THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Value Differences As Differently Crystallized Metaphysical Heuristics

[Previously in sequence: Fundamental Value Differences Are Not That Fundamental, The Whole City Is Center. This post might not make a lot of sense if you haven’t read those first.]

I.

Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s posts. Some of the best comments seemed to converge on an idea like this:


Confusing in that people who rely on lower-level features are placed higher, but the other way would have been confusing too.
We need to navigate complicated philosophical questions in order to decide how to act, what to do, what behaviors to incentivize, what behaviors to punish, what signals to send, and even how to have a society at all.

Sometimes we can use theories from science and mathematics to explicitly model how a system works and what we want from it. But even the scholars who understand these insights rarely know exactly how to objectively apply them in the real world. Yet anyone who lives with others needs to be able to do these things; not just scholars but ordinary people, children, and even chimpanzees.

So sometimes we use heuristics and approximations. Evolution has given us some of them as instincts. Children learn others as practically-innate hyperpriors before they’re old enough to think about what they’re doing. And cultural evolution creates others alongside the institutions that encourage and enforce them.

In the simplest case, we just feel some kind of emotional attraction or aversion to something.

In other cases, the emotions are so compelling that we crystallize them into a sort of metaphysical essence that explains them.

And in the most complicated cases, we endorse the values implied by those metaphysical essences above and beyond whatever values we were trying to model in the first place.

Some examples:

People and animals need a diet with the right number of calories, the right macronutrient ratios, and the right vitamins and minerals. A few nutritional scientists know enough to figure out what’s going on explicitly. Everyone else has evolved instincts that guide them through this process. Hunger and satiety are such instincts; when they’re working well, they make sure someone eats as much as they need and no more. So are occasional cravings for some food with exactly the right nutrient – most common in high-nutrient-use states like pregnancy. But along with these innate heuristics, we have culturally determined ones. Everyone has a vague sense that potato chips are “unhealthy” and spinach is “healthy”, though most people can’t explain why. Instead of asking ordinary people and children to calculate their macronutrient and micronutrient profile, we ask them to eat “healthy” foods and avoid “unhealthy” foods. There’s something sort of metaphysical about this – as if “health” were a magic essence that adheres to apples. And in fact, sometimes this goes wrong and people will do things like blend a thousand apples into some hyper-pure apple-elixir to get extra health-essence – but overall it mostly works.

EXPLICIT MODEL: Trying to count how many calories and milligrams of each nutrient you get
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Feeling hungry or full
REIFIED ESSENCE: Some foods are inherently healthy or unhealthy
ENDORSED VALUE: Insisting on only eating organic foods even when those foods have no quantifiable benefit over nonorganic

Every society has some kind of punishment for people who don’t follow their norms, whether it’s ostracism or community service or beheading. There’s a good consequentialist grounding for why this is necessary, with some of the most academic work being done in the field of prisoners’ dilemmas and tit-for-tat strategies. But again, we don’t expect ordinary people, children, and chimpanzees to absorb this work. The solution is the (innate? culturally learned? some combination of both?) idea of punishment. Punishment relies on a weird metaphysical essence of moral desert; people who do bad things deserve to suffer. The balance of the Universe is somehow off when a crime goes unavenged. Take this too far and you get the Erinyes and the idea that justice is the most important thing. There are references from ancient China to Hamlet that if you have something important you need to avenge, you need to do that now or you’re a bad person. None of this follows from the game theory, but it’s a really good way to enforce the game-theoretically correct action.

EXPLICIT MODEL: Trying to figure out how to best deter antisocial behavior and optimize society
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Feeling angry when someone wrongs you
REIFIED ESSENCE: Justice: the world is out of balance when crimes go unavenged
ENDORSED VALUE: Wrongdoers must suffer whether or not that prevents future crimes

If you reward people who create value, sometimes those people will be inspired to keep creating value. This is hard for people to keep in mind, and there’s a constant temptation to confiscate other people’s things for our own enrichment. Some kind angel gave us the metaphysical idea of “deserving”, the opposite of punishment. We get rights claims like “People deserve to keep what they’ve earned”. Five thousand years of taxation have made only a partial dent in this intuition, to the point where many people still feel like something is going wrong when a producer and the value they produced are separated. Some would argue that this has gotten completely out of hand, to the point where we insist on people keeping money far past the point where it could possibly be any further incentive to them.

EXPLICIT MODEL: Letting people keep what they produce incentivizes further production
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Anger when someone takes something rightfully yours
REIFIED ESSENCE: Natural rights; governments cannot take away property rights because they are ordained by God or natural law
ENDORSED VALUE: You can’t take people’s property, whether or not this will affect further production

In past societies, STDs were a common cause of death and disfigurement. Nobody had the medical knowledge to really understand what an STD was or how to avoid getting one. But every society had some kind of complicated code of sexual purity. Usually this was designed from a male perspective, and said that women who had sex with too many other men were “impure”, virgins were especially “pure”, and a woman who had only had sex with you was “pure” relative to you. These rules protect people who follow them against STDs, and plausibly culturally evolved for that purpose (among others). But because no one knew about STDs, the rules rely on a kind of metaphysical notion of “purity” that doesn’t correspond to any real-world characteristic. For example, someone who’s had sex with a hundred people but who nevertheless never contracted an STD would seem metaphysically “impure” by the rules, but in reality safe to have sex with; this would be irrelevant to medievals who had no way to identify such people, but is very relevant now. Or: if you have good sexual protection and STDs are easily treatable, the whole “purity” system seems a lot less important, but if you think of it as a metaphysical construct important in its own right you might not realize this.

(before you tell me that STDs aren’t important enough to inspire something as universal and compelling as sexual purity laws, remember that in the pre-antibiotic era about 10% of city-dwellers had syphilis (see studies from early Mesoamerica, 1700s Chester, early 1900s London. During this period syphilis had a mortality rate of up to 20%, with survivors often permanently unhealthy and disfigured. And this is just one of many dangerous STDs!)

EXPLICIT MODEL: Figuring out the likelihood that your partners have STDs helps you avoid high-risk pairings
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Feeling grossed out at the idea of having sex with somebody who “sleeps around”
REIFIED ESSENCE: Idea of sexual purity
ENDORSED VALUE: It’s wrong to be slutty or have sex with a slutty person even if there are effective strategies for preventing STDs

Most people are happier when they’re in at least some Nature, whether this means a grand national park or just a leafy suburb with lots of chirping birds. The average person would consider a concrete lot full of Brutalist apartments a little soul-crushing. This probably comes from an evolutionary heuristic in favor of fertile areas and against barren ones; the closest chimpanzee-parseable equivalent to a concrete lot would be a desert or lava flow, where food and shelter are scarce. But nowadays we can order takeout, and the Brutalist apartment buildings provide all the shelter we need. This is probably another obsolete evolutionary relic, but it’s a very persistent one.

EXPLICIT MODEL: More plants and less gray rock means a more hospitable area with more food sources
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Contentment when surrounded by plants; depression when surrounded by concrete
REIFIED ESSENCE: Idea of “Nature”
ENDORSED VALUE: Environmentalism; the preservation of Nature for its own sake whether it benefits humans or not

Value differences, then, are people who operate at different levels of the ladder.

For example, “sexually liberated” people might use condoms, or ask their partners to check if they have STDs. But having done this, they’ll ignore the metaphysical idea of “purity”; they don’t care how many other people their partner has had sex with. And if they’re not planning to have sex with someone, they’ll ignore their “purity” full stop – having STDs doesn’t make you a bad person. These people explicitly model the complicated dynamic of STD contagion, and cast off the metaphysics as a primitive approximation they no longer have any use for.

Traditional or religious communities are more likely to endorse values based on the “purity” metaphysical essence. They understand the biology of STDs just as well as the sexually liberated people. They just don’t care. On an intellectual level, they believe that sexual purity is more than just a predictive model of STD risk, or that they’ve gained some additional function in the meantime, or that the predictive model still works better than calculating it out explicitly. Or they might not think in these terms at all, and value purity as a terminal good. Or they might be following their instincts in a way that can’t be reducible to anything at all.

Other people are somewhere in between. I know in theory that I cannot get AIDS through touching infected blood left on a sheet or chair. Absent some sort of very unlikely chain of events involving weird mouth ulcers and very fast turnaround times, I can’t even get it by rubbing the blood on food and eating it. But I would still feel more than zero trepidation about doing this. It would seem that even though I identify with the sexually-liberated explicit-complicated-dynamic-modellers, I have some weak vestige of the metaphysical purity heuristic left. This makes me more sympathetic to people with the full version. They don’t seem like weird mutants too stupid to figure out what an STD is, they feel like people with my instincts magnified a million times until they’ve become irresistible.

I have tried very hard to cultivate a vital rationalist skill called “admitting I am being an idiot while feeling no obligation to change”. That is, I feel comfortable saying I’m being very silly by objecting to touching the HIV-infected blood. If someone were to lecture me that admitting this obligates me to touch the blood or else I will have proven myself a hypocrite, I would tell them to go jump in a lake. This is important because I’m pretty sure my purity-instinct urge not to eat HIV-infected blood is stronger than my urge to be right about factual issues. If I was forced to either eat the blood, or to make up some plausible-but-false reason why the experts were wrong and blood was unsafe, I would make up the reason. And then not only would I not eat the blood – a venial sin if ever there was one – but I would be obfuscating the debate, screwing up lots of people’s ideas about epidemiology, and taking a step on the slippery slope toward becoming a dishonest and dishonorable person. I would rather just admit I’m silly.

But I think this is a hard skill, one that I often get wrong even despite frequent practice, and one I don’t expect anyone to succeed at all the time. I think some people with strong metaphysical heuristics – around HIV, around sex, around whatever – are going to get to work justifying them. If many people share a certain strong metaphysical heuristic, then there will be entire communities dedicated to researching justifications for it, coming up with philosophy around it, and reinforcing one another for being wise and good enough to believe it.

I think this is a big part of where value differences come from, and why I’ve insisted that despite the differences being real, they’re not incomprehensible. Most people have at least some level of metaphysical-STD-purity-intuition. And most people have at least some level of explicit-dynamic-modeling-of-STD-risk. Our differences come not from some people being enlightened and other people being mutants with the bizarre idea of “sluttiness” as a terminal bad, but by settling on a different part of the ladder from totally-endorsed-value-based-on-essence to total-explicit-modeling.

II.

A natural interpretation of Part I: people with explicit modeling are smart and good, people who still use metaphysical heuristics are either too hidebound to switch or too stupid to do the modeling.

I think this is partly right, but since our goal is to make value differences seem less clear-cut and fundamental, I want to make the devil’s advocate case for respecting metaphysical heuristics.

First, the heuristics are, if nothing else, proven to be compatible with continuing to live; the explicit models often suck.

