vs choose to believe in higher duties or own skin preservation. And the difference is pretty relevant, because the first scenario is just very unlikely to come up, and even if it does come up, one will 99%+ have the time to revisit it then.

            3. A situation in which one has to put their life at risk (small or great, more likely small) for the sake of their child, is far more likely than one in which a life-trade is offered. And, importantly, it’s likely to be much more difficult (objectively): Fear is almost always a danger in such scenarios, as well as hesitation, wavering of purpose, etc, so a commitment to an outside goal, -any relevant goal at all, in fact, higher than the preservation of one’s life, might be what turns a decent chance of saving your kids life, at a low but significant risk to to your own, into a very good chance at a negligable risk to your own. -In such a situation, (far more likely, and difficult, than a life trade one), the, speaking loosely and poorly- emotional impetus of a preestablished absolute commitment to one’s child’s life, (perhaps even slightly beyond the bounds of reason, if one views it that way), and the focusing simplicity of such a black and white categorisation system, are simply what are more likely to be relevant, and more likely to be important. And again that situation is far far more likely to occur than a situation in which your child can only be saved by a guaranteed lethal transplant or something. If instead it’s a 700% survival rate transplant for a 90% (long term) saving rate, having one’s decision worked out in advance might through clarity of purpose and hence equanimity, focus, determination etc, turn that into an 85% survival rate.

            And, back to a non transplant dangerous situation: I at least would be far more likely to succumb to fear/faltering purpose/some hesitation, etc, than I would be to rationally decide not to go in, in such a high pressure situation. Even purely in terms of preserving my own life, I think there are more situations in which I fumble the ball as a result of lacking commitment and lose it, than there are ones in which I rationally decide not to attempt to save my kid’s life (and don’t kill myself later or die in a car crash caused by a depressed lapse of focus) -I’m not that fucking rational, and I guess I’m not that perfectly brave (or whatever) either, -I can’t imagine the relevant continuum would ever be anything other than duty(etc) vs fear(etc), as opposed to, say, heuristics vs rationality. (normally I should try to stop my kid from drowning but this sea looks very choppy and, I am 40% tired, therefore I rate my chance of death….)

            So to reiterate/rephrase the main point there: the most relevant situation is very unlikely to be the directly/obviously relevant one.

            4. I think a hero martyr dad might be better for the kids than a dad who let a kid die for good reasons they can’t understand. People are not wholly rational, and not wholly in control of themselves (perhaps there is exceptions to this but the point remains). Hero-martyr-dad is a clear and unambiguous situation with a clear and unambiguous point of departure -honour and live up to your father’s example. Dad-didn’t-risk-the-50-50-transplant-for-good-but-subtle-and-complicated-reasons,-and-now-Brady-is-dead, is a situation much more likely to tear one’s family apart. less resolved, more ambiguous, more potentials for e.g. resentment to reach the level of poison, especially if they are confused and don’t have a handle on the situation, -less duty and clarity.

            Between these reasons I find the case for defaulting to trading 1 for 1 for the life of one’s child, barring a very serious lack of familial or social support network/financial instability, -or maybe a greater consideration like being in a vital and difficult position and having no one else qualified to take over the job-, is completely rational, and borders on being “just correct” at least in the “ideal to approach” sense. It also seems to be a natural impulse. Maybe moreso in women, but it occurs in men as well.

            5. For the sake of completeness, I will include that; to me dying sounds easier than living on after such a scenario. I’m not sure how much that has influenced me- perhaps it is almost purely a product of emotional attunement following an earlier analysis I came to. I think it chronologically is, at least, and also that it actually is, but I don’t 100% know, except in the sense of “to reasonably believe” (which, including pragmatic purposes, I use for that word). That comparison is also seperately an argument in its favour.

            In any case I can’t claim that I am selflessly holding this viewpoint against my (present) natural inclinations. I call that a win win, and I think my approach is basically just correct 98% of the time, but (apart from the possibility that I’m wrong, self deceieved, and/or lying) it might still easily be less compatible or ideal for other people, including ones who are simply much more rational and purposeful than I am and have no need of such a simplifying “win-win” crutch. (I can’t conceieve of such gods striding the earth, but there’s all kinds of things I can’t conceive of until i see them, especially humans, and I certainly can conceive of ways in which this attitude might be either too “extreme”, and/or, might simply be incompatible or incongruent with a different system of mental arrangement.) (I actually do think my view on this is, more or less fundamentally, the best, but this is a pretty easy situation for me to be (overly) typical-minding.)

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          • anonymous says:

            Typo in first line of my post:

            I see now, after the 1hr editing time, that there’s an “e.g.” before “society” in its first line. I promise that the rest of the post is not as bad as I assume that oversight makes it look. Not even sure how that got there. I suppose I probably just missed with my mouse at some point, and didn’t notice. then retyped the e.g. in the correct spot.

            (should just be “..are you sure it’s society..”)

            Also, it didn’t occur to me earlier, but it’s possible that people earlier did not have such strong reactions to losing their children (if that is so in fact so?) primarily because their society helped them be very stoic about it, not because it is natural, -and that the current more prevalent reaction, although chronologically ahead, is the natural one, -now that those forces are not in play.

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      • SUT says:

        When they had 10% of today’s income, it was OK to rent out a bed in a boarding house for a nickel. And you’d be among smelly and gruff day laborers.

        But even with 10x the wealth, bottom rung temporary housing is probably 100x more expensive*. So unless you want to live in a literal crack house – where the people are more than just smelly and gruff but actually scheming truly evil ideas, unpredictable and dangerous – you get out of the bottom decile, and buy the expensive housing that’s completely up to all 723 health and zoning codes.

        * Until you get on that gov’t list and the price goes to 0 again.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          The solution is to repeal housing codes, not to abolish material progress.

          If you say the first is unrealistic, the second is a lot more so.

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          • SUT says:

            The problem is that the regulatory codes are a good trade-off for about the top eight deciles. Sure, my neighbor and I in my condo agree that having strangers every week for an AirBnb would be undesirable. Even a month to month sublet should be against the rules.

            Since we’re well off enough, we decided to ratchet up COLA for everyone. We can always afford First and Last month payments upfront. Our jobs are stable enough to sign a year lease.

            Then gov’t comes in with rent control and monopolistic enforcement for who can be a shelter, or rent subsidized housing – e.g. must have all these wheel chair things – which again, crowds out solutions for people who don’t qualify for the list.

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          • “The problem is that the regulatory codes are a good trade-off for about the top eight deciles.”

            I don’t think so. Insofar as they require apartments to have features that people in the top eight deciles want, such as hot water, they are unnecessary–if the value to tenants of those features is greater than the cost to the landlord of providing them, it will be in the interest of landlords to provide them and charge accordingly.

            One possible exception is if what you want is to keep poor people out of your neighborhood, which you can accomplish by housing regulations that make it illegal to provide cheap low quality housing. But you can get pretty much the same effect with private arrangements, provided the state doesn’t make your contracts illegal. The developer only builds medium to high income housing, so if you buy there you know you won’t have poor people as neighbors. And you include a restrictive covenant to prevent a medium income house being transformed into five or ten low income houses, or one low income rooming house.

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          • Thing is, in expensive urban areas, the real estate you’re standing on may well be more expensive than a house – possibly multiple times more expensive.

            Requiring adequate housing is only a small proportion of the cost. Moreover, there are socially desirable effects in requiring people to live in good living conditions – it ultimately saves us all money due to better health from those people, and their children not growing up in squalor. It also creates the expectation of such conditions, which is positive.

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        • JayT says:

          I have my doubts that the smelly and gruff people in an 1800s boarding house were really any better than the average meth addict in a flop house today.

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          • Dictyranger says:

            They probably were, on average. The first chapter of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier is a description of a bottom-rung 1930’s boardinghouse and its inhabitants. While the place left a heck of a lot to be desired, neither it nor the renters were anything close to what you’d find in a crack house. And there were *much* nicer boardinghouses out there.

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          • SUT says:

            I have doubts too because it’s pretty hard to find anything other than anecdotal evidence (from two different people), or stats which were collected with hugely different methodologies.

            It’s likely they would be just as bad, maybe even worse or somethings, say physically abusing children. “They only listen if you leave a mark!”

            But two areas where they would show improvement in my mind are:
            -Long term thinking. When it was nobody’s job to give away food, you had to devote more effort to thinking about survival. Otherwise you self-selected out of the population.
            -“Don’t poke the bear”. You would go out of your way to not inflict rants or anything that could be perceived as a threat on members of society in good standing. Because you’d learn there are severe and non-negotiable punishment for it. So you’d find other ways to channel your frustration.

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          • They were probably a lot better. Homicide rates were actually lower up through the 1960s than they are today, and there were a lot more poor people.

            The people who flop in meth houses today are probably almost universally criminals.

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  3. Reardon says:

    Might people’s reflective beliefs about their subjective well-being be biologically/culturally determined and very rigid over time and circumstance?

    If you could measure all the circumstances in which added income avoided an unhappy outcome or created a happy one that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred with some real-time utility tracker, my guess is you’d see the results you expect.

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  4. Lawrene D'Anna says:

    What’s the evidence that happiness results aren’t simply explained by things like social desirability bias, or people judging how happy they relative to how happy their friends are, or relative to what they think is possible?

    What anchors language like “somewhat satisfied” to any sort of objective standard that can be compared across cultures?

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    • Publius Varinius says:

      We have a huge dataset of people migrating from the eastern EU countries to the western EU countries. Migrants are generally happier than those who have remained in the countries of origin, even though

      – the relative social standing of the average migrant is worse than it was in their countries of origin,

      – Westerners are on average a lot happier than people of the East.

      The same results hold for life satisfaction.

      Observation: every time we have a similar conversation, someone makes a variant of this cached argument.

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      • jeorgun says:

        It seems plausible to me that people’s sense of satisfaction is positional, but migrants have cached thoughts about what quality of life counts as “satisfactory” vs “unsatisfactory” or whatever (or that our sense of quality-of-life is ingrained after some developmental stage or other). Doesn’t explain why happiness doesn’t improve in a country with rapidly improving GDP, though.

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        • Jacobian says:

          That’s exactly the question, how rapidly is GDP improving? People adjust quickly, but immigrating from Russia to the west like my family did is such a sudden positive lifestyle shock (there’s fruit in the supermarket!) that you become very happy before you have time to adjust.

          Even rapid industrialization of countries is slow on a personal scale let’s say people in China saw their income increase by 20% a year, but prices also rose 10%. That may be slow enough that you won’t be shocked to a new happiness level. Think: the iPhone 1 made everyone who got it much happier than the iPhone 6s because 1 was a shock and 6s was part of an expected slow improvement.

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        • Publius Varinius says:

          It does not seem plausible to me.

          Lottery winners are not happier than the general population, and in fact winning the lottery seems to blunt the effect of more mundane positive events.
          (contrary to the urban legend, paraplegics are really unhappy compared to both groups)

          It seems implausible that Eastern Europeans have cached thoughts about what counts as satisfactory quality of life, but lottery winners have the opposite.

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          • piercedmind says:

            Regardless whether lottery winners are actually happier or not, they are not a valid group to compare immigrants to. Both suddenly experience an increase in material quality of life, however the lottery winner is now very high in status, while the opposite is true of immigrants. On the other hand, winning the lottery without any experience handling large amounts of money is downright dangerous. Friends and “friends” start asking for large amounts of money and bunkruptcy is surprisingly common.

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          • John Schilling says:

            It is not clear to me that lottery winners are very high in status. They generally do not cross class boundaries, and are rarely counted in the top ranks of the class they started in. If they were in the lower, aspirational tier of their class ladder, a big lottery win will move them up a notch or two to “made it”, but I think that’s about it.

            Money correlates to status, and can to some extent can be used to buy status if you know how, but simple possession of $$$ doesn’t innately confer status.

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          • Lottery winners aren’t happy because most of them have no idea how to be wealthy. Instead, they’re thrown into unfamiliar waters, and everyone comes begging to them for cash. Both of these things are extremely stressful.

            Stuff can’t actually make you happy unless it does something that makes you happy. If I won the lottery, how much happier would I really be? The only “stuff” I can think of that I would really see a big QOL improvement on would be having my own indoor swimming pool. But even there, I COULD go swimming at the local pool (not that far of a drive), but don’t. This suggests to me I am actually probably wrong about the QOL there (though, conversely, when I am at a house with a pool, I almost always swim, which suggests to me that convenience may play a major factor). I could get a better computer, which would be a marginal QOL improvement. And…

            What, exactly?

            A lot of lottery winners think stuff will make them happy. I suspect that when stuff doesn’t make them happy, that is a disappointment. Combined with the added stress of having a bunch of wealth, and the gap between how happy they thought they would be and how happy they were, they end up feeling less happy, all the more so when they mismanage their wealth, and feel like they’re losing everything.

            If someone was lacking in something, and the money allowed them to fill that need, that would probably make them a lot happier.

            This is, I suspect, why happiness and wealth seem to have a logarithmic relationship – once you get beyond the basic stuff, nothing you’re adding is really that big of a jump, and even running a company or changing the world or whatever is only so satisfying.

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      • rubberduck says:

        On the topic of migrants: Having many family members who migrated from east to west, I think at least part of the issue is having lower economic standards set by the homeland. Much of the attitude I encounter is “well okay, the US is far from perfect, but it’s amazing compared to what we grew up with.”

        I also think that social standing in the new country becomes less significant if you have a community of migrants from the same country that you can join and compare yourself to, rather than Westerners as a whole.

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        • Jim Ancona says:

          I grew up in a middle class family in the US fifty years ago, and I routinely say to myself “well okay, the US is far from perfect, but it’s amazing compared to what I grew up with.”

          But I’m not sure thinking that means I’m happier than I would have been if material progress hadn’t occurred.

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      • I think your observation strongly supports Lawrene D’Ana’s theory. If people in poor countries are miserable relative to people in rich countries but everybody they know are equally miserable they’ll rate their happiness as “average.” But once they move to a rich country they’ll compare themselves to both their neighbors and the people back home so their measurement of their happiness in the rich country will be high because they’re comparing to a group that includes people from both populations.

        Of course relative social standing is likely another factor as you point out and that would tend to push in the opposite direction of the first effect. But from the evidence it looks like material conditions are generally a stronger force than social standing.

        As to West versus East we can’t be certain whether that’s an actual effect or social desirability bias. It might be that people in the East are less happy. Or it might be that they’re embarrassed to claim that they’re happy. I could create plausible arguments for both pretty easily. I’m not aware of any research that would tease those apart.

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        • ComplexMeme says:

          It still might be more about comparisons to themselves in the past rather than comparisons to anyone else. Even if there’s something leveling-out changes in (self-reported) happiness due to improvements in living conditions, the improvement from moving to a more prosperous country might be sudden and obvious enough to overcome that effect.

          (Also, I knew you read SSC, but still pleasantly surprised to run into someone I know in such a large comment thread.)

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      • cached argument

        Reread that post. Here’s the last paragraph:

        Now that you’ve read this blog post, the next time you hear someone unhesitatingly repeating a meme you think is silly or false, you’ll think, “Cached thoughts.” My belief is now there in your mind, waiting to complete the pattern. But is it true? Don’t let your mind complete the pattern! Think!

        Cached thoughts are not bad; they’re a necessary part of advancing our thinking. That post specifically criticizes taking cached thoughts from an untrustworthy source without verifying it yourself. Do you have evidence that this is how this argument was produced, other then the fact that you see it repeated a lot?

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        • Publius Varinius says:

          > Do you have evidence that this is how this argument was produced, other then the fact that you see it repeated a lot?

          Yes, that’s an important question.

          The observation was not meant to be

          this argument is repeated often,

          but

          this kind of argument is repeated often, in contexts where the evidence ruling out this form of relativism is well-known and should be immediately obvious

          That’s why I think that “you can’t prove or disprove that its’ all relative to something” falls under the umbrella of the linked article.

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      • piercedmind says:

        I think this should settle whether happiness is positional (it’s the opposite, actually) :

        “Results: Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visiblein the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends ’friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that
        clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals.”

        https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3685822/Christakis_DynamicSpreadHappiness.pdf?sequence=2

        If you think about it, it’s probably really not that complicated. A lot of factors determine our happiness, and some of them are indeed positional, but many others (having a meaningful job, a functioning mariage) are not.

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      • Dan Simon says:

        There’s a lot of selection bias here. People who are willing to move to a whole new country are probably much more optimistic than average, as well as more inclined to take an active role in solving their own problems, and more confident in their ability to improve their lives by dint of effort and good judgment. I’d expect these traits to make them happier than average just about anywhere. For example, I’d predict that people who move from first-world countries to third-world countries are not only happier on average than the average in their new homelands, but also happier on average than the average in their original homelands. In other words, it’s not where they are or where they came from, but the fact that they’re willing to move, that dominates their average level of happiness.

        (I’d add that I consider the whole business of measuring self-reported happiness–a subjective, context-dependent assessment of a subjective, context-dependent mental state–to be of very little value beyond fun conversation-fodder, and certainly not a good basis for grand moral theorizing.)

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        • Publius Varinius says:

          > There’s a lot of selection bias here. […] I’d predict that people who move from first-world countries to third-world countries are not only happier on average than the average in their new homelands, but also happier on average than the average in their original homelands.

          If that’s your only concern, then that’s easy to settle. Your prediction is simply inconsistent with the available evidence.

          Most recently, a large scale 2014 study by David Bartram found the exact opposite: people who move from Northern Europe to Southern Europe report lower levels of happiness than people who stay. Previously, Melzer showed that people who moved from the former West Germany to the former East Germany report lower levels of happiness subsequently thant those who stayed – and vice versa, people who moved from East to West report higher levels.

          One burning question remains: will you change your mind now?

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          • Publius Varinius says:

            @Jiro:

            If your predictions are contradicted by data, and the contradicting data is not contradicted by anything else, you should adjust your beliefs. I’d be very surprised if Scott disagreed with that.

            In fact, let me quote the article:

            “Most important, even if someone gives you what seems like overwhelming evidence in favor of a certain point of view, don’t trust it until you’ve done a simple Google search to see if the opposite side has equally overwhelming evidence.”

            Lots of studies have been presented in this comment section. I eagerly await *any* evidence that supports Dan Simon’s prediction.

            There is no controversy about this matter. It is purely a case of “some people in SSC comment section vs. actual data”.

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          • Dan Simon says:

            Sure–I’ll back off the strong version of my hypothesis: if this study is correct, then it suggests that the effect I’ve hypothesized isn’t strong enough to overcome the difference in ambient local happiness levels completely.

            But does the study compare the happiness levels of people who move from northern Europe/West Germany to southern Europe/East Germany to those of native southern Europeans/East Germans at their same socioeconomic level? My hypothesis is that other factors being equal, the immigrants will still be happier than the native locals, for the reasons I mentioned.

            Then again, I’m willing to heed evidence to the contrary…

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  5. Mariani says:

    As methodologically as questionable happiness research might be, it’s pretty clear that happiness does baseline. We aren’t 100 times happier than people in the middle ages because we have 100 times higher GDP per capita. They would have all killed themselves if that were true. People who, say, win the lottery, become happier for several months, and then it goes back to normal once they are used to it. So I think it’s also clear that utility is not the same thing as happiness.

    So a society that tried to maximize happiness would look pretty weird and not utilitarian. And vaguely conservative, since homogeneity/knowing-your-neighbor-ness are believed to be big factors that are often cited when talking about the #1 happiness of Denmark. I’ve heard the same thing being the explanation for the happiest states: the Dakotas, Vermont, Minnesota, Montana.
    http://time.com/9465/here-are-the-50-states-ranked-by-how-happy-their-residents-are/

    Another is status. Happiness is partly determined by having a good opinion of yourself/your place compared to others. So the medieval peasant comparing himself to his lord probably wasn’t worse than the modern man comparing himself to tech tycoons.

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    • Kindly says:

      Sure, it’s pretty obvious that happiness doesn’t vary linearly with GDP. There are other options than “linear” and “constant”.

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      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        It’s possible that it has to do with the rate of growth, not the total level of wealth. As in the passage I quoted below.

        Of course, this happiness data (if it’s accurate) causes problems for that view, too.

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        • Adam says:

          As does the fact that humans experienced no economic growth at all for hundreds of thousands of years, and though we don’t know how happy they were, they kept on and didn’t kill themselves en masse in spite of not being able to conceive of the fact that states would eventually exist and trade with each other.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            The fact that they didn’t kill themselves doesn’t show that they weren’t less happy, even much less happy.

            Especially when you consider selection effects. Suppose that life in the paleolithic was not worth living, and that it was rational to kill yourself. Well, that would select for tribes that developed a taboo against suicide. I’m not saying that’s actually the case, but there’s nothing contradictory with it.

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          • Adam says:

            Well, like I said, we can’t go back and poll them. It just seems prima facie implausible to me that happiness effectively didn’t exist in the world until 5,000 years ago.

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          • piercedmind says:

            Also you could look at tribal communities today. I do not know whether anybody has done that in a survey, but the few reports by antropologists I have read seem to suggest that most people were at the very least not terribly unhappy.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ piercedmind:

            A lot of people have gone around to tribal communities where they have adopted modern civilization, and they seem to prefer the modern conveniences and say they’re happier with them.

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          • piercedmind says:

            @Vox imperatoris:

            Yes, I could very well imagine that happening. If I read your suggestion correctly, you implied that happiness is a function of progress. Therefore no progress must mean no happiness(or very little). However, tribes adopting a modern way of life does not mean that they were unhappy before, just that they are happier afterwards.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ piercedmind:

            I (and I don’t think Reisman) am not saying that economic progress is the sole determinant of happiness. Just that it contributes to it. It seems contrived to argue that no one in Classical Greece was reasonably happy—and yet also contrived to argue that our increased wealth hasn’t helped at all.

            And even Eskimos or other hunter-gatherers had a sort of progress. It was slow, but they could hope in some way to leave themselves and their children more prosperous and wise than they were in the past.

            You also have mythology. Von Mises (from whom Reisman is drawing heavily from here) emphasizes the role the concept of salvation and an eternal reward plays in Christianity In a time like the Middle Ages where peasants’ lives were hard, instead of despairing at a “future of unrelieved hardship”, they could take solace that things would be better in heaven. The “knowledge” of that future happiness made the current hardship more bearable.

            But of course that’s sort of a local optimum because it’s not true. It’s what Marx meant by talking about the “opiate of the masses”. People are better off in a bad social system with religion than in the same system without religion. Yet at the same time, the religion sustains the bad social system precisely by means of making people less unhappy such that they aren’t desperate enough to overthrow it.

            Perhaps people can attain a certain kind of satisfaction by learning to limit their desires and simply appreciate what they have, in a society where progress is very slow. Maybe Buddhism or Stoicism were the right ethics for their times. But at the same time, maybe they can have greater satisfaction in a progressing society by always striving for more and using their potential to the fullest to learn and produce novel things.

            Leonard Peikoff makes a similar point when he talks about how, in historical epochs where people feel safe, powerful, and confident, they are more inclined to embrace this-worldly philosophies that encourage people to accumulate wealth and earthly attachments. But when they feel unsafe and insecure, they turn to otherwordly philosophies and religions that tell them to renounce attachements. If you don’t value anything but inner virtue, no one can harm you.

            When you feel safe, though, you want more than to minimize harm. You want to maximize gains.

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          • Nita says:

            they could take solace that things would be better in heaven

            I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
            Traveling through this world of woe
            Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
            In that bright land to which I go
            [..]
            Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world
            Going home to live with God

            youtube video, 5:27

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      • Mariani says:

        Are you arguing that we might be logarithmically happier than medieval people?

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        • Jacobian says:

          I would argue that. At my age in medieval times I would probably be down to half my teeth and be in constant pain due to a variety of maladies. If you asked me to rate my happiness I would say 5/10 since bad teeth and gout are just a fact of life to medieval-me, everyone deals with it. A 5/10 in the modern US is much happier: even if you don’t factor in how happy you are to have food in rating your SWB, you’re still not suffering from hunger.

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          • Cliff says:

            Would you really have rotten teeth or gout? Gout is caused by obesity, age, meat and alcohol consumption. Of those, only alcohol consumption would likely apply and very watered down. Rotten teeth I can see although you would have no sugar, I don’t know what tooth care was like at the time. Hunter/gatherers probably did not experience much tooth decay.

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          • Jacobian says:

            Don’t catch me on details, most of my medical knowledge of medieval times is from Game of Thrones 🙂

            I just think that 2/10 happiness in the US today could be “I just moved to a new city, I don’t have many friends and my boss yelled at me.” 2/10 in 1365 could be “My entire family died of the black plague and I haven’t eaten in two days.” I don’t think the 2/10 captures the same subjective suffering.

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          • onyomi says:

            Yeah, I think this is key: when you ask people how happy they are, they’re always going to rate it not only on the basis of what they see people around them experiencing, but also as compared to their own past life experience. Like, when you ask people “how happy are you?” where else are they supposed to get their frame of reference?

            If a random survey taker called and asked me “how happy are you?” I might say “8/10.” If a time traveler from the future came to me and said “greetings, mortal! I come from a time when everyone is eternally youthful, indestructible, joyful, and able to travel the universe in the blink of an eye to experience marvelous alien vistas. How happy would you rate yourself?” I might say, “well, by your standards, 3/10?”

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          • moridinamael says:

            Also, being hungry may make your suffering greater, but doesn’t necessarily make your happiness less. Suffering and happiness don’t sum. They reflect different facets of existence. Suffering is bad and should be reduced, not because it impinges on happiness, but because it is suffering.

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          • Y Stefanov says:

            @Jacobian:

            At your age 100 years from now you may have not even begun aging and may know that your perfect health and life expectancy is guaranteed well into your 80s.

            Does this make you unhappy now? Happier then? Both?

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          • brad says:

            @Y Stefanov
            I think “may” changes the question quite a bit. After all perhaps in a hundred years they will all be living in a apocalyptic hellhole trying to stay one step of the killer AI robots.

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    • NN says:

      Another is status. Happiness is partly determined by having a good opinion of yourself/your place compared to others. So the medieval peasant comparing himself to his lord probably wasn’t worse than the modern man comparing himself to tech tycoons.

      The medieval peasant might actually have been better off in that area, because unless a war was going on peasants mostly interacted with other peasants and semi-irregularly with merchants, craftsmen, and the like except for tax collectors and the occasional traveler. I doubt they compared themselves to their lord very often, considering that the average peasant rarely if ever even saw his/her lord. Now we have mass media to beam images of the Glamorous Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous into our homes every waking minute.

      Like Tyler Durden said, “We’ve all been raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

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      • The thing is, though, I think those both have the same role – the ideal of Heaven and bliss.

        Moreover, the real reason most people aren’t rock stars is because they’re not good enough. If your happiness comes from being worthwhile, and you aren’t worthwhile, that’s intrinsic, not extrinsic.

        But even merely having stuff doesn’t make you happy. The more stuff I get, the less special it is. These people imagine that having lots of stuff would make them happy, but it wouldn’t.

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    • 1. Real GNP per capita in the middle ages was probably about 1/30th ours, not 1/100th.

      2. If status is important, what you want is a social system arranged so that everyone is on the top of his own ladder. I may be poor, but I have prayed to God every day when I should, which makes me a much better person than my rich neighbor who hardly ever prays. You may be poor, but you are the best fighter in our village and everyone else defers to you. He may be poor, but he is the local checkers champion, which proves he is superior to everyone else.

      3. I am suspicious of the “report how happy you are” approach, which makes me wonder how you could generate something better. We need a happiness standard. Perhaps the unhappiness from having a pin stuck in you. For how many days would you be willing to live at some base standard of life instead of your current standard in order to avoid having pins stuck in you ten times? Or perhaps we can use a positive measure, the pleasure from an orgasm, or some pleasurable drug, or a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone, to be set against a deprivation.

      The deprivation should actually replace your utility stream with zero. We have some way of putting someone into painless sleep without dreams for a day. That reduces his lifetime utility by one day’s worth. In exchange for how many ice cream cones/orgasms/shots of heroin will he let us do it?

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      • Wrong Species says:

        Regarding #2, if we want to make everyone feel better about themselves, it seems like a good solution is actually make smaller communities in general. Lets say that we split everyone off in to communities of 150 people where the only interaction between other people is economic transactions(which would obviously be complicated to do but lets just assume it works.) That could satisfy both the small community aspect that makes people happy plus limiting the number of people that we compete with in social status.

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        • Tibor says:

          That is assuming that status is the only thing that is important. A big social advantage of large communities such as towns and cities is that regardless of how unusual your hobbies and interests are, you are always likely to find someone who shares them. I think this is at least as big a part of happiness as status.

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      • Mariani says:

        Yeah, I basically agree with “top of your own ladder” idea. I have the feeling that ultra-abundant information makes this difficult, like what NN said right above you.

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        • It only makes it difficult if everyone has the same measure of status.

          I was actually thinking of my perception of Harvard when I was there. The people who put on plays knew what mattered was who was in the current play—the rest of us were just there to provide an audience. The people active in the Young Democrats and Young Republicans knew that what was important was winning office there, as a stepping stone to real world politics. Their friends and acquaintances were there to be herded into a meeting once a year to vote for them. The bridge players … the math people … the poets … .

          Everyone, at least almost everyone, at the top of his own ladder.

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        • Vita Fied says:

          I swear that “Call of Duty” has mastered the “top of your own ladder” idea.

          I have never played a game with that much online variability in how well you do vs other people. It really feels designed to occasionally have you be the best player.

          Like, its an interesting mathematical puzzle. How to best make a person, with a giagantic user base, believe that they often come out on top, while still retaining a valid true-skill measure.

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          • WoW has a simpler solution. Most of the “people” you interact with are NPC’s. They either view you with great admiration (in the current version) or are bad guys who boast of how easily they will defeat you and then get beaten by you.

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          • Vita Fied says:

            >Wow has a simpler solution

            It does, but its not interesting. Those are still NPC’s, without human validation behind the praise.

            It really is an interesting math puzzle. And I actually believe it may have been done in COD and other online games. How do you fiddle around making each person have the illusion of progression, and illusion of being the “best” on occasion, when perhaps being a 10th percentile player, while not breaking the game as a whole.

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          • baconbacon says:

            @ Vita Fied-

            Ladder systems set this up as well, especially with designated groups. Starcraft 2 (to follow the video game line) basically separates their players into groups, and only matches you against relatively equal opponents and gives you enough information to confirm your own biases. Lost a game? Go check your opponents rank. If its higher you get a bit of a boost- of course I lost to a Diamond player, but I’m getting matched against them because I am getting better, soon I will be a Diamond player. If its lower – Stupid lucky Gold player, I am way better than him, look at my ranking vs his, far more important than one game.

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      • piercedmind says:

        #3 Looking at people’s choices as a measure of happiness of that particular choice is very prone to just measuring values or prejudice/preconceived notion about something.

        Asking most people to eat an insect or choose the equivalent number of pins would result into a much higher pain through the pins than the actual discomfort when eating that insect.

        Asking the same person to stop eating insects after he has done so for some time is also problematic, since after having eaten those insects he is now a different person than before.

        This example becomes much more relevant if you replace eating insects with living in democratic vs authoritarian states.

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      • Svejk says:

        #2 is interesting. I think one of the comforts of religion is that it autogenerates a ladder with clear expectations for success (or at least clear guidelines for ritual performance). This would predict that a globalized secular society with a limited number of universalized ladders would be less happy than a heterogeneous world of patchily-distributed communities that must internally replicate a multiplicity of ladders.

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      • Yrro says:

        I feel as though the “top of your own ladder” thing should be much, much easier in a smaller community. You are more likely to have played the best fighter in a game of checkers.

        The more people you compare yourself whom you do not interact with as individuals, the easier it is to not see alternative ladders (or, alternatively, to project made-up ones onto them. For example, assuming that all bodybuilders are idiots).

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        • People want to matter. If your reference group is three hundred million Americans, the chance that you will feel important in that context is low. If your reference group is your village, then if you live a reasonably decent and successful life, when you are old you will be seen as a person to be respected, admired.

          That the solution to the problem is the formation of non-geographical villages is a point that occurred to me long ago when interacting with Los Angeles area libertarians. I spent a day or two in a village of perhaps a hundred people, spread out over several thousand square miles.

          The Internet makes it much easier. You can live in a city of a million or so in a country of three hundred million, as I do and still be part of one or more small communities, as I am.

          This one, for example.

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          • Tibor says:

            This reminds me of the words of Caesar – “I would rather be the first in the last village, than the second in Rome”. Not many people can be the first (or even second) in Rome, but nowadays pretty much anyone can pick a village of interest where he can, with some effort, become the first.

            It is more difficult for the people who actually are like Caesar and who care about the kind of status that most people recognize as such, i.e. more or less political power. But for the rest of us, it works quite well.

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          • baconbacon says:

            Now I have to leave this community, Friedman is clearly on top of this ladder.

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    • Ricardo Cruz says:

      People who, say, win the lottery, become happier for several months, and then it goes back to normal once they are used to it.

      Scott in his post dispelled that urban myth. Here is the link provided by Scott.

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    • moridinamael says:

      “Happiness” is stupid.

      There was a semi-famous Internet person who kept really consistent “happiness logs.” He found that his logs indicated that he was actually “happier” when he was sitting alone listening to music than he was on a kayaking trip. He concluded that he shouldn’t go on any more outdoorsy excursions.

      Having kept a happiness log myself for a period of time, I can at least understand why somebody would come to such an asinine conclusion. When you ask yourself “How happy am I right now?” you’re implicitly not capturing stuff like:

      * “How happy am I with the state of my life in general?”

      * “Would I hesitate to trade this particular experience for a numerically happier experience due to some other important quality of this current experience?”

      Interestingly, there’s a very similar problem with keeping a pain journal. I’ve found pain journaling by recording your “pain value” on the 1-10 scale to be almost completely useless. For the sake of argument, let’s say that there is an objective quantity of pain associated with firing patterns of pain neurons. The pain value you record is almost always going to have much more to do with how well you’re coping with the pain, and how you’re feeling in some general sense, than with whatever that objective quantity is. An “objective” 3.0 feels like a 6.0 when you’re tired and depressed, a 7.0 feels like a 4.0 when you’re engaged with something. There are a too many conflicting mental activities going on to objectively assess even something notionally absolute like pain perception, imagine how impossible it is to consistently rate something as ill-defined as happiness?

      I’ve tried to make this point on Less Wrong before and it always seems like I’m failing to convey the importance of it, but, Utilitarianism makes no sense whatsoever outside of a framework of ranking preferences.

      If you had asked me, I would say that I was just as “happy” right after some unpleasant past event (being dumped, dog dying, whatever) as I am right now. I would have argued that my life is pretty good in general, and though I may be sad in that moment, I was satisfied with my life overall. But I definitely prefer not-being-dumped and not-dog-dying. Preferences sort everything out. Preferences of A over B are the ground truth of Utilitarianism. As soon as you get away from ranking preferences, you get completely lost.

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      • Psmith says:

        Interestingly, there’s a very similar problem with keeping a pain journal. I’ve found pain journaling by recording your “pain value” on the 1-10 scale to be almost completely useless.

        Yep. Lots of ortho injuries are less painful than bad road rash, but the added anxiety about whether you’ll heal and return to activity makes them worse on net. Pain doesn’t hurt. Worrying does. I knew a strongman and Highland Games competitor whose favorite pain cocktail was a Flexeril and a Xanax, for this very reason.

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        • moridinamael says:

          I find that it’s more useful to think about suffering than about pain. Not to try to quantify it, though, just to be aware of the distinction.

          Also, I think there’s a widespread implicit assumption that “suffering” and “happiness” trade off with each other, or sum up to some total value of life-quality, but I don’t find that it works that way. I can be suffering quite a bit and still be just as happy as I would be without that suffering. But I would still prefer not to be suffering.

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      • IrishDude says:

        Your comment reminds me of a nice essay by Deirdre McCloskey criticizing the science of happiness. One passage in particular hits on your argument that utility is ordinal rather than cardinal:

        “The economists at the time consoled themselves with what was known as “ordinalism.” You can watch me making an actual choice at Manny’s between a pastrami sandwich or, for the same money, a corned beef sandwich. By my choice, I reveal that I get more pleasure from the pastrami. I rank the two in order. Yet neither a psychologist nor an economist can tell how much more pleasure I get—10 utils for corned beef, say, as against 16.876 for pastrami. Utils sound nice and scientific, but, unlike inches of mercury in a thermometer or pounds of air pressure in a container, they have no natural units. Francis Ysidro Edgeworth remarked in 1881 (though he was still then hopeful that the “cardinal” measurement of utils might be possible), “We cannot count the golden sands of life; we cannot number the ‘innumerable smile’ of seas of love; but we seem to be capable of observing that there is here a greater, there a less, multitude of pleasure-units, mass of happiness; and that is enough.””