Soylent uses an explicit model of nutrition to try to replace our vague heuristics about “eating healthy”. I am mostly satisfied with the quality of its research; it generally avoids stupid mistakes. It does not completely avoid them; the product has no cholesterol, because “cholesterol is bad”, but the badness of cholesterol is controversial, and even if we grant the basic truth of the statement, it applies only at the margin in the standard American diet. If you eat only one food item, you had better get that food item really right, and it turns out that having literally zero cholesterol in your diet is long-term dangerous. This was an own-goal, and a smarter explicit modeler could have avoided it. But explicit models that only work when you get everything exactly right will fail 95% of the time for geniuses and 100% of the time for the rest of us.

And even if Soylent had avoided own-goals, they still risk running up against the limit of our understanding. Decades ago, doctors invented a Soylent-like fluid to pump into the veins of patients whose digestive systems were so damaged they could not eat normally. These patients tended to get a weird form of diabetes and die. After a lot of work, the doctors discovered that chromium – of all things – was actually a really important dietary nutrient, and nobody had ever noticed before because it’s more or less impossible to run out of chromium with any diet except having synthetic fluids pumped into your veins. After years of progress on nutritional fluids, the patients who need them no longer die; we can be pretty sure we’ve found everything that’s fatal in deficiency. But these patients do tend to feel much worse, and be much less healthy, than people eating normal diets. How many mildly-important trace micronutrients are left to discover? And how many of these are or aren’t in Soylent?

We know that for some reason eating multivitamins does not work as well even for vitamin-having purposes as eating food with the relevant vitamins in them. This seems to have something to do with absorption and bioavailability, but we’re not sure what. Does Soylent have the good bioavailability of food, or the bad bioavailability of multivitamins? Nobody knows, because we still don’t quite understand how bioavailability works. All we know is that evolution seems to have found one viable solution, given that people who eat food do not immediately die. If we replace food with intelligent application our best available explicit models, we might do okay – or we might feel vaguely ill all the time because there’s something important we’re missing.

On the society-wide level, the sort of explicit-modeling that created Soylent becomes high modernism, the philosophy critiqued in James Scott’s Seeing Like A State. You subject everything to the command of a central planner, who is supposed to be able to explicitly model social dynamics, and try to prevent people from using fuzzy evolved heuristics like tradition or “the way things are”. The extreme version of this is those Young Adult Dystopias: can’t justify exactly why there should be families? Then families are just obsolete detritus of our evolutionary past, and we should form a Department Of Child-Rearing that takes all kids and subjects them to carefully-doled-out industrial-scale parenting techniques.

Second, all of our values are unjustifiable crystallizations of heuristics at some level, and we have to have some value.

One of the examples above supposes that our love of nature comes from heuristics about where to find food and water. Suppose we proved this conjecture was right. Given that we can now order pizza and bottled water to concrete lots, the heuristic is obsolete. Does this mean we should stop caring about nature, and cut down all our forests and national parks and replace them with concrete lots? Suppose this would be very profitable, and that on cost-benefit analysis this outweighs the practical economic benefits of wild spaces (carbon sinks, drug discovery from exotic species). Is there any remaining reason we still want the national parks?

Compare this to punishment-for-the-sake-of-punishment. Maybe now we can replace this with an explicit model of consequentialist punishment where we should only punish people up to the point where it’s necessary to have a safe and stable society. Returning to the dialogue:

Simplicio: I admit – I believe in punishment in a sense stronger than as a heuristic for consequentialism. I think it’s morally important, in a terminal sense, that evildoers be made to suffer for their deeds. Not suffer infinitely. But suffer some amount proportional to how much they hurt others. I want this regardless of whether it deters them or not.

Sophisticus: But that’s just reifying a weird misfiring of an obsolete heuristic about how to maintain a safe community.

Simplicio: Yup! And me wanting Yellowstone to continue to exist is just reifying a weird misfiring of an obsolete heuristic about how to get delicious elk meat. And surely you don’t want to pave over Yellowstone.

Sophisticus: I take joy in Yellowstone. That’s an emotional experience in my brain. I’m happier and more comfortable in Nature. Even if the heuristics that produced this are wrong, that feature of my brain isn’t going away any time soon. So on a consequentialist level, I can argue that Yellowstone should be maintained for my sake and the sake of everyone else who enjoys it, even though I’m not sure my enjoyment comes from a reasonable source.

Simplicio: I take joy in watching murderers and rapists get what they deserve. This is a base-level pleasure for me, just like seeing trees and mountains are for you. I am under no more imperative to justify what I want than you are.

Sophisticus: You are, though. Because you directly desire for people to suffer, which violates some of our other shared values. We have to reach reflective equilibrium among our values, and for me at least the value to wish happiness rather than suffering on other people overwhelms the desire for punishment.

Simplicio: First, I think we should be careful to frame it the way you just did: “Making people suffer for their crimes is good, but this is outweighed by other goods”. If we say it that way, it sounds no more exotic than the trolley problem.

Sophisticus: It’s at a –

Simplicio: – but second, if paving over Yellowstone would have economic benefits, then those benefits would cash out in jobs, lower housing costs, cheaper consumer goods, and the like. All of those produce utility for people. Both of our weird preferences – mine for punishment, yours for nature – satisfy some crystallized heuristic at the expense of general utility. I still fail to see how we’re different.

Sophisticus: I agree that preserving Yellowstone may incidentally fail to maximize utility. But it seems like you’re directly aiming at reducing people’s utility. That’s a pretty big difference.

Simplicio: Exactly which principle are you invoking here? The act-omission distinction? Or the principle that the morality of an act depends upon what feelings are going through your head when you do it?

Sophisticus: Um…

Simplicio: Because I think both of those are sometimes useful – as heuristics. But if you’re going crystallize those heuristics, let me have my crystallized heuristic about punishment.

Simplicio is actually being nice here. If he wanted to be especially brutal, he might ask Sophisticus something like – wait, why are we privileging utilitarianism (here being called “consequentialism”, but it seems like both of them are working from an implicitly utilitarian framework) anyway? Utilitarianism says that what’s really important is reducing suffering, but we can invent an evolutionary story for that too. We want to help other people and make them happy because that’s a useful heuristic for creating a flourishing community, being well-liked, and being likely to have other people help us in our own time of need. But some utilitarian applications of this principle go beyond that; certainly caring about effective charity for the Third World, or wild animal suffering, or anything in those realms brings us just as far from the proper domain of our help-and-don’t-harm-others heuristic as how to build a suburb with widely-available pizza delivery takes us from our nature-as-fertile-lands heuristic. Why should we privilege the harm foundation over the justice foundation? Why not just say “My urge to relieve suffering conflicts with my urge to inflict punishment on evildoers. Both urges have their place, and either can be extended out to infinity with weird results. Today I choose my urge to inflict punishment; tomorrow I might choose the other. So it goes.”

To be absolutely brutal about it:

EXPLICIT MODEL: Helping others will key me in to networks of reciprocal altruism and raise my status in the community
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Desire to help others, empathy, horror at the suffering of others
REIFIED ESSENCE: “Utility”
ENDORSED VALUE: Utilitarianism, the belief that maximizing utility is the highest good regardless of what other goods it produces

III.

Leave it there, and the fundamental-value-differences narrative starts to sound more appealing again. I reify and endorse utility, you reify and endorse punishment, now we have to fight. So I want to talk about how in principle people end up choosing what level to crystallize heuristics at.

First, let’s be blunt: dumber (here meaning either less educated or lower-IQ) people probably crystallize heuristics lower on the ladder. Chimpanzees, cavemen, and children can’t understand game theory and shouldn’t try. They usually run off instinct and taboo, and if you take that away from them they will just get confused.

There are widely replicated findings that higher-IQ and more-educated people tend to be less socially conservative. Social conservativism means a lot of things, but I think in this case it’s probably a stand-in for where you crystallize your heuristics; sexual purity intuitions are an obvious example. This makes sense; smarter people are probably more successful at explicit models, or at least have a higher estimation of their likelihood of success at such models. Smarter people do better on the Cognitive Reflection Test, a measure of whether people go with snap intuitive answers or try to explicitly model situations.

But there’s also reason to think that the more exposure someone has to a heuristic-relevant situation, the more compelling the heuristic will be. I described how my great-grandmother, usually a very kind and forgiving person, became more vengeful once someone close to her was murdered; I was able to partly replicate her experience just by vividly imagining terrible crimes happening to people close to me. This matches the cliche that “a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested”.

One of the weirdest examples of this is the germ theory of democracy, which finds the presence of tolerant multicultural individualist societies to be correlated with pathogen stress even after accounting for other relevant confounders. In this view, people at high risk of disease feel an urge to stick to people they know well – their family members, neighbors, and co-ethnics – to avoid the sort of mixing that spreads exotic pathogen strains. People at low risk of disease are more cosmopolitan, happy to receive anyone who comes around.

Related: people crystallize heuristics on a lower level when the system the heuristic is meant to model is a system they care about getting right. Consider Haidt’s Moral Foundation of Authority, which he says conservatives have and liberals lack. This fits nicely into the explicit-model-to-essence-to-endorsed-value model. The explicit reasoning is that social groups need to coordinate, and once whatever mechanism you have to produce rules has produced its rules, people need to respect and listen to them or else they’ll be in a Hobbesian state of nature. Liberals may say they’re “against authority”, but when the Vice-President of the NAACP asks an NAACP staffer to prepare a report by next week, she will probably prepare a report by the next week, not just because she’s afraid of being fired but because the NAACP will fail if it can’t handle basic tasks like “get reports prepared”. When a labor union leader tells the workers to strike, they will probably strike, even if they don’t feel like it, because they know that unless they act as a coordinated group they’ll never be able to exert any power. So:

EXPLICIT MODEL: Top-down organization is an effective way to coordinate large organizations
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Respect, deference
REIFIED ESSENCE: “Authority”, “legitimacy” (in the sense of “this guy is the rightful king, but that guy is a pretender”)
ENDORSED VALUE: Respect for authority

Frimer et al (study, popular article) have done some work on this. They find that when you ask people to imagine “Authority”, they imagine a police officer, a military commander, or some other stereotypically conservative figure who conservatives respect and liberals do not. Since liberals have little interest in making the police more effective, there’s no reason for them to “respect authority” in this case. When researchers give subjects the example of some environmental organization trying to coordinate its environmental activism, liberals are much more likely to say people should respect the authority of the organization leaders.

A more recent study (study, popular article) found similar results, although with similar caveats. They were investigating a construct called cognitive rigidity, and asked questions like “true or false: a group which tolerates too much dissent among its members cannot exist for long?”. Conservatives tend to agree with the base question more, but when you specify “an environmental group”, liberals agree more. I still think this is kind of stupid and more about liberals’ willingness to agree to anything that sounds vaguely pro-environmental. At one point they’re investigating the question “A dead hero is better than a live coward”, they change it to “When it comes to preventing global warming, a dead hero is better than a live coward”, and liberals just go ahead and agree with the statement instead of asking what the f@#k. I consider these studies very questionable and preliminary. But here are some true-or-false questions I offer to the next person to do a study like this:

A: It is dangerous to show too much mercy to people who commit crimes
B: It is dangerous to show too much mercy to people who commit gun violence

A: Barack Obama was the president, and his opponents should have treated him with respect even when they disagreed with his policies
B: Donald Trump is the president, and his opponents should treat him with respect even when they disagree with his policies

A: If I were an employee in a company, I would try to carry out the CEO’s orders even if I disagreed with them, because otherwise we would be disorderly and totally ineffective
B: If I were a member of a labor union, I would try to carry out the union leader’s policies even if I disagreed with them, because otherwise we would be disorderly and totally ineffective

I’m not asserting that liberals and conservatives would answer their respective questions exactly the same. My guess is that even in a value-neutral way, conservatives have these foundations a little more crystallized than liberals, just as they have most other heuristics a little more crystallized than liberals. But I am saying that nobody has done this experiment correctly, and I am suspicious that the groups would be closer than people think.

People can choose metaphysical heuristics or explicit models based on their own innate tendencies, their education, their intelligence, their experiences, and what kind of question we’re thinking about. Rather than talking too much about fundamental value differences, we should be asking where a given person has chosen to place themselves on the metaphysical-heuristic-to-explicit-model ladder at any particular moment.

IV.

This way of looking at things will be valuable if it helps people who crystallize heuristics at different levels understand each other. Here are a couple of common mistakes I think I see:

People who endorse values based on crystallized essences might think that people who use explicit models are weirdly and inexplicably evil, because the essentialists assume the modelers believe in the essences but don’t care about them, or prefer the opposite. If you believe in Essential Purity, then someone who doesn’t might seem like someone who supports Essential Impurity, rather than somebody working off a totally different system.

On the opposite side, if you’re a pure consequentialist, you might see someone who endorses crystallized-essence values as doing something inexplicable and evil. If you think of it as no different from what you do when you like nature, it might be easier to understand.

I have to bring these up because they’re obvious, but really I don’t see either of these that often. The main mistake I see is people on both sides having at least moderately good understanding of how to do explicit causal models, but accusing the other of being Neanderthals who only care about a crystallized-metaphysical-essence and have totally abandoned reason.

That is, I see communists assuming every single libertarian in the world is a fundamentalist about property rights and thinks they’re so sacrosanct that they must be maintained even in the face of horrible suffering, whereas they (the communists) quite reasonably want what makes a flourishing society full of happy people. Whereas the libertarians say they just want universal wealth and prosperity, whereas communists so bloody-mindedly attached to the metaphysical principle of Equality that they don’t care whether attempts to create it will lead to gulags and total economic collapse.

I see cosmopolitans believing that they want what’s best for society, but that nativists are working off an essentialist racism, where foreigners are inherently inferior in some vague metaphysical way. And the nativists, for their part, are arguing that they’re really concerned about the effects of too much immigration, but the cosmopolitans’ blind adherence to Multiculturalism as good in itself makes them unwilling to debate the real-world consequences of their actions.

Since most metaphysical heuristics are a stand-in for something real, we should expect blocs of allied people to contain some people who want the real thing, and other people who are running metaphysical heuristics that point at the thing. That is, the Tough On Crime bloc will have some members who just want to deter crime more, and other members who believe criminals deserve to suffer because of metaphysical Justice. The Soft On Crime bloc will have some members who question whether people need a ten year prison term for stealing a CD-ROM, and others who believe that prison is torture (metaphysical essence!) and so unconscionable regardless of its deterrent effect. If both sides try to position themselves as the hard-headed practical people, but weak-man the other side as having some incomprehensible metaphysics that makes them impervious to reason, that’s going to effectively shut down the possibility of debate.

Except my actual position is that the same sort of experiences that give you the metaphysical Justice intuition – having personally been a victim of crime, really caring a lot about making it as rare as possible, not being very well-educated – are also likely to make you overestimate the consequentialist value of deterring crime (and vice versa for the other side). My guess is a lot of people fluidly move back and forth between these levels, just as I would expect people who are very interested in only eating organic food to also be more likely to care about what percent RDA of vitamins are in their food. This isn’t sinister, or a reason to think that people are only claiming consequentialist arguments for their heuristics. It’s just a natural consequences of the way our values get produced and the fuzziness in everybody’s value system.

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381 Responses to Value Differences As Differently Crystallized Metaphysical Heuristics

  1. Fluffy Buffalo says:

    I think your spectrum model captures a large fraction of the value differences out there, but this:

    Value differences, then, are people who operate at different levels of the ladder.

    assumes that, at a base level, everyone shares the aims of each particular moral dimension. I don’t think this is true. For example, how do you fit people who go to barebacking parties to get infected with HIV and be done with it, into the mold of “sexually transmitted diseases are bad, and we take different approaches to avoid them”?

    • nestorr says:

      Well if everyone was following ideal behaviour we wouldn’t need principles or heuristics or laws.

      As an aside, I suspect that sort of thing is mostly an urban legend and blown out of proportion, but risk seeking is a thing.

    • I think the implication is that the statement applies in general, and that there may be groups who don’t share the common aims, but that they are so small in number as to be generally irrelevant. Or at least I don’t think Scott believes that all aims are absolutely and totally universal, no exceptions. His entire point in all of these articles seems be that we should update our priors in the direction of fewer intractable value differences among the majority of the populace.

      People who want to get STDs do actually exist, but they are so extremely rare that they aren’t part of the general debate about how most people are going to get along as a society despite different ideologies.

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        People who want to get STDs do actually exist, but they are so extremely rare that they aren’t part of the general debate about how most people are going to get along as a society despite different ideologies.

        As long as they don’t pose a major public health problem, yeah, fine.

        How about people who want to “smash capitalism”? “Smash the patriarchy”? Replace all state institutions with free-market-driven companies? Do people like this exist? Do we ignore all radical fringe groups until they are no longer fringe, and start running the show?

        Assuming that value differences are due to different positions on the abstraction ladder seems equivalent to saying, we kinda agree on the point we’re trying to reach, but we think different approaches are necessary to reach it – basically, we’re all mistake theorists, but don’t realize it.
        That may hold for large fractions of some countries, but it does not include significant minorities in each society, and it does not hold well at all across different cultures. Ask yourself, disregarding the means necessary to achieve such a state and assuming it has somehow been brought about and functions as advertised, would you want to live
        – in a SJW’s utopia?
        – in an anarcho-capitalist’s utopia?
        – in a communist’s utopia?
        – in a devout Muslim’s utopia?
        – in a devout Catholic’s utopia?
        If not, why not?

        Edit: some of the peculiarities of each utopia can probably be explained by claiming they take their Endorsed Values way too far and too literal. That is kind of condescending – “No, deep down you really don’t believe in submission to Almighty God, you just want an orderly society” – and it doesn’t change the fact that their utopia looks very much like my hell, because I don’t care all that much about the principle underlying their Endorsed Values, and they violate the principles I actually care about.

        • Aapje says:

          Utopias typically assume that the humans that inhabit them behave substantially differently from actual humans, so your question is rather nonsensical, like asking: would you enjoy being a cow?

          An actual cow has needs and desires so different from mine that changing myself into a cow would mean losing everything that make me me. So at that point, that cow who used to be me might enjoy being a cow, but it wouldn’t be me enjoying being a cow. I can imagine whether I would enjoy the cow lifestyle as the human that I’m now, but then I would not actually be a cow, but merely a human in cowface.

          Similarly, in a communist Utopia, people will gladly give away any benefit they get from their natural gifts to make everyone as equal as possible. If you were to place the actual me in that scenario, it would stop being a Utopia. If you were to alter my mind so I would act according to the Utopian ideal, I would stop being me/human.

          • Fluffy Buffalo says:

            Utopias typically assume that the humans that inhabit them behave substantially differently from actual humans, so your question is rather nonsensical, like asking: would you enjoy being a cow?

            Okay, fair enough, good point. So living happily in, say, a communist utopia would require people to be reshaped as good communists. If being reshaped in such a way fundamentally disagrees with what you consider worth striving for now, how is this not a fundamental value difference?

          • Aapje says:

            If communists would advocate some sort of plausible intervention to change humankind, I would agree that the difference can be reduced to values.

            In the absence of that, I think that they suffer from the just world fallacy.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            In a communist utopia, people choose to cooperate and pool their resources due to shared understanding that society is not a zero-sum game and what’s to its benefit is to their benefit (which at that point is pretty obvious, especially for people who remember giving away any benefit they got from their natural gifts to make capitalists as rich as possible). This does not require a significant change to human behavior, it merely assumes a basic human behavior that most people are already capable of (being a team player, caring family member and generally a good person to be around).

            Or, to put it another way:

            The main mistake I see is people on both sides having at least moderately good understanding of how to do explicit causal models, but accusing the other of being Neanderthals who only care about a crystallized-metaphysical-essence and have totally abandoned reason.
            That is, I see (…) libertarians say they just want universal wealth and prosperity, whereas communists (…) bloody-mindedly attached to the metaphysical principle of Equality

            PS: If we were to place the actual you in that scenario, the worst you could do is be a leech, which would hardly break the system (or, for that matter, be noticed at all). To actually break the system, you would have to forcibly appropriate a significant amount of capital, which would not happen because there wouldn’t be a coercive state in place to aid you the way it aids modern-day capitalists.

          • Aapje says:

            @Hoopdawg

            People already do that without communism. The stock market is a mechanism to allow people to pool their resources. Taxation is another way.

            However, while society is not merely zero sum, it is not merely positive sum either. People naturally show both zero and positive sum behavior, allowing them to function in a complex society where you have cooperation and defection, shared goals and conflicting goals, etc.

            Any societal model that is based on the assumption that everyone will only cooperate and only has shared goals, will fail.

            If we were to place the actual you in that scenario, the worst you could do is be a leech, which would hardly break the system

            Corruption, unwillingness to pay taxes, breaking contracts and other leeching behavior is actually pretty serious problem in many countries.

            I think that you fail to appreciate that leeching is only a manageable problem in Western society because we have slowly and painfully built up institutions and culture that reward cooperation and punish defection fairly effectively.

            A common mistake in communist thinking seems to be that it is believed that Western society/capitalism causes selfish behavior, rather than that it actually tries to keep it in check. This is like blaming the police for creating crime.

            People with such an Utopian view of human nature have a horrible track record, as they tend to destroy existing institutions in the hope of unleashing human nature…which does happen…but not how they expect.

          • christhenottopher says:

            @Aapje

            I thought along those lines for a long time but have shifted recently so I want to respond to some of these ideas here. For myself, the reason I was fairly well convinced by the points you brought up is that the histories and works I read all tended to implicitly or explicitly support those narratives, and that is because writing itself seems to only arise in state based societies with hierarchies that promote the kind of individualistic, motivated to promote the self, highly competitive mindset. That’s a lot to throw out there I know, but let me get to the more particular points. A lot of below is going to be coming from David Graeber’s Debt, James Scott’s Against the Grain, and David Freidman’s work on legal systems of different societies.

            Corruption, unwillingness to pay taxes, breaking contracts and other leeching behavior is actually pretty serious problem in many countries.