        I recommend the whole essay: https://newrepublic.com/article/103952/happyism-deirdre-mccloskey-economics-happiness

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        • The passage you quote neglects to mention that Von Neumann solved the problem of making utility cardinal most of a century ago.

          In other ways an interesting essay, of course.

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            Only within-agent, though, not across-agent (cf. our discussion in the other thread). This really is an important point; VNM-utility is defined only up to positive affine transformation.

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          • It isn’t ordinal cross-agent either. The interpersonal utility comparison problem isn’t an ordinal vs cardinal problem.

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            It’s certainly not ordinal cross-agent, no. It’s also not cardinal cross-agent. It’s incomparable cross-agent. Which is what I meant: VN+M solved the problem for the within-agent problem; for the across-agent problem they did not even attempt it.

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      • Briefling says:

        Preferences don’t work for Utilitarianism, do they? I mean, if there’s only one person in the world, sure, strive for their most-preferred world state. But if there are two people I don’t see how you can combine their preferences, since preferences do not add. That’s why it’s important to have happiness ratings, and not merely rankings, from the standpoint of Utilitarianism. So you can aggregate multiple happiness readings into one measurement.

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        • Said Achmiz says:

          The standard solution for translating “preference rankings” into “preference ratings” is the Von Neumann-Morgenstern utility theorem. It doesn’t actually work for humans, because (most) humans’ preferences do not in fact satisfy the VNM axioms, but for agents whose preferences do satisfy the axioms, VNM works just fine, and lets us convert preferences into a single unitary number. (It is customary among rationalists and economists to claim that VNM-noncompliance constitutes irrationality and thus is normatively antipreferred; the idea is that once we overcome all our biases, we will all satisfy the VNM axioms and then we’ll have access to a straighforward and provably-correct way to convert everyone’s preferences into convenient numbers.)

          No, the real problem is that an individual agent’s VNM utility function is defined only up to positive affine transformations, and therefore there is no principled way to aggregate VNM utility across individuals. (There are many unprincipled ways, of course — such as artificially imposing arbitrary caps on the range of an agent’s utility function, or by pinning the utility function’s output for some experience to some number for all individuals — but if you’re declaring things by fiat then you hardly need mathematical theorems to do so.)

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          • Briefling says:

            I’m aware of the VNM theorem; as you note, it doesn’t change the fact that preferences across individuals cannot be aggregated. (And even the ad hoc solutions you propose are not sufficient. Preference systems inherently cannot get to canonical magnitudes-of-happiness.)

            The point I was trying to get at is that the whole idea of “preference utilitarianism” is flawed. You need units to get a workable utilitarianism.

            And the implied question I wanted to raise is: why do people call themselves “preference utilitarians” when there’s no way to do utilitarianism with preferences?

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          • I think the claim that interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible is a considerable exaggeration. We don’t have a good way of doing them, unlike judging the utility of different outcomes to one person by revealed preference. But we make such comparisons routinely.

            You are deciding which of your friends to buy a present for, not having enough money to buy more than one. Part of what determines your choice is how happy you believe the present will make each of them.

            You are deciding where to take the family for vacation. Part of how you do it is by comparing how happy one kid will be mountain climbing vs how happy another will be on the beach.

            You are deciding how to make a charitable donation. You probably don’t give it to a millionaire, even though he would like a little more money—because you think someone much poorer would like it more.

            In all of these cases we are making interpersonal utility comparisons. Part of how we do it is by taking advantage of the fact that we are ourselves human and so have some idea of how much other humans will enjoy things. Part of it is by reading the emotions of other people, expressed in actions, voice tones, facial expressions, and deducing from that features of their utility functions.

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            @ David Friedman:

            We do indeed have some ability (although we often overestimate that ability) to judge how happy another person is, especially if it’s a person whom we know well.

            But VNM-utility — and indeed any formalism for preference satisfaction — is not about happiness. It’s about preference satisfaction. In order to work as a formalism for preference satisfaction, it must be agnostic about whether preference satisfaction makes people happy, or indeed about any aspect of “happiness” in general.

            This is true not merely as a mathematical necessity, but as a principled philosophical necessity. If our formalism for preference satisfaction depends on some evaluation of happiness, then it’s not really a formalism for preference satisfaction; correspondingly, moral theories that are founded on preference satisfaction must not depend on evaluations of happiness, precisely because one of the main moral issues that such theories address is the fact that people sometimes have preferences that don’t at all coincide with what would make them happy — and preference utilitarians hold that such preferences are no less valid than any others. That principle — that we must, morally speaking, respect a person’s preferences regardless of whether satisfying those preferences makes the person happy or not — must be captured by the formalism, or else the formalism doesn’t capture an essential part of the moral framework.

            So we can certainly use our intuitive ability to judge people’s happiness; but we must not assume that this allows us to judge their utility (where by “utility” we mean a definition/formalism of utility that works for preference-satisfaction-based moral theories, e.g. VNM-utility) — as I explain above, that assumption would violate a central tenet of preference utilitarianism (or any similar moral theory)!

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          • @Said Achmiz:

            Most people would prefer to be happy, ceteris paribus. So even if happiness is not a complete account of preference utility, it is at least a partial account. Minimizing pain is not the only thing affecting your choices. But I am pretty sure that the reduction in your happiness from stubbing your toe is less than the reduction in someone else’s happiness from being tortured to death. So if I have the opportunity to choose between one person stubbing his toe and another being tortured to death, all other relevant outcomes held constant, I have a pretty good guess at which choice maximizes utility.

            The usual claim is not merely that we cannot do a perfect job of interpersonal utility comparison but that we can’t do it at all, and that’s the claim I am disputing.

            Beyond that, utilitarianism goes back to Bentham, some years prior to Von Neumann. A utilitarian does not have to base what he maximizes on preferences. He can do it on something closer to what Bentham intended, which gets back to what we have some ability to observe and compare across individuals.

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            @ David Friedman:

            The usual claim is not merely that we cannot do a perfect job of interpersonal utility comparison but that we can’t do it at all, and that’s the claim I am disputing.

            I still don’t see anything you’ve said that does in fact dispute it. Here’s the problem:

            the reduction in your happiness from stubbing your toe is less than the reduction in someone else’s happiness from being tortured to death

            In happiness? Sure. In utility, though? That comparison is not even defined; if you were to substitute “utility” for “happiness” in that sentence, it would simply be incoherent (given the VNM definition of “utility”, or any other definition where the utility function is defined up to positive affine transformation).

            [in the aforesaid situation] I have a pretty good guess at which choice maximizes utility.

            You don’t, though! You can’t know which choice maximizes utility, because there isn’t any way to even coherently define a notion of “utility” that both captures preferences and can be compared (or added, etc.) across individuals. Utility just isn’t happiness, or well-being, or anything of that nature.

            Beyond that, utilitarianism goes back to Bentham, some years prior to Von Neumann. A utilitarian does not have to base what he maximizes on preferences. He can do it on something closer to what Bentham intended, which gets back to what we have some ability to observe and compare across individuals.

            Well, sure, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion. Briefling’s question in the grandparent was about preference utilitarianism specifically, so that’s what I’ve been addressing.

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          • @Said:

            Do you disagree with my observation that almost everybody prefers more happiness to less and less pain to more, all else held equal? If you agree with that, then the ability to do interpersonal comparisons of happiness and/or pain gives you the ability to make some interpersonal comparisons of utility, hence interpersonal comparisons of utility are not entirely impossible.

            Which has higher utility–a future in which I stub my toe or a future, in all other ways identical, in which I don’t stub my toe but you are tortured to death? Do you really think one can have no reasonable opinion on the question?

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            @ David Friedman:

            Do you disagree with my observation that almost everybody prefers more happiness to less and less pain to more, all else held equal?

            Sure. (With the caveat that some people don’t, at least not sufficiently consistently, and our morality must be able to handle such people gracefully. This is not my main objection, just a caveat.)

            The problem is, if we both prefer more happiness to less happiness, but our other preferences are all sorts of different, then you can’t say anything which of us gets more utility from this or that. Heck, even if our utility functions are somehow completely identical (compensating for indexical concerns), you still can’t compare our utility values without an additional normalizing assumption (perhaps warranted in this hypothetical extreme edge case, but still not mandatory!).

            Which has higher utility–a future in which I stub my toe or a future, in all other ways identical, in which I don’t stub my toe but you are tortured to death? Do you really think one can have no reasonable opinion on the question?

            I think this question is completely incoherent. (I’m not just making a mathematical quibble here; I am truly of the opinion that this is a meaningless thing to ask.)

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          • “The problem is, if we both prefer more happiness to less happiness, but our other preferences are all sorts of different, then you can’t say anything which of us gets more utility from this or that. ”

            The issue is always whether some change increases or decreases total utility. If we are considering a change that results in my having my toe stubbed and your not being tortured, all other things we care about the same, we have good reason to consider it an improvement. And we can make a reasonable list of what people care about by observing their behavior, with a little assistance from introspection.

            Do you disagree? Claiming that the question is incoherent is a statement about your mind, not about the argument. Is there some reason why my hypothetical is impossible? If not, do you agree that it describes a situation were we have reason to believe that a change increases total utility? If so, do you agree that that means that interpersonal comparisons are not entirely impossible–it being a change that increases one person’s utility and reduces another person’s?

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            Er, whoops? Is threading broken or did I click in the wrong place? Anyway, this comment should be right here instead.

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        • Said Achmiz says:

          @ David Friedman:

          The issue is always whether some change increases or decreases total utility. If we are considering a change that results in my having my toe stubbed and your not being tortured, all other things we care about the same, we have good reason to consider it an improvement.

          I agree that this is an improvement (but then, I’m not a utilitarian). What I don’t agree with is the claim that this “increases… total utility”. It doesn’t, because “total utility” is an incoherent concept. There is no “total utility”; you can’t add my utility to your utility and get anything; you can’t compare them. Said_Achmiz_utility and David_Friedman_utility aren’t in the same units, or commensurable units; it’s like (to use a computer science metaphor) trying to add a string to an image object, or asking whether an integer or an array of structs is greater. They’re just not the same sort of thing. They can’t be added any more than my living room chair can be added to the concept of a circle.

          ***

          By the way, I think you might be arguing against a different point than the one I’m making. I suspect that in your model, I am saying that total utility is something which exists but which we just can’t determine, whose value we have no way of knowing. And so you’re proposing ways in which we might discover that value, or perhaps some approximation to it, or at least ways in which we might gain some information about that value (this-and-such change to the world modifies the value of “total utility” in this-or-that direction, etc.).

          Is this an accurate account? If not, then ignore the above paragraph. If it is, though, then let me state quite emphatically that the above is not what my view is. (My actual view is the first part of this comment, above the ***.)

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      • Y Stefanov says:

        @moridinamael:
        “He found that his logs indicated that he was actually “happier” when he was sitting alone listening to music than he was on a kayaking trip. He concluded that he shouldn’t go on any more outdoorsy excursions.”

        This is not necessarily a valid conclusion. I feel happier when I eat than when I’m hungry. Therefore I should never stop eating or never allow myself to be hungry?

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      • To be fair, you are making the assumption that he wasn’t actually happier.

        Over my life, I’ve been on many hiking/camping expeditions. They have gotten consistently less fun over time.

        Conversely, when I hear a good new song, I get a pretty good rush out of that.

        It is quite possible that he was past the point of declining happiness returns, especially happiness:effort returns.

        I dunno. My enjoyment of doing something declines over time. This is a major factor which stops me from doing most activities for a long time. Only creative activities are really enjoyable over a long time period.

        Indeed, over time, my ability to be impressed/satisfied with something has declined; I crave novelty, and I’ve already consumed a lot.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Happiness alone seems too simplistic as a goal. Just because helping someone doesn’t make them happier doesn’t mean that they didn’t really want help, or that helping wasn’t morally good. Preference utilitarianism seems like a pretty good heuristic here: just ask them if they want help.

    Should I have a preference for my society industrializing? If I’m not going to be any happier after it does, and supposing there’s no inherent moral value in industrialization, why bother?

    I wouldn’t want my country to industrialize so I’d be happier. I’d want it to industrialize so I could have modern medicine, cheaper and more reliable food, clean water, longer life expectancy, airplanes, flat screen TVs, etc. Given a choice to live in an industrialized society with all these and a preindustrial society without any, I’d choose the inustrialized society in a heartbeat. Industrialization isn’t some unfathomable external force; it’s a way of solving a lot of problems people really wanted to solve.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      Suppose it were determined that people who had TVs were much less happy than people who didn’t have TVs. Suppose that we even had a good idea why – maybe TV is addictive, and people sit in front of the couch watching trashy shows all day instead of spending time with friends or learning things, and then hated themselves for being useless when they went to sleep. Would you still want a TV?

      And suppose we found that clean water made people less happy – for example, the immune system became hyperactive because of the lack of parasites and caused a lot of autoimmune diseases and depression. Would you still want clean water?

      This is what I mean when I say I’m not sure to what degree we value TVs and clean water for their own sake, vs. happiness.

      If I know TVs don’t increase my happiness but I still want a TV, to what extent is that a valid preference, and to what extent is it a bias in which I’m failing to visualize what having a TV is really like clearly enough, or take my knowledge of not-increasing-happiness seriously?

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      • LPSP says:

        This question feels very much like a matter of discipline. If person X knows that doing task Y will make them less happy, yet feels compelled to do it in any case:

        – it would prudent for them to ensure that they cannot do Y, thus protecting their happiness, and fight those who would facillitate or vendor Y to themselves or others
        – others who care about X would act to intervene in case Y was occurring

        It may seem odd to think about “saying NO to clean water” in this way, but in a sense it’s no different to engaging kids in outdoors activity, letting them get a few cuts and bruises on their knees. Short term pain and a bit of self-restraint/forcing through a tough patch, long term satisfaction. The clean water in this (broad) analogy becomes the kin to sitting in a smelly teen bedroom playing vidju gaems all day. The activity itself becomes mind-numbing, nevermind the negative side-effects, yet stopping feels awful. The effective altruist parent would turn the machine off at the wall and tell them to go jogging.

        As for examples like TVs, we know it is possible for people to stop watching TV even while having one in their home. Perhaps it’s just a matter of ensuring people who get hard-addicted are kept away from them? Which relating back to the economic-aid point would mean not furnishing nations with industrialisation if they cannot control themselves and put it to use in increasing happiness.

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      • Bugmaster says:

        Would you still want a TV?

        Your scenario is similar to asking, “do you want crack cocaine ?” I would answer “no”, whereas some people would obviously answer “yes”. Perhaps they have different preferences.

        Would you still want clean water?

        This, on the other hand, seems like a clear-cut (pardon the pun) choice. Will I get more/worse diseases (autoimmune, etc.) from clean water than from dirty water (cholera, etc.) ? If the answer is “no”, then I want clean water.

        If I know TVs don’t increase my happiness but I still want a TV…

        How do you “know” this ? What is the probability that having a TV will make you happy ? If you are serious about your choices, you could work that out and then decide. In case of crack cocaine, the probability of severely debilitating long-term health effects is pretty much 100%, so you probably shouldn’t use it (unless you are one of those people who doesn’t care about long-term health effects, of course).

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      • Civilis says:

        Suppose it were determined that people who had TVs were much less happy than people who didn’t have TVs.

        I’m wondering if it’s possible or even likely that you would find that even in this case, taking away their TV might also make them less happy than they were when they had the TV.

        Likewise, the question that arises from looking at the results above is, if increasing wealth lowers happiness, does that necessarily imply that lowering wealth increases happiness? While I admit the results above initially seem counter-intuitive, I’d still wager that decreasing wealth dramatically lowers happiness as well.

        There are two (at least) necessarily related factors at work in a society that is rapidly increasing wealth, one being the wealth itself and the other the societal changes both causing and resulting from the increase in wealth. My bet would be that while wealth itself is a positive factor in happiness, the underlying changes are a negative factor which more than compensates. A society experiencing a massive loss of wealth, therefore, would have both the loss and the change as negative factors, massively reducing happiness.

        The other problem is that this is something we can’t test in isolation. There are enough external factors that the happiness gain from wealth could be easily hidden in other, unrelated negative events.

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      • onyomi says:

        This reminds of something I was thinking to post about on the next OT, which is that I feel increasingly that the greatest challenge for Joe Sixpack in the new robot economy is not having a job that pays enough to buy the stuff he wants, but rather having the willpower to resist succumbing to a kind of wire-heading he’ll superficially feel he really wants, but which will long-term render him miserable.

        I think this sort of “wire-heading” already exists. It’s called fast food, computer games, Netflix, prescription drugs, alcohol… Of course alcohol and other diversions have existed for a long time, but now we’ve gotten to a level where the vast majority of average people in developed nations can afford to, in effect, thoroughly anesthetize themselves with these sorts of things.

        The further down the economic ladder you go in the US, at least, the more you find everyone is surviving on fast food, tv, and prescription drugs. They’re often quite miserable, but you could never convince them they don’t really want these things. And maybe I’m being patronizing to think they would be happier as farmers tilling the land, working hard every day and eating all natural produce with their large extended family like they might have 100 years ago. Maybe I’m romanticizing and don’t realize just how miserable those farmers really were 100 years ago. But I don’t think it’s all that.

        Rather, I think that resisting wire-heading requires a level of self-control and “wait for the extra marshmallow” quality most people just don’t have. And as the economy gets better and better at creating this Wall-E sort of cocoon for people, I fear the bar for resisting it will get higher and higher, even though people would be happier if they could. I think this is the bigger challenge of the robot economy.

        Also, in the future, robot Scott Alexander will produce such a constant stream of super insightful blogposts that I will never, ever get anything done.

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        • Bugmaster says:

          I don’t really understand wire-heading, to be honest.

          First of all, I know of several people who would argue that any activity that is undertaken solely for pleasure should be avoided. For example, if you spend 2 hours per month watching movies or reading fiction, then you are wasting 2 hours per month that you could’ve been doing something productive, instead. They acknowledge the counter-argument: perhaps, without this downtime, you will get burned out and become even less productive. However, this is a mental weakness that must be defeated, just like any other bias; not a positive habit that should be indulged.

          On the other hand, let’s imagine the perfect kind of wireheading. You can push a button, and become happy forever. There are no negative side-effects, and you are immortal. Is there any reason not to push that button ?

          I must confess that I cannot muster any reasonable opposition to either of those arguments.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Cocaine or whatever is bad because it produces short-term pleasure at the cost of long-term misery when you build up a tolerance and can’t pay your rent anymore because you don’t work. And insofar as there’s more to happiness than physical pleasure: the distress you feel at seeing yourself degenerate might outweigh the physical sensation even in the short run.

            But there’s nothing wrong with the perfect happiness button. I agree with Aristotle that happiness is completely self-sufficient. If you have (the maximum amount of) it, you don’t need anything else. The reason you need food or shelter is that if you don’t have them it will cause your life to be shorter and more miserable.

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          • 27chaos says:

            Sorry, what? You know people who don’t care about their happiness, only their productivity? Are you sure they aren’t lying to you?

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          • Ghatanathoah says:

            @Bugmaster

            I think a relevant question in the first argument is “Productive for who?” Things aren’t productive in an absolute sense, they’re only productive relative to someone’s goals.

            I am sympathetic to argument one, but I define “productive” in terms relative to my goals, not anyone else’s. I spend a lot of time watching fiction with complex plots that makes me less happy than derpy sitcoms, because I care more about exercising my intellect that I do about happiness. I read scientific essays instead of funny clickbait because I value learning more than I value happiness, so trying to be happy would be unproductive.

            It sounds like you’re defining productivity in terms of some outer measure, like economic output. That’s silly.

            In regards to the wirehead button, I might push it if the happiness didn’t leave me paralyzed. I have stuff to do, stuff I value more than happiness. But if I could get that stuff done and feel super-happy at the same time, that sounds like a good deal.

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          • Anonymous says:

            @27chaos
            I used to think that way. It happens when everyone is pushing you to achieve things and you don’t stop to philosophize about why you want to achieve things.

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          • Bugmaster says:

            @27Chaos, Ghatanathoah:

            You know people who don’t care about their happiness, only their productivity? Are you sure they aren’t lying to you?

            I am reasonably certain they aren’t lying; let’s say, 90% sure. As far as I can understand (and I may be wrong), the long-term feeling of regret they experience due to the loss of time — which could’ve been better spent on building a device, writing code, proving a theorem, etc. — far outweighs any temporary pleasure they experience due to watching a movie or reading a fiction book, etc.

            In regards to the wirehead button, I might push it if the happiness didn’t leave me paralyzed. I have stuff to do, stuff I value more than happiness.

            What do you mean by “value” ? Do you mean, “it is a goal that makes me feel good when I get closer to achieving it ?” Because the wirehead button will make you feel much better than that…

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          • Jeffrey Soreff says:

            First of all, I know of several people who would argue that any activity that is undertaken solely for pleasure should be avoided. For example, if you spend 2 hours per month watching movies or reading fiction, then you are wasting 2 hours per month that you could’ve been doing something productive, instead.

            Interesting. This is almost exactly the reverse of my view. I do productive things in order to pay for the time watching movies or reading fiction, or doing other things solely for pleasure.

            (ok – more precisely, its some mix of seeking pleasure and happiness and avoiding suffering and pain, and those brain systems don’t add up in a clean way. But productivity as an end in itself seems utterly pointless to me.)

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          • Hedonic Treader says:

            “You can push a button, and become happy forever.”

            I think “forever” is unnecessary, not to mention maladaptive. But if we had a wireheading technology that induces immediate pleasure, perhaps on the intensity equivalence of burning alive or being skinned alive, it would be extremely valuable.

            The good thing about wireheading is that it is non-rival. One person using it does not prevent another person from using it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean people won’t attack it and try to destroy the potential for others anyway. But that’s just human nature, that shit never goes away.

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          • onyomi says:

            There’s a book largely focused on diet called “the pleasure trap,” but I think it applies also to things like TV.

            It points out what I believe is a fairly well-accepted aspect of happiness research, which is that there is a big difference between “happiness” and “pleasure,” though a person with no pleasure in his life is not likely to be very happy.

            “Pleasure” is the rush of dopamine you get when your body wants to tell you “job well done”: when you eat a fatty food, when you have an orgasm, when you shoot up with heroine… (well, we see where we’ve thwarted evolution).

            “Happiness” is a gentler, possibly more serotonin-related feeling that things are going well. To some extent, it is just a little biological pat on the back which tells you you are making progress toward the goals of more pleasure and that you should keep doing what you’re doing. You aren’t at that moment having the orgasm which will ensure the survival of your genes, but you are having a pleasant parent-child interaction which tells your brain, in effect, “things are going well.”

            In the long run, people seem to value happiness more (and you can have a lot more of it, because it’s more of a background sense of well-being or positive affect), but pleasure is much more addictive. What’s worse, by innovating ways to feel the “reward” aspect of pleasure without actually accomplishing anything, we’ve reached a point where pursuit of pleasure often has a deleterious effect on happiness.

            It’s like, we realized that we could just hand out trophies and nobody had to play the game.

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        • Jaskologist says:

          The big one you missed: extramarital sex.

          Also, in the future, robot Scott Alexander will produce such a constant stream of super insightful blogposts that I will never, ever get anything done.

          I’m already there. I was so much more productive before I got an iPad, and I’m really starting to worry that it is sucking up all my time with little payback, to the point where I’m seriously considering getting rid of the thing. The hard part will be prying the phone out of my wife’s hands.

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          • Nita says:

            extramarital sex

            I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but intramarital sex feels pretty good, too. Exactly as good, to be precise. (Although we did not marry in a church, in case that matters.)

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          • onyomi says:

            I think the most analogous example is masturbation to internet porn. Some people describe it as an addiction and claim it lowers their desire/ability to enjoy meaningful sex with a partner.

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        • keranih says:

          And maybe I’m being patronizing to think they would be happier as farmers tilling the land, working hard every day and eating all natural produce with their large extended family like they might have 100 years ago.

          Eh. In the 1910’s they would have been farm laborers, not so much farmers. And they would have had salt pork, salt cod, and pickled everything between November and April (regionally dependent.) And their corn would have been consumed by worms, and their pigs would have had tric, and their hens would have died at the rate of 5/20 before they were old enough to lay or eat. And they would have died, on the average, before the age of 60.

          Oh, and 50% of the cooks would have been average or worse.

          Having said that, and having done the modern version of working all day in the fields, I think that *yes*, they would have been happier if they had been physically active most of the day, could have seen daily the difference between the results of a day well-planned and with sustained effort vs a lackluster day spent without careful thought, and if they could have come together with a family group to eat together.

          It is still possible to do those things, and for the people who do that to express higher happiness levels. However, we have a government system of supporting the impoverished that works counter to this end. And so our poor get more and more miserable.

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        • Fast food tastes good.

          I enjoy watching good things like Zootopia and Wall-E.

          I like playing video games.

          I’m upper-middle class.

          People engage in these things because they’re fun.

          They’re not “anesthetstizing” themselves.

          I’ve DONE physical labor. Farmwork is BORING.

          The thing is, entertainment quality has gotten to ever greater heights, and we’re ever better at producing entertainment to suit the needs of specific people.

          I don’t like MOST new movies that come out. I’m not interested in them. But there are some new movies that come out that do interest me. And the number seems to be going up over time, not down.

          I remember back in the day, there were only so many good video games. Now, more good video games come out in a year than I am likely to have time to play.

          You’re confusing what you want to be true with reality.

          The actual reality is that people are surrounded by interesting things.

          This is not anesthetization – it is creating higher baseline expectations.

          You’re not just patronizing – you’re dangerously wrong.

          The danger of modern society is that the contentment we get for being productive is probably dropping below the contentment we get from entertainment for many people.

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      • My working assumption is rationality/revealed preference. I agree it is logically possible that a TV makes me less happy but I would still choose to watch one, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet.

        I avoided having a television set up and working for most of the past forty+ years. At the moment there is one, bought for playing a few video games on, but I never watch TV on it and am not sure if anyone in the house ever does.

        On the other hand, I would probably be better off weighing ten or twenty pounds less, I know how to accomplish that and don’t. But I think I’m better able to make judgements about my own irrationality than about other people’s.

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        • Vaniver says:

          On the other hand, I would probably be better off weighing ten or twenty pounds less, I know how to accomplish that and don’t.

          Have you tried intermittent fasting? It’s somewhat more easier psychologically than other dieting techniques, and so may tilt the balance in favor of accomplishing that.

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          • I have considered it.

            The method that works for me–I’m down most of twenty pounds from what I was five years ago, and have held that weight pretty consistently for (I’m guessing) a couple of years–is one meal a day, usually dinner, not too large.

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          • Vaniver says:

            Yeah, that’s the sort of IF I do now. (I used to use a window, but then at one point started tracking the width of my window in practice and that drove it down to a single meal.)

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      • Joe says:

        I remember hearing a talk by a very old missionary that started working with a mountain village in Mexico in the early 60s. He said when he first arrived everyone was miserable. No running water, indoor plumbing or electricity. Life improved with running water and the villagers were overjoyed to have electricity. They could stay up late and read and enjoy family time and community religious festivals. It wasn’t until the early 80s when everything went south. TV came to town and destroyed the happiness of the people. They lusted after American style opulence. The young men started to leave for the cities or America. Small is beautiful

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        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          I wonder if the internet would have had the same effect? If so, that’s an even bigger problem, because while a family or community can conceivably ban TV, the internet is required in order to be economically competitive.

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          • Joe says:

            Good question. I know my family watches less TV because we have Netflix and Hulu. We can watch on demand. We don’t have to rush home from a party or Church event. We can enjoy a show (on Netflix at least)without brainwashing consumerist advertising.

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        • j r says:

          I think that this kind of story misses the forest for the trees. TV didn’t destroy that town, the passage of time did. TV was just one of the things that came with the passage of time. Theoretically, the residents of that village could have collectively decided to cloister themselves from the rest of the world and keep TV at bay for another generation or few, but there are costs to that kind of thing.

          So the question is: how much of the present’s benefits will I sacrifice to hold onto the happiness of the past?

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          • Joe says:

            You could also argue that the missionary did a poor job of preparing the village by teaching them the proper virtues that could have helped them resist the temptations of the world. I tend to agree with you though you can’t really stop or totally ignore technological progress all you can really hope for is the wisdom and courage to adjust in a healthy way. Technology is as much a creature of providence as anything else that exists.

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        • The actual moral of this isn’t small is beautiful or that TV destroyed the community. It is that when the people knew how miserable they were, they wanted better.

          The whole thing is built on a lie.

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    • Y Stefanov says:

      @Anonymous:
      ” Industrialization isn’t some unfathomable external force; it’s a way of solving a lot of problems people really wanted to solve.”

      It gives the illusions of problems being solved. Downstream problems abound and multiply. It is an attempt to solve problems that are not problems to begin with (or ones with no solutions possible – same effect) or problems whose “solving” creates multiple unanticipated other problems. I guess it’s an open question to the net benefit. It also creates “fragility” as Taleb would say so even if we’re marginally better off this may not be a smart trade off. Nuking the place, global warming, species extinction etc. The stakes are high. If it turns out we’re risking all that for a slightly happier existence it may be a colossally stupid trade.

      It appears to me industrialization is an attempt to create a way (or rather imitate it) to live the way we always liked and evolved to – like hunter gatherers but sans the risks and with the built in safety net and security. At the beginning of the agri revolution our concern was food safety and security, lately it has been more entertainment, free love, travel etc. but still “fake” and “imitation” paleo lifestyle.

      Maybe we’ve over-egged the pudding though…. Wouldn’t it be ironic to come back full circle and live risk-free in virtual reality environment that is very close to the pre-historic environment we evolved in? Reminds me of “fun theory.”

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  7. duckofdeath says:

    We should probably factor into the calculations somewhere that empowering authoritarian paternalistic, corrupt and or authoritarian states over liberal democracies risks destabilizing the balance of power and possibly leading to major inter-state wars and, 2nd-worst case scenario, east asia run by the PRC or PRC-like governments rather than American-like governments, which would probably a pretty big utility hit.

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    • Anthony says:

      That’s presumably less of a concern for India, where most of the oppression and paternalism is cultural rather than governmental. Also, it probably doesn’t matter much to an American worker whether he was put out of work so that people in a democratic country could get richer, or so that people in a non-democratic country could get richer.

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      • duckofdeath says:

        That’s debatable, but my point is that whether or not it matters to him now it will likely matter to the hypothetical South Korean, Taiwanese or Japanese worker a few years down the road when they find themselves living in a chinese-occupied country or client state (not saying this is a high-probability scenario, but I think it’s at least sufficiently plausible that we should factor considerations of international balance of power into this if we’re taking it seriously).

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        • Michael Watts says:

          I see a lot of anxiety about China going on a militaristic streak and trying to conquer neighboring regions. I always think it’s worth pointing out that, if you look at the historical record, this has never happened (they’ve tried to conquer Vietnam, but never succeeded; they haven’t even tried to conquer other areas). It seems more unlikely than not that they’d start now.

          China has a very long history of handicapping its own military and denying it cultural power or status. And a long history of being militarily ineffective. And a long history of exhibiting virtually no desire to expand. (With, again, the exception of Vietnam.)

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          • NN says:

            Aside from Tibet. And Taiwan, which the PRC very much wants to conquer but has thus far been unable to do so. Though I guess you could argue that that the situation with Taiwan is technically a civil war.

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          • Michael Watts says:

            China has never conquered Tibet. The modern country of China has the extent it does today through a multi-step process:

            1. The Manchus conquer China.

            2. The Manchus also conquer several other places.

            3. After a period of ruling these places separately as a federated empire, they label everything “China” for bookkeeping/marketing purposes.

            4. The Manchus fall from power, leaving China in control of their entire empire.

            But this is pretty different from the model in which China aggressively expands into Tibet.

            Note that the modern Chinese government has pursued the same, extremely traditional, approach to controlling Tibet and Xinjiang (both Manchu conquests): settlement by Chinese people. It’s worked well in Xinjiang and is failing in Tibet.

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          • Scott Alexander says:

            How is it failing in Tibet? I’d heard that the Chinese population was approaching the level of the Tibetan population and from the Chinese perspective it was going very well.

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          • Michael Watts says:

            I’m not going to be able to substantiate that. But here’s what I remember reading:

            Tibet is a forbidding environment due to the lack of oxygen there, and the Chinese (like everyone but the Tibetans) have serious health problems when living there. As a result, the Chinese population in Tibet is composed much more of recent immigrants than you would hope, if you wanted to form a stable occupying population. Continually sending your people to die at altitude doesn’t make for much of a “success”.

            I’ve also read that while the Chinese population in Xinjiang is reported as roughly similar to the Uyghur population, this is suspected to be a politically soothing understatement.

            So, if you want to look into this (and I couldn’t blame you for not bothering), check the immigration flows to those regions against the population there.

            If you really, really want to look into it, try to see if you can come up with population estimates that aren’t based on official Chinese census figures. Not recommended.

            China has a policy of giving college admission preferences to Tibetans so that they can study in China, and frankly I suspect their best hope of retaining the area is expanding that policy and trying their hardest to get a generation of Tibetans thoroughly acculturated.

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          • ChetC3 says:

            > (they’ve tried to conquer Vietnam, but never succeeded;

            Vietnam was under Chinese rule for over 1000 years (111 BC-40 AD, 43 AD-544, 602-938).

            > they haven’t even tried to conquer other areas).

            There were several Chinese invasions of the Korean peninsula, which met with varying degrees of success.

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          • Nornagest says:

            If we’re going back past the 1600s, China’s borders have changed a lot. The modern borders approximate those of the Qing Dynasty minus Mongolia; most previous dynasties held much less territory, especially in the west. (The Yuan dynasty is an exception; it didn’t hold most of modern Xinjiang, but did hold a lot of extra territory toward the north. That’s mostly thanks to its Mongol roots, though.)

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          • I believe the Mongols conquered Tibet and made it part of China under the Yuan dynasty considerably before the Manchus.

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          • Wency says:

            Michael — generally agreed.

            1. There’s no doubt that, in a vacuum, China would have annexed Taiwan long ago, by force, if necessary. In practice, Taiwan probably would have been smart enough to surrender peaceably if it didn’t have an outside backer, and to instead focus on negotiating the terms of its annexation. It spends less on its military as a share of GDP than China does, so my read would be that it has a “better Red than dead” mentality.

            2. China is already an empire. Keeping China unified and stable has been a persistent challenge throughout history. Taiwan is a persistent nuisance because it’s the last vestige of the disunity that preceded the PRC, and its success in reunifying China is part of the PRC’s claim to legitimacy.

            The Party just wants to keep its job. It’s not clear how inviting instability by conquering hostile foreign populations would help there.

            3. Would a powerful, authoritarian China “Finlandize” Korea without American intervention? Quite possibly. That would be a reversion to the historical norm, where Korea tended to be a tributary state when China was strong. But I also don’t know that Finlandization is such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things — the Finns seemed to handle it just fine.

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          • Michael Watts says:

            David Friedman — going by the wikipedia article on Tibet, you’re correct. But note that when the Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongols, they lost control of Tibet. Rule from China was reestablished by the Qing beginning in 1720 (Qing rule in China itself conventionally begins in 1644).

            So modern Chinese rule in Tibet is attributable to the Manchus, and not to the Mongols.

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    • Friday says:

      Just based on the sources cited in this post, there doesn’t seem to be any strong indication that East Asia being run by PRC-like governments rather than liberal democracies would make people unhappier. Taiwan’s democratic and not much happier than China.

      I guess this brings us back to “happiness research forces us to come to weird conclusions”.