            Very true! But it’s worth remembering that this exists in countries with either market provision of basic necessities (aka if you’re not trying to increase your value in the economic marketplace you can wind up starving), lots of arbitrary power for those high on the hierarchy, or most commonly both. And this is not the only way human societies are or have been organized! Just take the Amish, they don’t use police or the threat of starvation to enforce their rules but social pressure. And that’s what peasants in Europe were doing in the centuries before enclosures sealed off the common land, or what people groups in the Americas or Africa did when anthropologists studied them. Sure for extreme cases explusion could be an option, but even more common was the use of money not for normal market transactions, but as a social currency to denote guilt and a need for recompense.

            I think that you fail to appreciate that leeching is only a manageable problem in Western society because we have slowly and painfully built up institutions and culture that reward cooperation and punish defection fairly effectively.

            But what if those institutions are incentivizing a lot of the corruption by tying so much status to material gain? These are not the only institutions that have reigned in greedy human behavior and given how a number of other societies have functioned, they don’t even seem that great at it in the grand scheme of things (the Iroquois seem to have a rather egalitarian and low corruption society for the first good example that comes to mind and Western society actively destroyed some of it’s own anti-corruption mechanisms such as criminalizing non-payment of debt).

            A common mistake in communist thinking seems to be that it is believed that Western society/capitalism causes selfish behavior, rather than that it actually tries to keep it in check. This is like blaming the police for creating crime.

            If Western society really did try to keep selfishness in check, why does it glorify the people who benefit themselves the most (like say billionaires)? Why did it actively undermine traditional cooperative systems of credit and collective management of the commons? Why did the democratic governments of Western Europe not send support to the Catalonian anarchists who were fairly successfully building cooperative organizations, but still were fine allowing both the fascists and the Stalinists to arm their respective sides? Why did Western colonial governments force atomistic participation in markets and private property against long standing collective arrangements across Africa and Asia (not the mention the Americas before then)?

            And for why so many of these ex-colonial countries have such rampant problems with corruption, conflict, and general defecting on their prisoners dilemmas, well if you go in and rip up traditional economics and social structures you’ve got the worst of all worlds. Not the limits the West has managed to work out while still encouraging atomistic capitalism, but still the individualism and self interest that’s no longer controlled by traditional society.

            People with such an Utopian view of human nature have a horrible track record, as they tend to destroy existing institutions in the hope of unleashing human nature…which does happen…but not how they expect.

            People with a capitalist, individualistic view of human nature also have a terrible track record. But what seems to be a better categorization to use is people who want greater amounts of centralized control of large parts of human life have a terrible track record whether we’re talking Stalin, Pinochet, or Disraeli (in India in particular, India had recurring famines under British rule that have never recurred after independence).

            People who didn’t have market transactions for most goods have the track record of…being the vast majority of human existence. And some of those societies were horrible and sucked, and some were pretty nice all things considered. But when their existence and societies are really taken seriously, a lot of the typical capitalist (and indeed typical economist) framing of human motivations look a whole lot less normal and natural.

            Sadly I don’t think I can fully lay out how my thinking has changed in this comment, but I recognize how natural a lot of this comment would have felt to me even a few months ago. So I want to have some dialog on this.

          • Nootropic cormorant says:

            I’m not sure where your criticism’s at, no one would deny that capitalism is a system of economic organization that has institutions and ways of managing its excesses.

            Communism would also possess institutions that would channel (tautologically) selfish motivations into prosocial behavour, it would just do it better than capitalism being a more advanced stage of economic development, just as capitalism is compared to feudalism.

          • christhenottopher says:

            Communism would also possess institutions that would channel (tautologically) selfish motivations into prosocial behavour, it would just do it better than capitalism being a more advanced stage of economic development, just as capitalism is compared to feudalism.

            Just to be clear, I don’t really buy the progression of history idea. But the problem of selfish motivations being directed pro-socially was largely dealt with pretty decently unlike Aapje’s arguments that the West is actively constraining such motivations.

            As just an example of how the West actively tries to encouraging increasing selfishness rather than controlling it, this was a video shown at my work recently to encourage motivation. Beyond being a bit overwrought, this is an example of how the West “tries to keep selfishness in check.” Sure the making yourself better aspect is there, but it’s not just better than your previous self, it’s explicitly better than the other people around you. There’s no notion of collective effort here, just the individual. And this sort of motivational video is everywhere in the corporate world. In my more cynical moments I can’t help but think that if this works and I view my coworkers as competitors, I’m not going to do any collective action with them will I?

            My main arguments are above this is just an illustration to make it clearer. The West pushes selfishness in ways other societies don’t. This is why The Fundamental Attribution Error is common among Western people (particularly the college educated relative elites of the West) and no where else. We aren’t discouraging defection but encouraging it, then trying to limit the worst consequences.

            Is capitalism the worst system ever? No, and some anticapitalist ideas (particularly the Stalinist/Maoist ones) have been pretty bad. But the truth that some anti-capitalist ideas have been bad doesn’t get rid of the problems inherent in capitalism. We’re not at the end of history.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            @Aapje

            People already do that without communism.

            Yes? (Though yours are not good examples.) People do things now and would continue doing things. Nothing changes in that regard, which was the point.

            Any societal model that is based on the assumption that everyone will only cooperate and only has shared goals, will fail.

            Then it’s good that the model I speak of only requires cooperation from people who do have shared goals. Bonus: it also vastly enhances individual’s exit rights, a very efficient conflict resolution technique.

            Corruption, unwillingness to pay taxes, breaking contracts and other leeching behavior is actually pretty serious problem in many countries.

            Luckily, in our communist utopia we’ve already eliminated taxes, (economic) contracts and corruptible top-down hierarchies.

            leeching is (…) a manageable problem in Western society

            Uh, no. I think that you fail to appreciate that leeching is a serious problem in Western society because we have slowly and painfully built up institutions and culture that reward leeching.

            society/capitalism causes selfish behavior

            So, uh, several things:
            1) As people have already pointed out, much of human behavior is tautologically selfish. Selfish is good, people should be selfish and there’s nothing about communism that would require them not to be.
            2) On the other hand, of course capitalism does create a lot of harmful Molochian incentives. It’s just wrong to conflate them with a moralist notion of selfishness. They’re Molochian, if you care about actually accomplishing anything at all, you’re forced to follow them even if you’re the biggest altruist in the world.
            3) Your moralist notion of selfishness is, well, moralist. That is, it’s a value based on reified essence. Funnily, this is what you accuse communists of. Even more funnily, this is what Scott just warned you not to do. Even more funnily, it’s the second time I point this out to you.
            4) Finally, the notion of selfishness that our society currently pushes seems to be selectively applied to people on the bottom of the social ladder. You’re selfish if you’re in trouble and ask for help, or if you simply demand adequate reward for your work. On the other hand, if you’ve accumulated enough abstract numerical value called money, you’re allowed to force people to cater to your whims and nobody will call you selfish. So allow me to posit that, all other things aside, your notion of selfishness is simply broken.

          • Aapje says:

            @christhenottopher

            I didn’t argue that the West discourages selfishness. I argued that it provides checks and balances, which is nearly the opposite claim. The West encourages people to act selfishly, but within a framework that tries to make pro-social behavior the most logical behavior from a selfish point of view.

            Imagine two people, Bob and Mary. They each have stuff or skills that the other wants to benefit from. Bob is much stronger than Mary. In full anarchy, Bob will now take the stuff he wants from Mary by force and/or force her to work for him. Now add a police force that is stronger than Bob and which prevents Bob from stealing from Mary and/or enslaving her. Now Bob’s most logical selfish behavior is to trade with Mary. The police is a check on Bob’s behavior which makes cooperation his most logical selfish move.

            In this situation the police doesn’t punish selfishness, but their existence changes the circumstances to make pro-social behavior the best selfish behavior.

            At the end of the day, all societies have to curb their most capable and aggressive members or they will turn into an oppressive hierarchy. It’s very common for the most egalitarian societies to do this by simply keeping their most capable people down. For example, the Amish strongly discourage higher education. While this works, it obviously greatly retards human progress and prosperity. Another common method is to demand that goods are shared with everyone, which discourages taking risks and making excessive sacrifice, since the rewards for doing so go to others. So that tends to make everyone poor.

            I would argue that (given current technology) capitalism within a social democratic framework is probably the closest you can get to: ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.’

            It seems to me that this ideal is incompatible with egalitarianism, since people are not the same. So any society that best fulfills that ideal is going to be highly unequal. The high IQ person is not to best use his abilities to be a nurse and the paraplegic has greater needs than the healthy. So at this point I already strongly disagree with a lot of more extreme socialists who believe that egalitarianism is not just compatible with, but actually results in ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.’

            An issue with maximizing this ideal is that ability does not necessarily match desire and that human nature has a large selfish element. For example, if a person enjoys being a nurse more than programming, but he can provide greater benefit to others as a programmer, then it may be better if that person sacrifices a bit of their own enjoyment for others by being a programmer. Similarly, many people may like having someone make meals for them and spoon the food into their mouths like Roman emperors, but in a society with limited supply of goods and services, it’s probably better to have society feed the paraplegic and let the healthy do the work themselves.

            So given that people are not naturally sufficiently altruistic in applying their abilities for the benefit of others, nor will they only take what is offered if they actually need it more than others, we need to alter human behavior. For the first part, to get people to use their abilities for others more than they would like to, we probably need some form of coercion, where this coercion should not be excessive (in other words, it should not detract too much from the needs of that person). One solution to this would be to have central planning, where we tell a person what work to do. A problem with that solution is a lack of transparency/information. It is very hard to determine what abilities people have, how much value is provided to others and what the cost is to people to use their abilities for others. Furthermore, this form of coercion encourages people to hide their abilities when they prefer to do something different and to lie about how badly they dislike doing things. So this solution can’t really work.

            A better solution is to reward people based on how much value they provide to others, preferably by having consumers give out ‘reward tokens’ based on how much value they get from a producer. This decentralized system is not adversarial like the previous solution, so it leads people to cooperate with the system, rather than resist it. However, the only reward we can give is to meet someone’s needs better, which inherently means that we better meet the needs of those who provide more value to others, which violates the second part of our goal. However, this seems like a necessary cost. We cannot solve this. What we can do is not maximally reward people for providing more value to others. For example, by using progressive taxation where we take reward tokens from the most productive and give them to the least productive, so the latter group still gets to trade in reward tokens to have their needs met.

            If we seek to optimize the second part of the goal (‘to each according to their needs’), we have very similar problems that exist when optimizing for the first part of the goal. If we centrally allocate goods and services, we again suffer from a lack of transparency/information and again create an adversarial situation that encourages people to lie about their needs.

            We can also allocate everyone the same goods, but then we run into the problem that needs differ. The bald man doesn’t need a comb. The sick person needs medicine that others do not.

            If we decentralize the system, by giving everyone ‘need tokens’ with which they can buy goods and services, we get a cooperative system where those with the highest need can offer the most tokens in return for getting a good or service. It seems to me that this works a lot better.

            One cannot really choose the decentralized solution for merely one of the goals. Choosing it for one means that you have to choose it for the other, where the the ‘reward tokens’ and ‘need tokens’ are the same thing. We call this system ‘capitalism’ and the tokens ‘money.’ A big advantage of the system is that we can tune it, to find the appropriate balance between concerns. If we want to push people to use their abilities more for the benefit of others, we can increase salary differences and/or reduce redistribution. If we want less productive people to more often have their needs met, we can do the opposite.

            Anyway, my claim is not that this system is perfect. On the contrary, the system is inherently incapable of maximally achieving both goals. However, my claim is that this reflects imperfections in humanity and the world in general. I don’t see how we can have a perfect system without fixing these imperfections.

            At the core, this is my objection to communism and most Utopian systems. These generally do not have plausible solutions to fix the imperfections that exist in the world or to correct for them, yet they claim that they can achieve a perfect outcome. So I dismiss them and consider them dangerous (since their believers tend to replace imperfect systems that achieve decent outcomes, with ‘perfect’ systems that achieve much worse outcomes).

          • Aapje says:

            @Hoopdawg

            Then it’s good that the model I speak of only requires cooperation from people who do have shared goals.

            I doubt that. Imagine this scenario:
            – Bob can make cookies, but not coffee. Making coffee for others costs him 1 util. Consuming a coffee gives him 10 utils.
            – Mary can coffee, but not cookies. Making coffee for others costs her 1 util. Consuming a cookie gives her 10 utils.

            These people have no shared goal. The perfect solution for Bob is to get coffee from Mary, but not make a cookie for Mary. The perfect solution for Mary is to get cookies from Mary, but not make coffee for Mary. The optimal utilitarian solution is for both to accept a loss of 1 util to give the other a gain of 10 utils. This can only be achieved by having a system that rewards cooperation (which for this small scale example doesn’t have to be formal, but can be a reputational informal system, but that breaks down when you scale things up).

            My impression is that you falsely believe that in the above scenario, these people have a shared goal and that you thus don’t need a system to enforce cooperation (nor if you scale it up and/or make the scenario more complex).

            I think that you fail to appreciate that leeching is a serious problem in Western society because we have slowly and painfully built up institutions and culture that reward leeching.

            I disagree. I believe that capitalism is at the core a system that discourages leeching and encourages altruism. However, the solution is imperfect, so you need solutions for the problems of capitalism. Those solutions in turn have problems, etc. So you have fixes for fixes for fixes, where the remaining issues are smaller and smaller after each intervention (ideally). At one point, you can no longer effectively fix the remaining issues and have to live with them. You call these Molochian and argue that you have to accept these to get things done, which I strongly agree with.

            Those remaining problems are very visible and they are actually caused by capitalism and/or the fixes for capitalism, so it’s easy to blame capitalism for creating problems. It’s much harder to recognize the benefits of capitalism, so it’s easy to blame capitalism for its problems, yet not credit it (enough) for its benefits.

            Finally, the notion of selfishness that our society currently pushes seems to be selectively applied to people on the bottom of the social ladder.

            No, the notion that people are obligated to the labor of others only to the extent that they are willing to themselves labor for others apply to everyone. The people on top of the social ladder are usually not blamed for violating this, because the social ladder matches up with the value that people produce to others, relative well. The people who are unwilling to sacrifice for the benefit of others are relatively often found at the bottom of the social ladder, where you also find most people with very little ability to fulfill the needs of others.

            We have a safety net that prevents those with little ability from having too little of their needs met, but this enables those who are capable, but refuse to, to benefit from this as well. Our choice to limit the ability of capitalism to enforce a quid-pro-quo allows people to not obey this broadly shared moral obligation. The result of this latter group are feelings of unfairness by those who pay taxes, against those who violate the quid-pro-quo, even though they can act differently. Unfortunately, those with little ability to fulfill the needs of others are often unfairly mistaken for the other group.

            When people on top of the social ladder are perceived as violating the quid-pro-quo, there is often strong condemnation of those people as well. For example, many are resentful of bankers.

            On the other hand, if you’ve accumulated enough abstract numerical value called money, you’re allowed to force people to cater to your whims and nobody will call you selfish.

            Money is not an arbitrary token. See my comment above. It signifies needs of others being met. So spending money to get your own needs met fulfills a quid-pro-quo. Someone gave you this money when their needs were met and now you get to get to have your own needs met by transferring this token to another person, who then can transfer this token again to have their needs met, etc, etc.

            If everyone would have the same natural ability to fulfill the needs of others and has the same level of need, this would be a completely fair system. Alas, humans are diverse in both, creating an imperfection that requires compromises to the system.

          • IrishDude says:

            @Aapje
            +1 to most of your commentary here. Well said.

          • Aapje says:

            Perhaps I can put it more clearly.

            Human inequality is a fact and provides great opportunity for trade of goods and services, since people differ in their ability to make things, how much pleasure or displeasure they feel to make those things and their desires for goods and services. If they then make trades, they greatly increase the extent to which their needs are met.

            However, people don’t merely differ in which abilities they have or which needs they have, but also in their level of ability and need. So if they trade based on a quid-pro-quo model, people with high ability to meet the needs of others get more of their own needs met. People can be convinced to accept much more lop-sided deals with people they know well, as a social gift, so communism may be able to work in very small communities. However, people are generally not willing to accept hugely imbalanced trades with people they don’t have a strong social relationship with.

            There are enormous advantages to not limit trades to small communities, but to scale things up to create trade networks of millions or billions of people. We cannot have strong social relationships with these people. Capitalism allow people to make these trades on a much larger scale and thus with much more efficiency, generally making people much better off. However, it does not solve the problem that people want quid-pro-quo trades with strangers. Capitalism did not create that problem however, it is a feature of human psychology.

            Communism also doesn’t have a solution for this, which is why it has only ever worked in (very) small communities with strong social bonds.

            Neither capitalism nor communism can make people trade on a large scale in a way that reduces the disparity between the very able and the less able, so what now?

            The answer is to introduce a re-distributive system, where we let the trades happen mostly in a way where people get to act selfishly, but where we take away some of the trade tokens from the able, after they concluded the trades. Then we either give those to the less able directly or provide services for the less able with that money. This re-distributive system is (one part of) social democracy.

            When we do such redistribution, we seem to be able to more easily trigger the social bonding mechanisms in people. So they are generally more willing to pay taxes to transfer wealth to strangers than to make lopsided trades with strangers. This is why redistribution is a relatively successful way to reduce inequality.

            Marx wanted to fix the trade system itself, replacing capitalism with something better, rather than to add a kludge to capitalism. However, he doesn’t seem to have understood the actual problem, so he didn’t actually provide a solution. It also seems that the kludge actually works remarkably well, at least when compared to the alternatives (although not when compared with perfection).

            People who have an optimistic view of what humanity can be and do may consider the downsides of mixed capitalism to be horrible and be very susceptible to (idle) promises of near-perfect systems that create enormous happiness and lack of suffering. I would advise these people to watch some Holocaust documentaries, nature documentaries with animals ripping other animals to shreds, the bleaker Werner Herzog movies, Russian movies and such. Then after they have created strong feelings within themselves of anger and/or sadness at the cruelty of nature & man and feel strong skepticism at the ability of people to find solutions, a social democratic capitalist system might no longer feel like an injustice, but instead, like an enormous human achievement*.

            * Relative to our rather limited abilities, in the same way that you might applaud a handicapped person for doing something that is easy for an able person and that you thus wouldn’t applaud an able person for. If you view mankind as gods, you can only be disappointed. Better to view mankind as handicapped, infantile beings and applaud the things they do that are not the worst.

          • When we do such redistribution, we seem to be able to more easily trigger the social bonding mechanisms in people.

            I’m not sure it isn’t the other way around. Without redistribution your existence is no threat to me, just an opportunity for mutual benefit. With redistribution part of the rules every individual is a threat to every other individual, since each wants the transfers to go to himself, not from himself.

          • IrishDude says:

            @Aapje

            Neither capitalism nor communism can make people trade on a large scale in a way that reduces the disparity between the very able and the less able, so what now?

            I think there’s a big difference between less able and unable. I’m less able at producing wealth than Jeff Bezos by many orders of magnitude, but I am able enough to produce a materially good life and don’t have any expectation that Bezos is obligated to reduce our disparities.

            Disparity itself isn’t an issue for me but absolute poverty is. It seems disparity in itself seems an issue for you, so are we at different places on the ladder? Below is my not-great attempt to build the ladder that might correspond to egalitarian values:

            EXPLICIT MODEL: If someone has more than someone else, then…
            EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Feelings of injustice (envy?)
            REIFIED ESSENCE: ??
            ENDORSED VALUE: Egalitarianism through redistribution

            Any thoughts on how this would get filled in? Feel free to rewrite what I already have put down. I’m initially skeptical that we’re both on the same ladder at different places, but I could be wrong.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I’m not sure it isn’t the other way around. Without redistribution your existence is no threat to me, just an opportunity for mutual benefit.

            I am assuming that redistribution is desirable and is probably even a desire/need of many if not most people, so at that point the only question is how to do it.

            One solution is to expect people to help others of their own accord, based on their own dislike of seeing people do poorly. The problem with that solution is that it only really works for people whom you know fairly well. In a society with extreme specialization, you have many small transactions with many different people, so expertly assessing the need of each person you interact with is enormously costly, if you even have access to the information.

            Lowering those cost by looking for simplistic signs incentivizes people to fake signals of inability and/or poverty. People who are honest but don’t send those clear signals (for example, a person with serious medical issues that are not visible) can fail at being seen assessed correctly too. So then you probably get many false positives and negatives.

            The level of cheating that will then happen will probably then greatly reduce people’s willingness to help.

            So an alternative is then to have poor people enter into a more intimate & long term relationship with an organization that provides assistance. This can be a private charity or a government organization. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

            I would argue that the main resistance that most (well off) people have when it comes to redistribution is not the loss of resources, but more whether their sacrifice will actually help the needy, rather than end up with cheaters.

            Even though you may not agree as a libertarian, I think that people tend to distrust their own ability more than the ability of charities and the government. So they will more easily redistribute through those organizations than to do it entirely themselves.

          • Aapje says:

            @IrishDude

            Very few people are truly unable to produce anything, nor are people generally willing to let people starve who can produce something, but too little to earn enough food to survive. So realistically, we are talking about a threshold of ability to earn, below which we consider them in need of aid.

            Where people place this threshold is highly subjective and for many if not most people it is not about absolute poverty, but relative poverty.

            The issue with putting this in a ladder is that there are different concerns that can influence where people put the ladder. For example, if your terminal value is equality of opportunity, then you will care about relative poverty much more than absolute poverty. If your terminal value is that no one dies of starvation, you will care much more about absolute poverty.

          • christhenottopher says:

            @Aapje

            There’s a lot to go through so forgive the late reply. Also I had to break this up into multiple comments (4 to be exact) to avoid the length limits. Which let me say sorry for the length but I did want to include what parts of your comment I was responding to directly in my reply.

            I didn’t argue that the West discourages selfishness. I argued that it provides checks and balances, which is nearly the opposite claim. The West encourages people to act selfishly, but within a framework that tries to make pro-social behavior the most logical behavior from a selfish point of view.