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  8. MNL says:

    I think that static self-assessments of “happiness,” “personal satisfaction,” or “life ratings” are notoriously hard to compare–both across time and across cultures. There’s a kind of calibration that most of us self-impose that makes it hard to truly objectively assess or compare such measures. As a dramatic example, I’m reminded of a passage in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (I think it was). It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but as I recall, Frankl cites a rail car full of condemned Jews on their way to a concentration camp during World War II. The occupants had the impression they were headed to Auschwitz and faced certain death. Their mood was solemn along the journey (to say the very least!). But at some point along the way someone noticed enough of their surroundings or a few key milestones along the rail line to determine that they weren’t headed to Auschwitz after all. They were headed instead to mere camp of hard labor! As word spread through the rail cars of the change, the occupants wept tears of joy. A sense of happiness was restored at just the thought of avoiding Auschwitz. One could imagine the self-assessments of most in the rail cars coming out as “happy”–at least at that brief point in time. (But few outsider observers would find such “happiness” comparable to their own).

    Or as a contrast, take the story my own son told me of a young girl at his high school. The girl’s family was very well off–to the point my son used the word, “spoiled” to describe their daughter. When the girl’s birthday arrived and she got a new car as a birthday present, she was greatly disappointed that the car was blue rather than the RED color that she most wanted. She pouted with sadness (which was then mocked by some of her less well-off peers). No doubt if a researcher polled the girl at that point in time and asked about her personal happiness, she’d give an answer at the low end of the scale.

    Maybe the Auschwitz story is apocryphal. I don’t know. But the stories communicate a principle. Measured assessments of personal happiness or satisfaction are extremely local to the life events (or other people) immediately around us. We tend to calibrate at least some elements of our personal happiness relative to adjacent people or adjacent time periods. This makes it hard to compare self-assessments of happiness over extended periods of time or across cultures.

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    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.

      Randall Munroe, “Connoisseur”

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      But is this best represented as “this means our measurements of happiness are silly” or “this means that actual real-world happiness works in a silly way”?

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      • Adam says:

        Self-assessment seems like a particularly poor means of measurement. You need to spy on people and figure out the percentage of time they’re laughing or smiling versus scowling or something.

        Even then, I’m not sure why it should be a social goal to maximize national happiness. It’s not what individuals themselves maximize. Did you choose your job because it would make you maximally happy? I didn’t. I’d be body painting Playboy models or something. Of the jobs I’ve actually had, working at Disneyland made me happiest. I chose my line of work because it’s interesting, challenging, and brings me financial security. Those things are different from happiness.

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        • Lightman says:

          I think the problem here is the confusing of happiness with pleasure. Sure, from a certain vulgar utilitarian/hedonist view, happiness is just having certain pleasurable things happen to you. But when you ask if someone is *satisfied* with their life, you’re really asking a question that has more to do with the Greek concept of eudaemonia – whether they’re living their life well, whether or not it has coherent structure and direction, that sort of thing.

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          • Adam says:

            There are two things to this.

            First, as someone else pointed out elsewhere in these comments, happiness is a byproduct of the limbic system designed to give positive internal reinforcement to successful action so we’ll keep doing it. But it really does seem like people can and do choose to forego it to pursue the terminal goals it’s intended to lead to instead. Ascetics who believe there is good in suffering. Alpine mountaineers who live on adrenaline rushes from pursuing goals that specifically cause great suffering. The father who labors 12 hour days in a coal mine on the hope of some theoretical future pleasure he may never actually experience when his grandkids get a better life. I’m not judging the moral worth of these behaviors. Maybe the ‘good’ really is just maximizing the integral of lifetime experienced happiness, but the notion that people actually do this seems to inadequately explain human behavior. We’re utility maximizers by definition, but it seems clear that our internal behavior reinforcement mechanisms include things other than happiness. The utility function is not that simple.

            Second, whatever it is we’re maximizing is a stochastic process with uncertain reward. Most likely the reason I’m not at Disneyland any more is an attempt to prevent future ruin. This may or may not actually cause me to feel better at any randomly selected sampling point at which you poll me about my level of satisfaction regarding my life, but it’s perfectly understandable to want to minimize downside risk even at the expense of a worse day-to-day life in the interim. It’s a gambit. The mountaineer chases a high he might never get. He might just die on the side of a mountain. I’m hoping not to be a destitute old person but for all I know I have brain cancer that will kill me in six months anyway and I should really be spending every resource I have left on hookers and blow.

            So it may not be that the Chinese are any happier. But you have to figure most of the left tail density of life outcomes is better than it used to be. Someone mentioned survivor bias. Happiness polls from 50 years back couldn’t question all the people who died of cretinism before they learned language, but they should still count in any national accounting of how your economy has impacted personal outcomes for your citizenry.

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      • Daniel Kokotajlo says:

        “But is this best represented as “this means our measurements of happiness are silly” or “this means that actual real-world happiness works in a silly way”?”

        Either way, I think the lesson to draw is: Let’s stop trying to make happiness the only ultimate goal.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          No, why would you say that?

          If having more cars and TVs don’t promote happiness, what’s the point? If having families and friends doesn’t promote happiness, what’s the point? You might as well bang your head against the wall or watch paint dry as promote those things in that case.

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          • It’s partly a question of definition. Does happiness include feelings of satisfaction and the like?

            Consider the extreme case of someone who chooses to give up his life for a cause he believes in or work very hard in an unpleasant environment for it. By the economist’s definition he is choosing the higher utility alternative. But in a common language sense, he isn’t choosing happiness.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ David Friedman:

            I’m not arguing for defining happiness as the kind of utility which people tautologically pursue. I would characterize those people as sacrificing their happiness to others. Unless (as Nathaniel Brander points out in the essay “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?” attacking precisely the tautological view), for instance, the person who dies for a cause believes that not doing so will cause his continued existence to have a negative value. As in “better dead than red”. (Whether it’s plausible that it’s better to be dead than red is a different question.)

            Or in other terms:

            Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

            But it seems both possible—and, frankly, obviously true—that there is more to the intellectual feeling of having a satisfying life than simple sensory pleasure. That doesn’t help make happiness easier to measure. It makes it a hell of a lot harder.

            I take it that this is the sort of thing Mill was getting at by saying that poetry is categorically superior to pushpin. Even though I think the way in which he frames it overstates things.

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          • Daniel Kokotajlo says:

            Vox: I think for independent reasons it is clear that happiness isn’t the only ultimate goal. Sure, obviously TV is not an ultimate goal. But some things, like justice, truth, beauty, etc. are. There are plenty of circumstances where we ought to sacrifice total or average happiness for the sake of one of those things.

            Besides, even if you think happiness is the only ultimate goal, there are so many different versions to choose from. Average or total? Just for humans, or for intelligent animals, or for nonintelligent animals too? Or just for me & the people I am connected to? Etc.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Daniel Kokotajlo:

            Each person for his own happiness, individually.

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      • Viliam says:

        My intuition is that there are two different numbers at play, let’s call them “well-being” and “happiness”. The happiness is more or less a derivative of the (perception of?) well-being. For example, the guys who found out they were going to a labor camp instead of Auschwitz had a perspective of low well-being but high happiness at the moment.

        Making us value happiness is nature’s way to make us maximize our well-being. From the fittness perspective it makes sense to focus on available local increases of well-being; by doing so successfully, you increase the total well-being. The alternative would be staying depressed all the time because the increases from 0.10 to 0.11 still keep the value low; and not caring about decreases from 0.89 to 0.88 because the value is still high. By focusing on the small increments and decrements of value, you are spending your energy to keep your well-being as high as possible.

        But optimizing for happiness (arguing that this is the thing humans truly care about) and ignoring the well-being (arguing that this is merely what evolution cares about) seems to me analogical to wireheading.

        I am not sure I can explain why, and maybe I am hypocritical here: I think that (a) optimizing for happiness while ignoring the well-being is wrong, but (b) optimizing for better sex while using contraception is okay — but both these situations have in common that they are optimizing for the nature’s way to maximize X without really maximizing X. The difference is that I wouldn’t really want to have billions of children, even if I would be given the option, but if someone would offer me an option to be immortal with perfect physical and mental health and enough resources, I would gladly take it; so maximizing the well-being appeals to me more that maximizing the number of children. Or the other way round, if someone would predict that I will never have more than, say, three children, I would be pretty okay with that information; but if someone would predict that I will die at 50 and never have enough money to early retire, that would make me feel sad; I would regret that I missed something important.

        A possible explanation of the difference is that happiness is intrinsically connected with the perception (or future estimate) of well-being, while the pleasure of sex is unrelated to the perception of the number of children — it’s merely an action usually leading to it. I don’t experience an orgasm at the moment my wife tells me she is pregnant, but I do experience happiness when my boss tells me he raised my salary. (When I feel happy when my wife tells me she is pregnant, that feeling is in the happiness department, not in the sex department.)

        Just knowing that someone decided to increase my happiness when they had an option to increase my well-being instead would probably ruin the happiness. Not sure what be a specific example — something like “you have cancer, and the government decided that instead of spending $1 000 000 to cure your cancer, they will rather spend $10 000 on clowns that will make you laugh during your remaining weeks; how happy will you really feel looking at the clowns while knowing that this was the reason why the clowns are there?” (Without this knowledge, if the clowns would pretend to be a group of ineffective altruists volunteering to help you, you probably would laugh a few times while looking at them, and get a few extra happy moments.)

        This all said, I believe that happiness is not exactly the derivative of well-being, and therefore we can achieve some increases in happiness even in situations were we can’t increase the well-being. For example, seems to me like the short intervals of temporarily decreased well-being (spending a short time feeling uncomfortable, then returning to comfortable life again) generate net increase of happiness, because you experience the decrease for a short time, and then you experience the increase for a longer time (although after too long time you stop feeling it). Voluntarily taken short-term suffering could be a cheap way to hack happiness; such as whenever you take a trip instead of sitting comfortably at home. Or the opposite, randomly caused short-term happiness, such as playing bingo. And generally, I wouldn’t disapprove a little use of wireheading. It’s just the knowledge of “it’s all wireheading, because it was cheaper than actually increasing well-being” that would horrify me.

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        • Latetotheparty says:

          If happiness is the derivative of well-being, then to increase happiness we need to have a positive second-derivative of well-being – meaning, an exponential increase in well-being. We need to be constantly increasing our rate of increase in well-being.

          Very well, then. But why would people not be satisfied with exponential economic growth? After all, a 2% increase in per-capita GDP per year is exponential.

          What if per-capita GDP’s relationship to well-being is logarithmic? After all, people have already argued that per-capita GDP’s relationship to UTILITY is logarithmic. If this is the case, then you really need super-exponential economic growth in order to make people happier. In other words, you need to always be increasing the rate of growth. You need an increasing 2nd derivative, or in other words a positive 3rd derivative of GDP. So that would look like: 2% growth one year, then 3%, then 4%, then 5%, etc.

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          • Michael Watts says:

            If happiness is the derivative of well-being, then to increase happiness we need to have a positive second-derivative of well-being – meaning, an exponential increase in well-being.

            Please don’t mix talk about derivatives with the colloquial use of “exponential [really fast!!] growth”. A positive second derivative means quadratic or faster growth. Actual exponential growth is growth proportional to the current value, not just growth at an increasing rate.

            f(x) = x^2 has a positive second derivative ( f”(x) = 2 ), but grows much less quickly than f(x) = 2^x, which would be exponential growth.

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          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            meh. “exponential” is just a colloquial way of saying “superlinear”. I don’t think anyone misunderstood Latetotheparty.

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          • brad says:

            A post that uses the terms “second derivative” and “logarithmic” shouldn’t be sloppy with exponential. And I’m not sure it was just a colloquial usage rather than a mistake of understanding. Look at these sentences:

            What if per-capita GDP’s relationship to well-being is logarithmic? After all, people have already argued that per-capita GDP’s relationship to UTILITY is logarithmic. If this is the case, then you really need super-exponential economic growth in order to make people happier. In other words, you need to always be increasing the rate of growth. You need an increasing 2nd derivative, or in other words a positive 3rd derivative of GDP.

            How is super-exponential being used here, colloquially or precisely?

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          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            Oh. I guess I didn’t read beyond what Michael Watts blockquoted. In that case, I take it back. You were right and I was wrong.

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          • Michael Watts says:

            I might as well point out another error:

            After all, a 2% increase in per-capita GDP per year is exponential.

            This is correct.

            What if per-capita GDP’s relationship to well-being is logarithmic? After all, people have already argued that per-capita GDP’s relationship to UTILITY is logarithmic. If this is the case, then you really need super-exponential economic growth in order to make people happier. In other words, you need to always be increasing the rate of growth. You need an increasing 2nd derivative, or in other words a positive 3rd derivative of GDP. So that would look like: 2% growth one year, then 3%, then 4%, then 5%, etc.

            This is incorrect, although at least you gave an example of what you mean. If GDP is growing at 2% per year, it is experiencing exponential growth, which means that every derivative of GDP is nonzero (since GDP is increasing, all the derivatives are positive). 2% growth one year, 2% growth the next year, 2% growth the year after that, and on ad infinitum, meets the criterion of “the second derivative (and all further derivatives) are increasing functions”.

            In sum, before throwing technical terms around, please be sure you know what they mean, and do not mix in colloquial usages of other technical terms from the same area.

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    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      I recently visited a friend. The television was broadcasting the season finale of a Bigshot-Lawyer Drama called Suits.

      The season 5 finale’s plot was such that the co-protagonist Mike Ross might go to prison for 10 years, for practicing law despite never having finished his law degree. Before the verdict was given, he decided to accept a plea deal which sentenced him for 2 years instead of 10.

      Through a friend, Mike learned that the jury had planned to issue a guilty verdict. He concluded he’d made the correct decision, and was overjoyed at his cleverness of taking the plea deal.

      Mike later learned that in order to protect his ego, his friend had lied. In fact, the jury had planned to acquit. Which meant Mike had needlessly accepted to go to prison for 2 years instead of 0 years. He berated himself for making the incorrect decision of accepting the plea deal.

      My inner-monologue remarked “Mike’s going to jail for 2 years. Him learning what the jury might have decided won’t change the length of his 2 year sentence. It’s weird how he went from overjoyed to distressed, even though his actual situation has remained unchanged. His emotional state must depend on weighing his current state against counterfactuals, rather than evaluating his current state on its own merits. In fact, it reminds me of the Problem of Points.”

      The starting insight for Pascal and Fermat was that the division should not depend so much on the history of the part of the interrupted game that actually took place, as on the possible ways the game might have continued, were it not interrupted. It is intuitively clear that a player with a 7–5 lead in a game to 10 has the same chance of eventually winning as a player with a 17–15 lead in a game to 20, and Pascal and Fermat therefore thought that interruption in either of the two situations ought to lead to the same division of the stakes. In other words, what is important is not the number of rounds each player has won yet, but the number of rounds each player still needs to win in order to achieve overall victory.

      Given the Problem of Points, I feel very tempted to redefine happiness in terms of “the distance through configuration space between the current state and the desired state”. In such a model, Maximum Happiness is achieved when the distance is reduced to zero, rather than being achieved when some variable goes to infinity. In other words, Maximum Happiness is achieved when the state of the world coincides with one’s terminal values.

      If we consider that we’re always comparing the current state to the best state, this maybe explains the paradox of choice. Nobody gives a damn about second place.

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      • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

        In such a model, the Hedonic Treadmill exists not because Potential Happiness is infinite, but because we keep moving goalposts. If we were to stop moving goal posts, Maximum Happiness is realistically attainable. As Nero tol Scaeva commented, this is a central tenet of Buddhism.

        It also coincides with Viliam positing that “Happiness is a derivative of well-being”. Suppose humans reset their goalpost to a fixed amount above their current state on a monthly basis (e.g. every first day of the month). If well-being is consistently improving, the distance between the current state and the goal post will decrease over the duration of each month. If well-being is consistently decreasing, the distance between current state and the goal post will increase over the duration of each month. (Remember, the distance is proportional to unhappiness.)

        Assuming humans reset their goalpost on a continuous basis (rather a monthly basis), the goalpost is a lagging-indicator of their recent level of well-being. But the math should work out the same.

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      • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

        Revision. I think happiness is a state achieved when current well-being is greater than or equal to the goalpost. Unhappiness is achieved when current well-being is below the goalpost. I think happiness doesn’t increase with distance from the goalpost, but unhappiness does. I’m not sure how to capture this nuance exactly.

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      • Randy M says:

        His emotional state must depend on weighing his current state against counterfactuals, rather than evaluating his current state on its own merits.

        But isn’t that the only way to weigh it? All of the pros and cons of any given situation only have meaning relative to other possibilities and the probabilities thereof. If you get a new job, the salary won’t make you happy because you’ve look at your budget, taken the excess, and determined that you can buy more periods of pleasure than you will have boredom or pain, but rather that it is more than what you might otherwise have.

        Dennis Prager talks about happiness a lot; his formulation makes sense to me: happiness is the difference between expectations and reality.

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        • piercedmind says:

          Jonathan Haidt has imho convincingly argued that happiness is not just the difference between expectation and reality.

          For example, being exposed to noise decreases happiness a lot, and actually does so more in the long term than in the short term:
          http://pages.ucsd.edu/~nchristenfeld/Happiness_Readings_files/Class%209%20-%20Fredrick%201999.pdf (page 13)

          At some point there should be an adjustment of expactation, but that does not happen.

          Also Haidts lists meaningful and strong relationships as the most important external factor influencing happiness. I guess you could argue that people with above average relationships set their expectation according to the quality of the relationships around them, but that seems unlikely to me.

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          • Randy M says:

            Well, I think irritations are a separate factor. Somethings we find difficult to adjust to, such as noise or perhaps temperature extremes.
            Although actually the new heater behind me has been buzzing all day and I’ve stopped noticing it, similarly to when we lived with train tracks behind us. But extreme sensations we are designed to constantly notice.

            As for relationships, I think this is positional. I have pretty great relationship with my wife, which I judge by looking a any number of unhappy relationships. But I could use more or deeper friendships; I’ve had more in the past and I miss it. But I’ve had less, so it isn’t really depressing.

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          • piercedmind says:

            If it’s indeed positional, statistics work against us:

            “The friendship paradox is the phenomenon first observed by the sociologist Scott L. Feld in 1991 that most people have fewer friends than their friends have, on average.”

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendship_paradox

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          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            Hm. Haidt does mention counterfactuals. But clearly there’s more to the story.

            I wonder if counterfactual thinking is the way we immediately process novel events, but things like relationships have a stronger long term-effect. Naively, I’d expect having a strong social support would mitigate the impact of negative events and also hasten the rebound. Arguably, the meat & potatoes behind the Suits finale was how the verdict changed the way Mike navigated his relationships rather than the verdict per se (I guess this is what makes it a drama). In this way, relationships act like insurance.

            But there’s probably something more going on than just insurance. Maybe Happiness behaves like a spring, and relationships raise the set point?

            Incidentally. I love how the paper called Donald Trump an academic.

            Re: adaptation to noise.

            Of the four Unpleasant Experiences listed by Haidt, noise is the only stimulus which resists adaptation. This is weird and not what I’d expect.

            My initial reaction is that perhaps noise is unique in that it is the only stimulus of the four which continues to warrant attention. I imagine that in the ancestral environment, ignoring a persistent noise might get me eaten by a mountain lion. This seems kinda just so. But I notice that Haidt later posits “the failure to adapt to highway noise may reflect its high temporal variability.” He’s thinking along the lines of getting run over by a car, which to me signifies to me that I’m probably on the right track (since my reaction occurred before I read this particular line).

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      • Michael Watts says:

        It is intuitively clear that a player with a 7–5 lead in a game to 10 has the same chance of eventually winning as a player with a 17–15 lead in a game to 20

        This is not correct, unless the odds of a given player winning a round are specified by the problem statement. (As it happens, following your link, I see that in the problem of points those odds are specified. But I found it very jarring to read this in your quote, when in the context you presented it in (none) it is clearly wrong.)

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  9. expjpi says:

    What happens to preventable deaths as GDP increases? Presumably it significantly decreases?

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    • Ciarán says:

      This was my thought. However Chinese people self-rate, they are certainly living longer and healthier lives. Even if their self-rated happiness is stagnant, there’s more life being lived there.

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      • Loquat says:

        Residents of China’s over 400 “Cancer Villages” might argue with you there.

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        • Ciarán says:

          Wow, FIVE YEARS off of people’s lifespans in northern China? That’s crazy.

          Well certainly with an industrialization that is so filthy and creates so many negative externalities, the value of GDP growth becomes a lot more dubious.

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        • Chris H says:

          Chinese life expectancy convergence with the West is a lot more powerful of a point. http://www.china-profile.com/data/fig_WPP2010_L0_Boths.htm

          Though to be fair, it does seem like the estimates indicate that the catch up happened mostly before China joined the WTO in the 90s, which is the most relevant time frame for Scott’s analysis of the trade point. However, if even a small portion of the life extension in China is due to opening trade with the US, I don’t think it take adding many months of life to 1.4 billion people living roughly as good of lives as before to counteract the effect of 1.5 million losing their employment.

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          • Loquat says:

            Most notably, the really big jump in life expectancy comes right after the end of The Great Chinese Famine which was partially caused and exacerbated by the terrible government policies of the Great Leap Forward. The several years of Cultural Revolution which followed probably didn’t help much, either. Improvements in internal governance seem likely to account for a LOT of the Chinese lifespan increase since 1950, though it’s certainly possible trade with the US has contributed.

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          • One effect of the big change in internal governance at the death of Mao was opening China up to the world, greatly increasing trade.

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    • glorkvorn says:

      I was wondering that too. It seems like there’s a literal survivor bias at work here- the poorest, least healthy, and overall most miserable people would tend to die off a lot more in poorer countries, so they can’t answer the surveys. In first world countries we can usually at least keep people alive, even if they’re miserable.

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  10. Coco says:

    I don’t think you’re breaking down the various sorts of consequentialism in the best way. Once you decide that “the good” only relevant factor in determining what is right, there are two more big things to decide: what contributes to “the good”, and (assuming the well-being of conscious beings is one of those things), what contributes to well-being? So there are a lot more than “three ways to go from here.” In particular, mental state theories of well-being (well-being is about our subjective experiences) and preference theories of well-being aren’t the only two options. This essay by Parfit on that topic is life changing:

    http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/faculty/rarneson/Courses/PARFITwhatmakesbest.pdf.

    There are plenty of options for the theory of the good as well. For instance, instead of adding together everyone’s well-being to get the total good, you could add together f(well-being) for everyone, where f(x) = x-e^(-x). That would have the effect of prioritizing the well-being of those who have less of it. Or you could add other terminal goods, like you mention.

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    • Ghatanathoah says:

      Seconded. Parfit’s paper really helped me understand what sort of preferences should “count” as wellbeing under preference utilitarianism and which ones shouldn’t.

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    • Thanks for the Parfit link. I was thinking as I read Scott’s post that measuring ‘happiness’ might not be as informative as measuring negative aspects, such as anomie.

      We believe people are complicated but we also believe that ‘on average’ they are simple cause and effect organisms. Perhaps if we measured happiness (well being etc) *and* anomie (suffering etc) we might explain the relationship between peoples emotional status and the ‘wealth’ of their society better?

      Epicurus has been characterised by some (a little unfairly) as a Hedonist – but what he reasoned was that part of the good life (tranquility rather than pleasure) was the absence of fear and excessive desires. Perhaps he was on to something?

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      • Latetotheparty says:

        In particular, I think people are underrating the importance of the absence of fear.

        An American wage worker who makes $50,000 a year still has to deal with fear: fear of unemployment, fear of sickness, etc.

        Heck, a CEO who makes $1 million a year still has to worry about social politics with other humans: loss of status, prestige, backstabbings (metaphorical or literal), etc.

        If we could feel that we were truly in control of our environment, I bet happiness would skyrocket. So that would mean something like: a communist utopia with superabundant goods and complete automation (no economic worries) that ALSO had high levels of social trust among people. THEN I bet you would really see a phase-change to a higher plateau of happiness.

        Anecdotally, some of the most fun and happiness I have ever had has been playing Minecraft with trusted friends. Minecraft is one reality where it currently IS possible to create a superabundant and safe communist utopia where you feel like you can have complete and instant mastery of the environment. Plus, if you are playing with good friends, then the social trust factor is taken care of. And you even get to scratch your itch for novelty and pseudo-danger by venturing out of your well-fortified village to mine, slay monsters, and collect loot.

        Perhaps, if we could recreate Minecraft in the real world (including the ability to move and reshape cubic meters of material in the blink of an eye and automate practically everything…using maybe nanogoo?), plus have monsters to battle against to scratch our instinctual itch for jousting against the occasional wild animal on the savannah of the ancestral environment, then we would have the ideal society. Anyone else agree?

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      • Anonymous says:

        Not just fear, stress. Stress is important in modern society because it leads to productivity, but I feel it’s also the single biggest unhappiness factor by how many people it affects. Studies may disagree, I’m just introspecting.

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  11. Sniffnoy says:

    Again assuming I haven’t made some simple calculation mistake, I can think of three ways to go from here. First, abandon consequentialism entirely (I understand that having children will likely decrease my happiness, but I still want to have children because I value them for non-utilitarian reasons). Second, switch to a consequentialism based on non-subjective things like maximizing development and industrialization as a terminal goal (Really? Even if everyone hates it? Does it matter what the factories are building? How about paper clips?). Third, switch to preference utilitarianism.

    Please stop conflating consequentialism with utilitarianism, Scott! You mean “abandon utilitarianism entirely”. You could have all sorts of exotic non-utilitarian consequentialisms.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      That’s why I differentiated that option from maximizing development. If you can solve it with a consequentialism maximizing something other than development, I’d like to hear about it.

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      • Sniffnoy says:

        Ah, I see. However, your first parenthetical doesn’t fit with that.

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      • Said Achmiz says:

        A consequentialism need not “maximize” anything. It doesn’t have to depend on any single numeric measure, or any single measure, or any numeric measures. A consequentialism’s evaluation function over outcomes can be arbitrarily complex and convoluted, could involve arbitrarily many levels of indirection (i.e. “the best outcome is that which Said Achmiz subjectively judges to be the best outcome”, “the best outcome is that which [insert other system] calculates to be the best outcome” (which system could itself refer to other systems), etc.), can refer to any features of the world (including intangibles like “love” or “[untranslatable 4]”), and can perform arbitrary operations on its inputs on the way to its output.

        Evaluation functions which maximize (or even, more generally, aggregate) some straightforwardly measurable quantity characterize a tiny, tiny fraction of even more-or-less-plausible consequentialisms, much less of possible consequentialisms in general. Utilitarianisms are a fraction of those, in turn.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          They can always be described as maximizing something if they recommend a coherent course of action.

          For instance, “the best outcome is that which Said Achmiz subjectively judges to be the best outcome”. This maximizes the extent to which the state of the world resembles what Said Achmiz judges best.

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            No, this is not what “maximizes” means in this context; using the term in this way (i.e. saying, in effect, that consequentialism “maximizes” the output of its evaluation function) makes it trivial and meaningless. The correct usage, which is the not-trivial usage, is where “maximize” means that the output value of your evaluation function is monotonic with some other quantity (like the GDP of Poland, the diameter of the sun in millimeters, the average length in characters of a 4chan post, the total happiness of all sentient life-forms in Earth’s light cone, etc.).

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Said Achmiz:

            That quantity is how much the world corresponds to what Said Achmiz desires. That may be hard to measure, but it’s a quantity.

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          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            Wait, I’m confused. Are we positing Claim A: that there exist Consequentialisms whose functions have an arity greater than 1? or are we positing the Claim B: that there exist Consequetionalisms which don’t maximize any possible “philosophical abstraction over a combination of arbitrary inputs” (i.e. we can’t take an arbitrarily-complex function and retroactively name its output “utility”).

            Claim A feels obvious to me. And I think Scott is aware of this given his parenthetical regarding paperclips.

            Claim B I disagree with. The fact that we judge outcomes and make decisions at all suggests to me that possible universes are weakly ordered. E.g. what would it mean for a compiler to evaluate a conditional statement without a relational operator? That’s like ordering a cheeseburger without cheese.

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          • Said Achmiz says:

            @ FullMeta_Rationalist:

            Claim B is obviously silly, and that’s what my above reply to Vox Imperatoris addresses.

            Weak (or partial) ordering, however, doesn’t mean that describing the evaluation function as “maximizing” something is useful (i.e. non-tautological) terminology.

            If Scott is aware of this, his post and comments do not show it.

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      • ilkarnal says:

        You should maximize for survival, of course. Ordered in priority: your own, then your family’s, then your country’s, then your ethnicity’s, then your species’, then your biosphere’s, then life in general. The priority can obviously shift around a bit depending on what is under threat in particular circumstances. In general, though, to be moral you must devote the most attention to the most specific and close problems, and the least to the most broad and far away problems.

        Chinese and Indian industrialization damages the four closest and most important priorities, and it doesn’t solve any sort of species or biosphere scale problem. The moral imperative is clear.

        If there truly is a deadly and addressable threat to something later on the priority list, it is virtuous to sacrifice earlier items in order to defeat that threat, for the obvious reason that the higher priority items are subsets of the broader, lower priority items and so bound to their fates. It is worth risking the whole of Earth-origin life if all life is safeguarded as a result. But such proposals are almost always fraudulent. For instance, you don’t make your family safer by joining the military – that’s a bald-faced lie meant to make a betrayal of your own interests seem virtuous. The lie is transparent enough that in order to get sufficient manpower it is almost always necessary to force people into service.

        Note that the act of forcing people into service is totally virtuous. It helps with all the items on the list, for the people doing the forcing. That does not make risking voluntarily risking one’s own skin and family – the latter having a very high probability of disintegrating and not being ‘your’ family anymore when you return – any less of a betrayal.

        When you confuse betrayal with virtue, when you pretend to be making a needful sacrifice when it is in fact needless, you tend to lose the thing you were pretending to sacrifice for. The fetishization and pedestalization of what is essentially scut work – the work of enlisted soldiers – has done irreparable harm to the ability of this country to wage wars. War is dirty work for poor wretches who have no choice but to do it. It is won by societies who understand that said wretches are disposable. That’s the lowest bar you have to clear, so obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be said. Yet it has been forgotten. An incalculable loss. If it only resulted in the loss of our nation, we ought to consider ourselves lucky.

        Another example of betrayal confused with virtue is ‘effective altruism.’ It is based on the idea that the priority list I outlined at the start is somehow immoral. In fact it is the only valid moral compass. I mean this in a consequentialist sense – when you don’t follow it, you are apt to lose all you hold dear. If you act like something doesn’t matter, it’s likely to be damaged. It has become unfashionable to say that ethnicity matters, but it does. You have a moral duty to your race. You forsake it at your peril. If you succeed in the mighty task of pulling other races up to your own level, you will find out the hard way that they do not share your cruel moral affliction.

        It may surprise you to learn that I hold the leftist dream of a united humanity very dear. I believe it is our future, and moreover a necessary step for the survival of everything on the initial list. But such unity must be eugenically forged – a common and supreme race bred from the best humanity has to offer. It is a mighty task. In lieu of undertaking it, leftists pretend that it is already done. It would be wonderful if their delusion was reality. If all individuals rested on or near the bleeding edge of genetic performance and loyalty to a common humanity, the future would be bright indeed. But one does not achieve a goal by pretending it is already achieved. To shrink from the arduous path ahead is one thing, but convincing oneself that the end has already been reached is the blackest evil.

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        • Anonymous says:

          Did you really expect this argument by vigorous assertion to be persuasive?

          Why in the world should the next step from my family (~10) be my country (~300M) and after that my ethicity (~???)?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            I responded in more detailed form above to this kind of racist ideology, but really I think it’s a matter of being so infatuated with the nobility of having to sacrifice “childish things” for bitter necessity that you lose sight of whether it’s really necessary after all.

            You like breaking eggs so much that it doesn’t matter whether you get any omelettes.

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          • ilkarnal says:

            Why in the world should the next step from my family (~10) be my country (~300M)

            You can add arbitrary intermediate steps – say, your employer, your town, your province – but not a lot of blood gets spilled over those these days. My impression is that the fashion these days is to spill blood blood over their own skin, their family’s, then their country’s. If there were a lot of significant wars recently between cities under the same nation I would have added cities in. I don’t have any particular attachment to the specific points one plots to make the overarching point, which is that responsibility shrinks with distance from the self.

            But this jump seems to happen even in the most sectarian places. In Syria, people are motivated by the fight over the fate of their country rather than for the creation of tiny independent enclaves. The Sunni extremists want Assad to fall, not for the country to be partitioned. The Kurds want a Kurdistan eventually, not to hold tiny indefensible stripe of an enclave indefinitely – or they want the Sunni extremists to lose, and gain more independence within a victorious Alawite dominated Syria. The ambitions are focused on the scale of nations, the war is fought between sides with different views about the fate of their nation. It’s not a war fought between warring independent cities.

            Why in the world should this happen? Well, nations have been fairly good at uniting, as those that have that skill swallow those that don’t. There’s no cosmic reason why this is an appropriate jump. You can like it or dislike it. It’s just a reflection of practical reality today – I think. Feel free to disagree, I guess. It doesn’t really affect the broader point. It’s just what points on the line you decide to plot.

            argument by vigorous assertion

            Well, a large part of my post was making the point that when you don’t follow the moral compass I lay out the consequences tend to be calamitous. I’m not aware of what you can do to advocate for some kind of morality besides vigorously assert it and then defend it on the basis of its the positive consequences from following/the negative consequences from eschewing it.

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          • ilkarnal says:

            racist

            As a subset of selfish, I suppose. But somehow while people understand the greater duty to oneself and one’s family, they become utterly horrified at the prospect of a greater duty to one’s ethnicity than to humanity as a whole. Silly.

            so infatuated with the nobility of having to sacrifice “childish things” for bitter necessity

            Pretended necessity is precisely what I criticize in my post. I criticized sacrificing one’s self for one’s nation when it was not necessary, and noted that it damaged both terribly – I would equally criticize sacrificing one’s nation for one’s ethnicity in the same manner.

            Indeed that’s a big part of what the Nazis did – they imagined themselves saviors of the White race from a largely imagined threat of internal contamination, which was part of what they were addressing with their ill-advised eastern crusade. It would be fine if their premises were correct, but they weren’t, and as a result they did terrible damage to what they thought they were saving. It’s not clear if we’ll ultimately survive the backlash from that mistake. The damage you inflict on what you pretend needs saving in these sorts of circumstances tends to be awe-inspiring.

            If the Nazis had been less execrable, the Union probably would have crumbled. There were a surprising number of traitors even with the Nazis being as amoral and ignoble as one can imagine (on that front, not everywhere). So the Nazis lost their war in the bargain – or at least lost it much more brutally than they would have if their ultimate conquerors came from the West – along with their honor. Well-deserved, but as I said the consequences go far beyond that.

            You like breaking eggs so much that it doesn’t matter whether you get any omelettes.

            I believe anyone who advocates ‘breaking eggs’ in the specific sense of self-sacrifice is probably dangerously deluded. When those delusions get taken up by larger and larger groups the damage scales up to unimaginable levels.

            As far as breaking other people’s eggs to get your own omelet – I think that’s the fundamental character of life. Take away everything that does that to make a living, and I don’t think there’s anything left. Even photosynthesizes survive by blocking competitors’ access to light and ground.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ ilkarnal:

            If racism and nationalism were actually in your self-interest, they would be good. My objection is that they are not.

            You can gain quite a lot by trading and interacting with other members of the “white race”. You can also gain quite a lot by trading and interacting with members of the “Asian race”. The relative amount varies from person to person depending on circumstances. If, as a white person, you marry an Asian person, that is such a large positive that you are likely to gain more Asians than from other whites. Not to mention that you can, you know, move to Hong Kong or something. And the Chinese can move to America or Germany.

            People should look out for themselves, fine. That doesn’t mean the best way to do that is to look out for other members of their racial group, or to disregard harms to other racial groups.

            The part people are objecting to is when you say we have to “eugenically forge” a “superior race” or something. Suppose the members of some races are better on average than others. Nevertheless, “A genius is a genius, regardless of the number of morons who belong to the same race—and a moron is a moron, regardless of the number of geniuses who share his racial origin.”

            As far as breaking other people’s eggs to get your own omelet – I think that’s the fundamental character of life. Take away everything that does that to make a living, and I don’t think there’s anything left. Even photosynthesizes survive by blocking competitors’ access to light and ground.

            That’s probably the biggest area where you’re wrong.

            The world isn’t zero-sum. It’s not the law of the jungle, red in tooth and claw. Plants can’t produce more sunlight; they can only take it away from another plant.

            But human beings are capable of producing wealth in a positive-sum way such that there are no fundamental conflicts of interest among them. In the context of a free, capitalist society. That’s why it’s important to promote international, cross-ethnic cooperation and trade and to establish the rule of production, not force.

            That may sometimes require using violence in self-defense against irrational collectivists who are opposed to allowing peaceful trade across racial and national boundaries. But that violence should be limited as far as possible because it is destructive. And anyway, you don’t sound like you’re on the right side of that conflict.

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          • ilkarnal says:

            But human beings are capable of producing wealth in a positive-sum way such that there are no fundamental conflicts of interest among them.

            But that’s obviously wrong. The world is finite. There are a limited number of women, a limited number of men, a limited amount of resources – and infinite need. What I mean by that last point is very important – there is no ‘enough.’ How many children does an organism have, ideally? As many as possible. There’s no limit. How safe do you want to be from injury and death? As safe as possible – there’s no limit except 100% safe, which is impossible. The resources necessary for each sequential .1% increase in safety go up exponentially.

            A more salient point in this era of temporary safety – what do you want your chances of dying alone and unloved to be? You want them arbitrarily small, meaning you want yourself to be as desirable a partner as possible. Arbitrary resources can go into this basically ‘zero-sum’ game (you don’t create more eligible girls or boys by being more desirable) without you ever being desirable enough to be SURE you will get a suitable partner.

            If, as a white person, you marry an Asian person, that is such a large positive

            That’s clearly advocated for in my ‘moral compass.’ The self goes before the race, which itself goes after the nation and after the family. You haven’t put any effort into understanding my position – you’ve just caricatured me as a stoopid raciss and left it at that.

            Nevertheless, “A genius is a genius, regardless of the number of morons who belong to the same race—and a moron is a moron, regardless of the number of geniuses who share his racial origin.”

            Broadly true, with caveats – depending on your race your performance and that of your children will regress to a different mean. But more importantly, it’s a numbers game. You want the genetic stock that gives you the best performance. For every white individual on the extreme low end of the white bell curve there’s another on the extreme high end. You don’t compare one end of one bell curve to the other end of another. You compare apples to apples – a given percentile of one population to a given percentile of another.

            Anyway, I am just quibbling. I am perfectly happy to skim the cream of the crop off the top of other populations. Look at my compass. Is getting the most brilliant Chinese folks to come over here a minor betrayal of our ethnic interests? Perhaps. Is it a boon for our national interests? Yes. So do it, on that basis.

            Unless you’re an individual who will be hurt by that immigration, in which case you should oppose it. I do think that skimming the very best off the top of other societies is on the whole a good deal for almost everyone in skimmer nation, though. It’s the careless ladling I have a problem with, and everyone here should have a problem with.

            irrational collectivists

            Synonymous with “humans.” But yeah, you go try fighting an “individualist” war against those evil “collectivists.” Lemme know how it goes.

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          • Anonymous says:

            How many children does an organism have, ideally? As many as possible.

            How safe do you want to be from injury and death? As safe as possible – there’s no limit except 100% safe, which is impossible.

            what do you want your chances of dying alone and unloved to be? You want them arbitrarily small, meaning you want yourself to be as desirable a partner as possible.

            All refuted by revealed preferences.

            Also, you may want to review the naturalistic fallacy and the teleological fallacy.

            Fear of death is natural, but you aren’t your genes. Even if they were, you still couldn’t be immortal. Sorry.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ ilkarnal:

            But that’s obviously wrong. The world is finite. There are a limited number of women, a limited number of men, a limited amount of resources – and infinite need. What I mean by that last point is very important – there is no ‘enough.’ How many children does an organism have, ideally? As many as possible. There’s no limit. How safe do you want to be from injury and death? As safe as possible – there’s no limit except 100% safe, which is impossible. The resources necessary for each sequential .1% increase in safety go up exponentially.

            I am not saying there is any “enough”. I linked in this very thread to a chapter arguing for the “limitless need and desire for wealth”.

            And yes, the universe is (as far as we know) finite. But that is irrelevant and certainly doesn’t mean things are zero-sum.

            For all practical purposes, we are not constrained by the carrying capacity of the universe, or the total amount of natural resources in it. We are constrained by the amount accessible to mankind. An improvement in mining technology does not metaphysically create more iron, but economically it does by making that which was previously cut off from human access now within human reach.

            The way of human survival in a civilized society is production, not predation. Maybe in some sense my first choice would be for everyone to sacrifice themselves on my behalf, to serve me above all. But I recognize that they don’t have any reason to. To get them to help me, I can either produce things myself and trade with them, or I can use force to coerce them.

            The second way is impractical and self-defeating because when everyone tries to rob and defraud everybody else, we all end up worse off. That’s why we have institutions against that sort of behavior.

            A more salient point in this era of temporary safety – what do you want your chances of dying alone and unloved to be? You want them arbitrarily small, meaning you want yourself to be as desirable a partner as possible. Arbitrary resources can go into this basically ‘zero-sum’ game (you don’t create more eligible girls or boys by being more desirable) without you ever being desirable enough to be SURE you will get a suitable partner.

            There is no universal scale of the desirability of partners, from the lowest on the totem pole to the highest. There are people who are more and less compatible.

            As population and communication increases, linking people together, the compatibility of possible matches increases. So even this is positive-sum.

            That’s clearly advocated for in my ‘moral compass.’ The self goes before the race, which itself goes after the nation and after the family. You haven’t put any effort into understanding my position – you’ve just caricatured me as a stoopid raciss and left it at that.

            If you don’t want to be perceived as a stupid racist, you probably shouldn’t come in with some kind of Stormfront-level bluster about the Peril to the White Race.

            Besides, if you admit this, it contradicts the whole framework you laid out. If you admit that other races can be equally if not more valuable to you than your own, where does the special value of your race come in?

            You seem to be misunderstanding the very “concentric circles” model you’re putting forward. The model says: you over other people, then your family over other families, then your nation over other nations, then your race over other races. But if someone from another race can come in above your family, let along your nation, this model isn’t providing you any guidance.

            The model is supposed to work like this: we may fight within our family, but when the Lancasters come, we Yorks stick together. And when the French come, we English stick together. And when the Yellow Peril comes, we Europeans stick together. You don’t get to side with the Yellow Peril to get one up on the Lancasters: that defeats the whole idea.

            “Race loyalty, but only when it’s not in your interest to betray your race,” doesn’t make sense. The world’s most perfect cosmopolitan adheres to that standard.

            Unless you’re an individual who will be hurt by that immigration, in which case you should oppose it. I do think that skimming the very best off the top of other societies is on the whole a good deal for almost everyone in skimmer nation, though. It’s the careless ladling I have a problem with, and everyone here should have a problem with.

            Why do I care about the “careless ladling” or the average quality of the “racial stock”?

            No matter the level of ability of the foreigners, if they produce more than they consume, they are a net positive. If they consume more than they produce and not on the voluntary aid of others but by trying to rob them, well, that’s why we have the police.

            Synonymous with “humans.” But yeah, you go try fighting an “individualist” war against those evil “collectivists.” Lemme know how it goes.

            If you’re saying the level of individualism in a society is a constant, let alone a constant zero, that’s just wrong.

            As for war, look at the war between the relatively individualistic United States and the relatively collectivistic Empire of Japan. The Japanese fought harder, were willing to sacrifice more. But they were outproduced by the superior wealth of America.

            “I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”

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          • ilkarnal says:

            All refuted by revealed preferences.

            Why are safe neighborhoods so expensive? Why do people spend so much money on status symbols, and so much time at the gym?

            Fear of death is natural, but you aren’t your genes. Even if they were, you still couldn’t be immortal. Sorry.

            I hate to break it to you… But this is a non-sequitur. Sorrrryyyy. So sorry. Sorry again.

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        • Anonymous says:

          In fact it is the only valid moral compass. I mean this in a consequentialist sense – when you don’t follow it, you are apt to lose all you hold dear. If you act like something doesn’t matter, it’s likely to be damaged. It has become unfashionable to say that ethnicity matters, but it does. You have a moral duty to your race. You forsake it at your peril.

          This is circular reasoning. You argue that ethnicity should matter because I hold it dear. But I don’t. I give no fucks if the “white race” survives.

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          • ilkarnal says:

            Are you white? Bonus question: are you suicidal?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ ilkarnal:

            I believe the intent of the statement was: “I don’t care if the white race survives me or this generation.”

            If all white people stopped having children, that would be the end of the white race. I would not care.

            I don’t think that’s likely to happen. But nor do I think the white race is likely to be murdered in their beds by the Colored Hordes. Which I would care about but find ridiculous.

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          • Anonymous says:

            Yes, I’m white. No, I’m not suicidal.

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          • Cadie says:

            ilkarnal, the “white race” as a distinct entity is unimportant even when it comes to things like descendant and gene survival. Any children I have will carry ~50% of my genes, regardless of the race of their father. Any grandchildren will carry ~50% of the kids’ genes. Etc. It doesn’t matter. My brother is engaged to an Asian-American woman. If they have kids, they’re still my nieces and nephews. The additional genetic difference between me and those kids from her race being different from ours is tiny, vastly overwhelmed by the similarity of second-degree relatives. When me and my immediate family are gone, our legacy is going to be about the same either way.

            Not to mention there’s conflict over who counts as what race, anyway; it’s not a totally arbitrary division, due to the presence of genetic similarities/differences leading to different rates of different diseases, different environmental adaptations, etc. but there’s plenty of disagreement over where to draw the boundaries.

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          • Looking at my moral intuitions, I probably give a slightly higher weight to fellow Ashkenazi than to random people. But I give a much higher weight to my kind of people, defined by intellect and personality, whatever their racial background.

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        • JBeshir says:

          I maximise for my values, which is why I like Effective Altruism- because I hold values over the state of the rest of the world in the same way I hold them over the state of my own body.

          And while naturally this includes survival, and you could duck-punch my value system into just survival using really weird definitions (“it isn’t really the same thing if everyone in it is miserable, and it’s surviving *more* if everyone is happy”), for any non-stretched definition I have to say that I value things other than survival too.

          And while you might *want* me to value ethnicity and country, I simply don’t value the former and, instrumental value aside, have at best a mild aesthetic preference for the existence of the latter that I’d make no serious sacrifices for. You call that betrayal; I say that as far as I know, you haven’t done anything that justifies me owing you anything.

          (Although I suppose you might consider the lack of value for ethnicity predictable, since my background is mixed race, not that you’d know it to see me. I’m pretty much what the anti-mixing people were afraid of in that regard.)

          If I read your “should” arguments as meaning that under any other value system, one should self-modify/pretend to value the things you list, because it’d be instrumentally valuable to those value systems to do so, because valuing anything different causes everything to collapse, it is coherent and could in a hypothetical universe be true. But it isn’t in ours.

          Firstly, to the extent it’s necessary to promote moral decency, there’s no reason to use ethnicity as a proxy for it- you can simply favour it *directly*.

          Secondly, there’s no reason to favour *yourself* or your own group when doing so- if you can find people who are morally better than you according to your values, you should promote *them*, not you and yours. This one is important, because it’s what leads you to put power in the hands of the competent as opposed to in the hands of your family, which even as flawed as it is, is a pretty critical part of Western civilisation’s success.

          Thirdly, we have a lot of countries in the world, and we can compare the countries where people favour their own ethnicities to countries which attempt liberalism. This comparison does not favour your position; the former is basically an endless conflict which makes everyone worse off. Because the endless conflict follows pretty trivially from the incentives involved, it’s implausible that “have the same game but with different players” would end much better.

          Also, generally we want some actual evidence *for*, when someone says we need to perform massive blood sacrifice In The Name Of The Greater Good, and that’s lacking.

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          • ilkarnal says:

            I think your value system is wrong in the following senses – it leads to terrible results, and it is extremely fragile. I think when thrown into circumstances fraught with deprivation and danger, you will rapidly start acting and feeling as if my moral compass is correct.

            Moreover, if you don’t, you’ll be less likely to survive and successfully reproduce.

            That’s enough to satisfy me that your moral compass is completely without merit relative to mine.

            we can compare the countries where people favour their own ethnicities to countries which attempt liberalism

            The countries that are ‘attempting liberalism’ in the modern sense started doing so over about the past century. They got their towering lead over the rest of the world before that, while they were distinctly illiberal when it came to things like racial and gender equality, and subjugating foreign countries by force. Over the past century, their lead over the rest of the world has shrunk drastically. The Asian countries biting at their heels do not share their ethno-masochist tendencies.

            I don’t think you can blame this on the cascading liberalism (though I am obviously inclined to call it a contributing factor) but the circumstances do NOT support the idea that modern liberal ideology leads to greater wealth and power.

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          • Nita says:

            @ ilkarnal

            when thrown into circumstances fraught with deprivation and danger, you will rapidly start acting and feeling as if my moral compass is correct.

            Moreover, if you don’t, you’ll be less likely to survive and successfully reproduce.

            1. Who said that optimizing for reproduction is “morally correct”?

            2. Why should we always act as if we were in deprivation and danger? Regardless of your goals, ignoring the actual circumstances seems like a sure way to squander resources and miss opportunities.

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          • ilkarnal says:

            1. Who said that optimizing for reproduction is “morally correct”?

            In the long run, those whose genes survive.

            Why should we always act as if we were in deprivation and danger?

            What we should do is recognize that those are the circumstances that matter the most, because those are the circumstances that will determine our survival or extinction.

            squander resources and miss opportunities

            We’re the safest and richest we’ve ever been and I don’t think there’s ever been a time where a larger proportion of resources and opportunities were squandered.

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          • Anonymous says:

            In the long run we are all dead.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ ilkarnal:

            In addition to what everyone else has said regard thing naturalistic fallacy that you are not your genes,

            We’re the safest and richest we’ve ever been and I don’t think there’s ever been a time where a larger proportion of resources and opportunities were squandered.

            The “squandering” of resources is exactly what you should expect wealthy, prosperous people to do. Poor people and poor societies have to “reduce, reuse, recycle” because they can’t afford to do anything else, as their labor is so unproductive that they each piece of wealth has a high marginal value.

            But in a rich society, you have paper plates, plastic forks, whole plates of perfectly good food being thrown away because people are full, and so on.

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  12. Friday says:

    The New York Times agrees and says that “Chinese people’s feelings of well-being have declined in [this] period of momentous improvement in their economic lives”. And this seems to be worst among the poorest Chinese.

    My first guess about this was that the poorest Chinese are about as poor as they were in 1990, but that turns out to be wrong: according to the World Bank, “Between 2002 and 2007, incomes rose nearly 50 percent among China’s poorest 10 percent.” Inequality is up too, but I have a hard time believing that offsets such a huge improvement in standards of living.

    Oh, also, hello, SSC!

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    • Nicholas says:

      Have prices increased more than 50%? Because if the income inequality was severe enough, it would drive prices above the gain in wages.

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      • Friday says:

        I assumed it was adjusted for inflation, but I’ll check.

        (Update: yes, it’s counted in constant 2002 dollars.)

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        • Nicholas says:

          But prices can increase faster than inflation, so even if we control for inflation, there might be an increase in prices beyond that: Has the price of, for example, food or heating oil increased in 2002 dollars over time?

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          • The inflation rate is usually defined as the average rate of price increase.

            Is your point that some prices increase faster than that and some slower? Or are are you defining the inflation rate by the rate of increase of the money supply? That’s not the definition used in calculating real income.

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          • Nicholas says:

            Food, fuel, and sometimes housing are excluded from the CPI calculations normally used to judge the rate of inflation. If those three things have all increased in price faster than the basket of non-food, fuel, and housing (depending on the calculator) products has on average, then you may see a decrease in the poor’s spending power that is not captured by inflation statistics. This would be particularly important considering that Food, Fuel, and Housing are a larger percentage of poor people’s spending than other economic groups’.

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          • “Food, fuel, and sometimes housing are excluded from the CPI calculations normally used to judge the rate of inflation.”

            What is your source for that claim? I don’t think it is true, although I could be mistaken.

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          • piercedmind says:

            @David:

            When it comes to absurd claims about China, normal intuition does not apply, because no matter how absurd that claim, it might just be true. In this case it’s partly true: Much to nobody’s surprise, the weighting of goods in the CPI of China is not public, but it does include food and transportation. However, it includes housing only nominally:

            “the NBS (National Bureau of Statistics) refers only to the mortgage interest rate in order to calculate the price of housing. Said figure is a virtually static number that does not really take into account the price of buying a house—which according to the NBS 70-city index rose approximately 120% between 2006 and 2010. All this suggests that housing is severely underweighted in the calculation of China’s overall inflation rate.”

            http://www.chinaeconomicreview.com/reverse-engineering-chinas-dependably-stable-consumer-price-index

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  13. onyomi says:

    Happiness reminds me very much of most other aspects of human physiology, such as, for example, body weight.

    My body weight seems to me to have a very strong set point right around “not as thin as onyomi would like to be, but not too fat, either.” When I exercise more, my appetite increases. When I go on a diet and temporarily lose weight, my appetite upregulates to get me back to the set point, etc.

    That said, it’s not as if, were I to stop exercising entirely, I wouldn’t look worse five years from now than if I continued. It’s not as if, were I to give up all dairy, processed sugars and fats, I wouldn’t look better five years from now than I probably will. But ask onyomi a and onyomi b at the end of five years how he feels about his body image. They’ll probably both say, “eh, I wish I could lose a few pounds, but I’m reasonably happy” or “moderately satisfied.”

    So, first of all, there’s the difference between how happy/fit you really are and how happy/fit you think you are (yes, I think the actual joy you experience on a daily basis and how you intellectualize your level of happiness in an abstract way are separate, with the latter, imo, probably being more greatly determined by socio-linguistic factors), and second, while there really are strong set points pushing you in the direction of looking neither like a fitness model nor a biggest loser contestant, of feeling neither amazing nor miserable, it doesn’t mean positive long-term changes can’t positively impact your lived experience, though intellectualizing and cultural-linguistic factors will tend to exert a further inertial drag, especially at the level of reporting.

    (I do, however, think that there is interaction between lived happiness and intellectual estimations of happiness such that maybe cultures which encourage people to think of themselves as happy do, as it were, enjoy a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy effect: Latin cultures, for example, seem to emphasize joie de vivre in a way Eastern European cultures do not).

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    • anonymous says:

      onyomi do you have a blog?

      or some other kind of newsletter to which I could subscribe? (other than SSC comments)

      sorry if(f) the implied sort-of-flattery is annoying.

       

      (iff=if and only if, for anyone not familiar)

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  14. Anthony says:

    Hypothesis: a person’s general level of happiness is innate. If unexpected good things happen, a person may become happier for a while, but that ‘s only true for unexpected good things. People adjust their expectations in response to what happens around them.

    Over the long run, the average level of innate happiness within a population can change if baseline happiness affects reproductive outcomes, but in the medium or short run, it’s not going to happen. Major systemic shocks might persistently change the relationship between baseline happiness and reproductive outcomes, but otherwise, they just change people’s immediate happiness level until they’ve gotten used to the new ways.

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  15. HeelBearCub says:

    This sentence phrase seems likes it’s crucial to a bunch of your reasoning:
    “kicked a million Americans out of work for no reason (and they will definitely be unhappy)”

    But, if (on net) happiness is not caused by income, then this statement is false, or at least the evidence offered for discounting China’s income increase points at also ignoring America’s income decrease.

    So, it seems like you are looking at the happiness of Chinese and American’s differently. It suggests ignoring this counter intuitive result in favor of looking for a less simplistic model for predicted happiness.

    One thing you point to is stability. I’d suggest that stability is perhaps less important than predictability, fairness and opportunity. But regardless, a simple raw income measure is not going to predict happiness very well, and shouldn’t be expected to, especially at an aggregate level.

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      • HeelBearCub says:

        But what about all the many more Chinese that have jobs now as a result of the free trade deals? You are discounting them.

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        • piercedmind says:

          In the vast majority of cases the Chinese in question were not unemployed before industrialization, they were simply farmers.

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          • HeelBearCub says:

            @piercedmind:
            At an aggregate level, did total employment increase or decrease in China as a result of industrialization? At an aggregate level, has employment increased or decreased in the US as a result of trade?

            Scott’s entire argument is based on looking at aggregate levels of GDP and comparing them to aggregate happiness, but then he cherry picks one measure that shows some people are made unhappy by trade. That is poor thinking.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Economic growth does not change the level of employment. It changes the fields in which people are employed.

            Besides, I don’t know about Communist China but the Soviet Union had almost no unemployment because they gave people make-work jobs and made it illegal not to work.

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          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Vox:
            The corollary to that is the economic contraction does not change the level of employment, it only changes the jobs people do. Certainly we can find individual cases of people who lost jobs and never gained them again as a result free trade, but just as surely we could find people who were unemployed who gained employment working in jobs created by trade.

            I’m not taking the position that free trade is just fine and dandy, with no downsides, but cherry picking a few losers from free trade and comparing those individual losers to only an aggregate measure on the other hand isn’t right.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ HeelBearCub:

            I agree completely. I’m the last person to be attacking free trade.

            I am just saying that industrialization per se does not tend to decrease unemployment. Except by way of raising Malthusian limits, I guess.

            And switching from communism to capitalism may very well increase unemployment because capitalism does not employ make-work and forced labor (as systematic policies, at least).

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          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Vox:
            Industrialization and conversion from capitalism to communism aren’t really being debated here. I mean, I guess the wage advantage of certain countries results from transition to industrialization, but before Mexico and China, there was a trade-scare around Japan, who were not in transition at the time.

            Rather, the question that is being proposed is whether we should look only at the jobs which are “lost” and ignore all the jobs that are “gained” due to free trade.

            I’m putting lost and gained in quotes, because it is not at all clear to me that free-trade results in any net job loss, even within an individual nation.

            Perhaps one could justify weighting job losses directly attributable to free trade as more important than any jobs created, based on the psychological fact of loss aversion. That doesn’t seem like an argument one can just assume, though, and I don’t think Scott has even made it. Rather he just said “some jobs will be lost, therefore free trade = bad”.

            Heck, cancelling existing free trade agreements would result in job loss, and I’ll bet there are also jobs that would be lost in some hypothetical ongoing regime of protectionism, but are saved when/if a new free trade agreement is signed.

            The whole post just seems not fully formed.

            Edit: Which I guess should be expected when he leads with [Epistemic status: Overly simplistic treatment of a horrifyingly complex topic; I can only hope I haven’t missed enough to completely embarrass myself]

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          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ HBC
            The whole post just seems not fully formed.
            Edit: Which I guess should be expected when [Scott] leads with [Epistemic status: Overly simplistic treatment of a horrifyingly complex topic; I can only hope I haven’t missed enough to completely embarrass myself]

            Finest kind.

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      • satanistgoblin says:

        Shouldn’t we just abolish minimum wage if woking makes people happy and income does not? China only makes people unemployed if they will not work for lower wages.

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        • Vaniver says:

          Shouldn’t we just abolish minimum wage if woking makes people happy and income does not?

          Yes.

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          • sweeneyrod says:

            Should we force the unemployed into pointless back-breaking labour and pay them a pittance? After all, working makes people happy.

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          • Nornagest says:

            There’s a pretty wide gap between forced pointless back-breaking labor with little or no compensation and the kind of work that most people do. It’s easy for the latter to make people happy and the former not to: it could fail on “forced”, or “pointless”, or “back-breaking”, or even “pittance”. “Pointless” strikes me as the most likely point of failure, “forced” the next most.

            Let’s say you’re a reasonably fit teenager staying on your grandparents’ farm for a couple weeks: if one day your grandpa has you digging a ditch as a chore, and the next day he sets you digging holes in the back forty and filling them back up again as punishment for setting a sheep on fire, you’re probably going to enjoy the latter a lot less. You’d probably also like it more if he asked you to dig the trench as a favor instead of just telling you to do it, but for me, at least, the gap would be smaller.

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  16. Thecommexokid says:

    all we will have done is … kicked a million Americans out of work for no reason (and they will definitely be unhappy)

    Citation needed. You’ve just finished explaining to me how, against all odds, improving people’s situations doesn’t make them reliably happier; I’m not sure why you expect me to take it on faith that firing a million Americans will make them sadder.

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    • anonymous says:

      Ignoring, OP’s response: The reason is because Scott Alexander, locally notorious paper-crawler, (lol@my use of “locally”) chose to phrase it that way. -It’s implicit (imo almost to the level of being explicit) that he has a study, or studies, for it.

      Either that, or he slipped up on phrasing slightly and I happen to be giving too much credit in this case.

      -I could be wrong, or partially wrong, but I’m fairly sure you weren’t expected to take it on faith, but to take it at his implied word that studies to that effect exist.

       

      (By the way if your post was satire, it’s excellent by the way. Not that I’m saying it’s particularly bad if not, but if it’s a joke, it’s perfectly poised to get me hunched over my keyboard trying to highlight the minutiaeic distinction between on-faith and on-someone’s-word, before the possibility occurs to me that you point might just have been joking about taking studies on faith in the face of common sense , or something to that effect.

      That is hilarious, and if it was meant that way thank you for the laugh.

      (And sorry if it wasn’t. With slightly different emphasis in reading, it makes sense both ways. One of them is hilarious, and the other is a perfectly legitimate request for something to be backed up, -just one that happens to have (so far as I can tell) questionable phrasing. ) )

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  17. Arthur B says:

    Happiness is just a mood, it’s not the only thing people care about. Poor Chinese peasants do not only care about being happy, they would also like to be wealthier.

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    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      If they want to be wealthier but it won’t make them happy, why is that different from wanting any kind of stupid waste of money?

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      • Nebfocus says:

        Would you prefer to toil 16 hours a day just to get by, or work 12 and have 4 with your family. Reported happiness may not go up, but what percentage would choose the former?

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          I am not talking about reported happiness but actual happiness.

          I don’t deny that the statistics on reported happiness may be skewed.

          But if it is in fact true that you would be happier working 16 hours a day than 12 (or 8 or 4 or none), then you should work 16. The point of working 12 is that you think you’ll be happier spending time with your family. I think it is true that not having to work grueling hours contributes greatly to happiness. That’s why I’m skeptical of the statistics on reported happiness.

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      • Muga Sofer says:

        Vox, are you being intentionally dense?

        Maybe they care about their children not dying of preventable diseases – even though, as Scott notes, their children’s wellfare will not make them happier. Maybe they care about being able to learn new skills, and get out of dead-end jobs, and make better people of themselves. Maybe they care about living longer, safer lives, for some mysterious reason.

        All these are eminently sensible reasons to prefer wealth even if it doesn’t increase happiness at all. Humans aren’t happiness-maximizers.

        You’ve had this pointed out to you several times in this thread, and you’ve just sort of skirted the question and moved on to repost the same thing under a different comment.

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        • Psmith says:

          I think Vox is rendering eudaimonia as happiness, rather than flourishing or whatever. Some respected translations of Aristotle do this, so it’s not out of left field or anything, but it’s a bit misleading. Happiness is something you feel, flourishing is something you do.

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  18. suntzuanime says:

    I think it’s better to think of this in non-altruistic terms – not “is it worth sacrificing something in our nation to make another nation richer” but “is it worth sacrificing something in our nation to make our own nation richer”. Then you don’t have to grapple with all the issues that come along with altruism like whether or not to respect the preferences of others even if you think those preferences are kind of dumb, and you can think calmly about what’s actually good instead of what will make you look like a good person.

    I think there have been at various times in various nations a lot of angst about what those nations have been sacrificing in order to get richer, and when you stop framing it as an altruistic moral imperative for a second it starts to sound like the roaring of Moloch. There’s an argument that rich is just what nations tend to get as a result of each person desperately trying to get richer than their neighbors, and that struggle results in a lot of pain and wasted energy. I’m a fan of the mindset that tries to analyze Gross National Happiness as an alternative to Gross National Product. And it’s endorsed by a Dragon King, which seems like the sort of fellow you’d want on your side if you were going to fight an ancient demon.

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    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      It’s not really an altruistic question at all.

      It’s: should we adopt free trade, which will make China richer, which will make us richer in the long run?

      No, if it will not make us happier. Yes, if it will.

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      • Daniel Kokotajlo says:

        Happiness isn’t the only ultimate goal. Wireheading will make us happier, but I don’t think we should all do it. Sometimes justice makes someone sadder and no one happier–but we should still seek it. Etc.

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        • blacktrance says:

          One could turn that around and say that if justice makes someone sadder and no one happier, then what good is it?

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          • Soumynona says:

            If happiness leads to injustice, then what good is it?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Soumynona:

            It’s good in itself.

            Isn’t the purpose of justice to help people, to benefit them in some way? If nobody is getting anything out of it, why should they do it?

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          • arbitrary_greay says:

            @blacktrance: Some would say then that’s probably vengeance, not justice.

            Usually in the form of fictional narrative. In those cases, there’s some theme to the effect of “justice is about setting the world right such that it’s a better state of affairs, vengeance leads to the whole world blind, etc.”

            @Soumynona:
            The assumption is that happiness via injustice is sadistic, that usually there’s a scenario to achieve the happiness without the injustice, (There are even ways to entertain sadist happiness without doing undue harm to people!) and the relative increase in happiness via injustice is not as great as what could be achieved by just means.

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          • Rabidchaos says:

            The largest value that a justice system provides is predictability. By disincentizing certain actions, it theoretically lets people operate under the assumption that everyone else will avoid those actions. Thus, even if everyone involved in a certain case is unhappy with the resolution, it still benefits everyone else.

            (Theoretically, at least. This breaks down in practice, which is why both the Prohibition and the War on Drugs have failed, doing a lot of damage in the process.)

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          • anonymous says:

            The point of justice isn’t to be itself good in the usual sense, but to produce good effects, and the most important of these are not direct. The more justice a society has, for instance, the safer it will be to do something which is good, but might look ambiguous, but which’s intentions can be puzzled out by honest people.

            For a “reductio ad absurdum” (is there a shorter word fo that?) proof of the opposite view:

            if someone kills someone else, but they also kill their whole family so that there is no one to grieve for them, does it then follow that we shouldn’t inflict further suffering on the criminal, perhaps because two wrongs don’t make a right?

            (fuck no)

            Or, what if on one side, the perpetrators family loudly protest said-vicious-creature’s perfection and innocence, and wail and moan ever louder, starting with the first suggestion that he isn’t quite a perfect fellow,

            while the murdered person’s family not only remain stoic and dignified but even, -being christians or jains or something- forswear the taking of pleasure in vengeance?

            So then the perpetrator’s nest stand to be hurt by his punishment, perhaps they stand quite ready and fired up for it in fact, and perhaps cogniscant primarily of the pressure they hope to put on the sentencer,

            while the victim’s family will not take pleasure in justice, -partially conflating it with vengeance. (and associating vengeance with I don’t-know-what, -something negative)

            What value is justice then?

            Well Obviously it’s 85%% of the value, or 70 or 95 or whatever, because the main and fundamental point of justice is not to make people less sad, or happier (-except on an extremely diffuse, eternal-level-long-term, and indirect, level-) it’s to reduce the average profit, or “eV” of being a degenerate, and to give peace of mind to people, to give citizens leverage to slow down or halt psychopaths, gangs etc, to move in the direction of ensuring that one’s grandchildren or children will not be beset by degenerates and savages. -That sort of thing, roughly.

            (note I am talking about justice here, not law, law ideally being a means primarily of justice, and secondarily of stability (stability being the easier), and in point of fact sometimes being a source of injustice and instability. (especially qua practice-of rather than qua law)

            It’s Quite hard to delineate, but intuitive, natural, and usually easy to know-when-one-sees-it, -so long as one isn’t too biased, and takes an interest in such things. Those are the hard part.

            And in fact the happiness or relief which justice can bring flows from the same place as the general intuitive perception people have of the general and even abstract importance of justice, or proper redress. It’s simply more keenly felt by the individuals involved for various good reasons, most of which relate to proximity.

             

            The question shouldn’t be what is the use of justice, outside happiness and sadness, it should be how do we move from the state of discoordination and corruption where people aren’t educated on the importance of justice (or indoctrinated, or preached, or whatever) to one people’s natural and intuitive understanding of justice can flow without obstacle, so that, even though happiness and sadness aren’t remotely the point, people as a whole will anyway be sad and angry when justice isn’t done, and pleased when it is.

            (there’s such a long way to go that the basic answer is basically just be good, preserve and perhaps increment what spirit exists, that one can but for my idea of of some of the long term underpinnings:

            more honesty, more decency, more goodness, better incentives. more game theory)

            IMOYMMV

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          • anonymous says:

            @Rabidchaos

            You illustrated the theory extremely well imo, but which action is chosen to theoretically-predictably be eliminated, -in practice to be disincentivised and semi-formally rejected, is just as important, and alcohol and imo drugs too, while better to “demonise” than, say, donating to charity, is an extremely borderline case. Imo at best.

            So alcohol and the war on drugs don’t work for illustrations of an inherent flaw of justice-in-practice, because neither harms anyone else. Forbidding their use is not justice, merely law, or custom. And denouncing their use, or jailing people for such crimes at a remotely comparable level to real crimes, is gross injustice.

            One might say that that injustice is for a greater cause, but giving someone the same 8 years a fucking murderer gets for smoking a PLANT is ipso facto some of the most gross and obscene injustice on the planet, when one takes into account that it is does with a straight face and taking the name of a good cause. If you ask me, it’s high treason against the human race, but that’s neither here nor there for the present purpose.

            If you meant that justice must break down in practice, rather than, e.g. that it very strongly tends to do so in present conditions, I would be interested in hearing your argument for that, if you felt like it.

            I think there’s a certain basic level of justice which can be lost, but is eminently sustainable: like, in pickarandomwesterncountryland, if you supply absolute proof that something happened, it becomes very difficult to profitable deny that it did, for example. That’s a level of justice which is not guaranteed by the universe. If people are dishonest, dishonourable etc enough, it’s entirely possible for them to lie completely openly.

            And it can get a lot worse than that, though I won’t present a 1984-like vignette to try to convince anyone of that, for reasons of pleasantness, and shall leave it at an assertion to bring the idea to attention for judgement or notice.

            The current level of justice sustained in developed western countries is for the most part somewhat above that. I hold that it could be much less, but also could be much higher, and that, as the idiom goes, this is an engineering problem. (-non idiomatically, that it’s mostly an engineering problem, but also a “spiritual”/moral one.) (though I think the other way around can work, too)

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          If wireheading will make us all happier, absolutely we should all do it. The question is whether it will. If it’s just the thing where you stimulate the pleasure center, it doesn’t really make people happy because intellectual happiness is affected by things other than pleasure alone.

          And as blacktrance says, if justice doesn’t make anyone happier, so much for justice. Happiness is the end. Justice is the means. Your sort of viewpoint is turning justice into paperclips.

          You can, of course, argue that living in a state of justice is a necessary constituent of happiness, but that’s different.

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          • Saint Fiasco says:

            Happiness is just a signal that something good, distinct of happiness itself, has happened. It’s therefore strongly correlated with good things happening but they are not the same thing. Just like pain is strongly correlated with bad things happening but is sometimes useless like chronic pain or phantom pain.

            Being happy about surviving some horrible disease is different from being happy about having a lifetime supply of heroin which is different from being happy about being in communion with the Divine or whatever.

            Not just difference in degree but in kind. I think I’d rather be sad that I didn’t get a promotion than be happy that I found a job after years of struggle with unemployment.

            That’s how I feel anyway. If happiness doesn’t lead to good things, then I’d rather be unhappy and accomplish good things. What good things should we strive for is of course an important difficult question but just literally going with your gut and chasing whatever makes you happiest sounds like a cop-out.

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          • piercedmind says:

            @Saint Fiasco:

            But how do you reliably make sure that that what you think is good is actually good?

            If people centuries ago had access to the same happiness data we have now, most would have proudly declared: “I dont care about happiness, I would rather be miserable so I can serve my god/fight and die for the glory of my country.”

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          • Anonymous says:

            @Saint
            I don’t see how you can make “something good” distinct from happiness. Justice is only good because it makes us happy to fix injustices. For example, nobody cares about the moral wrongness of most process scheduling algorithms – they are literally unfair in how they distribute time between processes, but nobody’s happiness is affected, therefore no computer scientists are debating bringing justice to your home CPU.

            You can define Good as a separate value, for example crusades are Good because God says so. But why is that worth doing? Would producing billions of paperclips and launching them into space be worth doing if God said that it is Good? Why do you care about some pie-in-the-sky definition of Good? If the answer is “because it makes me elated to imagine Good being fulfilled”, well, you’re not being very distinct from happiness there.