            I don’t see that as an “opposite claim”. In fact it seems mostly like a rhetorical difference given that the common context of “checks and balances” comes from political science where the phrase refers to limiting powers. The powers of the presidency are not so much channeled by the Congress as discouraged from being greater than they otherwise would be (in theory anyways). Limiting/discouraging are synonyms in that context. Now you do then clarify you specifically mean channeling to pro-social impulses, but that’s not at all incompatible with at the same time encouraging selfish impulses. And what I quoted from you in my first reply you were complaining about communists saying Western civilization “causes selfish behavior”. You point about channeling does not actually dispute whether or not capitalism causes selfish behavior. You further point about the police is also hard to fit into this channeling argument. Are the police channeling crime to pro-social outcomes?

            So I stand by capitalism promotes selfishness, especially in the sense of promoting individual achievements and goals over collective ones. Does capitalism also channel some of that into pro-social outcomes? Yes, but I would dispute the degree of this. Sure it’s nice when competition drives a price down, but the individualism of that competition also implicitly encourages things like, make regulations that drive competitors out of business or ignore externalities like pollution.

            Imagine two people, Bob and Mary. They each have stuff or skills that the other wants to benefit from. Bob is much stronger than Mary. In full anarchy, Bob will now take the stuff he wants from Mary by force and/or force her to work for him. Now add a police force that is stronger than Bob and which prevents Bob from stealing from Mary and/or enslaving her. Now Bob’s most logical selfish behavior is to trade with Mary. The police is a check on Bob’s behavior which makes cooperation his most logical selfish move.

            In this situation the police doesn’t punish selfishness, but their existence changes the circumstances to make pro-social behavior the best selfish behavior.

            And here’s a problem I have with a number of your and other similar examples I see. How do we get to Bob and Mary being alone and having a one time encounter with no naturally occurring web of connections to support them? And I do mean natural quite literally here. Everyone is born from a mother, has a father that in most known societies helped in raising the child, most people have siblings, friends form either from normal encounters in a society or from the friendships families formed, and innumerable other connections a person starts making from birth.

            So that changes the scenario. Now Bob and Mary are concerned about not just each other, but the support networks that lie behind one another. And they’re also worried about what their own social networks would think of their actions. And further, what if Bob and Mary are having multiple interactions with each other? That changes the incentives they have in whether or not to take the property, and we’ve never even needed to talk about police. Atomized individuals in single encounters have fundamentally different incentives than socially connected ones, and humans did NOT start out atomized. They begin connected. So in order to justify having a group who’s mandate is the use of violence rather than social pressure, you’re having to assume the kinds of people who with rare exceptions, don’t exist in the real world.

            Now you could make the argument that empirically police reduce violence, but that requires comparisons between societies not a mere thought experiment with actors that very much don’t reflect real humans. Steven Pinker’s done some of that work and seems to find hunter gatherer societies at least to be more violent via archeology, but then again Nassim Taleb has scolded him for failing to use the real way to calculate long tail probabilities in a world where states made nukes.

            You may retort, “models are useful for simplifying hard problems” to which I agree, but these particular simplifications seem more like handing a map to show someone how to get from Chicago to Toronto by land while not including the Great Lakes. 1/4

          • christhenottopher says:

            At the end of the day, all societies have to curb their most capable and aggressive members or they will turn into an oppressive hierarchy. It’s very common for the most egalitarian societies to do this by simply keeping their most capable people down. For example, the Amish strongly discourage higher education. While this works, it obviously greatly retards human progress and prosperity. Another common method is to demand that goods are shared with everyone, which discourages taking risks and making excessive sacrifice, since the rewards for doing so go to others. So that tends to make everyone poor.

            Curb in what ways? In all ways? That doesn’t seem to really be true. The Amish don’t try to burn the fields of their best farmers. Thee societies limit the power over other people that their best have, but tend to still highly praise accomplishments. That’s where social currencies common in these societies, which can be used as status but not for buying basic survival needs, come into play. Scientists operate cooperative structures without market competition and do pretty important work. Top scientists are highly respected, but they don’t get to arbitrarily fire other scientists. So curbing the most successful from controlling others? Yes that’s common. Curbing them from acclaim and status? That’s not universal.

            I would argue that (given current technology) capitalism within a social democratic framework is probably the closest you can get to: ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.’

            Companies deciding resource distribution internally are frequently “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. I don’t pay for the paper I need to print or the computer I use. I don’t engage in a market transaction to get assistance on a project. I ask given my need and they give by their ability. Families work on this level even more, but also this happens in disasters. We use communism all the time but don’t see it because it’s so natural.

            Now I know your response “but all of these are within the broader context of other market based transactions and would be impossible without those markets.” Which, sort of. In the context of our current system where lands and capital (aka the means of production) are in private hands distributed to the best profit maximizers, yes these communistic systems are dependent. But historically, advanced societies have worked with few to no markets (Pre-Alexander Persia was known for it’s total aversion to markets as was the Inca Empire…I have to give state examples because that’s where the writing/most focused archaeology has been). 2/4

          • christhenottopher says:

            It seems to me that this ideal is incompatible with egalitarianism, since people are not the same. So any society that best fulfills that ideal is going to be highly unequal. The high IQ person is not to best use his abilities to be a nurse and the paraplegic has greater needs than the healthy. So at this point I already strongly disagree with a lot of more extreme socialists who believe that egalitarianism is not just compatible with, but actually results in ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.’

            Equal in what ways though? Equal in status? No society has accorded all it’s members equal social status. Equal in access to basic needs like food, shelter, and healthcare. Yeah that’s possible. High IQ people don’t stop working once they aren’t afraid of starving anymore.

            An issue with maximizing this ideal is that ability does not necessarily match desire and that human nature has a large selfish element. For example, if a person enjoys being a nurse more than programming, but he can provide greater benefit to others as a programmer, then it may be better if that person sacrifices a bit of their own enjoyment for others by being a programmer. Similarly, many people may like having someone make meals for them and spoon the food into their mouths like Roman emperors, but in a society with limited supply of goods and services, it’s probably better to have society feed the paraplegic and let the healthy do the work themselves.

            So given that people are not naturally sufficiently altruistic in applying their abilities for the benefit of others, nor will they only take what is offered if they actually need it more than others, we need to alter human behavior. For the first part, to get people to use their abilities for others more than they would like to, we probably need some form of coercion, where this coercion should not be excessive (in other words, it should not detract too much from the needs of that person). One solution to this would be to have central planning, where we tell a person what work to do. A problem with that solution is a lack of transparency/information. It is very hard to determine what abilities people have, how much value is provided to others and what the cost is to people to use their abilities for others. Furthermore, this form of coercion encourages people to hide their abilities when they prefer to do something different and to lie about how badly they dislike doing things. So this solution can’t really work.

            A better solution is to reward people based on how much value they provide to others, preferably by having consumers give out ‘reward tokens’ based on how much value they get from a producer. This decentralized system is not adversarial like the previous solution, so it leads people to cooperate with the system, rather than resist it. However, the only reward we can give is to meet someone’s needs better, which inherently means that we better meet the needs of those who provide more value to others, which violates the second part of our goal. However, this seems like a necessary cost. We cannot solve this. What we can do is not maximally reward people for providing more value to others. For example, by using progressive taxation where we take reward tokens from the most productive and give them to the least productive, so the latter group still gets to trade in reward tokens to have their needs met.

            A) Access to benefits in the market is not the only selfish interest people have and status can be awarded in many non-market ways. Just the acclaim of colleagues or audiences drives many without resorting to maximizing material wealth at all.

            B) People are not just individuals, but also the relations they have with others. Those relations drive a lot of motivation (for instance “I need to do this to help INGROUP”)

            C) That’s not what markets or capitalism do. The system tries to approximate this by rewarding those the most who can get the most value tokens from others which automatically shifts the values towards those who already have more value tokens. This is not contextless! At the dawn of markets and later of broader capitalism, wealth was not evenly distributed to then approximate the equal desires of humans. It was biased very heavily towards those who controlled the means of violence (governments and the aristocracy). The value tokens thus disproportionately have always come from the perspective of the people who gained their status through force, and even as this shifts with the rise of the bourgeois, the bourgeois were always catering disproportionately to the previously wealthy. In essence the entire economy is skewed to those who were already wealthy meaning this isn’t some neutral deciding who serves the most human needs. And yes I’m aware that the poor are catered to as well, but capitalism seeks the needs of wealth not of people. The poor get needs met info as they have wealth, and they always have some, but more production goes to the weathly than their numbers would lead one to expect. Further, because the wealthy are not merely value creators but the beneficiaries of a history of expropriation and violence, this isn’t some pure meritocratic redistribution upwards either.

            All of this is also ignoring how the wealth of people in capitalism then can get turned into political influence that tips the scales more. “Doctors are rich already? Cool support restricting the number of med school slots.” “Disney makes bilions? Better extend copyright longer.” The degrees of inequality allowed and the ability of that inequality to leave the lowest losers of the race starving on the streets and dying can then be used to change the system to promote the wealth of the already wealthy.

            This is a problem I have with these models you have posited, they ignore the real life context that makes them break down. 3/4

          • christhenottopher says:

            If we seek to optimize the second part of the goal (‘to each according to their needs’), we have very similar problems that exist when optimizing for the first part of the goal. If we centrally allocate goods and services, we again suffer from a lack of transparency/information and again create an adversarial situation that encourages people to lie about their needs.

            We can also allocate everyone the same goods, but then we run into the problem that needs differ. The bald man doesn’t need a comb. The sick person needs medicine that others do not.

            If we decentralize the system, by giving everyone ‘need tokens’ with which they can buy goods and services, we get a cooperative system where those with the highest need can offer the most tokens in return for getting a good or service. It seems to me that this works a lot better.

            Like the centralized allocation of goods within a company?

            But really this is why I prefer decentralized forms of socialism like workers cooperatives or communes. I’m far from sold on the ideas of the Stalinist line of thought. But the options aren’t only “markets or Stalin.” This is where anthropology is really valuable as alternate decentralized systems have existed and continue to exist!

            One cannot really choose the decentralized solution for merely one of the goals. Choosing it for one means that you have to choose it for the other, where the the ‘reward tokens’ and ‘need tokens’ are the same thing. We call this system ‘capitalism’ and the tokens ‘money.’ A big advantage of the system is that we can tune it, to find the appropriate balance between concerns. If we want to push people to use their abilities more for the benefit of others, we can increase salary differences and/or reduce redistribution. If we want less productive people to more often have their needs met, we can do the opposite.

            Anyway, my claim is not that this system is perfect. On the contrary, the system is inherently incapable of maximally achieving both goals. However, my claim is that this reflects imperfections in humanity and the world in general. I don’t see how we can have a perfect system without fixing these imperfections.

            At the core, this is my objection to communism and most Utopian systems. These generally do not have plausible solutions to fix the imperfections that exist in the world or to correct for them, yet they claim that they can achieve a perfect outcome. So I dismiss them and consider them dangerous (since their believers tend to replace imperfect systems that achieve decent outcomes, with ‘perfect’ systems that achieve much worse outcomes).