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          • Daniel Kokotajlo says:

            All you are doing here is pounding your fist on the table and reasserting what I denied, namely, that happiness is the only ultimate goal. “If justice doesn’t make anyone happier, so much for justice.” I reply by doing the same thing to you: “When justice and happiness conflict, so much the worse for happiness.” Except I’m not even being that dogmatic, because I agree that happiness is good, I just don’t think it’s the only good.

            Why do you think there is only one ultimate good anyway, in the relevant sense?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Daniel Kokotajlo:

            Why do you think there is only one ultimate good anyway, in the relevant sense?

            There being only one standard of the good is inherent in the idea of ethics being able to recommend a coherent course of action.

            Say you terminally value both lemons and pears. If these are just incommensurable, there is no way to determine how to split your efforts, whether you should plant lemons or pears. But if you have a single standard, such as “maximize the number of lemons and pears in a ratio of two to one”, you can do it.

            But why do I say happiness is the sole ultimate good? Because it’s just obvious upon reflection that my having happiness is good in itself, that I want it unconditionally. Whereas with justice, I value it as a means to happiness and think we shouldn’t focus too much on justice if, for instance, it costs too much and leads to not having enough TVs or something.

            I am not saying that you can’t choose to value justice as an end in itself. You are free to choose what to value. I am saying that there is no reason to value justice as an end in itself. There are various arguments, but they are bad arguments.

            There is no reason you have to value happiness either. I think there’s reason to value it but not sufficient reason. If you don’t want it, fine. But happiness seems to stand on its own without any need for justification.

            I think that, if people rejected the bad arguments that people have a “duty” to pursue various other things, they would naturally come to value their own happiness.

            I have more detailed arguments, but I don’t want to write a whole long post.

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          • Nita says:

            @ Vox

            You could want to maximize min(lemons,pears), for example. Then you couldn’t compensate for the lack of lemons with more pears.

            Of course, there’s nothing wrong with giving min(lemons,pears) a name, but you shouldn’t use names that are already taken, such as “lemons”, as that would make things confusing.

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          • anonymous says:

            As values go, justice is an extremely good candidate for raising to a terminal value, because incentivised injustice is by definition that which gains one person something at the expense of others. -In SSC terms, it’s half of the core of “moloch”, (the other half being uncoordination or discoordination).

            Whether justice would be better elevated this way in a more religious revering sense than a more fundamental, theoretical (deliberately conflating) one is another question, but I think the second option is legitimate, as utilitarianism is (imo) clearly the correct “map” but requires so many kludges and workarounds to avoid exploits and traps and glitches and the simple problem of seeking happiness generally being a poor way to get it, -to be a usable model, that people can easily be better off conflating model for map, than map for model.

            Not being aware of the distinction (in some sufficient way) is the most dangerous thing, but, if one is aware, then, most of the time using utilitarianism without models, is kinda like..:

            Using the sine function without a calculator. in a warzone, while hallucinating, a little as well as occasionally, and with a serious tremor in one’s pen hand. And possibly a tendency to write the wrong number by accident without noticing.

            -Rather than using a calculator which gives the right answer 70% of the time, and whose answers one is free to cross check against other things, including “common sense”.

            It’s just not particularly useful outside of the meta level.

            To continue the analogy, you can eyeball things approximately that way if you’re a really good judge, but even knowing the necessary arcane secrets you can’t even guarantee a remotely good answer from the incredibly laborious process of following the formulas slowly and meticulously through. So you’re mostly stuck with eyeballing it, and you can probably eyeball that angle better directly, than using an intermediary function.

            Some of the main exceptions being:

            -for people who are outliers in maths knowledge and skill, and can work in a warzone, while remaining ready to respond to the battle, or can somehow remove themselves from it, there are a few situations where they can get at something using the fundamental formulas, -and can only get at it that way. (outliers in both directions)

            -If one is unsure how broken the calculator is, or cannot crossreference the answer. or to find out if its broken in a certain unknown way. (the meta level)

            -If one does not have, or can negate, undo, or control, the hallucinations, tremors, and number substitutions, and can write really fucking fast. (representing things like bias, false data, cognitive blindspots, etc.)

            -if one happens to be comparatively much better at this than other ways. (same translation outside of analogy)

            But 99% of the time, most people are better off eyeballing things or using a preset mode, unless they happen to have a calculator which is even worse (which they can hopefully calibrate and improve)

             

            -So my idea is that the map is for meta-level adjustments to the models, checking one hasn’t gotten too far wrong, etc. Just (primarily) something to check in with every so often, and use as a reminder.

            That analogy fails in a lot of ways, and overstates some things, but I think it works in a lot ways too.

             

            Anyway justice is imo the best kludge/model/lens to view utilitarian, that is moral, problems, through, because it counters moloch, both in the sense of being a tool of any kind which can work against it, and in the rock-paper-scissors sense. (except that rock paper scissors is so simple and symmetrical, as well as fundamentally not a sound game, that it analogises poorly to basically everything, but it should illustrate fine here).

            There might be some other metaphorical evil eldritch god which it can summon, if it became too unquestioningly prevalent and degenerated, but that’s on the other side of the pendulum, and it would likely be a far weaker one anyway. Plus justice is by definition constrained to good shapes. Innapropriately disproportionate vengeance is. And it can branch out to “doing justice to” things as well, which is a pretty great “intuition pump” for general goodness as well. I can’t think of a better thing to use as a primary terminal value.

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      • suntzuanime says:

        One of us has badly misread Scott’s post.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          Scott is framing it as an altruistic question. I am saying that it isn’t, really.

          If the question is how much of our net happiness we should sacrifice for them, my answer is: none, ever. Because I am not a utilitarian. But I don’t think it’s a matter of us vs. them.

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      • Muga Sofer says:

        >It’s: should we adopt free trade, which will make China richer, which will make us richer in the long run?

        Gosh, it sure is convenient that this policy you advocate has absolutely no downsides.

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  19. Nicholas says:

    Two observations on the graph: One is that on the graph of GDP/happiness, no one both was less happy than S. Korea and also made more money than S. Korea. So it’s not like there’s no correlation, it’s just lossier than expected.
    Two is that for the immediately following graph, median income did not rise nearly as evenly or continuously. Possibly the disconnect is that the poor of china have not seen the advantages of the increase in national wealth, and instead only the few have seen a large benefit.

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    • Friday says:

      Possibly the disconnect is that the poor of china have not seen the advantages of the increase in national wealth, and instead only the few have seen a large benefit.

      Based on my really cursory research, this doesn’t seem to have been the case, at least in narrowly economic terms.

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  20. Bugmaster says:

    One way I sometimes look at this problem is by thinking in terms of capabilities and choices, rather than preferences or happiness. I know this philosophy has a name, I just forgot what it was. Anyway:

    Instead of maximizing something totally abstract like “happiness”, we could attempt to maximize the number of different things a person may reasonably choose to do. A poor person’s choices are extremely restricted, since most of his time is spent just surviving. A billionaire, on the other hand, can do a lot of things that a poor person cannot even imagine of doing, such as starting his own space program. Therefore, a rich person is better off.

    However, wealth is just one way to increase the size of the possibility space; technology is another. A working-class person in our modern information-age society can do all kinds of things that a medieval king cannot even dream of, despite being at the top of his medieval economic pyramid. Thus, industrialization is generally a good thing. At one extreme end of the scale, dead people have no choices at all, and thus medical technology that can keep people alive and fully functional is unequivocally a good thing.

    Of course, wealth and technology have detrimental effects, as well. A billionaire can choose to plunge a country into war; and sufficiently advanced technology can lead to nukes. However, I think that in most cases the benefits outweigh the losses.

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    • Daniel Kokotajlo says:

      I believe that’s called “The capability approach.” Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Elizabeth Anderson are the big names behind it. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/capability-approach/

      I agree it’s a big improvement over the let’s-just-maximize-happiness alternative.

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    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      If you’re just as happy with the smaller amount of choices, why would you increase them? What is the point?

      The usual reason people increase their choices is that they get bored with just a few, and this makes them unhappy.

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      • Bugmaster says:

        I haven’t read the article linked by Daniel Kokotajlo yet, so I’m probably wrong, but still; I can think of an objection.

        First of all, imagine that you are the kind of person who, due to a combination of genetics and upbringing, would be really happy with devoting your life to computer programming. Unfortunately, the current year is 1600 and there are no computers for you to program. You could go and become a monk or something, and be reasonably happy; however, you could’ve been even happier if computers existed. Of course, other people choose to be farmers and are as happy with that choice in 1600 as they would be in 2016, but this is unlikely to be true of everyone.

        The upside to having more choices is not just the sheer number of choices, but the increased probability that some hitherto unknown choice would be even better for you than all the others.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          All of that is entirely consistent with my position. The problem with the natural computer programmer in 1600 is that he finds monk stuff more boring / less interesting than he would find computer programming.

          The point of having more choices is that they increase happiness or at least the potential for happiness. If they don’t, the additional choices are pointless.

          We don’t seem to disagree on this.

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          • Anonymous says:

            I think the point is that happiness is impossible to usefully measure or define, to compare across individuals and sometimes even to compare across the same individual over time.

            So how can you maximise it when you can’t even say what it is? It’s an incoherent goal.

            Whereas when you aim to maximise capability, your success is easier to measure and you are indirectly maximising happiness, assuming some form of rational choice.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Anonymous:

            Maybe we can’t measure it across individuals. That’s already a standard feature of economics.

            And maybe we have to use some kind of heuristic for happiness, like capabilities. What you are saying is exactly how Ayn Rand said that happiness is “subjective” because it’s an emotion and that therefore while happiness is our ultimate purpose, our standard of value should be life or survival.

            But that is flawed because there are obviously situations where what promotes your survival doesn’t promote your happiness. And the same goes for capabilities.

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        • Deiseach says:

          Oh sweet God, this is where I start banging the table about dragging all the STEM types by the scruff of their neck to mandatory history classes. This is why universities insist on modules during the courses that you take outside of your main field – humanities for the STEM and sciences for the arts types – in order to give you a rounded education.

          The Year of Our Lord 1600, my children, is not a time when your only options if you are at all interested in the natural sciences or mathematics are to go “become a monk or something” – flattered though I am that you compliment my Church by considering it to be the only avenue of intellectual outlet at the time.

          That is the first year of the 17th century. There was this little thing called the Renaissance going on for a bit before that, yes? A revival of the arts and sciences? Also, though I may be mistaken in this, I understand there were these places called “universities”, some of them around for a couple of centuries by this time! And you didn’t have to confine your course of study to theology any longer! Imagine that!

          Law, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, all these fields are open to our putative programmer. Instead of writing for a machine not yet invented, they could have worked on calendrical problems (the Gregorian calendar had still not been universally adopted) which are a branch of applied mathematics. They might (in emulation of Babbage who came later, if it is not anachronistic to speak of emulating a successor) have worked on clockwork and the mechanical opportunities and problems of a difference engine on which their programs would run. Indeed, they could turn their nascent mathematical and programming talents to the same problem which spurred Babbage’s interest in automated calculation: “Babbage’s own account of the origin of the difference engine begins with the Astronomical Society’s wish to improve The Nautical Almanac”.

          Or emulate Ada, Countess Lovelace, the mathematician who wrote for Babbage’s putative difference engine: (S)he is often regarded as the first computer programmer. Granted, these two come from a later period, but there is no reason a bright programmer-in-embryo could not turn their mathematical talents elsewhere to other fields of endeavour and enquiry outside of “being a monk” and found a satisfactory career.

          And in 1600, some forty-two years down the road there is the birth of an obscure and little-remembered figure called Isaac Newton to anticipate 🙂

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          • Deiseach says:

            Also, in the year 1600 this book gets published, talking about magnetism and some new-fangled concept called “electricity”.

            Well, obviously that’s going nowhere, no reason why a smart guy like a would-be-a-computer-programmer-if-computers-existed type we’re talking about would want to know or investigate that! 🙂

            My point here is that in the 25th century there could be this marvellous new career in polytronic upsidownium transfamatiels that I am absolutely suited for and I would be ecstatically happy at it. That’s not much use to me and my measure of happiness right now. Your choice is based on your choice right now. A Chinese farm labourer may have the choice right now to go work in an Apple components factory instead. Is that going to make him happier? Maybe, maybe not. But saying that he would be much happier with a career that isn’t even in existence yet is not getting the cart any further forward along the road.

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          • piercedmind says:

            As one of the aforementioned STEM majors, who on top of that resides in a country whose universites do not force everybody through a humanities curriculum:

            Was the option to become a scholar really open to the would-be-programmer? I imagine that only a handful of the elite attended universities, making the probability of a random person having that choice very small.

            However, I also seem to recall that during the actual Middle Ages these kind of studies were also open to monks, is that correct?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Yes, there were a lot more avenues of intellectual opportunity around than just being a monk. Being a monk was well on its way out in 1600.

            But: a) that’s irrelevant to the point, and b) far fewer people could become a Descartes or Newton than can have the equivalent amount of learning today.

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          • arbitrary_greay says:

            @Deiseach:
            The whole point of the Capability approach is to work to make said hypothetical polytronic upsidownium transfamatiels career available ASAP, so that a group of people who, until now, could not achieve their potential maximum happiness, can now achieve their potential maximum happiness, and thus more people in the world on total being happier.

            This is like why gay marriage was pursued even after civil unions were available, and there being gay people who will never choose to marry. Because there are some people who can be happier now that that choice is available.

            So many people express feelings of “how did I live without this thing/person/knowledge/activity before now?” Why deny them the option to make those discoveries?

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          • Bugmaster says:

            I appreciate the history lecture, but “1600” and “monk or something” were just meant to be vague examples; their only purpose was to illustrate a career/vocation choice that was compatible with, and yet not as good as, computer programming — which, after all, did not exist in 1600.

            If you prefer, you could replace the example with “writing plays / directing movies”, or with “sculpting / creating 3d animation”, or with “writing music for the piano / writing trance electronica” or whatever. The contrast is less harsh than the one in my example; if you want to go further, you could say something like “piloting canoes / piloting experimental jet craft”.

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  21. Vox Imperatoris says:

    I find this sort of research disturbing, as well. My gut reaction is that I don’t trust the happiness research at all.

    Other than that, I’d go with “wealth is necessary but not sufficient for happiness”. And I believe that anyway, but it has major problems if happiness is literally flat with economic development. It suggests that we ought to reallocate all resources away from further development and toward, I don’t know, psychology, self-help, and moral philosophy.

    Mainly though, I just don’t trust the data. I think people are happier but it’s not being measured right.

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    • A different approach is subjective judgement by an observer. I had a friend who got her degree in anthropology. For a while she was living with an Indian tribe in South or Central America, I’m not sure which. She believed she was only the second non-native speaker of their language.

      Her impression was that they seemed about as happy as the people she knew back in America, although they were obviously enormously poorer.

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      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        I’ve seen the same sorts of accounts from people who go around to the slums in India, listening to the inhabitants say how much they love their washing machines or other conveniences, holding the view that these things are improving their lives.

        Or Eskimos from the older generation saying that you’d have to be insane to give up the benefits of modern technology and wealth.

        So the evidence here seems to go both ways, at least.

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      • Scott Alexander says:

        This seems like as good a place as any to plug one of my favorite papers: http://www.amstudy.hku.hk/staff/kjohnson/PDF/engl56_kj_axtell_whiteindians.pdf

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        • onyomi says:

          Maybe the price paid in libidinal control necessary to enjoy civilized life is not, in fact, worth it?

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          • Psmith says:

            Unless this is some special sense of the term “libidinal”, see pp 67-68 and 78.

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          • onyomi says:

            I didn’t mean sexuality, especially since I was thinking about the children in particular. I meant more like Freudian repression. I got the impression that being a Native American child sounded more fun and uninhibited than being an English settler child (though obviously the Native Americans were living in accordance with rules and expectations of their own).

            I mean, if you’re a ten year old boy, which is more fun to you, learning to hunt and ride a horse or farming and studying the Bible?

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          • Psmith says:

            Thanks. Makes sense, and it’s also pretty much what some of the white Indians are quoted as saying.

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        • Nita says:

          Thanks, that was an interesting read.

          So, many English captives grew to love families who treated them like their own flesh and blood, although most Indian captives did not grow to love institutions that treated them like second-class citizens? I can’t say I’m surprised.

          Of course, the sudden shift from the initial terror to the later kindness and acceptance probably helped a lot. Neither side had a well-developed science of psychology, but at least the “savages” had a well-developed craft.

          tl;dr: One side had better weapons and manufacturing, the other side had better adoption and assimilation technology.

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          • Acedia says:

            A fair amount of the stuff described in that paper (not all of it) sounds like Stockholm Syndrome to me.

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          • chaosmage says:

            If it was Stockholm Syndrome, shouldn’t it work both ways?

            I don’t get Stockholm Syndrome anyway. If only there was a knowledgable psychiatrist who could explain it to me.

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          • Publius Varinius says:

            @chaosmage: There is nothing to understand. Stockholm Syndrome is not a recognized psychiatric disorder.

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          • Winter Shaker says:

            Maybe not, but it is still the referent of a magnificently terrible pun.

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          • Furslid says:

            My guess on Stockholm syndrome is that it is an adaptive behavior for situations when subject to arbitrary power with no way out. Basically the sufferer is making the best of their situation.

            It protects people from abuse. Those with power also abuse people with Stockholm Syndrome less than those without it. This is because sufferers are less likely to disobey. More importantly they are less likely to show anger, resentment or hate that they don’t feel. Showing these emotions toward someone who has power is not adaptive. Because people are good at reading other people, the only reliable way not to show emotions is not to feel them.

            It also increases happiness to reframe arbitrary power as something else. That increases happiness, as it’s better to be a protected and valued hostage/servant/wife/whatever than a victim.

            Stockholm Syndrome is essentially the shift in perspective, and that shift is adaptive for as long subject to inescapable arbitrary power. It’s not adaptive after that power is gone.

            It also takes time to shift perspectives either way. So people don’t immediately get Stockholm Syndrome when they are hostages or whatever. They also don’t immediately change back when released.

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      • I’m a migrant from India to the USA. I’ve interacted with people from a number of social classes in India, and a very very restricted set ((a part of) the Bay rationalist community) in the USA.

        FWIW, my observations has been that pretty much every social circle I’ve been a member of in India is much, much happier (on average) that the rationalist community (or at least the subset of it I interact with).

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    • anonymous says:

      I find the idea that happiness is more about purpose, being able to organise tasks to direct ones energy towards things so that it’s not at risk of stagnating or turning upon itself, etc, than it is about material wealth, -very plausible, even to levels of low material wealth people might consider extreme, but I also don’t trust the research.

      On a somewhat related point, if you imagine yourself in such a scenario, it’s very difficult to adjust for the effects of acclimatisation, which might take months or years, of immersion and exposure in that environment, or maybe even never happen at all if one did not understand such an environment from a young age. Simply transposing oneself as one is now to such a situation, though already difficult to imagine, just doesn’t do it.

      Consider what the idea of working eight hours a day almost every day sounds like to a smart and imaginative five year old, unused to work -they can potentially imagine themelves in such a scenario, but imagining the changes which could take place in them that could allow them to endure, become inured to, and enjoy, is a whole different level of difficulty.

      The effects of different expectations and acclimatization are very difficult to imagine in an a priori way. To go from a young child to whom the general state of the world is kept secret to someone who isn’t even massively slowed down by a week of work, or perhaps not at all, is a much greater transition than even the transition from four days a week to 7.

      (I am accounting in my head here for the fact that the ratio of work days to free/rest days goes massively up with each extra day of work, except the one from three to four) (4:3 is a 1.3 ratio, 5:2, is a 2.5 ratio, 6 to 1 is a.. I’ll leave that one to the audience. That plus 7 to 0 every other weak, so 6.5 to 0.5, is thirteen to 1)

      To go from no work, an infinite ratio of rest to work, to any obligatory work at all is a really significant qualitative difference, yet most people manage it. To go from there to a significant minority of work is another. etc. etc. etc. etc. I’m not sure how many more etcs going from a call centre tech support job to a much harder but more rewarding laboring job and no internet or hot water is, but it’s not a million. Whatever one does, wherever one has landed in any area, it can be easy to forget that things could be different.

      I suppose a necessarry metaphor/belief to this, is that I think that by default people don’t have strong and organised purpose, and that it’s actually a hell of a lot worse than at present because of advertising, trashy stuff, etc. Even something as simple as an equilibrium where so many people are trying to be “attractive” like that michale jackson character from One Piece probably makes a difference. -even that can be an attentional challenge. That’s a bit debatable, but the level traps and things for one’s attention and focus is through the roof.

      I think therefore that having a struggle before oneself is a great crutch, much like having one’s work due for the next day can be a great crutch to getting it done if one is disorganised, -except much more so and in a much broader way. Having a life stretching out before one in which one must be a certain level of motivated, strong, etc, is, actually.. the word crutch is kind of wrong, because it kind of happens the other way around..

      So let me say it can be like a pillar of support: one is presented with a certain height to rise up to, and can rest upon it’s responsibilities and necessities, pride and anticipations, if one reaches it.

      Without the pillar one has to have their own very strong structure of internal organisation and motivation to reach so high, which not many people have, so naturally you see people being extremely tough in very tough circumstances, and very tough in tough circumstances, but almost no one being extremely tough in moderate circumstances. -the circumstances themselves are the focus which enables it, and the latter takes an entirely different kind of self mastery, as well as a willingness to ignore one’s “peers” as a system of reference. When the soft society is on top of that full of active bullshit, sometimes literally, explicitly saying, “spoil yourself, you’re worth it” (-explicitly conflating a person’s worth and self indulgence for example) and
      distractions, etc, etc. Then it’s even harder to get a perspective from inside such a place to what it’s like to be extremely purposeful (with the aid of a comparatively very difficult purpose).

       

      There’s also the simple empirical observation that there are people who work 7 days a week at a job they don’t particularly mechanically like, or they in fact dislike, and who are very happy. and I see no indication that the possibility for such acclimatisation stops there, or is even being *fundamentally* pushed.

      Imo the real causes of unhappiness are simple core things like lack of purpose, fear, and a lack of belief in one’s basic entitlement to feel good (sometimes deserving, but that’s not the point).

      Other things can certainly make being happy more difficult, but if one has a purpose, does not fear for their life regularly, or from from moment to moment, and feels they are entitled (and can safely be), to be happy, then they can be happy doing almost anything. I probably missed some core things but imo it does mainly come down to a few core things.

       

      Summoning the necessary levels of focus and motivation to not slip, and if/when one slips not to slip too far onto a slippery slope, in difficult, painful, or even harrowing circumstances, is difficult, but people seem to be able to live up very far to the challenges or purposes with which they are presented, as well as down to their lack or their confusion, so the model that makes the most sense to me is that at least most people have massive potential which can be brought out.

       

      Even now with all the advances made to reduce scarcity, and in the west, it’s not like we can’t observe people being acclimatised to a significant amount of hardship.

      Generally things associated with that directly reduces happiness, but the simplicity and purity of purpose that come from walking a financial razor’s edge, as well as a physical one in terms of one’s health, and the sense of entitlement that many lack simply to be happy, as well as the direct engagement in a struggle in which motivation is an important factor, are, in the absence of things like people feeling like failures, or being treated with contempt, having to live in dangerous areas, tradeoffs that on net make almost no difference to how happy someone is, so long as they are up to the challenge, because it’s such a strong crutch and people are so mentally-organisationally-weak.

       

      Struggling to survive is the most basic existentially rewarding thing there is. Having this activity lined up for you every day can do wonders for someone’s happiness, or of course destroy them, -walking a tightrope over a pit of alligators is only a romantic experience with many good facets so long as one does not slip and fall, but it can certainly do the former.

       

      I don’t think psychology etc are industrialisable. More likely than useful work in these areas notably increasing, I think, is that all kinds of new nonsense makework would be invented, and that it would be even more difficult to find good stuff among all the opportunists now filling up the industry. At least there’s some minimal sincerity filter on such areas at present. But even still a massive proportion of “self-help” is vapid at best and at worst approaches an “it’s ok, other people don’t matter, accounting for them is difficult but not important” irresponsible pyramid scheme/cult, and the current level of industrialisation of that area is a big part of that.

      And there’s a pretty good chance that a smooth genuine transition to pursuing such a goal would not be what happened, and it might instead be captured by stubborn philistines who refuse to change their ways, get with the program, and go on valuing money despite being told not to. and power, which they haven’t been told not to, and degeneracy, which they haven’t been either. I don’t have a clear model of what makes an area in danger of being taken over by crappy people but inviting such people en masse into what are in this hypothetical the most important areas, -but subtle ones with no clear objective standard to weed out or expose such people, seems like a recipe for poisoning that well rather than somewhat improving it.

       

      Imo actually getting that to work would require a “spiritual” rather than economic mobilisation, which a simple reallocation of resources would not have a good chance of resulting in. Imo such a thing could happen very easily if there were a few great thinkers/speakers with mass proliferation, but I don’t see any other way in which it could happen quickly rather than slowly or not at all. Plus, as far as I can tell the zeitgeist has all kinds of cancers to excise first, and has to establish basic standards like, for instance, “aggression is not an argument”, before decades of really basic progress and eventually maybe it’ll be a sensible time to try to take the question of happiness head on.

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  22. AndrewE says:

    Happiness surveys seem like they’d be hopelessly prone to positional-like effects.

    If you ask me how happy I am, I think I give an answer that’s directly related to how I’m doing compared to how the people around me are doing. I’m not imagining my life against what it could be like in 2500, with cheap spaceflight and free energy and no disease, nor am I imagining it against what it could be like in 1500, working the fields for my lord 100 hours per week until I die. I could imagine people in both circumstances answering a happiness question with “eh, could be better, could be worse, so 5”, even though an outside observer will note that basically everybody’s life in 2500 is better than basically everybody’s in 1500.

    I feel like the apparent lack of happiness difference between pre and post industrial China is probably the same sort of thing. If you change the question to “would you prefer to live under pre-industrial China conditions?”, I bet you’d get a very different result.

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    • DensityDuck says:

      Yep. If you asked me how happy I was in 2000, I’d have said I was pretty happy. If you described what my life would be like in 2016 to that year-2000 me and said “well, are you still happy, when you look at what you haven’t got yet“, then maybe I’d change my tune.

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  23. tom says:

    “I understand that having children will likely decrease my happiness”

    I’m not sure where you get the likely part here. If children made people unhappy, wouldn’t the world population be much much smaller?

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    • Friday says:

      People with kids self-report lower levels of happiness, presumably.

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    • NN says:

      For most of history, not having kids (unless you were a monk or a priest or otherwise supported by strangers) would almost certainly lead to a miserable and probably short old age.

      Also, for most of history kids became positive sources of income around age 6, so having kids back then might have had a less negative or even positive on happiness (ignoring pregnancy and childbirth, obviously) since most people didn’t stress over whether their kids got into college or if they could afford to send them there, but we don’t have the data to say for sure. In countries where economic and social development has changed that state of affairs, we have seen a tremendous drop in fertility rates.

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    • Sayre says:

      Not if those with children are sufficiently adept at hiding their relative drop in happiness from their peers at large. The desire to maintain your status as happy and successful in the eyes of others would see most people learning those skills pretty quickly, at least for the majority.

      Then it’s just the cycle repeating itself as the mostly unaware non-parents join the ranks of the “Awakened” (TM Cult of Parentology) due to spur of the moment decisions, honest mistakes, and pie in the sky family planning.

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    • Adam says:

      People seem to have trouble admitting how much of human behavior is compulsive. We don’t have children because it makes us happy or esteemed in the eyes of peers or gives us status or whatever. All of those are derived values whose purpose is to make us better at having kids. Creating more of ourselves is the most fundamental drive of all life. We do it because the fact we have an overwhelming urge to do it is the reason we’re here in the first place.

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    • Mary says:

      The happiness studies also conclude that children make you unhappier.

      On the other hand, they add meaning to your life. I’ve heard of studies that concluded that some of the benefits of happiness are, it turns out, correlation, because what really was happening was that more happy people found meaning in their lives — but unhappy people with meaningful lives were more like them than happy people with meaningless lives.

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    • satanistgoblin says:

      Maybe people are not very good at happiness maximising?

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    • Anon. says:

      It’s almost as if your genes don’t give a shit about whether you’re happy or not.

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  24. DensityDuck says:

    I’m reminded of a Dave Berg cartoon.

    A guy is talking to a union picketer; the latter is holding a sign saying “SHORTER HOURS, HIGHER PAY!” The first guy says “you know, if you keep getting fewer hours then eventually you won’t have to go to work at all. What will you do then?” The union picketer replies “oh, we’ll still be busy–striking for higher pay!”

    ********

    Another instructive example: Jesus said “the poor will always be with us”. There will always be something to feel like you haven’t got enough of. Maybe it isn’t food or basic shelter; maybe it’s insurance against catastrophic health issues, maybe it’s free access to information and communications.

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    • Mary says:

      Maybe it’s your own private intergalactic starship. . . .

      There will never be a post-scarcity society while humans stay the way they are.

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      • Viliam says:

        I feel that a society where the poor don’t have enough private intergalactic starships is still better than a society where the poor don’t have enough food to keep their children alive. Even if both of them would report on average 6 of 10 points of happiness in a questionnaire.

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    • aanon smith-teller says:

      ‘Jesus said “the poor will always be with us”.’

      No, he said “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

      Since all the people involved are now dead – which is kinda the point – it doesn’t imply a magical poor-force will forever be going around collapsing utopias.

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  25. Error says:

    In particular, it would make us want to concentrate our resources on increasing technological progress, perhaps in the richest economies, rather than trying to help poor countries in particular.

    This comparison interests me. How many of the billion people who get pulled out of poverty go on to become scientists or engineers? Enough to outweigh directing that same money to existing science sectors? I think probably yes — a small percentage of a huge number adds up to a lot of good scientists.

    On the other hand, even if that’s correct, those good scientists don’t start producing work for a generation. You have to eat the local unemployment costs now. You’re at war and you have three hundred energy credits. Do you spend them on missile rovers or network nodes?

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  26. jimrandomh says:

    I posted a comment and it’s strangely missing from the page. (But attempting to resubmit, the site detects it as a duplicate.)

    (EDIT: The site reacts to any comment with a particular link-text in a strange crashy-looking way. The link was ht tp :/ /i ss en dai .li vejournal. com/57 2510.html)

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    • arbitrary_greay says:

      The site doesn’t like non-https urls. Try adding the s.
      (Oh, I see you’ve got a regular http one down below. Then again, it’s a SSC link. At any rate, I’ve had a change of non-passing url results before, by adding the s.)

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  27. jimrandomh says:

    I think the happiness data is actually pointing directly into a blind spot; that if you look at the lives of Chinese people from ground level instead of from five-thousand-foot economist level, you will find that things have *not* improved. That if you visit a Latin American country, you will find that their lives are better, despite their lower income; and if you visit an ex-communist state, you will find they are worse.

    Because the things in (http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/12/24/how-bad-are-things/) are not affected much by GDP. Because if you average log incomes instead of log’ing average income, you will find the gains are smaller. Because much of that income is spent on positional goods. Because GDP fails to report when societies are facing corruption and pollution and eating adulterated food. Because some of that wealth is being used to create sick systems (ht tp :/ /i ss en dai .li vejournal. com/57 2510.html – SSC auto-rejects comments containing this link for some reason).

    Or maybe it’s because people’s self-reported happiness is just a comparison to how happy they think their neighbors are, making local comparisons valid and inter-country comparisons invalid. That’d be a happier result.

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    • Deiseach says:

      Am I being horribly cynical to wonder how reliable the Chinese data is? Do we really believe the Chinese government – which does not trust its population to have unfettered access to Google – would really be happy to have a global report reading “Chinese people are less happy than they were in the past”?

      Looking at the graph the variance is from 4.5 to 4.9 on a 0-10 scale. 0.4 of one point is not a huge difference.

      The Chinese people have always been happy. They were happy in the Great Socialist Past, they are happy now in the New Market Present, and whatever the future may be, they will be happy then as well under the benevolent guidance of their wise and kindly government.

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  28. Jiro says:

    Maybe every way economists have hitherto measured happiness is hopelessly deficient, and there’s some ineffable essence of happiness which, if we could get at it, would increase during national development.

    I think this is another case of utilitarianism not handling blissful ignorance. Relatively poor but absolutely richer people are for various reasons are more aware of how bad life is–they may have greater access to media showing rich people, they may encounter more corruption because they actually do things that the authorities can interfere with and have money that the authorities can take, they may understand democracy better and see how their government falls short of it, etc. If you measure happiness and don’t have a way to exclude blissful ignorance, the fact that they know how poor they are and are thus less happy would count as a point against this society.

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    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      Excluding blissful ignorance just on principle seems misguided.

      The question is whether ignorance is truly blissful. If it is, then we should maximize ignorance and primitive lifestyles, perhaps by having robots or a rotating servant class tend to the needs of the ignorant masses without having the population crash back to the Stone Age.

      Or is ignorance actually not superior to knowledge? The question is just what happiness is. Surely it’s more than physical pleasure, like from sex or having a massage. Is it more satisfying to think deep thoughts about the great works of literature and philosophy than to be some kind of peasant knowing nothing but herding sheep?

      Mill, of course, argued that poetry was superior in kind to pushpin. That makes things really hard (read: impossible) to measure mathematically, but isn’t necessarily false.

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      • Ghatanathoah says:

        Or is ignorance actually not superior to knowledge?

        I can attest that I personally seek out knowledge that makes me feel unpleasant and sad because I value knowing it more than I value positive emotions. And I’m talking about abstract knowledge that doesn’t have any affect on my day-to-day life.

        I have limits, I’d rather forget what the capital of Ecuador is than have clinical depression for the rest of my life. But to some degree I value knowledge more than positive emotions.

        The question is just what happiness is.

        You seem to be be defining happiness as synonymous with “valuable.” To you it sounds like asking “is this happiness?” is the same as asking “is it valuable.”

        Other people define happiness as a specific emotion state, to the asking “is this happiness” is the same ask asking “do you feel this emotion.” These are both commonly used definitions, but I think accidental equivocation between them is a big part of what makes these conversations about happiness difficult.

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      • piercedmind says:

        To me it seems obvious that Mill valued an unhappy Socrates more than a happy pig because he felt closer to Socrates (i.e. he considered his way of life superior than a different way of life).

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  29. Vox Imperatoris says:

    The economist George Reisman has some very interesting things to say in relation to this, in his chapter of Capitalism where he talks about wealth and “unlimited need and desire” for it. I recommend reading the whole chapter (Chapter 2, pg. 39), but here is the section titled “Progress and Happiness”:

    The fact that the need and desire for wealth are limitless does not mean that when people devote themselves to satisfying that need and desire, as in the nations of modern capitalism, they go through life with a sense of endless frustration, seeking more than they can ever hope to obtain. The normal man, if he lacks an automobile, does not actively desire a yacht. He actively desires merely an automobile. His desire for a yacht lies dormant until such time as he already has acquired one or more high-quality automobiles. The limitless desire for wealth, in other words, becomes active only step by step. It manifests itself in an active desire for things that are merely one or two steps beyond our reach at the moment. It leads us to exert ourselves and extend our reach. And then, as we succeed, desires previously dormant become active, or totally new desires are formed, and we are led to exert ourselves and extend our reach still further. Thus, the limitless desire for wealth impels us steadily to advance.

    Oriental philosophy and some schools of thought in the contemporary Western world claim that the fact that our desires will always be a step ahead of our possessions shows the futility of our efforts—that, instead, we should seek to rid ourselves of our desires and be content forever with some minimum of wealth. Such teachings are utterly mistaken, and their influence helps to account for the stagnation and poverty that exist in the world. They view the excess of our desires over our possessions as a source of discontent and unhappiness. Actually, this excess is the root of our ambitiousness and our rising to meet challenges. It is what impels us to progress, and, as such, is an essential element of our happiness.

    It should be realized that as rational beings we are also progressive beings. Progress is the corollary of the continuous application of reason. Any individual who continues to use reason—who continues to think—necessarily comes to know more and more, and thus to be capable of accomplishing more and more. If a society is characterized by continuous thinking from generation to generation, and if its educational system works—that is, if it succeeds in transmitting to the rising generation the essentials of the knowledge discovered by all the preceding generations—then the general body of knowledge in the society is progressive, and thus the society as a whole is capable of accomplishing more and more. Progress is the natural result of the use of reason as a constant.

    If our happiness depends on living in accordance with our nature as rational beings, then our happiness and progress are inseparably connected. The fact that our desires will always be ahead of our ability to satisfy them is not a cause of unhappiness. It is the inducement to the steady exercise of our reason, to our living in accordance with our nature, which is indispensable to our happiness. Our happiness does not come from the existence of desires satisfied, but from the steady upward climb itself—from the process of continuing to think and solve problems and to become capable of accomplishing more and more. In other words, progress is a source of happiness. In the lives of scientists, inventors, businessmen, engineers, and managers, progress is the obvious focal point of thinking, planning, and problem solving. It is also what necessitates that the average worker make himself capable of continuing to think and learn throughout his life, so that he can acquire the new skills necessary to adapt to the changing requirements of production. Thus, progress is what helps to elevate even the average man of modern Western civilization into a thinking, literate being possessing an intellectual life incomparably superior to that of previous eras. If happiness depends on the possession of a sound, active mind, progress fosters happiness.

    A further aspect of the connection between progress, reason, and happiness must be mentioned. As rational beings, we are able to be aware of the future: the future has reality for us in the present. To be able to look forward to a better future enables us to bear considerable hardship in the present without complaint, even cheerfully. But to look to a future of unrelieved hardship, or, worse, a future that holds out the prospect of even greater hardship, makes hardship in the present more difficult, if not impossible, to bear. Indeed, the prospect of impoverishment in the future deprives one of the ability to derive pleasure even from the possession of substantial wealth in the present, for the shadow of such a future must hang over whatever enjoyment one might have in the present. Thus, the prospect of progress, as well as the process of achieving it, contributes to our happiness.

    I always thought this was one of the most interesting things I’ve read on the nature of happiness. It’s certainly in stark contrast to not only primitivist types but also the kinds of conservatives who talk about “natural limits” on wealth. The rest of the chapter is interesting as well.

    Of course, it’s all armchair reasoning. Yet it seems very plausible to me.

    It addresses a lot of the typical objections that wealth doesn’t improve happiness because he’s basically arguing that it’s not the amount of wealth that matters (for the most part) but the rate of increase. So if we have a constant rate of growth, we should have a constant level of happiness (all else equal). Except to the extent that progress enables the common man to have an “incomparably superior” intellectual life, in which case potential happiness increases over time.

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    • Frog Do says:

      “Any individual who continues to use reason—who continues to think—necessarily comes to know more and more, and thus to be capable of accomplishing more and more.”
      This seems obviously wrong. Are old scientists accomplishing more than young?

      There seems to be a clear natural limit on wealth in the sense of things you can know and hold in your head at one time, the amount of information you can teach before competition forces you to specialize and sacrifice huge areas of knowledge.

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      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        “Any individual who continues to use reason—who continues to think—necessarily comes to know more and more, and thus to be capable of accomplishing more and more.”
        This seems obviously wrong. Are old scientists accomplishing more than young?

        I think this is confounded by factors like older scientists losing mental acuity or motivation and drive. Which perhaps he should have indicated, but if he means it in an all else equal sense…

        There seems to be a clear natural limit on wealth in the sense of things you can know and hold in your head at one time, the amount of information you can teach before competition forces you to specialize and sacrifice huge areas of knowledge.

        Sure, there’s a limit (I assume you meant on knowledge, not wealth) to how much you can hold in your head at one time. I don’t think that’s really relevant, though. You can write stuff down. If only you had enough time (and were as smart as the smartest geniuses in each field), you could rediscover every field of knowledge from scratch. Spend a few centuries on mathematics then a few on physics then biology then back to mathematics and so on.

        Competition doesn’t “force” you to “sacrifice” areas of knowledge. The division of labor simply means that, instead of each scientist trying to do everything, each one can do something different and be an expert on that one little thing, coming to know more and more about it and learning to do more and more with it.

        One interesting idea he brings up (or maybe Hayek, or maybe he got it from Hayek) is that you can basically think of the division of labor as a way of vastly multiplying the collective knowledge of the human race. Under subsistence agriculture, almost everyone knows only how to do the exact same thing: farm crops. Duplication of knowledge approaches 100% (with exceptions, of course). Under maximal division of labor, there is no duplication of knowledge. Nobody knows how to do anything somebody else knows how to do. At least, they don’t know it for the purpose of production; they may learn it for the purpose of intellectual stimulation.

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        • Frog Do says:

          Well yeah, but there’s a limit on time, and even if there wasn’t, probably a limit on memory. If we all lived forever with perfect recall this wouldn’t be a problem, but I don’t see how that’s relavent. And before you say it, societies don’t live forever with perfect recall either (no, “writing things down” doesn’t count), and even then there’s the search problem on the exponentially growing category “past knowledge”.

          And competition definitely forces you to sacrifice areas of knowledge, I know this first-hand from the very, very bright magnet school kids I mentor in STEM research projects. A significant portion of them stopped reading fiction, or appreciating art, or doing any non-STEM-course related activity after about the age of 12. They’re hyper-focused on one particular part of the human experience, sure, but I’m not sure I’d call it an “possessing an intellectual life incomparably superior to that of previous eras”, given that these kids would have probably been priest caste in previous eras, also (academics being priest caste in our era).

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Well yeah, but there’s a limit on time, and even if there wasn’t, probably a limit on memory. If we all lived forever with perfect recall this wouldn’t be a problem, but I don’t see how that’s relavent. And before you say it, societies don’t live forever with perfect recall either (no, “writing things down” doesn’t count), and even then there’s the search problem on the exponentially growing category “past knowledge”.

            There’s no reason why people can’t eventually live forever, in the colloquial sense of “indefinitely”. And obviously there are theoretical limits on information storage. I don’t see how that’s really relevant, though.

            All he is saying is that, to the extent that there remains more to know, we can come to know more and more over time.

            And competition definitely forces you to sacrifice areas of knowledge, I know this first-hand from the very, very bright magnet school kids I mentor in STEM research projects. A significant portion of them stopped reading fiction, or appreciating art, or doing any non-STEM-course related activity after about the age of 12. They’re hyper-focused on one particular part of the human experience, sure, but I’m not sure I’d call it an “possessing an intellectual life incomparably superior to that of previous eras”, given that these kids would have probably been priest caste in previous eras, also (academics being priest caste in our era).

            There are a lot more academics now than there were equivalently educated people before. So the proper comparison for most of them should be to peasants or something. The “incomparably superior” part is in reference to those sorts of people.

            But more importantly, competition doesn’t force anybody to sacrifice these areas of knowledge. Vastly more people now have the means, if they so chose, to study the exact same material and learn the same amount as your average renaissance man. It is no longer possible to know everything simply because there is more to know. But more people can know the same amount of information, and the information they can know is of higher quality. Collectively, the body of information increases.

            Sure, if you want to be a top scientist on the cutting edge of the field, you might have to exclusively dedicate yourself to that (though not necessarily; they do have leisure pursuits). But you don’t have to be a top scientist if you don’t want to. “Cutthroat competition” doesn’t exterminate everybody who doesn’t get a job at Harvard. You can get a job with regular hours, maybe outside of academia altogether, and dedicate your free time to learning all you can about many different fields of science. It is far easier than ever to retire early so that you can even be a gentleman scientist full time.

            There are two senses of “competition” that people conflate all the time. There is intense competition to be the best. You have to work harder now to earn the highest profits or produce the most research than you did in the past with fewer people in the running. But there is not more intense competition to have a place at all, in the “struggle for survival” sense. It’s just the opposite: more people now can survive on less work than ever before.

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          • Frog Do says:

            Okay, so we’re dealing with immortals and not considering storage limits with no penalties for searching information. I was confused, I thought we were talking about people.

            There’s a whole lot of … convenience… in the rest of your post. We can’t compare top class people now to top class people back then, we can only compare them to peasants. Yes, people are able to study the same sorts of things as the Renaissance, pay no attention to the structure of society and incentives, it’s possible, that’s all that matters. And then all of the sudden we’re dealing with “the collective”? Aren’t you an Objectivist? And sure, people can also not compete, but, well, they do, it’s not like choices are made from behind a veil of ignorance or something. Or is this another situation where “people” translates to “immortal perfect future predicitors with infinite memory and instantaneous search time”?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Frog Do:

            Honestly, I don’t understand what exactly you are driving at with your random objections. Maybe you should state your grievance more clearly.

            There’s a whole lot of … convenience… in the rest of your post. We can’t compare top class people now to top class people back then, we can only compare them to peasants.

            I never said we can’t compare top people today to top people back then. But if you define all “academics” as the “top”, then the “top” has gotten a lot bigger.

            In general, life has improved much more for the poor than for the rich. I don’t dispute that. Yet I would prefer to be rich today than rich in 1500, though. I would certainly prefer to be poor today than poor in 1500. I would even prefer to be poor today than rich in 1500.

            Yes, people are able to study the same sorts of things as the Renaissance, pay no attention to the structure of society and incentives, it’s possible, that’s all that matters.

            What are you trying to say? That it was easier to have a broad base of knowledge back then? That such a thing was available to more people? Because it wasn’t.

            And then all of the sudden we’re dealing with “the collective”? Aren’t you an Objectivist?

            The point is that the body of knowledge distributed among everyone increases over time. Are you really objecting to that? I am not arguing that there is a special collective entity.

            Okay, so we’re dealing with immortals and not considering storage limits with no penalties for searching information. I was confused, I thought we were talking about people.

            Again, I don’t understand what you are trying to get at.

            Yes, if you live for a finite amount of time, there is a certain limit to how much you can learn before you die. Do you think I’m disputing that? Do you think Reisman is disputing that?

            All he is saying is that, within whatever span of time people live, they are capable of learning more and more as they come to think more and more. It is possible that they might record and forget some of their old knowledge to make way for new knowledge. That is not incompatible with the idea that they are learning more and more over time. They are still discovering new things.

            I didn’t say anything about perfect recall.

            I don’t think the idea that people might live for an indefinite period of time plays any role in this argument. I just mentioned it because you randomly brought it up. I don’t see why you say that people who live for an indefinite span of time would not be human beings.

            And sure, people can also not compete, but, well, they do, it’s not like choices are made from behind a veil of ignorance or something.

            The people who want to compete can compete. Presumably, they enjoy it.

            The people who don’t want to compete don’t have to compete. For instance, I enjoy playing videogames. I don’t compete to be the best in the world at any of them. I don’t care about that.

            You don’t have to become some kind of drone who never thinks about anything else in order to have a normal career. As productivity increases, the amount of time you have to spend working and thinking about work in order to support yourself decreases, not increases.

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          • Frog Do says:

            I object further! My objections are pretty clear, given that I quoted where we disagree and am clearly referring to you comments.

            Given that IIRC this is the second time it’s happened, we’re talking past each other. I will say that you can usually assume commenters here have heard of this thing called “economics”, and repeating talking points from Intro to Micro like some kind of catechism leads me to believe you’re not really interested in engagement. I’ll refrain from bothering in the future.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Frog Do:

            Your objections are not at all clear.

            I get that you have some vague distaste for capitalism and the division of labor. But that’s all I’m getting from you.

            You say things like “competition definitely forces you to sacrifice areas of knowledge”, I say it doesn’t. You insist it does anyway. I resort to “Intro to Micro” to explain more laboriously why it doesn’t. You say I’m just telling you what you already know. Okay, if you know it, you haven’t displayed any signs.

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          • Rabidchaos says:

            Keep in mind that judging people’s ability to be competitive whilst maintaining broad interests from 12-year-olds’ abilities to do so is liable to have errors creep in from the differences between the students’ priorities and their parents’. From what I remember of the top students from my high school, they were mostly being pushed extremely hard by their parents to achieve scholastic excellence, rather than to expand their mind / learn more about the world. This lead to them expending almost all of their time on schoolwork. They wanted to do more enjoyable things like read fiction, but had barely any time to do so.

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    • Acedia says:

      They view the excess of our desires over our possessions as a source of discontent and unhappiness. Actually, this excess is the root of our ambitiousness and our rising to meet challenges.

      The second sentence is phrased as if the author believes it contradicts the claims in the first sentence, but they seem perfectly in harmony to me. Where else would ambition come from, if not discontent?

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      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        The desire to achieve happiness?

        Eliminating suffering—the goal of the philosophies to which he is alluding—is not the same as achieving happiness.

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        • Acedia says:

          I guess the problem’s with my definition of discontent then, because “I could be happier than I am now” sounds like discontentment to me.

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          • Deiseach says:

            Yeah, but everybody could be happier than they are now. If you find the Happiest Person In The World, even they could presumably be that little bit happier (maybe they hate broccoli but it’s so good for health, if only they liked broccoli, they would be even happier than they are now where they eat broccoli but hate it).

            “My life is so great, I wish I could live to be a thousand to enjoy even more of it! Oops, no, mortality – damn, now I’m a little less happy!”

            That’s not really much of a helpful definition if we’re trying to work out if people are miserable or discontented.

            Discontent can spur you on to emulation (“People think Raphael is such a great artist, well I’m going to beat him by working really hard and producing even better paintings!”) or envy (“I’ll never be as good as Raphael no matter how hard I work, it’s not fair he has that talent, I wish he’d go blind or have his hands cut off or something, then I’d be Number One Artist”).

            One may not make you unhappy, but the other certainly will.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Acedia:

            All we have here is the difference between “lack of the maximum quantity of positive feelings” and “the positive presence of negative feelings”.

            Suppose you’re in a state of complete equanimity: you are neither happy nor unhappy, just nothing at all. You don’t have any negative feelings. But you also don’t have any positive feelings.

            The Buddhistic renunciation view says that you should strive for the state of equanimity where you have neither joy nor suffering. The kind of view Reisman is advocating is that you should maximize joy minus suffering.

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    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      “The normal man, if he lacks an automobile, does not actively desire a yacht. He actively desires merely an automobile. His desire for a yacht lies dormant until such time as he already has acquired one or more high-quality automobiles”

      IIRC, this is one of the premises behind the Eightfold Path in Buddhism. Desire leads to unhappiness precisely because it repeats on itself once what is desired is achieved: Unhappiness is the stack overflow of recursive desire.

      I’m pretty sure everyone here is familiar with the paradox of choice. People seem to be happier when they have less to choose from. One crazy example of this is that women were happier when they had fewer rights.

      The other side of this is that people seem to revert back to their baseline happiness after a change. This might be the reason why arranged marriages are just as happy as marriages based on romance.

      Or maybe the reason for all of this is that happiness is a terrible metric to use.

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      • NN says:

        The other side of this is that people seem to revert back to their baseline happiness after a change.

        Um, Scott posted a link in this very essay that explained that this is a myth.

        This might be the reason why arranged marriages are just as happy as marriages based on romance.

        I can think of a few reasons for this. Perhaps it is a matter of simple expectations. People in arranged marriages know that they got married to that person for pragmatic reasons, so they won’t panic after the initial infatuation inevitably fades. Or maybe older and more experienced people are simply better qualified to determine whether a couple would make a good marriage than young people in an emotionally compromised state (because how else can you describe “being in love”?).

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        • “Or maybe older and more experienced people are simply better qualified to determine whether a couple would make a good marriage than young people in an emotionally compromised state (because how else can you describe “being in love”?).”

          Temporary insanity perhaps?

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        • anonymous says:

          “a bit of a lark”?

          I don’t think the idea of a happiness set points that people often return to is completely a myth. I think the idea that this is a universal or necessary thing is nonsense but if someone is extremely used to being a certain level of happy their future happiness might bounce back to that point, one way or another. I’ve no idea how prevalent that is but the basic concept seems sound.

          I think people going into an arranged marriage, not imaging that they are one another’s soulmates, are less likely to think they can read each other’s minds. They’re also imo actually “in it together” in a way that a couple that gets married by choice isn’t -they’ve been thrown into this situation, and the success of the arranged marriage is clearly dependent on how they approach it. They’re just a couple of people that have to get on with each other. I think that’s a pretty solid foundation for a marriage.

          I’m not saying arranged marriages are good btw, I don’t know what the institution tends to be like in the real world, but I think the principle of the thing is far superior to the western model, -if one accounts for the disney just believe and everything will be ok, no, will be perfect, nonsense. Maybe there’s some worse nonsense attached to arranged marriage but even if I granted that people choose their partners well, which I don’t, the structure of the arrangement is such that it starts with people pushing themselves to get on with each other, rather than starting by people picking someone, usually by who they deem impressive or exciting rather than who they get along best with. But the whole disneyplex of expectations for marriage can ruin even the latter.

          Then again western marriage looks pretty awesome if one just focuses on its best points as I’m probably doing for arranged marriage just because I feel its unfairly dismissed as a concept.

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  30. NN says:

    If people got genuine enjoyment from driving drunk at 95 mph while shouting “WOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”, was there any reason to make them stop, since they weren’t really hurting anybody?

    Unless they actually kill someone, or themselves.

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  31. Long-time lurker, first-time poster here.

    First, I would stress economic developed is strongly correlated with life-expectancy, and if you think this is because economic development causes people to live longer, this (presumably) is a good thing.

    Second, this whole issue is probably solved by Eliezer Yudkowsky’s idea of Coherent Extrapolated Volition. To summarize atrociously briefly: the “utility” of doing something is the value the people we wish we were would place on it. So, if the people we wish we were think its good that we watch TV X hours per day, presumably, it is good. At least in the sense in that it increases utility, you’d of course have to aggregate these utilities in some way…

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  32. Dr Dealgood says:

    expjpi and Thomas Redding already mentioned preventable deaths dropping with increased wealth, but I think the point can be made more clearly:

    Assuming World Life Expectancy dot com is correctly reporting the WHO, in 2014 India had a rate of deaths attributed to malnutrition of 4.39 in one hundred thousand while China has a rate of 0.39. Four in one hundred thousand over an estimated 1.26 billion Indians comes out to 50,400 lives saved. I haven’t looked at other causes of death, but it would surprise me if most of them didn’t follow that pattern. Third world poverty is a lot more deadly than poverty here.

    [EDITED because I dropped a zero in the mortality rate originally and only caught it when I sanity-checked the numbers. The number is actually way less impressive than the original 48K lives. Oops.]

    [EDITED AGAIN because I actually got the right order of magnitude the first time, even with the wrong death rate. Somehow… I need to go to sleep.]

    Even if average happiness stays the same, having more people alive at that level of happiness still sounds like it should count for something. And since fertility rates in wealthy nations drop like a stone nowadays you are unlikely to run into the Repugnant Conclusion by looking at total utility in this case.

    (In real life, I don’t support globalization. Saving lives in other countries at the expense of Americans should not be the priority of our government. But then again I’m also not a utilitarian or an EA so my preferences aren’t terribly important here.)

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    • JBeshir says:

      Agree with this, as someone who *does* aspire to effective altruism, and is inclined to think in terms of a a modified two-level utilitarianism with virtues, habits, norms, practices instead of rules that I think of as “way consequentialism”.

      This post raises some interesting questions about measures of happiness, but doesn’t wipe out enough of the various benefits to non-Westerners to put the preferred policy in doubt for me.

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  33. akarlin says:

    Happiness is overrated.

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  34. blacktrance says:

    The only plausible way I see development failing to increase happiness is that the increase in wealth is offset by some change in lifestyle/work patterns/etc that is preventing people from enjoying their wealth. I’ve seen the decline in women’s happiness explained by women working more because they do housework in addition to their work outside the home, and something similar may be happening here. But other than that, the idea that wealth doesn’t increase happiness is so implausible that any study that finds this is much more likely to have something wrong with its calculation of happiness. Do we really think we are no happier for having plumbing, washing machines, and so on?

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    • onyomi says:

      I think maybe we don’t think we’re happier, even if our daily lived experience is, in fact easier, more entertaining, etc.

      For example, if, today, you drove a car with no stereo or AC, had a tiny black and white TV, had one land line and no cell phone, as well as no computer or internet, you’d probably feel, basically, that your life sucks. But 50 or 60 years ago that would not only have been normal, you might have rated yourself as doing rather well.

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    • Deiseach says:

      Do we really think we are no happier for having plumbing, washing machines, and so on?

      Depends if you never had them and then got them, versus if you always had them.

      Hands up everyone here who grew up, or at least had a substantial period of their childhood, without running water?

      I am very damn grateful and happy to have water coming out of a tap in my house (which is why I pay my water charges; the complete steaming pile of slurry mess the government made out of introducing and implementing them is quite another matter).

      I’ve done the “going with a bucket to the pump four fields away for water” bit, and I am grateful not to do it any more, thank you very much. (Though that is not to say there weren’t benefits; my father pointing out wild strawberries and a wren’s nest and the primroses in the ditches as we walked up the boreen was lovely time together. But hauling buckets over and back at the age of six is not an experience I want every kid to have).

      But all you who grew up with hot and cold running water as a thing, a thing so usual and accepted and indeed even expected that you don’t even think about it – how happy does indoor plumbing make you? Would you put it down on a survey – “happy because I have a sink in my kitchen”? 🙂

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      • blacktrance says:

        Just because I wouldn’t put it down in a survey doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me happy, it only means that it’s not salient as something that makes me happy. Compare to food and water – relatively few people would list them (in their generic form) as a source of happiness, but they’d quickly be unhappy without them.
        I expect that what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of what makes one’s life good is only a small fraction of what actually makes it good.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          One thing I do all the time is just sit back and think about how great it is that I can have a particular given thing so cheaply and easily. I’ll look at a pepper grinder or a bag of sugar and think back on how expensive these things were in the past.

          And I’m always very skeptical of people who predict doom and gloom for the future. Books like Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist are very good in that vein.

          I think having a positive outlook like this is very helpful. If there were some independent reasons causing people to have a more negative outlook, that could be a confounder causing happiness to decrease at the same time material progress as such increases it. I don’t know exactly why this would be the case in China—but it could have something to do with loss of faith in socialism without having any ideal to replace it.

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      • Loquat says:

        Losing indoor plumbing would definitely make me UNhappier, but absent a credible threat of losing it (or a recent sojourn into the unplumbed wilderness – one of many reasons I don’t go camping) it’s not something I actively think about as contributing to my happiness.

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    • Anon. says:

      Here’s a plausible mechanism: reproductive success is based on _relative_ fitness within a reference group. As Heffetz & Frank (2009) put it: “a specific trait will thus be favored by natural selection less because it facilitates resource acquisition in absolute terms than because it confers an advantage in relative terms”. This is why Hamiltonian Spite is a thing.

      Happiness is our internal motivation mechanism, so it makes total sense that it’s driven by relative rather than absolute standards.

      Even Capuchin monkeys care about relative wealth, this is some deeply hard-wired stuff: https://www.emory.edu/LIVING_LINKS/publications/articles/Brosnan_deWaal_2003.pdf

      So: if you have plumbing but your neighbours don’t, that makes you happier. And this is exactly what Easterlin shows.

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    • Cadie says:

      This is a possibility, and probably explains at least a part of it. The amount of work one needs to do expands to fill most of the time available; if you have washing machines, you’re expected to maintain a much higher level of clothing cleanliness etc. than if you don’t, so the amount of work you get to eliminate is less than one would naively expect. The work is easier, no doubt, but you have to wash your sheets, clothes, towels, and the like much more often than before. With housework this is a big thing – the richer you are and the more additional appliances/etc. you have, the higher the standard of cleanliness goes.

      I’ve found something that helps increase my happiness and reduce stress, at least a little bit, but it’s something most people probably won’t like: dropping my overall standard of living / class one level. I live in an area and housing situation that’s a little bit poorer than I could afford at maximum, and in general, I live like my neighbors. Yet I have a bit more money and mobility than most of them. So I’m not pressured into the level of status-seeking that my job and income would suggest (which is sort of on the border of working class and lower middle class); I’m in a lower working-class area, and it’s much easier for me to maintain those standards with more time left over and a little bit of money saved for emergencies and entertainment. I can go out to the store in jeans with frayed hems, a baggy sweatshirt, and no makeup and nobody gives a rat’s ass. I don’t have to wash my car weekly. It’s just so much easier, once I found a reasonably safe place to stay that’s close to work.

      I think people are better off with more money, but once you pass the point that your basic needs are taken care of efficiently, the remaining income tends to get swallowed up in things like paying more for housing, spending more on transportation and clothes, private education for the kids, expensive travel, etc. that are socially required to move about in that income bracket and maintain status within it. If you’d get more happiness out of having extra time and being able to spend more on hobbies, gifts, etc. than the more expensive Stuff and specific activities your equal-income peers do, and you’re past the basic-needs level, it may be worthwhile to downgrade yourself a level so you can keep up with your surrounding peers and have time and money to spare.

      I doubt most of the Chinese are at the point where nearly all of them have decent food and housing and the like, but even then standards and personal expectations do rise as income rises and this might offset SOME of the happiness benefits of more income.

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      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        This is why I’m tentatively in favor of a 20-hour (or 21-hour) workweek and a return to single-income households. If Moloch is going to force us to waste all of our extra income on positional goods, then constraining ourselves from trading more of our lives for income than necessary might be a good idea.

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        • anonymous says:

          imo “make” vs “force” is a relevant distinction here. Make being closer to cause, and force being closer to hold a gun to one’s head, which doesn’t happen in this context.

          One may in fact personally be forced if one (speaking loosely and insensitively) can’t resist such pressure, but describing the pressure as forcing people is kind of a self fulfilling label, -if it’s a forcing level of coercion then there’s no “dishonour” in going along with and resisting is a pipe dream. So in terms of “logical politeness”, I think forcing is the wrong word, unless the alternatives have similar problems.

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      • blacktrance says:

        Expensive travel, spending a lot on transportation and clothes, and washing your car weekly are “socially required to move about in that income bracket”? If so, this income bracket must be rather high (above upper-middle class) or it also involves norms that only exist outside of regions I’ve lived (the South and California), because I’ve never experienced anything close to it.

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        • Nornagest says:

          Conspicuous consumption norms are really culture-specific, and I don’t just mean regional culture. Take clothing for example; the standard expected of you is very different if you’re an engineer vs. working in, say, marketing or finance. Same goes for cars, though the rules are slightly different there.

          And I work on the infamously casual West Coast. In most of the rest of the country, the differences would be even more marked.

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  35. windmill tilter says:

    Global egalitarianism is a nonstarter IMHO. BTW, has anyone read Thomas Nagel on “The Problem of Global Justice”? I have not really read it, but it seemed like a serious attempt to develop a non-cosmopolitan philosophy

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  36. Azure says:

    Given that the first linked analysis mentions gains to multinational corporations, and another analysis of similar work I read mentioned a net gain to the US favoring stockholders and other investors, I’d rather try coupling trade agreements with poor countries together with redistribution (mostly job training, unemployment insurance, and wage insurance). Ultimately that won’t solve the long term work shortage, but it should ease the shock.

    Also if we limit trade with poorer countries we run the risk of having jobs taken by machines instead of poor people.

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  37. Gerry Quinn says:

    I find it very plausible that wealth doesn’t make us happy. Surely we evolved to be hungry, and wealth stops us being hungry. Wealth insulates us from life’s dramas and limitations, and we evolved to deal with life’s dramas and limitations. Wealth means the only possible change is for the worse, while if you’re poor you could win the lotto. When you have good medical care and a safe existence, every day lived is a step closer to the grave – whereas if life is risky and short, every day is a victory and a gift.

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  38. Edward Scizorhands says:

    Wouldn’t the Coasian thing be to identify the people who would become unemployed by the free trade fact, and then keep them floating at their current income level with some kind of wage boost?

    Find them new jobs that probably aren’t as good as their old jobs, and then subsidize them up to the prior level, until they hit retirement age. Finance this with the tremendous gains we got from free trade.

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  39. Goldjet says:

    Scott no longer bothers to hide the fact that he has so little fellow-feeling for Americans that he would gladly sacrifice their future to help foreigners who would never do the same if the circumstances were reversed.

    And when the now rich foreigners attack because they are as rich as us now but don’t share the same values, it will be the sacrificed Americans conscripted into the army to die in Scott’s defense as he is exempted due to mental health issues or some other nerd-related unfitness.

    You people here are not living in the real world at all.

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    • Wrong Species says:

      Do you feel the same way about technology? Because some people believe that it’s new technology that has displaced good jobs from Americans. Assuming that was true, would you try to ban new tech? If you can see why that’s ridiculous, then you can see why we think the same of critics of free trade.

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      • Jiro says:

        It’s ridiculous to ban tech to prevent people from becoming unemployed because
        1) the harm to the people being unemployed is balanced off against the benefit to locals, and neither the benefit or harm to non-locals needs to be considered, and
        2) banning technology isn’t practical, anyway

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        • Anon. says:

          >the harm to the people being unemployed is balanced off against the benefit to locals, and neither the benefit or harm to non-locals needs to be considered

          The exact same thing is true of trade.

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          • Jiro says:

            But this particular example of trade was described as benefiting foreigners and being justifiable on that basis. You can argue that the trade benefits locals and that it can be justified solely based on its benefit to locals–but that isn’t what Scott was suggesting.

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          • Anon. says:

            It doesn’t really matter what Scott was suggesting, what matters is how trade works. In any case, Scott never even mentioned the benefits accruing to American consumers which are greater than the costs of unemployment.

            >Suppose that some free trade pact will increase US unemployment by 1%, but also accelerate the development of some undeveloped foreign country like India into hyper-speed. In twenty years, India’s GDP per capita will go from $1,500/year to $10,000/year. The only cost will be a million or so extra unemployed Americans, plus all that coal that the newly vibrant India is burning probably won’t be very good for the fight against global warming.

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          • Jiro says:

            It doesn’t really matter what Scott was suggesting, what matters is how trade works.

            Goldjet brought it up specifically as a criticism of Scott. What matters for the purposes of that criticism is indeed what Scott was suggesting, even if there are better reasons that Scott did not suggest.

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    • NN says:

      And when the now rich foreigners attack because they are as rich as us now but don’t share the same values, it will be the sacrificed Americans conscripted into the army to die in Scott’s defense as he is exempted due to mental health issues or some other nerd-related unfitness.

      Except that could never happen because nuclear missiles.

      Even if nukes didn’t exist, any government sane enough to raise their country’s per-capita GDP to developed world levels would also be sane enough to realize that nothing could possibly justify the unimaginable expense of a large scale trans-Oceanic invasion.

      Even if nukes didn’t exist and the US wasn’t an ocean away from anyone who could possibly want to invade it (Mexico and the rest of Latin America may not share all our values, but they share enough to ensure stable relations), America’s high gun ownership rate combined with the historical examples of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on would ensure that any attempted occupation of mainland American territory would be extremely costly.

      Taiwan might be endangered if China continues to get richer, but given your stated feelings for non-Americans I doubt you would be concerned about that.

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      • suntzuanime says:

        Ideology is plenty compatible with high GDP. If we’re crazy enough to blow our money trying to spread democracy to Iraq, why can’t China be crazy enough to blow its money trying to spread communism to California?

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        • NN says:

          Because China has been Communist in name only for decades. In fact, that is the primary reason for its recent economic success.

          Regardless, comparing a hypothetical Chinese invasion of America to the Iraq War is ridiculous. Above all else, Iraq didn’t have thousands of nuclear missiles.

          Even ignoring nukes, when the US invaded Iraq, Saddam’s army was a joke and the US had bases in Kuwait to invade from. If not for the post-invasion insurgency and civil war, the Iraq War really would have been quick and cheap. Even if the entire US military magically disappeared, a Chinese invasion of the US across the Pacific Ocean would be many orders of magnitude more expensive. That’s without taking the inevitable post-invasion insurgency into account.

          I’m well aware that warmongering ideology is compatible with high GPD. After all, Weimar Germany had one of the most advanced economies in the world when Hitler came to power. I could definitely see a rising China invading Taiwan. I could see a rising China led by an especially aggressive leader intervening in Asia, the Middle East, or even Africa to protect their investments there. But it would require North Korean levels of insanity to even consider attacking the US, and as you may have noticed that level of insanity is generally incompatible with running a functioning state.

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        • birdboy2000 says:

          Because we’re *not* crazy enough to blow our GDP spreading democracy in Russia. Or even Iran. There’s a reason we picked Iraq.

          (well that and China doesn’t care about spreading communism anymore, but it’s easy to foresee an expansionist turn in any country. Also, nukes raise the stakes in any great power conflict these days to “unimaginable” so we’re fucked either way.)

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      • windmill tilter says:

        There are possible scenarios for international competition other than full-scale war. First arguably you can have a non-violent conflict of ideologies where a country feels humiliated enough by another country’s successes to change. Second you can have limited or proxy wars like Vietnam or Ukraine. If only wars with Great Powers are off limits you could admit fellow-feeling with other Great Powers but this would not explain why you would care about, e.g., African countries.

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        • windmill tilter says:

          The only plausible morality is the one that wins. So we need to understand how values are spreading today. If being nationalist enables countries to coordinate actions to spread values, then being nationalist is good. This is the missing link that could connect all these speculations (utilitarianism, consequentialism, preference utilitarianism etc.) to reality. We’re fighting a war for influence over the ideas of the other great powers. So the best morality is a kind of meta-question that depends on the morality of other actors. I guess we should do whatever it is that maximizes our national prestige. I don’t know what that is but at least in principle you can find out.

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    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I’ve noticed this weird thing where people with nationalist views are totally incapable of conceiving of the idea that people could value foreigners and countrymen equally because they have vast amounts of fellow-feeling for both groups, rather than a lack of fellow-feeling for one.

      What makes this especially weird is that nationalism tends to correlate with religiosity. Do these people really read the Bible and think “Boy, that Jesus sure was a cold SOB, he didn’t care about anyone. That’s the only explanation for why he assigned the same amount of value to everyone in the world.” Do they think that people who follow Jesus’ example and travel the world helping people must be people lacking in love?

      I care about Americans and foreigners equally. And that’s because I love everybody, not because I lack fellow-feeling for others. I’m sure Scott feels similarly.

      Also, I don’t think Scott has ever hidden he feels this way. I don’t know why you think he would. Loving everyone is something you should be proud of.

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      • Goldjet says:

        >”I care about Americans and foreigners equally”

        But only one of those will die for you if required. Perhaps this should make you realise you owe them a little bit more than a foreigner.

        American liberals or rationalists or whatever you call yourselves live under the protection of your fellow citizens while denying that you have any special obligation to them over a foreigner.

        They risk their lives for you and you don’t even give them the courtesy of saying you value them higher than any random person on the other side of the planet.

        You are even prepared to consciously harm them if you calculate this will cause more benefit to a greater number of foreigners.

        I do not like that at all.

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        • “>”I care about Americans and foreigners equally”

          But only one of those will die for you if required. ”

          I don’t expect that most Americans would be willing to die for me. The only ones that show any evidence of being willing to are in the military, and they are not threatened by unemployment due to free trade.

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          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            I don’t expect that most Americans would be willing to die for me. The only ones that show any evidence of being willing to are in the military, and they are not threatened by unemployment due to free trade.

            Every other beggar I see on the streets claims to be a vet on his sign, and they don’t look much like veterinarians to me.

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          • NN says:

            Every other beggar I see on the streets claims to be a vet on his sign, and they don’t look much like former veterinarians to me.

            Because street beggars are renowned for their trustworthiness.

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          • Goldjet says:

            You may desire to live in a libertarian world, but you should not confuse that with where you actually live.

            Whether you like it or not you are nourished and sheltered by a nation, made up of many people whose selflessness would evidently surprise you.

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          • Publius Varinius says:

            > I don’t expect that most Americans would be willing to die for me.

            Supposing they gave a war and nobody came is funny precisely because it never happens.

            Karadžić is going to be sentenced today. As someone who lived through the dissolution of Yugoslavia, I am convinced that when shit hits the fan, your fellow countrymen will show up, and *only* they will show up. If you’re really lucky, others will provide some measure of support (U.S.) from the skies above, but only if there’s little danger to them. Others will do nothing but put on a show and feel good about themselves (UN).

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        • Ghatanathoah says:

          Your suggestion that we should care more about those who would die for us leads to conclusions that I think you would find quite unpalatable if you thought them through.

          For instance, my roommate is unlikely to ever die for me in a war because she is disabled and cannot fight. Does this mean I should not care about her? Should I not care for my aged grandparents why are physically incapable of fighting and dying for me? Should I not care about terminally ill children, since they will die before they reach military age? If I’d been born in the past before women were allowed to serve in the military does that mean I should not care about women as much as men?