            This fundamentally strikes me as an “end of history” type thinking that seems a bit hubristic to be honest. “It’s not perfect but it’s the best we can have.” The diversity of human history should really give lie to that. And let’s be clear, the current capitalist system has been actively crushing many alternatives. Imperialism destroyed many different social and economic structures, anti-capitalist revolutions have been actively opposed by capitalist countries even when they weren’t threatened or at the start involved (the biggest example from my perspective is the Spanish Civil War). The world is covered in states using either central command economies (though not many of those remain) or very hierarchically run capitalist market-based economies and this narrowing of types of social and economic structures is a new development in human history. At the very least I think it’s worth backing some people trying other ideas. 4/4

          • Aapje says:

            @christhenottopher

            In fact it seems mostly like a rhetorical difference given that the common context of “checks and balances” comes from political science where the phrase refers to limiting powers. [etc] Now you do then clarify you specifically mean channeling to pro-social impulses, but that’s not at all incompatible with at the same time encouraging selfish impulses.

            The complexity of discussing this is that there isn’t a single mechanism by which people’s behaviors are altered and each mechanism is applied selectively. We do encourage some selfish behavior, but other selfish behavior gets you thrown in prison or fined. So it’s false to argue that we encourage all selfish behavior, but also false to argue that we discourage all selfish behavior. We encourage some selfishness and discourage others. So I reject both a communist objection that selfishness is encouraged in general, but also a libertarian objection that selfishness is discouraged. Both objections contain a grain of truth, but lack nuance.

            For example, we encourage companies to try to cater strongly to consumer demand, rather than to do the pro-social thing for the capitalist class, by making anti-competitive agreements. We also limit the market domination of companies. Furthermore, we provide many more protections for the buyers in a business-to-consumer transaction than for a business-to-business transaction. By doing these things, we try to produce a balance of power between capitalists and the proletariat. Furthermore, we try to disalign the incentives of capitalists, to create adversarial rifts within that class, to prevent them from uniting against the proletariat.

            Tax reductions for gifts to charity work very differently. In that case, we actively try to discourage selfish behaviors. That intervention is not about altering the balance of power between people with different interests, but rather to change incentives.

            Regulation of what employers/businesses can do is also not really about creating a balance of power, but about disallowing certain selfish behavior completely.

            The decision of what regulation is written into law is decided by a balance of power, but there we explicitly seek to disassociate this power struggle from the employer/employee relationship, by shifting it to politics, where each individual has one vote, regardless of social status or wealth. Politics still allows capitalists to have more influence than other people, by way of lobbying, donations and such. However, they are also far fewer in number, so a good argument can be made that a good political balance of power doesn’t require individual capitalists to have as little influence as the individual proletarian, as long as the collective power of capitalists is limited sufficiently. Note that social democratic capitalist societies can vary, the US accepts a different balance of power between capitalists and the proletariat than Sweden.

            I could go on and on. Ignoring this complexity & nuance and summarizing it as “capitalism promotes selfishness” does not allow for a proper understanding, IMHO.

            How do we get to Bob and Mary being alone and having a one time encounter with no naturally occurring web of connections to support them?

            We got there by scaling up our society from a small community living in huts, to people living in cities, traveling long distances, mass producing things in huge factories and offices, buying things from the Internet and Taco stands, etc. Specialization by its very nature increases the social distance between people. If I create my own shoes, I know the user of my produced items intimately (since it is myself). If I live in a small town and merely make and sell shoes for/to the townspeople, with whom I have many other kinds of interactions, I will know my customers quite well, although not as well as I know myself. If I produce shoes in a city, for people who only come to me to buy shoes, I will know very little about them.

            Greater specialization inherently means that you trade/interact with more people, less intensely. There is a limit to how much you can learn from people with whom you interact very briefly.

            So one solution is to get rid of specialization. However, that is a horrible idea, because specialization is immensely powerful. It enables humans to create goods that they could otherwise not make & makes them much more productive, allowing people to own many more goods. So we want that, but specialization inherently results in atomization and alienation.

            Capitalism and social democracy are (partial) solutions for this. The former mainly replaces a subjective reputation-based system that works in small communities, by a much more objective (and more limited) system where reputation is encoded in tokens/money. Social democracy replaces a social order where people are willing to sacrifice mainly for their family and local community & are willing to limit their abuse of others, with an order where people make substantial sacrifices for strangers and where their abuse of strangers is kept in check.

            Despite these solutions being imperfect, the advantages of specialization are so immense that I deem them worth it. In a society without specialization, people may sacrifice a larger percentage of their possessions and abilities for others and might make trades that are superior from a moral point of view*, but they will be so poor that in the absolute terms, the amount of sacrifice and generosity is going to be really low. Or to put it differently: the bottom 10% of Western society has more material wealth than a hunter-gatherer with a really strong support network.

            * Although small communities can also be very oppressive. Many people have felt liberated by moving from a small community to a larger, more atomized one. So it’s not necessarily true that small communities are better for people.

            1/2

          • Aapje says:

            2/2

            Curb in what ways? In all ways? That doesn’t seem to really be true. The Amish don’t try to burn the fields of their best farmers.

            My argument was not that there is no ability for Amish people to excel at all, but rather that certain very important avenues are (almost) entirely closed off, like doing science, engineering and starting businesses with very high levels of specialization and automation. It seems to me that the Amish are nowadays quite reliant on the non-Amish to do things for them that they refuse to do themselves and they would suffer greatly if everyone would live the Amish lifestyle.

            Scientists operate cooperative structures without market competition and do pretty important work.

            I dispute this. Scientists fiercely compete for funding and/or research jobs, in a way that is very similar to market competition. The idea of having consumers select which producers to buy from, to make producers compete for the favors of consumers, is more or less mimicked by having journals/reviewers analyze the papers and having them reward those they deem the best with a publication in a high-impact paper, which is then used to decide who gets the money/jobs. Counting citations and their impact works similarly.

            Top scientists are highly respected, but they don’t get to arbitrarily fire other scientists.

            If top scientists give good reviews and cite papers by Jane, but don’t do so for Francis, then Jane will get the job/money and Francis will get fired. Those top scientists are not going to (only) judge the papers of other scientists based on whether those scientists did ‘from each according to their abilities,’ but primarily based on the quality of the end result. So I disagree with your claim that the scientific community is communist and/or demonstrates that communism is workable.

            Equal in access to basic needs like […] shelter […]. Yeah that’s possible.

            How? We can randomly allocate houses, but this would not give ‘each according to their need.’ A person who wants/needs to provide informal care for a parent living in Boston, needs a house somewhat in the vicinity, not a house in California or Ohio. A person with a job in Silicon Valley has a need for housing in the vicinity of their job. It can get way more complicated than this too. A programmer may prefer to live in Silicon Valley (SV) if he can live within a 1 hour commute of his employer, but prefer a house and job in Seattle if no acceptable house is available in SV. How do you then determine if its better to give this person the house in SV or in Seattle?

            A complicating factor is that land and buildings can be used in different ways, not just for housing. How do we decide where to put the houses, companies, gas stations, parking spaces, restaurants, shops, roads, etc in a way that works well at fulfilling the needs of people? Your idea to ‘just’ give everyone equal access to shelter is Pandora’s box. Housing is connected to many other issues.

            Capitalism provides a solution for this, which has some very attractive features. First of all, it decentralizes decision making, so the extremely complex determination of need and weighing those needs against others, is put in the hands of the individual, who usually has the best information. The mediation between individuals happens without bias. There is no benefit to lying, which is different when you have an authority ask people their needs and do the allocation. Capitalism also has the benefit that people’s needs influence those who can serve those needs. If a programmer can produce value to many people by working and living in SV, then an employer in SV is going to be willing to pay a large salary, as the employer can fulfill the needs of other people better when hiring this programmer and those people whose needs are fulfilled reward the company with money. So the programmer gets to live in SV because that results in many people’s needs to be fulfilled, while the person who wouldn’t help others so much by living there gets priced out.

            This is beneficial for mankind.

            At the dawn of markets and later of broader capitalism, wealth was not evenly distributed to then approximate the equal desires of humans. It was biased very heavily towards those who controlled the means of violence (governments and the aristocracy)

            Yes, that’s why it is very important to have democracy, to put control to the government in the hands of the people.

            this isn’t some pure meritocratic redistribution upwards either.

            It’s true that Western societies are not pure meritocracies. Pure meritocracies are not even desirable, because they insufficiently cater to the needs of the less abled. Also, in some ways meritocracy is self-destroying. So pure capitalism is a horrible idea and we need a regulated, controlled form, with social democratic additions. With those, it’s still far from perfect, but nature, technology and human nature don’t allow for perfection.

            Given all of history and knowledge of the alternatives, the imperfect system of Western social democratic capitalism, seems superior to all else that has been tried. Communists have never been able to convince me that they truly understood or had workable solutions for the main challenges that a socio-economic system needs to solve.

            This fundamentally strikes me as an “end of history” type thinking that seems a bit hubristic to be honest.

            I don’t claim that our current system is the best that can exist. I am claiming that the current system is close to the best that we’ve come up with so far and that unless we have major technological change, evolutionary change is a better way to improve it than revolutionary change.

    • Aapje says:

      @Fluffy Buffalo

      Indeed, I would argue that Scott is undervaluing risk/reward factors here. If I am super horny all the time, I’m way more likely to believe that a 1% chance to get an STD is worth it, than if sex is ‘meh’ to me. Similarly, if the idea of getting an STD fills me with terror, I’m going to be way less accepting of that risk than if I feel ‘que sera, sera’ about it.

      So two people can be on the same step of the ladder and yet disagree fiercely.

      Given the typical mind fallacy and/or the way in which we incorporate our own desires into our moral models, one can then assume that these personal feelings often translate into how we judge others.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        The thing is, the risk/reward effect is orthogonal to the ladder Scott is describing.

        Suppose you have an explicit model of STD infections because you’re a nerdish type living in Millenial London, and can rationally calculate “I have a 1% chance of getting an STD from this person.” Then your risk/reward calculation regarding how valuable sex is and how much you want it effectively shifts your calculation of how important “1% risk of contracting an STD” is to you.

        But by contrast, if you have no explicit model of STD infections because you’re a rakish type in Elizabethan London, and have no idea how to calculate the chance of getting an STD from someone. You rely on the crystallized heuristic of ‘purity.’ You may certainly prefer ‘pure’ sexual partners over impure ones. But your risk/reward calculation regarding how valuable sex is and how much you want it still shifts your estimation of how important “is this prospective sex partner pure” is to you.

        Differing risk/reward balances affect both the people using the purity heuristic and the people using the explicit disease risk model.

  2. Jiro says:

    They were investigating a construct called cognitive rigidity, and asked questions like “true or false: a group which tolerates too much dissent among its members cannot exist for long?”

    Most poll questions are written such that anyone who reads them literally can’t reasonably answer them. And most people who answer them won’t take them literally. It sounds like this is true here too.