          You might argue that those people would die for me if they were able/allowed to fight, but if we’re allowing counterfactuals what about the counterfactual that most foreigners would die for me if they’d been born here or allowed to emigrate here?

          Furthermore, your exact same argument could be used to justify corruption and nepotism. My family would die for me before an American stranger would, does that mean I should screw over strangers to benefit my family? If I’m hiring for a firm should I hire my family members over better qualified American strangers, since my family would die for me before they would? If I was a cop, and I found out my brother was a serial killer, should I fail to arrest him if I’m confident he’ll only kill strangers and not hurt the rest of my family?

          Stamping out nepotism and corruption and making sure everyone is treated fairly is one thing I’m proud of America for doing. It’s made the country better for me and everyone else. I think it’s a good thing, even if it sometimes means I have to treat family member who would die for me better than strangers who wouldn’t. I think the same lesson can be expanded to the rest of the world.

          Also, foreigners have fought and died for you and me. America has engaged in military alliances with many countries all over the world. Do we owe the Turkish, Mongolian, and British people who risked their lives in the Afghanistan war less than the Americans? (If you think the Afghanistan war was a mistake, substitute some other military operation you approve of where we had allies)

          Furthermore, I actually do support Americans who would die for me over foreigners who wouldn’t in one important respect: I pay for the salaries of American servicepeople with my tax dollars. I do not pay the salaries of Belgian or Ugandan or Cambodian people with my tax dollars. And you might argue that taxation is involuntary, but I doubt my behavior would change if we transitioned to anarcho-capitalism tomorrow (except I might pay less money for new weapons and more for taking care of disabled servicepeople).

          I have paid Americans who would die for me for services rendered. So has Scott, presumably. You seem to be arguing that even after paying them, I have an additional obligation, above and beyond that, to treat other people unfairly for their sake. I’d recommend you read Scott’s post on “Infinite Debt.”

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          • Vaniver says:

            I think that if you want to do the “following premises to conclusions” thing you have to pick the correct premises.

            That is, there’s a difference between reciprocity between men and reciprocity between people–the nationalist’s view is that it is a man’s privilege to die for women and children that he would never dream of asking to die for him. (Not all women and children, mind you–ingroup women and children.)

            And similarly, the distinction between “foreigners have died for us” and “our allies have died for us” is clear, and presenting it differently is problematic.

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          • Jiro says:

            If I was a cop, and I found out my brother was a serial killer, should I fail to arrest him if I’m confident he’ll only kill strangers and not hurt the rest of my family?

            That doesn’t follow because valuing strangers less is not the same thing as not valuing them at all. Furthermore, “not hurt the rest of your family” just makes the killer neutral with respect to your family, since he doesn’t do anything to benefit them.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            The real question is, why do you value your brother the serial killer?

            If I found out that my brother was a serial killer, I would hate him and want to see him punished. It’s not about putting my love for my country above my love for my brother. If I found out that my brother was a serial killer, I wouldn’t love him. I would disown him.

            Same thing with nepotism and corruption. Of course, family businesses are, you know, a thing. But if I hire outside the family, it’s because the quality of the work matters more to me than giving some lazy cousin a job.

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          • Dr Dealgood says:

            @Vox Imperatoris,

            If I found out that my brother was a serial killer, I would hate him and want to see him punished. It’s not about putting my love for my country above my love for my brother. If I found out that my brother was a serial killer, I wouldn’t love him. I would disown him.

            Do you think that’s an accurate prediction of your feelings or more of an aspirational statement about what you should feel?

            People demonstrably do still love their family members, even if they’ve committed horrible crimes. For one example, when David Kaczynski realized that his brother Ted was likely the Unabomber he went to the FBI so that they could arrest him… after he got a guarantee that they would take him in alive and give him psychiatric treatment. When the authorities instead pushed for the death penalty he reportedly felt betrayed.

            It makes sense after all. Not to get sappy but love of family is the closest thing to unconditional love that exists. Even if you don’t like and don’t respect them, it is very hard to really hate someone that close to you even if they’ve done awful things.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Dr Dealgood:

            It depends on the situation. Obviously, I’ve never experienced something like that, so I can’t tell you what I’d do for sure.

            I’m not saying I’ll follow the law over personal attachments no matter what. For instance, if you’re a parent and you catch your daughter smoking marijuana, are you going to report her to the police? Should you report her to the police? No, because I don’t think you should report anyone to the police for that.

            Or even take something actually wrong, like shoplifting. I wouldn’t report a family member to the police for that (not that they would…do anything, for that or the marijuana case in most places). I care more about whether that’s actually going to improve my family member’s welfare than vaguely upholding the rule of law.

            But if I own the shop, I’ll report the thief because I care more about not being stolen from than the welfare of the thief.

            If I discovered that a family member was a complete “sick bastard” serial killer, like some kind of sadistic torturer, then I would think I would hate that person. If, of course, I believed it. Maybe I would be biased not to.

            On the other hand, if they clearly had some kind of mental problem, I would urge caution and restraint. Maybe I would even try to hide it if I was sure there was a kind of treatment that could make sure they never kill again. That would probably be stupid, but maybe I would do it.

            Anyway, I’m not saying family attachments mean nothing to me, but there are some things that can revoke them. Most married people, for instance, are quick to divorce their spouses for something as “simple” as cheating on them. Let alone being a serial killer or a pedophile or something.

            And parents disowning children over, for instance, religious conflicts is perhaps reprehensible but not terribly uncommon. “I have no son.” Even in my family, my first cousin, once removed on my mother’s side was disowned for being gay—not by his parents but by some other relatives—who also stopped associating with his mother, who was their sister.

            Actually, one of my housemates’ father refuses to see her because she’s a lesbian. At least not unless she breaks up with her girlfriend.

            Those are just examples of how values, for good or bad, often overcome family ties.

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          • Jiro says:

            Those are just examples of how values, for good or bad, often overcome family ties.

            Values overcoming family ties is not the same as values not being affected by family ties at all.

            There are certainly situations where I would prefer harm to Americans in order to help foreigners–for instance, if lots of foreigners were horribly tortured so that a TV show liked by Americans had a 0.001% greater chance of being renewed. Pretty much nobody is saying that foreigners or strangers don’t count at all compared to people closer to you; they just count less.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Jiro:

            I’m not saying family ties shouldn’t affect values at all. Maybe Ghatanathoah is.

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        • Sastan says:

          I disagree with ghata, but this is a poor criticism.

          Sacrifice is not validated by the opinions of others. Sacrifice is the final arbiter of value. And the opinions of cultural traitors aren’t really relevant in any case. They are members of the outgroup. It would be like criticizing the Chinese (since we’re using them as the example today” for not sufficiently honoring French soldiers.

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        • Anonymous says:

          They are willing to risk death for the chance to go to the middle east and kill people that were no threat to me to begin with. It remains to be seen if they’d be willing to risk death where it really mattered, or they’d go join the other side.

          C.f. “oath keepers”

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        • TheAncientGeek says:

          Does the term allies, even The Allies, mean anything to you?

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      • Creutzer says:

        I’ve noticed this weird thing where people with nationalist views are totally incapable of conceiving of the idea that people could value foreigners and countrymen equally because they have vast amounts of fellow-feeling for both groups, rather than a lack of fellow-feeling for one.

        It’s not weird at all, it’s just the regular typical mind fallacy. Fellow-feeling for distant individuals is highly atypical, as far as humans go.

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      • Sastan says:

        Totally incapable of conceiving? No. We conceived of it, measured the theory against non-nationalistic behavior, and found it wanting. See Scott’s “outgroup” posting. Non-nationalists try to shame fellow countrymen/culture members for celebrating the death of a great enemy, on grounds that no one should ever celebrate the death of a human being. Then, of course, they throw street parties to celebrate the death of a local politician with slightly different views than theirs.

        Humans are incapable of valuing everyone equally. If you don’t value your own group more, it means you are on the side of someone else. This “citizen of the world” malarky is just the rationalization for cultural treason.

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        • Nita says:

          So far, I have’t seen a lot of evidence that nationalists are willing to die specifically for Scott or his values. I see a willingness to fight (and die) for what nationalists themselves value, where preserving Scott’s life would be only a side-effect. (Perhaps even an unfortunate side-effect, since apparently he’s a “cultural traitor”.)

          By this measure, Chinese people also have died “for” Scott in World War II.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            The whole thing is just a conflation of self-interest with some sort of collective tribal or racial interest. And an assumption of inherent conflict between races and tribes.

            Sure, almost all of the time, what is good for my fellow citizens is good for me. But also almost all of the time, what is good for the Chinese is good for me.

            If my fellow citizens misperceive their interests and support a policy aimed at harming the Chinese, it may quite well be in my interest to side with the Chinese against my fellow citizens.

            And if you say there are inherent conflicts of interests between nations or races, there is no reason those conflicts can’t cut through national or racial lines.

            Maybe it’s in the interest of productive and virtuous people of all races to band together against irrational and destructive racial collectivists of all races.

            And the idea that you are located inside family which is inside tribe which is inside nation which is inside race is simply ludicrous. What if an American woman marries a Chinese man? Family now cuts across those other lines. Of course, friendships and business relationships also cut across these lines.

            Or maybe we should punish race defilers, I don’t know.

            As for this argument that says: “When the Yugoslav Wars come to America, cross-ethnic ties will break down and then you’ll be sorry!” All I have to say to that is: that is a very good argument for making sure that the Yugoslav Wars do not come to America. You can hedge your bets and prepare for the apocalypse. Or you can go all-in on progress and prosperity.

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          • windmill tilter says:

            > Sure, almost all of the time, what is good for my fellow citizens is good for me. But also almost all of the time, what is good for the Chinese is good for me.

            How do you define “good”? Money? Happiness? Respect?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ windmill tiller:

            Money and happiness, sure. Those were the things I meant.

            I’m not sure how “respect” fits into it. Having more respect more my fellow citizens / the Chinese means more respect for me? Less? Whose respect?

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          • windmill tilter says:

            I’m thinking respect as in the feeling that I would like to be like someone. And that is zero-sum, but in a world where war is uncommon, it’s crucial because the main way that things will change is for the people in one country to see what folks in other countries have and to want it. (Right?) But the zero-sum aspect means what is good for the Chinese (meaning, what makes the world as a whole respect China) is, often, not good for you or your fellow citizens.

            You can question why we should care what other countries think. So we can consider a measure of National Awesomeness-the more a country has, the more people elsewhere want to be like that country. In this situation, given the assumptions above, the world will become more Awesome and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Even a country that supposedly does not care what other countries think may eventually find itself so eclipsed by others in Awesomeness that parts of its population start wanting to rebel or defect to other countries. So the only real question is which country can be the model of Awesomeness for the others, and so have the most power to influence final outcomes.

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          • Sastan says:

            @ Nita

            Was your reply to me? I criticized Goldjet’s comment above. And I never called Scott a cultural traitor, in fact, I cited him as having noticed part of the phenomenon and written about it in his post.

            So……yeah, you appear to be arguing with someone else, I have no real reply to that.

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      • Publius Varinius says:

        > I’ve noticed this weird thing where people with nationalist views are totally incapable of conceiving of the idea that people could value foreigners and countrymen equally because they have vast amounts of fellow-feeling for both groups, rather than a lack of fellow-feeling for one.

        The nationalists could have very well noticed this weird thing where people with internationalist views are totally incapable of conceiving of the idea that most foreigners don’t value them at all, and will never value them, and will kill them in the most horrible fashions as soon as they become rich enough to do so.

        What makes this especially weird is that internationalism tends to correlate with being afraid of hate groups…

        /s

        > Your suggestion that we should care more about those who would die for us leads to conclusions that I think you would find quite unpalatable if you thought them through.

        My real point: “weird” only signals your confusion. Instead of immediately erecting straw men based on single sentences, maybe you could pose some questions to the nationalists to find out what they actually believe.

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        • Anonymous says:

          Who cares what nationalists believe? We’ve saw the consequences of their loathsome doctrines in the 20th century.

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          • Randy M says:

            Yes, comrade, international socialism has proven to be vastly superior to national socialism.

            (No, I’m not saying socialism is the only possibility, I’m saying maybe he’s not controlling for the right variable)

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          • Anonymous says:

            I see. The problem wasn’t with nationalism. They just didn’t implement it correctly.

            I’m sure we’ll get it right this time.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Randy M:

            International socialism really has never been tried. Not that I think it would work.

            In any case, nationalism is inherently collectivistic, so it’s unclear what kind of non-collectivist nationalism could be tried.

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          • Randy M says:

            Um, wasn’t the USSR at least trying to be international socialists?

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          • Protagoras says:

            The Soviet Union claimed to be trying to be international socialists. From at least the time Stalin took power, if not sooner, they were really just garden variety great power imperialist types, with a rationalization about as thinly veiled as any other great power imperialist types. The first and second international may have been international movements, but they never had much power. The third international was just an arm of the Soviet foreign service.

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        • Friday says:

          The nationalists could have very well noticed this weird thing where people with internationalist views are totally incapable of conceiving of the idea that most foreigners don’t value them at all, and will never value them, and will kill them in the most horrible fashions as soon as they become rich enough to do so.

          Yes, that’s why you get polling results like this if you ask people in other countries whether they like the US or not. I’m going to guess that if some guy in Burkina Faso doesn’t care enough to say “Yeah, those guys suck”, he’s also not going to kill me “in the most horrible fashions”.

          I’m not unfavorably inclined towards nationalism, and I certainly think the US government should prioritize the well-being of American citizens, but this is just relentlessly silly.

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          • windmill tilter says:

            That was an interesting link. I wonder how our standing in public opinion would be impacted by adopting a more bellicose foreign policy.

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    • null says:

      Who is going to attack us and when?

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      • Anonymous says:

        No one is going to attack us. But in order to justify extensive welfare and the opportunity for murders to murder without consequences, we need to pretend it is some noble endeavor.

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      • Publius Varinius says:

        Nobody is going to attack the U.S. in the near future. That’s because they don’t have to: the U.S. has already shown, and is continuously showing, that it is completely unwilling and incapable of defending its allies.

        The allies themselves are not so lucky.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          We only care about our own country, right?

          So what’s the problem here? Are you now the internationalist saying we should sacrifice for foreigners?

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          • Anonymous says:

            What ever it takes to justify war, because without war you can’t have real men.(tm)

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          • Jiro says:

            No, we don’t “only care about our own country”. We care more about our own country than about foreigners, we don’t care zero about foreigners.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Jiro:

            Publius Varinius has laid out a position that seems to disregard the welfare of foreigners. That’s what I meant: we—according to him—care only about our own country.

            I don’t know about you.

            As for me, I care about foreigners in the same way that I care about countrymen: instrumentally insofar as they benefit me. So I care about my father more than some random guy in China.

            But I also care about a given hard-working Chinese more than I care about a given lazy American.

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          • Jiro says:

            Publius Varinius has laid out a position that seems to disregard the welfare of foreigners.

            I don’t see him taking such a position here, if that means “consider them to be worth zero” rather than “consider them to be worth less”.

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          • Aegeus says:

            Publius’s position, on its own, is consistent with valuing foreigners. But Goldjet’s comment is what started off the exchange, and if you believe, as he does, that the foreigners are just waiting to turn on us as soon as they become more powerful, then it’s questionable why you value foreigners at all.

            But most likely, Goldjet doesn’t believe that literally the entire world is out to get us, he believes that some nations are allies and some are enemies. So I think the correct question to ask is isn’t “Do you literally hate all foreigners,” it would be “What actions will make a foreigner our ally rather than our future enemy?”

            Or to put it more concretely: “If we have a billion-dollar trade deal with China, are they really going to ruin that by going to war with us?”

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          • “Or to put it more concretely: “If we have a billion-dollar trade deal with China, are they really going to ruin that by going to war with us?””

            “”So I make a jest of Wonder, and a mock of Time and Space,
            “The roofless Seas an hostel, and the Earth a market-place,
            “Where the anxious traders know
            “Each is surety for his foe,
            “And none may thrive without his fellows’ grace.”

            http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/peace_of_dives.html

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          • Publius Varinius says:

            Trigger warning: equating people to animals.*

            At one point, two brothers came upon an abandoned farm. The farm had several animals – a lot of chickens, some horses, and a couple of lion cubs.

            The younger brother said: we should build a stable for the horses, keep them well, and they’ll carry us on their backs. We should feed the birds, and they’ll give us their eggs. We should nurse the lion cubs as well, and in exchange, they will keep the pests and the wolves at bay.

            The older, wiser brother said: we should build a stable for the horses. We should feed the birds. However, we should kill the lion cubs, or let them starve: lions are dangerous animals, and they will maim us or kill us if we let them live.

            The younger brother retorted: look how cute these kittens are! I feel good about helping them, and It would be sad if they starved. Besides, they have no reason to harm us, since they prefer being fed to starving. I insist that we feed them.

            The years have passed, and the cubs grew up to form a beautiful lion pride. They really kept the mice at bay, and the wolves quickly learned to avoid the farm. That said, some of the cubs maimed and killed each other on the way, as lions often do.

            One fine day, the lions raided the chicken houses. The brothers agreed that they will no longer feed the lions, but the younger brother said that the lions were too big now, so it would be unwise to try and save the chickens.

            By the next morning, the pride finished with all the chicken houses, and they moved on to storm the stables. Their livelihood threatened, the brothers rushed to defend their horses, and were killed by the lions.

            @Straw Vox Imperatoris: So why does the older brother HATE ALL ANIMALS? And why does he want to build a stable for the horses?!

            * These posts do not explain my actual views, they are mostly meant to be explorations of idea-space, and should be understood as caricatures at best.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Publius Varinius:

            Are you saying we should nuke Iran? Nuke ISIS? Nuke Saudi Arabia?

            Because there’s no need to be so damn coy about it. Some people are lions who are going to kill us in our sleep. There’s no need to darkly hint. “Name the enemy.” Name what you want to do to eliminate that enemy.

            I don’t know if we ought to nuke ISIS, but I am in principle sympathetic to the idea that we need to eliminate regimes funding and supporting Islamism. I certainly don’t think we should maintain alliances with them, as in the case of Saudi Arabia: I think that’s a typical example of range-of-the-moment pragmatism.

            I think we should not be reckless, we should be careful not to intervene in ways that are going to make things worse—but we should take whatever measures are necessary to ensure American self-defense and, to the extent that it’s compatible with our self-interest, the spread of freedom around the world.

            The folks at The Objective Standard are kind of…absurdly over-belligerent and frankly callous, but at least they don’t just hint. They say we should launch total war against these regimes.

            But none of that implies that we shouldn’t take in refugees fleeing that enemy. Or that American freedoms need to be restricted. Or that we have to invoke the principle of collective sacrifice or conscript unwilling people into the military to “die for us”.

            America has overwhelming military force and the capability to destroy any enemy without having one solider set foot on the ground. We don’t need more collectivism or more sacrifice. The only thing we need is a principled foreign policy based on protecting individual rights and the values of modernity.

            However, the enemy we’re fighting is an ideology and a religion. Not a race. So analogies involving lions are less than useless; they are actively harmful. They represent the same kind of anti-Enlightenment barbarism that must be fought.

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          • Publius Varinius says:

            > But none of that implies that we shouldn’t take in refugees fleeing that enemy.

            I thought the debate was about whether we should trade with countries (or send money and opportunities their way, which is what Scott talks about in the article) countries that will grow up to be “murderous lions”, or let them starve. In fact, the chicken house was explicitly intended to be an metaphor for the Russian occupation of the Crimea.

            I don’t recall saying anything about refugees.

            > America has overwhelming military force and the capability to destroy any enemy without having one solider set foot on the ground.

            The U.S. has no such capabiity. The only capability that comes close is deploying the ICBMs which are completely useless for “defending the stables” (not to say that some of the lion cubs have them as well).

            The U.S. population had no will to sustain a ground force of 100,000 in Iraq, even though doing so would have been vital for U.S. interests. The U.S. population had no will to provide the protection they promised to Ukraine. Like heroin addicts, the people of the U.S. were happy to give up long term happiness for short term convenience. From my perspective, what the U.S. needs is precisely more nationalism and more collective sacrifice.

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          • windmill tilter says:

            > it would be “What actions will make a foreigner our ally rather than our future enemy?”

            Or, does being cosmopolitan influence other countries to be more cosmopolitan? The most obvious negative reply here does not involve countries coming to kill us later. We have nuclear weapons. A more promising negative is that we make ourselves worse off and even if that helps China, the other countries in the world (possibly including China later on) say, look at these idiots who are now worse off, let’s not be like them, cosmopolitan values are harmful. And so we actually push them against free trade (or at least weaken ourselves to no end), because they want to act in ways that benefit themselves, whatever those are.

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    • If you insist on discounting the moral worth of aid (I don’t, but ok) consider that governments often use aid to assist with national diplomatic and cooperative objectives that serve their national interest. And also, some people that you help, not all, but enough, might actually really appreciate it and be inclined to support your country and its way of life at a later date. Regarding nerds, in an age where conflict usually involves a lot of technology, maybe a bunch of nerds aren’t necessarily too bad to have around? Most people (myself included) don’t really get the full reality of conflict, but that’s certainly not a problem limited to nerds, its just the unfortunate reality of living in a specialized society where no-one really understands the first thing about what other people do for a living.

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    • JBeshir says:

      It’s okay. We absolutely intend to infect them with our decadent Western values, too. 😛

      Chinese people have distributed, varied opinions like people of any other nationality, and like people of any other nationality most of them are decent. The few I’ve known have all been polite and nice, although that probably speaks more for the filtering imposed by the circles I run in. They will not be clamouring for their government to use its wealth to invade and exploit people just because they can in any manner different in kind to that which happens in the West.

      Plus, while cosmopolitanism is probably less common outside of the West, it’s massively on the rise worldwide. With the Internet, it’s increasingly hard to *not* encounter members of other nations and learn to regard them as human/ingroup. The Anglosphere is basically undergoing a full cultural merger (my feelings about this are mixed), and projects and goals and groups and subcultures are basically all international in a way that’s not been possible to nearly such a degree before. Language barriers reduce the effect, but technology threatens to effectively eliminate those.

      Tomorrow’s Chinese government might be less cosmopolitan-driven than tomorrow’s US government, but it is probably better than the US government was earlier in the 20th century. It wouldn’t go ridiculously exploitative on the basis of military force and nothing alone. And even if it wanted to, it isn’t like everyone is suggesting impoverishing the West, and population differences wouldn’t be enough to create the kind of force imbalance needed for that kind of military supremacy.

      Also, as has been pointed out by others, war is a massive expense for little gain in the 21st century. No one is going to do it out of selfishness, except in the proxy war way the US and Russia were fighting each other at best. Selfish people will be clamouring for the money to stay home and build nice things, as they mostly are in the West, not for insanely expensive and infeasible land wars a ridiculous distance away.

      And billions of people living longer by letting them get something more like the Western standard of living is at stake, and we aren’t going to throw them to the wolves just to mitigate niggling doubts without evidence.

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      • windmill tilter says:

        There was a lot of economic integration before WWI but it still happened. And, that war does not produce economic gain does not show that war will not happen. Countries may desire prestige (or glory) instead.

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    • anonymous user says:

      If you hate nerds so much, stop being one, nerd.

      Report comment

    • Anonymous says:

      Scott no longer bothers to hide the fact that he has so little fellow-feeling for Americans …

      You can’t think of any better method of choosing your 300,000,000 closest pals than that they dropped out of their mothers on the same side of an invisible line as you?

      What do you need 300,000,000 pals for anyway?

      Report comment

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Yeah, this post pissed me off, too. Reminds me of when Eliezer Yudkowsky retweeted this tweet by Robin Hanson.

      Report comment

  40. E. Harding says:

    Ctrl-F “migra”.

    Man, guys, you’re doing a terrible job here. Only Publius Varinius even mentions it. If this is something genetic, then why not survey first-generation immigrants from poorer nations? That should do the trick. There are a lot of them these days. Then try the second generation.

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    • piercedmind says:

      All kinds of noise associated with this approach. First generation immigrants do not experience steady economic growth, but rather an immediate jump, and second generation immigrants are, iirc, usually unhappier because they are torn between two cultures.

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      • E. Harding says:

        “First generation immigrants do not experience steady economic growth, but rather an immediate jump,”

        -Well, control for time spent in new country.

        “and second generation immigrants are, iirc, usually unhappier because they are torn between two cultures.”

        -You sure? I’ve never felt that problem exactly. I’m generally a happy person, and I seem to have gotten happier over the years.

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        • piercedmind says:

          As to second generation immigrants being unhappier, here is a quote from a study examining immigrants in Europe:
          “Immigrants and second generation individuals whose both parents are immigrants (G2) report lower levels of life satisfaction. Individuals belonging to G2 seem to be even less satisfied with life as a whole than the first generation immigrants. However, individuals whose only one parent is immigrant report slightly higher levels of both happiness and life satisfaction than natives who do not have any immigrant ancestor. ”
          https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228279224_Immigrants'_Life_Satisfaction_in_Europe_Between_Assimilation_and_Discrimination

          However, that does not really matter, because in both cases of first and second generation immigrants cofounders in both directions are imaginable:
          Not speaking the native language perfectly vs. being that kind of person who immigrates in the first place making you happier about new experiences, being torn between two cultures vs. speaking two languages.

          If we wanted to truly measure the effect of genetics here we’d have to look at adoptees from poorer countries. I could find no study doing this, unfortunately.

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          • Jaskologist says:

            I bet this is going to depend heavily on where the immigrants came from and where they ended up. I wouldn’t generalize from, say, Pakistani immigrants to Great Britain to Chinese immigrants to the United States.

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          • piercedmind says:

            @Jaskologist:

            I very much agree. It was just a side point to my overall point that studying immigrants would probably not be useful when trying to find out what effects their genes have on happiness.

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      • Publius Varinius says:

        The “immediate jump” hypothesis seems unlikely, given that the lottery studies show that the immediate jump of winning the lottery has the exact opposite effect (overall happiness is on the baseline, and the one hugely positive event blunts the impact of later positive events).

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  41. Luke the CIA stooge says:

    It would seem the ideas of happiness and life satisfaction are just poorly formed. What someone experiences from having sex, tucking in their child, winning a violent battle, etc. Seem to simply be very different forms of emotions that simply serve the role of rewarding successful behaviour.

    It could just be that life satisfaction /happiness is a longer term form of these rewards meant to reward long term performance at capacity. A tribesman with lots of food, a loving wife, shelter and good friends would be very happy since their is little better he can do. The same person living in a western society might be very unhappy despite sharing all of the same achievements in addition to having modern living conditions/life span because now he has more options and presumably could be doing even better. This is less a criticism of modern society than a failure of the concept of happiness/life satisfaction.

    If if we could create a pill that would make people feel perfectly content with their life, would that be a utilitarian boon or a fail state? It would seem their is a reason most older conceptions of liberal democracy and utilitarianism do not emphasize happiness/life satisfaction but rather the pursuit of happiness/freedom. It’s right there in the title utilitarianism as in utility, usefulness. Things which grant freedom by allowing more actions.

    This conception has the benifit of being relatively objective. You are objectively better off with A and the option to switch to B than you are with A alone, as if you prefer A the option of B changes nothing and if you prefer B your position is much improve by having the choice of it.

    Thus industrialization is a massive improvement as it greatly increases the options of vast numbers of people. Both by giving them longer lifespans (a long lifespan is objectively better than a short one as you always have the choice to end your life early) and by giving them vastly more options. This conception of utility also neatly does away with utility monsters so we don’t have to worry about weird people who get vast amounts of joy from seeing others suffer getting into our moral framework a fucking it up.

    It’s sad this conception of utility has gone out of style as this focus on happiness seems to give far to much weight to people’s emotional states, things policy can’t do much about, as opposed to increasing people’s opportunities to sort out their own shit. Something public policy can do

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    • piercedmind says:

      “This conception has the benifit of being relatively objective. You are objectively better off with A and the option to switch to B than you are with A alone, as if you prefer A the option of B changes nothing and if you prefer B your position is much improve by having the choice of it.”

      ” In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.”
      See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Paradox_of_Choice

      Note however that, as almost all psychology research with any real world significance, Schwart’s findings are being disputed.

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      • Luke the CIA stooge says:

        The thing with anxiety is its an emotion that serves a purpose: Making people focus on a choice or idea and consider alternatives. Thus it is not enough to say that a plethora of choices will increase consumer anxiety, that much should be obvious, but rather that that plethra increases anxiety in excess of any benefit the increased accuracy might give them. This is much harder to argue and I think impossible to justify.

        For example the choice you make in which house you buy could easily mean the difference between thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in happiness and money down the road (the tradeoff of whether to commute or not alone might come out to thousands of dollars a year.) in this case, assuming you Don’t make several hundred dollars an hour (in which case hire some one else to do this), it would probably be worth more than 20 hours of dedicated consumer anxiety and research to get that decision as acurrate to your needs as possible.
        The point is: it is not at all obvious that increased choices increases consumer anxiety to a point where it is actually a greater cost than benefit and it could easily be the case that people are NOT ANXIOUS ENOUGH about there consumer decisions.

        In this case decreasing their anxiety by decreasing choices would be less a boon to consumers than a cheap marketing ploy to create good feelings and exploit the irrationality of human decision making.

        The modern industrialized world should make people anxious as the most productive and valuable time people spend in it (in terms of happiness, money, freedom and security later on) is probably that time they spend anxiously torn between decisions and various options. If those 20 hours you spend picking a house save you only 1000 dollars and you usually make only 30 dollars an hour (60,000 dollars a year) then congratulations for that 20 hours you made yourself 50 dollars an hour, a 66% wage increase and a temporary boost to 100,000 dollars a year.

        And that’s if it’s ONLY $1000 once, if it saves you a thousand a year on gas or you look up the furnace a realize it would have died in a year and cost you 3000 in heating. If that happens then you might have been more productive and made more money in those hours than the highest paid corporate lawyers.

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        • piercedmind says:

          ” This is much harder to argue and I think impossible to justify.”
          I should have probably quoted the more relevant part, but this is exactly what Schwartz and other psychologists do:

          “Choice and Happiness. Schwartz discusses the significance of common research methods that utilize a Happiness Scale. He sides with the opinion of psychologists David Myers and Robert Lane, who independently conclude that the current abundance of choice often leads to depression and feelings of loneliness. Schwartz draws particular attention to Lane’s assertion that Americans are paying for increased affluence and freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of community. What was once given by family, neighborhood and workplace now must be achieved and actively cultivated on an individual basis. The social fabric is no longer a birthright but has become a series of deliberated and demanding choices. Schwartz also discusses happiness with specific products. For example, he cites a study by Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University who found that when participants were faced with a smaller rather than larger array of chocolates, they were actually more satisfied with their tasting.”

          Again, this is controversial, but the fact that it’s controversial means that choice is probably not the most important determinant of happiness.

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    • Deiseach says:

      If if we could create a pill that would make people feel perfectly content with their life, would that be a utilitarian boon or a fail state?

      Isn’t that the rationale behind the creation of the different grades of people in Huxley’s “Brave New World” – each caste is conditioned to be happy with its state and not to want anything different:

      “Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

      And between that and soma, everybody’s happy now:

      But Henry’s tone was almost, for a moment, melancholy. “Do you know what that switchback was?” he said. “It was some human being finally and definitely disappearing. Going up in a squirt of hot gas. It would be curious to know who it was–a man or a woman, an Alpha or an Epsilon. …” He sighed. Then, in a resolutely cheerful voice, ” Anyhow,” he concluded, “there’s one thing we can be certain of; whoever he may have been, he was happy when he was alive. Everybody’s happy now.”

      “Yes, everybody’s happy now,” echoed Lenina. They had heard the words repeated a hundred and fifty times every night for twelve years.

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      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        The suggestion in Brave New World is that they are not truly happy. They are just sedated like people on heroin. The obvious implication is that they repeat the slogan to try to make themselves believe something that isn’t so.

        If so, the objection isn’t that a pill to make people happy would be a bad thing. The objection is that there is no such pill. Maybe there is no such pill; that’s not terribly implausible to me. But then people should be straight about what the objection is.

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        • Jeffrey Soreff says:

          If so, the objection isn’t that a pill to make people happy would be a bad thing. The objection is that there is no such pill.

          Or no such pill now

          To the extent that we are on hedonic treadmills, with stable setpoints from biochemical feedback loops, perhaps the right place to look for improvements is indeed in pharmacology, but with somewhat different endpoints than with anti-depressants. Closer to looking for long-term mood elevation, with the usual double-blind placebo-controlled studies?

          Re Brave New World – With a relatively small amount of change (replacing epsilons and deltas with electronics), I wouldn’t consider it a dystopia, but rather a considerable improvement over what we have. To me the interesting question isn’t whether an alpha/beta/gamma BNW is desirable but whether it is feasible.

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          • I’ve known a couple of people who appeared to be unusually happy most of the time. Both of them were sane, energetic, productive people with what I think of as glow in the dark personalities. I’ve wondered if the explanation might have to do with brain chemistry, and if so whether it might be possible to duplicate the effect artificially.

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          • Jeffrey Soreff says:

            @David Friedman

            I’ve known a couple of people who appeared to be unusually happy most of the time. Both of them were sane, energetic, productive people with what I think of as glow in the dark personalities. I’ve wondered if the explanation might have to do with brain chemistry, and if so whether it might be possible to duplicate the effect artificially.

            Many Thanks!

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  42. Vita Fied says:

    I still am not convinced in any way that free trade harms American workers.

    It might in the way that robots are. AKA, the large amount of cheaper goods and displaced people need to be countered by better working hours and better minimum wage laws, or some variant of a guaranteed income, perhaps with some corresponding provisions.

    I mean, the intuitive argument for me, its if somehow a large amount of much cheaper products are flooding your country, and you can’t find a way to make it successful, then that is a structural problem. An old carrot and stick method of structuring a society that no longer works well, but can be replaced with something that *should* be better.

    If we can’t use lots of cheap things correctly, then we fail at organizing society.

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    • Deiseach says:

      Cheaper goods are great if the displaced workers are all in new jobs earning money to purchase those goods. But if the jobs are not being created in the traditional industries, and the new “knowledge economy” takes brains and specific talents that a lot of people will not have, where are the replacement jobs going to come from (and let’s forget the pipe-dreams of “local neighbourhoods built in a barter economy” where your wife can somehow make a living from baby-sitting the neighbour’s kids – but not charging commerical childcare rates – while you do handyman work here and there; everyone in the neighbourhood is going to be making a living taking in one another’s washing, is that it?)?

      The problem with a basic income or the like is that it butts right up against the idea of “something for nothing”, that we will be paying people to sit on their behinds and do nothing. Think of the recent comments on another post here where a lot of people said they could not imagine not having something to do all day, and that the perceived alternative to work was “sitting at home playing games or hanging around with your friends”.

      That if you don’t contribute or earn your basic income in some way (compulsory volunteer work seems to be the most popular idea, which rather makes an oxymoron of “compulsory voluntary”) then you don’t deserve it and you are moreover a parasite on the people who are working, the wealth creators/participants in the knowledge economy who pay taxes to support your idleness.

      And that is not confined to any particular political/social view; Red or Blue or Grey Tribe, conservative or liberal, the idea still is “do something for your free money, even if it’s only picking up litter, or else you’re a leech”.

      The notion of the dole sponger and the welfare cheat is well ingrained over here now, so that it’s an easy sell even for Labour (the party of the working class, it used to be) to claim they are cracking down on benefit fraud (and as we’ve also discussed on here before, actual fraud – as distinct from splashy press releases – is a very small amount and runs much the same percentage in most countries regardless of whether they’re liberal or conservative) rather than instituting things like basic income.

      So it’s a real problem: what do you do with the surplus workers that aren’t needed and realistically have little chance of getting different jobs, or at least not a job that will keep them at the same level of income/respectability as they used to have?

      I’d love to believe our new robot economy will mean three hundred workers all working four hour days for three days a week on full wages of the five day week plus overtime kind, but realistically it’s going to be four guys on rotating shift patterns (such as this which is the kind my brother used to work before his recent promotion and which is a fucking killer over time as it goes on, as it messes with sleep patterns, eating, exercise, everything) overseeing the robot production lines where the three hundred used to work.

      So what happens the two hundred and ninety-six workers let go because they’re not needed? They all get second careers in Silicon Valley start-ups as programmers and entrepreneurs? And how much labour can those absorb, each year every year over a decade of school-leavers coming into the workforce, especially when the low-hanging fruit is replaced by robots and things like the professions (law, medicine) are getting picked off as well?

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      • Anon. says:

        This is just elaborate lump of labor nonsense. Completely fictional scenarios that nobody will ever need to worry about.

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        • Deiseach says:

          Really? Nobody will ever need to worry about losing their job and not being able to find one at the same level of income or indeed any job?

          This is probably an exaggerated estimate, but if half of current jobs can be done by robots (including sex work, so you can’t even peddle your ass for a living), we will need to create new tech and new labour markets pretty damn fast out of nowhere, or else face up to a lot of people not having work.

          Sure, there are jobs now that even thirty years ago weren’t even a dream. But if unpaid interns are the way forward in a lot of industries, including the creative ones (the Huffington Post UK editor who boasted they don’t pay their writers because that means their work is more authentic than if they got paid for it) and the robots are doing the rest of formerly paid labour, what are you going to make a living at?

          Hand-carved ethnic knick-knacks to sell to the few oligarchs who have private fortunes from their stock options in the robot-labour run factories, while you stand by the roadside touting for their business? “Oh look Meera, genuine American vernacular chair! How much? No, no: too much.” “Never mind, Anil, just take a picture with your smartwear and we can get the robot handyman to 4-D print it for us at home for nothing!”

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          • Anon. says:

            >Nobody will ever need to worry about losing their job and not being able to find one at the same level of income or indeed any job?

            We are talking about aggregates here, I’m sure there will be some individuals who fall under that description. That’s not really relevant.

            Unless you have a really good story about how this particular round of productivity improvement is different from all the previous ones, this is just a repetition of the Luddite argument. Yes there is a small unemployment effect in the short term associated with productivity shocks, but the long-run effect is in the opposite direction. People have been constantly worrying about technologically-driven unemployment for two centuries now, and (in accordance with the most simplistic and obvious econ101 analysis — ask yourself what happens to demand for labor when productivity increases) it has never happened.

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      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I favor wage subsidy over basic income because it will still encourage the people who are, say, really efficient at doing laundry to do everyone’s laundry, and the people really efficient at babysitting to watch everyone’s kids, etc etc.

        And there is still plenty of work to be done, particularly in poor neighborhoods.

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        • Deiseach says:

          Efficient laundry on that scale is opening a laundromat or dry cleaning service, not doing it at home in your domestic washing machine and hanging the clothes out the back to sun-dry. The days of Mrs Murphy with the washtub are long gone. Efficient childcare is more than merely babysitting, as the cases over commercial creches being sued prove. Mrs Jones may need to take in twenty kids to make a living at the prices neighbourhood parents are willing to pay, and can she really keep an eye on twenty kids aged three and under herself? She’ll either be using her own family as unpaid labour, or skivvies from neighbourhood kids on “work experience” – and if you’re positive a fourteen year old girl will be cool and calm when dealing with infantile febrile convulsions when she’s never seen such a thing before, I’m sure you’re happy to hand your baby over to an untrained minor child to mind.

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          • “and if you’re positive a fourteen year old girl will be cool and calm when dealing with infantile febrile convulsions when she’s never seen such a thing before, I’m sure you’re happy to hand your baby over to an untrained minor child to mind.”

            In our case a twelve year old, although she might have been eleven when we first hired her as a babysitter.

            The original plan was that she would watch our daughter while my wife made dinner, and similar situations. It turned out that she was a twelve year old adult, and we did in fact feel safe leaving our daughter with her when neither of us was in the house.

            Many years later, I got an email from Brande, who had come across some reference to me online. She was now an air force fighter pilot and sent me a picture of her with her plane.

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          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Mrs Jones may need to take in twenty kids to make a living at the prices neighbourhood parents are willing to pay,

            Hence wage subsidy. If the parents pay $3/hour and the state pays $4/hour, everything becomes a lot more viable.

            The point of wage subsidy is to lift up all those whose labor is below the threshold and keep them attached to the task of making one’s way in the world, instead of having them (and their kids) be completely and forever removed from the labor pool.

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      • Noumenon72 says:

        I was on 2-2-3 but we didn’t rotate from day to night every week, that sounds crazy. I agree that working your few valuable employees hard seems to be more likely than keeping on a bunch of nonvaluable employees.

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      • Cadie says:

        We managed to get to a 40-hour work week from a much longer one. Granted, there are a lot of salaried exceptions and overtime pay, and some people have two jobs, so it’s not a full switch, but many fewer people work 60-80 hours a week than used to, and 40 is considered “standard” at the same pay that you’d get for working much more.

        I don’t see why we couldn’t drop this down further in small increments. Make a 35-hour workweek standard for awhile as technology increases productivity so most jobs that used to take 8-hour days now take 7. Then cut it down to 30 hours a decade later. Drop the number of days from 5 to 4 to get a 24-hour work week. Eventually, if we adjust down along with technological advances, we’ll reach a point where people work one or two shifts a week so there are enough jobs to go around and machines do the rest.

        As for basic income, that works well with it too, if the basic income is minimal, enough to allow the person essentials like food, housing, and essential medical care but not a lot beyond those. Then they’d have to work to afford luxuries beyond the occasional small treat, incentivizing most people to work while not withholding life essentials if they don’t. It’s not realistic right now, but it’s something we could phase in slowly, perhaps by relaxing certain welfare benefit restrictions first and then replacing the smaller benefits with small basic incomes (ex. maybe around 2045, EVERY citizen and legal resident gets $100/month plus $50 for each additional person older than 1 in the household for food, a bit more for babies, and we eliminate food stamps and other food assistance programs since everyone gets the benefit anyway) until we reach the point of very short work weeks and basic income together.

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    • Vaniver says:

      I still am not convinced in any way that free trade harms American workers.

      So, agreed that mechanization is a more serious threat to labor than globlization is. But it seems clear that even if the total number of manufacturing jobs is the same, the composition of them is different–and switching costs associated with losing job A and then acquiring job B may make it long-term negative, even if job B and A are equivalent.

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  43. Wrong Species says:

    Scott, you’re so close. I don’t see why you haven’t given up on utilitarianism yet. That’s not to say that you have to ignore consequences completely. Just stop making it the entirety of moral concern. If you wanted to you could try to quantify consequences, deonotological rules and virtue ethics and try to spit out some model but if you’re only trying to “Maximize X”, then you aren’t really any better than the the Paperclip Maximizer. People are complex with overlapping, sometimes contradictory values. There is never going to be a consistent ethical theory that aligns with our moral intuitions. Now maybe our moral senses are wrong, but how would you ever know? It’s imperfect but it’s the only thing we have.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      So what good does giving up utilitarianism do? I still don’t know whether it’s a good idea to try to help China develop or not, now I just also don’t know anything else.

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      • Wrong Species says:

        I guess it’s not so much that you necessarily give up on utilitarianism but that you stop trying to hold on to it so tightly. I would consider economic development to be good in itself but I’m not trying to maximize it at the expense of everything else. If it made us miserable then I would suggest some limits. But if it doesn’t have any effect on happiness, then it’s still a good thing. The problem is the mindset that you have to maximize something. You don’t.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          Why is economic development a good thing if it doesn’t increase happiness?

          What is it for? We build the factories just to have them?

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          • Wrong Species says:

            You can argue against my values all you want you aren’t going to change them. I consider economic development a good in itself because I just do. Humans aren’t like animals because we have the capacity to do so many incredible things that they can’t. It’s just a pathetic waste of our abilities if we myopically focus on making ourselves happy.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            I’m not going to try to “convert” you. But I think if you thought about the reasons for your values, you would change your mind. I’m not saying that everyone does value happiness exclusively or that you have to value happiness. I just think that it is valuable for its own sake and nothing else is.

            You think it would be a waste to see humanity “not use its potential”. Seeing that potential “wasted” would make you unsatisfied, i.e. unhappy. Is it really true that you are imagining a situation where you are completely satisfied in the knowledge that humanity is “not using its potential” but object to the situation anyway?

            For that matter, we have the potential to do all kinds of crazy things. We have the potential to light people on fire or stick forks in our stomachs. How do we determine which ones to actualize?

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          • Deiseach says:

            I just think that it is valuable for its own sake and nothing else is.

            Nothing at all?

            But anyway, happiness “for its own sake” doesn’t really exist. We can only experience happiness, or know we are, by having at least the idea of unhappiness (hunger, cold, pain, failure, discontent, rejection, etc.)

            Are you happy that you breathe? Or is that a meaningless question, because you only know that not breathing is an unpleasant, painful experience, and if you never choked or had any interference with your breathing, you would be as unaware of it as you are of your blood flowing (does the flow of your blood make you happy?) Happiness for itself is not a meaningful concept: we value happiness because we have had the experience of unhappiness. One is pleasant, one is not. It is no more an ethical value than the experiment we all learned of in junior cert biology about an amoeba moving away from a prodding instrument; the movement from an intrusive/negative/painful/possibly damaging stimulus has no ethical value or no value for its own sake.

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          • Wrong Species says:

            @Vox

            Yes, it would make me sad now but I’m still against the idea even if wireheading could alter my preferences where I wouldn’t care anymore.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Deiseach:

            Yes, nothing at all.

            Your example doesn’t show what you think it does.

            We have the concept of happiness because we can distinguish it from unhappiness. But happiness would be just as good if we didn’t know what it was and never knew anything different.

            Should I torture you just so that you can appreciate how nice it is not to be tortured? I guess if that actually improved people’s happiness by more than the torture reduced it, it would be good. I just find that implausible.

            @ Wrong Species:

            I’m not saying you can’t value that. I’m just saying I don’t think you have a good reason to, and it’s against your own best interest.

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      • Abandoning utilitarianism as a complete moral theory might make possible a better fit to your moral intuitions. It helps me make sense of my distaste for wireheading or Nozick’s experience machine. Or my reaction to the hypothetical in _Machinery_ where convicting and hanging one innocent man prevents a mob from lynching two or three innocents.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          I don’t see what’s wrong in theory with hanging the innocent man to save the other innocents. Especially when we’re not talking about saving them from natural causes but from being hanged themselves.

          It’s just that, in real life, it doesn’t work. It would undermine the rule of law, lead to rightful distrust of the justice system, and so on.

          You know all of those things subconsciously, and it’s hard to put them aside when someone posing a hypothetical says, “Ah, but what if those things didn’t apply?”

          It’s the same sort of reasoning as “millions for defense, but not one cent in tribute”. If you start paying tribute, you gain in the short run but people start taking advantage of you.

          ***

          And it’s no different with trolleys, either. Someone who would push a fat man in front of a runaway trolley would be a psychopath who didn’t understand much about physics. In real life, you have a heuristic where you look really hard for other ways before you decide to harm innocents.

          It’s totally understandable that people just transfer that feeling they get from actual familiarity with reality to the invented hypothetical situation. And then try to rationalize the feeling in strange ways.

          It’s like any kind of subconscious bias, like when a man who survives the Bataan Death March sees all the future Japanese he meets as evil and untrustworthy.

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        • Deiseach says:

          convicting and hanging one innocent man prevents a mob from lynching two or three innocents

          It’s a bad precedent. If the mob is pacified by you hanging one man, why did they want to lynch the three others? Either they think all four are guilty, or you can convince them the three others are innocent but the guy you are going to hang is guilty, which you would have to do anyway – you can’t just ride up and say “We hanged Bob who really did it, now let these guys go” unless the mob can be convinced Bob was really guilty, which means they must have some doubt about the guilt of the three others.

          Otherwise, the mob learns that all it needs to do to get you to do a repugnant deed is threaten to kill somebody. “Hang Tom or we’ll hang these two men we just pulled off the street!” “But Tom didn’t do anything!” “Yeah, but we hate him because of his face/if he’s dead, Bill can marry his widow Annie/I can get his job at the canning factory/I’ll get his land at a knockdown price when Annie has to sell up to pay his debts”.

          It smacks rather too much of “It is better that one man should die for the sake of the people” 🙂

          The only way it works is you have four suspects. One of them probably did it, but you don’t know which. The restless mob is rioting outside and threatening to rush the jail, drag them all out and hang them, so you pick one guy at random (maybe you draw lots) and hand him over as a sacrificial lamb. You can’t be absolutely sure he’s innocent (and neither can the mob) but neither can you be absolutely sure he’s guilty.

          Otherwise, if you know the guy you hanged is innocent, you’re a murderer. Which is the point of these cutesy experiments: “Aha! So you agree that murder is not absolutely wrong under any circumstances, therefore you do not believe in absolute moral values, therefore – ” and we all know the rest of the song. It’s to get you to agree that murder is sometimes justified (and if you try to argue that it’s not murder, they hammer you on that point) and thus something something Nietzsche something something Blond Beast something something the Superman.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            Otherwise, if you know the guy you hanged is innocent, you’re a murderer. Which is the point of these cutesy experiments: “Aha! So you agree that murder is not absolutely wrong under any circumstances, therefore you do not believe in absolute moral values, therefore – ” and we all know the rest of the song. It’s to get you to agree that murder is sometimes justified (and if you try to argue that it’s not murder, they hammer you on that point) and thus something something Nietzsche something something Blond Beast something something the Superman.

            Yes, the exact purpose is to get you to agree that murder is not inherently wrong. Its wrongness depends on the consequences.

            The whole rest of your post is just fighting the hypothetical. You can say the hypothetical is extremely unlikely (I agree it is unlikely), but in that case you should have no problem saying that murder would be right in that case but that such a case is so unlikely in the real world that it’s a better heuristic to categorically never do it.

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          • @Deiseach:

            My post was specifically responding to Scott. While there is no reason you should have realized it, the reference was to a scenario sketched in more detail in a book of mine that he has read.

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          • hlynkacg says:

            Yes, the exact purpose is to get you to agree that murder is not inherently wrong. Its wrongness depends on the consequences.

            The problem I believe Deiseach is highlighting is that utilitarianism doesn’t allow one to distinguish between such circumstances.

            For example, at this point Himmler and Rascher’s “Exitus” Experiments have saved many more lives than they claimed, so from a utilitarian perspective Heinrich Himmler and Sigmund Rascher are heroes.

            Does this mean we should start rounding up ethnic minorities and using them as guinea pigs?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ hylnkacg:

            There are many examples of people who have won millions playing the lottery. That doesn’t make it a good bet.

            The fact that you can show some benefits from occasional Nazi experiments doesn’t show that they have a positive expected return. And I highly doubt that you can show net benefits without ignoring some of the costs, but I’ll take that part for granted.

            If Nazi experiments had a positive expected return, they would be good. On the other hand, you have to consider: good for whom? Certainly not good for the victims. Maybe for the “greatest number” but why does any particular person care about that?

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      • moridinamael says:

        (Preference) Utilitarianism is fundamentally a way of trying to extend or extrapolate a preference ordering onto a numerical scale so you can trade some goods off of other goods quantitatively.

        Utilitarianism has rules, like, “If you prefer A to B, and B to C, then you cannot prefer C to A.” Human beings violate this rule all the time, though. So Utilitarianism is only applicable to domains where humans are moderately rational and have carefully weighed and understood relevant tradeoffs.

        You can try to use Utilitarianism to decide whether you should trade eating dessert for a 0.03% increase in the median Chinese person’s income. But you should also put very little weight on whatever your conclusion comes out to be. The conclusion will be essentially a Fermi estimate – you’ve subliminally made up 15 numbers parameterizing all kinds of unknowns about your life, and the Chinese person’s life, and how that money is going to get to them, and what the unknown impacts might be, and multiplied those 15 made-up numbers together.

        You wouldn’t trust that number if you were building a bridge, don’t trust it when you’re doing charity.

        (I am mainly talking about Preference Utilitarianism because all the other ones have the same problems but much worse.)

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      • Do you really think that giving up an ethical framework – which is, after all, a conceptual construct that is subordinate to our experience, and neither its source nor (as you’ve recently come to realise) a very good description of it – is going to cause the experiences from which it is derived to disappear or be invalid?

        If you’re used to the feeling of ‘knowing’ the answers to the ‘problems of ethics’ – or at least of having an ethical framework which you’re confident will allow you to ‘know’ – it my be difficult to go from there to the state of the openness and uncertainty of not knowing; it may perhaps be painful as well.

        But if you’ve organically arrived at a point where you do not know, it’s best to acknowledge that, too. What’s the point in denial? At least when you know that you don’t know, you can perhaps be open, move forward, let actual experience guide you.

        (It’s a different matter if you’ve not arrived at that point organically; I’m not suggesting that you should pretend to not know when intuiting/thinking/feeling that you do. I’m just suggesting that if you’re at a point where the only thing stopping you from jettisoning a framework that is no longer ‘working’ is the fear of not knowing, it’s almost certainly better to acknowledge that that is the case, and to be open to (or open up again to) your moral intuitions, than to stick with it out of a fear of not knowing. After all, it isn’t providing the certainty or knowing that you sought anyway. And if your moral intuitions are aligned with the framework, they’ll continue to be even if the framework isn’t there.)

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    • Wrong Species says:

      And I think it’s fair to say that preference utilitarianism raises more questions than it solves. It’s not very practical.

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    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      I object to utilitarianism because it’s altruistic, but I don’t see anything wrong with “maximize personal happiness”. I don’t think I have contradictory values. I don’t think other people would either if they really thought about things clearly.

      What does it mean to say that you aren’t “better than” the Paperclip Maximizer?

      The problem with the Paperclip Maximizer, from the perspective of human beings, is that it interferes with their ability to maximize their happiness. Not that there’s something inherently wrong with maximizing things.

      Anyway, if people don’t have some single terminal value, ethical theory is pointless. There is just no way of coherently telling people what to do in that case.

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      • Wrong Species says:

        So if everyone was wireheading themselves and letting civilization crumble, you would have no problem with that? Some people may bite that bullet, but I don’t think many would. Most people have values beyond maximizing happiness.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          If civilization crumbled and the electricity stopped being produced, presumably the wireheading would stop and people would quickly become very unhappy.

          The point of civilization is that it promotes people’s happiness. Otherwise, you’re divorcing the means from the end. It’s like being a miser and earning money just to hoard it.

          I am just saying with Aristotle that happiness is a completely self-sufficient thing and the ultimate good. You can certainly argue that particular things are necessary constituents of a happy life. Maybe it’s not possible to be happy without art or family or something.

          If so, then all you are saying is that wireheading is impossible.

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          • Wrong Species says:

            Lets just assume that wireheading could continue regardless of whether civilization collapsed. People would do nothing but wirehead until they died. Would you still support it?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Wrong Species:

            Assuming that we’re talking about wireheading in the sense of producing directly the intellectual satisfaction, contentment, etc. (and not just physical pleasure) that people normally produce indirectly but in a lesser amount by means of reading books, thinking philosophically, watching movies, playing games, interacting with friends and family, and so on…

            Yes, absolutely.

            Right now I’m writing things on the internet because I find it enjoyable to think and write about. If I could just get the enjoyment directly without the typing and mental effort, I would do it.

            Of course, it’s possible that the mind is set up such that you just can’t have the enjoyment without the effort. In that case, the effort is the necessary price to pay. That sort of thing would mean wireheading is impossible. You could have Nozick’s experience machine, though. I have no objection to that.

            I think people object to wireheading because they imagine it like being hooked on cocaine in a self-destructive way, or like handing out trophies to everyone instead of people who put in the effort to win the game. Giving out a trophy in that way would be unsatisfying, no doubt. But what wireheading proposes to do is to give the full satisfaction of winning the game without having to do any work.

            I think people’s “moral intuitions”, like their “intuitions” in other areas, are nothing more than “an inarticulate sense of something caused by one’s experience with similar situations”. Since wireheading is such a dissimilar situation, people map it to the wrong analogies and come out with silly answers.

            Maybe it’s true that “no pain, no gain”. That would be unfortunate. But we should still be looking for ways to get all the gain with none of the pain.

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          • TheAncientGeek says:

            There’s a logical gap between happiness being the highest good, and your own happiness being the only good. There’s also this issue of whether a decision system that doesn’t take other people into account, should count as ethical at all.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ TheAncientGeek:

            There’s a logical gap between happiness being the highest good, and your own happiness being the only good.

            Of course there is a logical gap.

            I just don’t think there’s an argument for other people’s happiness being a terminal value for you. Nor do I think it is self-evident.

            Other people’s happiness does play a large role instrumentally.

            There’s also this issue of whether a decision system that doesn’t take other people into account, should count as ethical at all.

            Exactly like how communism doesn’t count as an economic system because it’s not founded on respect for private property rights.

            There’s no point in trying to hard-code altruism into the definition of ethics this way. It’s not historically founded, since the Classical interpretation of the task of ethics was always to tell people how they should live.

            The idea that ethics only deals with how you behave towards others is a modern invention. If I were to accept that definition—which I don’t because that’s allowing it to steal the positive connotations—then I would make up a new word like schmethics which includes altruistic and non-altruistic codes of telling people how to live.

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      • Are you saying that if you could increase your happiness by a little at the cost of killing a thousand innocent people you would do so? I expect you can work out for yourself some bizarre hypothetical in which the killing itself doesn’t seriously lower your happiness.

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        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          I think Richard Lawrence addressed this well in a response to a similar hypothetical from Michael Huemer:

          As Huemer notes, an alternative possibility to Problem 2 is for egoists to, in his words, “Reject the intuition.” That is, they could accept that it is true that “A -> (B -> C)”, but say that there is nothing wrong with that. In other words, they could claim that “C” is actually a morally acceptable outcome in situation “B”. When the outcome is one that would normally be considered immoral and even horrifying — in one of Huemer’s examples, killing a homeless man, in another the deaths of four million people — then people are often reluctant to take such a stance. However, it is not clear that such reluctance is justified. The scenarios typically set up to lead to such conclusions are far from commonplace situations, and thus there is often no reason to think that any ethical evaluations made in such a hypothetical situation have implications for real-world situations. For his more detailed example, Huemer finds it necessary to equip himself with a disintegrator gun, as well as making several dubious stipulations about social conditions and human psychology.

          Why should any ethical analysis for such a way-out situation, however repulsive the conclusion may seem, affect our acceptance of one ethical theory versus another? Imagine that Huemer got Objectivists to agree that if rat poison were safe and nutritious for human beings, it would be acceptable to sell it as food. It would be very misleading for him to turn around and say, “Objectivists think it is sometimes OK to sell rat poison as food! They’re evil!” To develop a hypothetical filled with assumptions that are not true in the real world, and which probably never will be true in the real world, and then denounce a moral theory for the conclusions it draws from it, is no less inappropriate than the rat poison example.

          […]

          Rand did not directly address the issue of whether rights as defined in Objectivism are side constraints or not. Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which is supposed to represent Rand’s views, also does not directly address the issue. Tara Smith’s Moral Rights and Political Freedom makes a case that Objectivism is better described as “teleological” rather than “consequentialist,” and portrays respect for rights as a necessary instrument of that teleology. In any case, extremely strong instrumental goals and side constraints are virtually indistinguishable in practice. Incorporation of rights as either a side-constraint or as an extremely strong instrumental goal would both suffice to rule out Huemer’s examples.

          I think this kind of thing is just another form of what Scott calls the “noncentral fallacy” or the “worst argument in the world”. The paradigmatic examples of killing a thousand people are in situations where it is bad—precisely because it has consequences that redound against the perpetrator. If you take away everything that makes killing a thousand people against your interest, you don’t have any reason not to do it; and then if you got some kind of kick out of it, you’d have a small benefit and no costs. So why not?

          The problem is taking the moral judgment that applies to one situation and transferring it to a very different situation—while downplaying how different the situations really are.

          I find the prospect of killing a thousand people horrifying because I do indeed have a basic sense of human empathy. And it would be a violation of rights that would undermine the rule of law, and it would mean I would be hunted down and killed by any decent people. If none of those things applied, then there would be nothing wrong with it. Instead of quoting the whole Fitzjames Stephen passage I always quote when this comes up, I’ll just say: “No doubt, if all religion, all law, all benevolence, all conscience, all regard for popular opinion were taken away, there would be no assignable reason why men should do right rather than wrong; but the possibility which is implied in these ‘ifs’ is too remote to require practical attention.”

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          • Nita says:

            The paradigmatic examples of killing a thousand people are in situations where it is bad—precisely because it has consequences that redound against the perpetrator.

            Uh, no. Stalin died in his bed, without suffering any substantial consequences for having many people executed for no good reason — but that doesn’t make his actions less bad.

            The idea that intuition can fail if the situation is unusual does make sense, though.

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          • Anonymous says:

            Playing the lottery has bad payoff, even if once in a while someone gets lucky.

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          • John Schilling says:

            Uh, no. Stalin died in his bed, without suffering any substantial consequences for having many people executed for no good reason

            Well, he died in bed. Painfully, surrounded by doctors and other associates who may have encouraged the process or at a minimum “worked to rule” in offering treatment.

            Coincidentally, his last round of purges was of allegedly traitorous doctors accused of attempting to murder Soviet officials.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Nita:

            Yeah, I don’t think Stalin’s a good example of someone who had a really happy life as a result of being a dictator. And as people pointed out, most people who played the game of trying to be in Stalin’s place didn’t turn out even that lucky.

            Nor did innocent Russians were murdered for no reason. But I’m not saying even if you do everything right you can’t still be harmed by factors outside your control. That’s the point of the ending to Ayn Rand’s We the Living by the way: that no one is safe under dictatorship, which is why it is so terrible.

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          • Nita says:

            @ Vox Imp

            You said nothing about “most people”, originally. You said “paradigmatic examples” — and Stalin seems to be the paradigmatic example here on SSC.

            Plus, dying at the age of 74 is not a steep price to pay for ruling the largest country in the world for 30 years. (Not that I’d want that, but Stalin probably did.)

            Maybe it would be nice if some supernatural force made sure mass murder always had a negative expected payoff. But I don’t see a reason to believe such a force exists, so, to help us adjust the actual payoff, among other things, our moral theories need to accommodate cases where bad deeds don’t have bad natural consequences.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Nita:

            Stalin is a paradigmatic example of a murderous dictator, sure. Is he commonly regarded as having benefited on net from it?

            It seems like his power-lust and paranoia made him a worse, more unhappy person.

            The point about “most people” in his position is that even his unhappiness was a relatively lucky outcome. The expected utility of trying to be Stalin is much lower than Stalin’s utility, which was itself low.

            Maybe it would be nice if some supernatural force made sure mass murder always had a negative expected payoff. But I don’t see a reason to believe such a force exists, so, to help us adjust the actual payoff, among other things, our moral theories need to accommodate cases where bad deeds don’t have bad natural consequences.

            If the actions don’t have bad natural consequences, why exactly are they bad?

            I mean, I can think of examples where it is genuinely in your interest to kill innocent people for a relatively small benefit. War is the most obvious. You can debate the necessity, but the commonly held view is that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused Japan to surrender more quickly and saved American lives that would have been lost in a ground invasion. There was still only a small chance that any particular soldier would die in that invasion, so each Japanese life lost only translated to a small expected gain for a given soldier.

            Some people, of course, do say that the bombings were reprehensible. I don’t really agree. Nevertheless, it’s certainly true that little children in Hiroshima didn’t partake in some kind of collective guilt. They didn’t deserve to die.

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          • Nita says:

            If the actions don’t have bad natural consequences, why exactly are they bad?

            Because they have bad consequences for the victims.

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Nita:

            It’s possible for something to be good for some people and bad for others.

            Even in a situation where there is no absolute conflict, things are not good in the same respect or to the same extent. It is good for Africans that they have clean drinking water. It is also good for me that they have clean drinking water. But although it’s a good of the highest level for them, it is only a minor good for me.

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          • Nita says:

            @ Vox Imperatoris

            I don’t see what that has to do with anything? If by “bad” you always mean “bad for the actor”, then saying “the paradigmatic examples are bad only because they’re bad for the actor” is tautological.

            OK, let’s start over. You said, “[murder] would be a violation of rights that would undermine the rule of law, and it would mean I would be hunted down and killed by any decent people.”

            1. Why do you call such people “decent”, rather than simply self-interested?

            2. Have you considered that persuading others that they should indulge every sadistic or anti-social urge, as long as they can get away with it, might also undermine the rule of law?

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          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Nita:

            1. Why do you call such people “decent”, rather than simply self-interested?

            Does being decent conflict with being self-interested?

            People can be motivated by self-interest, but depending on what they think their self-interest is, they can act in very different ways. I think that if people act according to what is called “enlightened self-interest”, they will act in a way generally described as “decent”.

            In contrast to criminals who may be motivated by self-interest but don’t have the right conception of what it is.

            It’s the same sort of difference between altruism in general and “effective altruism”. After all, many Communist and religious atrocities have been motivated by altruism. They weren’t acting in other people’s actual best interests, but they thought they were.

            2. Have you considered that persuading others that they should indulge every sadistic or anti-social urge, as long as they can get away with it, might also undermine the rule of law?

            First of all, that is not what I am advocating.

            If you are trying to lose weight, should eat a cookie every time you can get away with it without anyone catching you?

            You shouldn’t cheat on your tests instead of learning the material, even if you can get away with it, because it’s a bad habit. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you have to keep cheating because you have no way of catching up on the material—and at a certain point you’re most likely going to get caught.

            And if you in general value honesty and diligence, you’re going to feel guilty and conflicted even if you don’t get caught. If you don’t value those things, you’ll lose the benefits from them in other areas. You can’t just say “well, I’ll lie just when the situation calls for lying and tell the truth just when it calls for telling the truth.” They are heuristics.

            Anyway, I’m not sure what “sadistic” behaviors you have in mind, but I suspect they wouldn’t be in your interest. Now if it’s just something like being a little bit unnecessarily mean to people, it’s bad but probably not that bad. But if it’s like torturing people in your basement, I don’t think that’s going to work out well for you.

            ***

            But to address your main point, sure, I have considered the idea that telling people that it is moral to be self-interested will make the world worse.

            The first thing to consider is that, if true, that doesn’t mean the theory is false. It just means you shouldn’t say it. That was pretty much the Sophists’ theory: that everyone should outwardly praise (what is commonly called) “virtue” and appear to act that way, but when no one is watching they should pursue a private life of “vice”. If Gyges gets the ring and refrains from robbing and raping out of “virtue”, you’d be a fool to praise vice and make yourself a target. But you should be cackling on the inside at what a rube he is: he’s actually taking this stuff seriously, while the smart people merely pretend to be “virtuous”.

            However, that’s not my view. My view is that when people are told that there is a great conflict between morality and self-interest, they view morality as a ball-and-chain. There’s what you want to do, which is just random and arbitrary, and then there’s morality coming in to preach about which of those things are allowed.

            Since people regard morality as an imposition, they “cheat” on it most of the time, engaging in what Scott calls “unprincipled exceptions”. They work to limit the scope of morality by setting arbitrary rules (like “give 10%”) or simply try to dodge situations that would require them to act on it (as in “Newtonian Ethics”).

            But even though they hardly act on it, this vestigial morality keeps them from developing any kind of genuine principles to guide their behavior. Their avowed principle is still some form of altruism like Christianity or utilitarianism. They can’t honestly name any kind of consistent egoistic code, even though 95% of what they do is egoistically motivated in fact.

            As a result, they end up acting in a less benevolent, more crudely self-centered way because anything they do in a “non-moral situation” is inherently a “pragmatic” matter of arbitrary preferences.

            Joseph Rowlands has a good talk on this, “Eliminating the Altruistic Baggage”. He goes into more detail, listing six elements of the “altruistic framework”:

            1.) Measuring in terms of cost.
            2.) Morality for its own sake.
            3.) Morality is in conflict with your life.
            4.) Balancing morality with everyday life.
            4a.) Exceptional situations.
            4b.) A set of rules.
            5.) Morality as a limit on actions.
            6.) Having a separate process for moral choices and practical choices.

            The big advance of “effective altruism” is trying to knock out 1 and 2, maybe 5. But it still has a lot of it.

            I’m not trying to say that “egoism is the real altruism”. I think a perfect altruist would do more to benefit others than a perfect egoist, obviously. But trying to promote altruism is not going to make people perfect altruists. It’s going to make them people who do a minimal amount for one moral standard and “cheat” the rest of the time by acting in an unprincipled way. Because people want to be happy and they can see quite well that if they followed altruism consistently, they wouldn’t be.

            I think promoting “effective egoism”, i.e. enlightened self-interest, is going to be better for everyone than promoting, directly or indirectly, unprincipled behavior.

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    • Theo Jones says:

      My thoughts are similar but a bit different. In my opinion there are two types of ethical issues: 1) there is a scarce resource, multiple people have a want for it, but have differing interests, values, and preferences. Who should get it?, 2) What is the good life? What type of person should you be? What should your interests, values and preferences be?

      Preference utilitarianism is probably the best answer for 1. But it has no answer for 2. I lean towards some type of virtue ethics/consequentialism hybrid for 2.

      Hedonistic utilitarianism provides a dubious answer for both.

      This issue of development and happiness has elements of both, but is mostly in the realm of 2.

      Edit to expand the second part.

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    • Ghatanathoah says:

      People are complex with overlapping, sometimes contradictory values.

      This is a good argument against utilitarianism, but not against consequentialism. I agree with you that we need a complex form of consequentialism that assigns value to lots of different things. But I think consequentalism beats out other forms of ethics in terms of “making logical sense” and “not failing at basic decision theory.”

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    • Vita Fied says:

      There isn’t a way utilitarianism *can* be wrong the way its defined.

      Its the only moral system that’s tautological true from a very basic definition standpoint.

      Basic fundamentals written like an idiot, since I don’t think its more complicated.

      1. Feeling good is good.
      2. Feeling bad is bad.
      3. More good is gooder.
      4.More bad is badder.

      And some plausible consqeuences.

      a. Good can cancel out bad and vice-versa. People do this intuitively with “Work hard and be bored now, and be rewarded more later)

      I believe that’s one of the most basic thing missing from set theory. Or tautological frameworks of any reality’s. The emotional component is missing, and I think that’s a fundamental force that’s very difficult to measure so far.

      Its just that humans are quite complicated. Almost as complicated as Dwarf Fortress, but not quite. So most version of someones utilitarimism applied to humans don’t work well.

      As far as I can tell, utilitarianism simply *can’t* be wrong when trying to create some framework of decision making boiled down to its smallest and most simple precepts.

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      • Bugmaster says:

        There are still multiple ways in which utilitarianism can be wrong. For example:

        1). You say “Feeling good is good”, but is this different from the tautology “feeling good feels good” ? If the answer is “no”, then utilitarianism is useless since it tells you nothing new.

        2). You say that “More good is gooder”, but how do you aggregate goodness ? Does it add up linearly, logarithmically, polynomially, or what ? Does all goodness have the same weight ?

        3). Are “good” and “bad” different intensities along the same spectrum, or not ? If the answer is “no”, then you’ve got the same issue as with #2, only squared.

        4). Even assuming that the answer to #1 is “yes”, is it even possible, in principle, to measure the total amount of good — or even the local amount of good — in the world ? If the answer is “no”, then utilitarianism is still useless, albeit for a different reason.

        5). If “most version of someones utilitarimism applied to humans don’t work well”, as you concede, then shouldn’t we be looking for something that does work well ? Utilitarianism becomes kind of like phlogiston theory in that case: internally consistent, logically elegant, and yet still totally false.

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        • Jordan D. says:

          I think you’re right in principle, but…

          1) I think this is certainly not the case- utilitarianism explicitly says that feeling good *is* what goodness is. A traditional, say, Catholic deontological system would tell us that feeling good has nothing to do with The Good (although they often do correlate).

          2) This illustrates an actual point of contention among utilitarians and the utilitarian-adjacent, but I don’t think the fact that there are significant difficulties with quantification renders the whole exercise pointless.

          3) I don’t think I’ve ever seen a utilitarian argue that good and bad are anything but the same spectrum- after all, a unit of disutility is just a negative unit of utility.

          4) This is a reasonable question for debate.

          5) I think this would be a better objection if there was a general agreement that any other particular ethical system does work better.

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        • Vita Fied says:

          Well, its not that it tells you nothing new. Really, I believe that its fundamentally important. I believe utilitarianism is correct the same way set theory is correct. It seems impossible to contradict based on what seems to be the most fundamental truths on emotion.
          There’s only a few other “truths” I can think of in philosophy. “I think/feel therefore I am”.

          As for 5, I simply worded it poorly. I simply don’t believe it *can* be wrong. Its applied poorly though.

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      • TheAncientGeek says:

        Well, you need to show that feeling good is an ethical good, and distinguish egoism and altruism, and aay something about obligation…

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