    Which means that when analyzing the results of the poll questions, you have to take into account that people are forced to not interpret them literally, and that their interpretations will then be different depending on context. So if someone says “yes” about group X and “no” about group Y, you can’t just take to that to mean they’re inconsistent in how they treat X and Y rather than that they’re interpreting the question in substantially different ways.

    The literal answer to “a group which tolerates too much dissent among its members cannot exist for long” is “yes, because if the group could exist with it, by definition it’s not ‘too much’,” but only a couple of weird rationalists will answer the question that way.

    EXPLICIT MODEL: …ENDORSED VALUE:

    I’m really skeptical of this, because if has the same problems as pop evopsych explanations: You’ve told a plausible story of what model led to that value, but you don’t have any evidence that the value came from that rather than from something else, and “telling a plausible story” isn’t evidence.

    • albertborrow says:

      An unsubstantiated plausible story isn’t evidence in the sense that it can fully substantiate a claim, but it is stronger evidence than an unsubstantiated implausible story. I feel like the alternative story is that fundamental value differences are an essential part of the human genome, or something else equally absurd. This isn’t physics, it’s pretty clear that we’re treading on very thin ice, evidence-wise, but until we have the ability to decode the human brain for where fundamental value differences occur, it’s basically a guessing game where the least obviously stupid claim wins.

      For what it’s worth, the nine “I thinks” in this post make it pretty clearly speculative. The point of posting it is so that we can work towards something that might eventually resemble a real model, not so Scott can explain EVERY DISAGREEMENT IN THE HISTORY OF EVER or something.

      • Jiro says:

        I feel like the alternative story is that fundamental value differences are an essential part of the human genome, or something else equally absurd.

        Only in the trivial sense that everything humans do traces down to either genome or environment.

        For what it’s worth, the nine “I thinks” in this post make it pretty clearly speculative.

        They’re disclaimers. And it’s a common tactic on the Internet to write things that are poorly supported and pepper them with disclaimers, while everything else about them oozes certainty.

    • benwave says:

      In my reading of this article, I thought it was clear that “explicit model” stands in for some true model which generated the experience and the essence, but also that We Imperfect Humans Never Know the actual model. I think the model works pretty well under this assumption. I realise that this was never made explicit in Scott’s actual text but that is definitely how I interpreted it.

  3. Markus Ramikin says:

    I wonder how much extra utility this article produced with unintentioned humor, in the following way: people who actually believe in some of those positions you listed will not be able to help but find your neutral-descriptive way of discussing them funny. I mean,

    many people still feel like something is going wrong when a producer and the value they produced are separated.

    Yeah, imagine that!

  4. fion says:

    Typos: “You subject everything to the command of an central planner”

    “If he wanted to be especially brutal, he might as Sophisticus something like”

  5. D-Source says:

    This assumes all value differences are fundamentally reducible to explicit models, which is false.

    Say I like Picasso because he paints abstract forms, and you like Rembrandt because you think the more paintings represent what we see, the better they are (and the less, the worse). How would you reconcile this disagreement to any sort of explicit model?

    Moral disagreements function similarly; your second false assumption is that sufficient decoupling of ENDORSED VALUE in debates will yield the same (legible) underlying explicit model from both debating parties.

    • gbear605 says:

      For your painting example, I’d guess that there exists an explicit model that explains it that talks about different neurological reasons for liking different types of paintings.

      EXPLICIT MODEL: There is a neurological reason for preferring some paintings to others.
      EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Enjoying certain paintings.
      REIFIED ESSENCE: Painting quality
      ENDORSED VALUE: Some paintings are better than others because of things innate to those paintings.

      Of course, as far as I know, no one knows the explicit model. That doesn’t mean the model is wrong though.

      Thousands of years ago, people didn’t have an explicit model for the sexual purity issue, but that doesn’t mean the general model is wrong, only that the specific issue is too complex to explain.

    • helloo says:

      A somewhat similar concern I have is not that there isn’t an explicit model but that humans aren’t that smart enough to understand what it is. Simply having values that prove useful does not necessarily grant insight to WHY they are/were useful.

      Plenty of these examples would have had different explicit models during different time periods due to the lack of understanding/incorrect knowledge.

      There’s also issues with heuristics evolving and becoming inaccurate or non-functioning due to changes in the explicit models.
      A sometimes shared example of that is the rediscovery of the cure to scurvy – http://mentalfloss.com/article/24149/how-scurvy-was-cured-then-cure-was-lost

      One sort of parallel is with laws and Chesterton’s fence. Except that unlike laws, these types of values are often not exactly explicitly reasoned into existence, and they may persist because of their ability to keep persisting rather than some benefit they produce to those that hold it.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      This assumes all value differences are fundamentally reducible to explicit models, which is false.

      Strictly no, it assumes SOME or possibly MANY value differences are fundamentally reducible to explicit models.

      I mean, an argument over whether red or green is a better favorite color probably doesn’t reduce easily to explicit models unless we shrug and go “fuckit, it’s all neurology at the root.”

      But an argument over, say, whether drug addicts should be rehabilitated or stigmatized very much reduces to multi-level conflicts between crystallized values drawn from conflicting value trees.

      So maybe it’s fair to say that while not all value conflicts reduce to a clash between differing endorsed values that are themselves crystallizations of differing explicit models…

      …All the interesting and high-drama value conflicts do.

      In which case I can live with not having a good explanation for the boring and relatively trivial conflicts like “whose favorite color is best” and “who is your favorite painter.”

      • D-Source says:

        …All the interesting and high-drama value conflicts do.

        In which case I can live with not having a good explanation for the boring and relatively trivial conflicts like “whose favorite color is best” and “who is your favorite painter.”

        Nice reifications of “interesting,” “high-drama,” “boring,” and “trivial” you have there. Nice and ironic.

    • justavriend says:

      This assumes all value differences are fundamentally reducible to explicit models, which is false.

      Why is it patently false? It seems that, if we can’t identify the explicit model with which a given value corresponds, the value must either A) have come from nowhere, or B) have come from somewhere we don’t yet understand. A) seems impossible.

      Moral disagreements function similarly; your second false assumption is that sufficient decoupling of ENDORSED VALUE in debates will yield the same (legible) underlying explicit model from both debating parties.

      I don’t think this follows from the model Scott proposes. It seems that sufficient decoupling would sometimes reveal that they are working from different explicit models. Take the example Scott gives of communists versus libertarians.

      • D-Source says:

        Why is it patently false? It seems that, if we can’t identify the explicit model with which a given value corresponds, the value must either A) have come from nowhere, or B) have come from somewhere we don’t yet understand. A) seems impossible.

        Value don’t come from nowhere, but to assume all its sources can be modeled explicitly is too much–akin to a metaphysical faith in human rationality.

        I don’t think this follows from the model Scott proposes. It seems that sufficient decoupling would sometimes reveal that they are working from different explicit models. Take the example Scott gives of communists versus libertarians.

        The question is, at what point does it make sense to call a value difference fundamental. Scott appears to believe any value difference whose positions can be modeled explicitly should not be called fundamental (i.e. none). But let’s say a communist and libertarian do understand each other’s explicit models, pass the ideological Turing test with each other, and then proceed to reject the other’s positions (just as they’d done before). I’d call this value difference fundamental.

        • TDB says:

          It’s still ambiguous whether this is a value difference of a fact difference.

          Which model correctly predicts the result? Both? That seems unlikely. The question at that point seems to be, why don’t they each start a little experiment and see what works?

          I am a libertarian, but I realize I am speculating about lots of things I can’t reliably predict. If I saw communism actually working somewhere, I would probably give up my ideology and join in. If I have to bet, I know which way I will bet, but I prefer to cover my bets, because I am not a dogmatist.

          Did Scott’s model explain differences in pragmatism/dogmatism?

  6. marxbro says:

    That is, I see communists assuming every single libertarian in the world is a fundamentalist about property rights and thinks they’re so sacrosanct that they must be maintained even in the face of horrible suffering, whereas they (the communists) quite reasonably want what makes a flourishing society full of happy people.

    Where do you see communists doing this? Can you give a citation from a major communist text? Communists are well aware that capitalism requires a state to uphold (police to maintain property, bourgeois courts to adjudicate contract disputes, etc) liberal order. Libertarians fall into this contradiction. See Bukharin’s “Economic Theory of the Leisure Class” for an example of Marxist criticism of libertarians. It’s really disappointing to see you misrepresent communist arguments over and over again when so many of the basic theoretical texts are available freely online.

    • D-Source says:

      People who identify as communists online say and believe things like that of their opponents. You’ll find similar examples all over Twitter (and in Facebook groups). Nowhere in his post did Scott attribute that position to the authors of communist theory.

      • marxbro says:

        An example/citation would still have been nice. I’m a communist and I simply have never seen any of my comrades make such a glaring error unless they were very young or new to the movement.

        • Acedia says:

          https://twitter.com/existentialcoms/status/1012124054885527553
          https://twitter.com/existentialcoms/status/937113177522716672

          This is a popular comic author and self-identified communist who posts stuff like this all the time and often goes viral with it. This view of libertarians is quite popular on the hard left.

          • marxbro says:

            I’ve never heard of this person, they seem to be a cartoonist who tweets a lot rather than a committed member of a communist party, a Marxist theorist, etc. “Human rights” is something of a controversial category among Marxists and needs to be clarified/expanded on rather than simply assumed as a given.

            Potentially your perspective of the “hard left” is restricted to the social democratic left rather than the communist left? In any case, I would recommend reading communist texts rather than twitter shitposts.

          • Acedia says:

            No one other than you has mentioned any “committed member of a communist party” or “Marxist theorist”. Please stop moving the goalposts and asking people to refute claims nobody made.

          • lurking says:

            I’m pretty sure Scott meant self-identified communists in the first place. Most people don’t easily run into theorists or members of communist parties these days.

          • marxbro says:

            Look, I asked for people to link me to communists who took the position Scott ascribed to them. A single person on twitter is not a particularly convincing example unless there is some data which indicates this is a common position among communists. Until then, I would prefer to stick to the classics of communist theory and current Marxist academics rather than hearsay and a cartoonist’s twitter ramblings. If the absolute apex of Scott’s knowledge of communist theory is random twitter shitposts, that’s fine, but he should signpost that for the reader. Otherwise it just looks like a strawman at worst and cherry picking at best.

          • David Shaffer says:

            Error 404: True Scotsman not found.

          • Dan L says:

            @marxbro

            Other people have beaten me to the True Scotsman quip, but I’ll give you something more concrete: can you name a representative communist with a higher social media profile than @existentialcoms? For all its drawbacks, social media has quite good tools for quantifying how arguments actually appear in the world.

          • Aftagley says:

            Another Example of this specific phenomenon.

          • quanta413 says:

            @marxbro
            How about you summarize Bukharin with a little more detail so people can figure out if it’s worth their time to read a ~200 page book?

            I’ve read a few modern Marxists. I enjoyed Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History and found it thought provoking even though I’m not a Marxist and share few political values with him. But there are a lot of books to read, so you’ve got to sell it a little more.

          • False says:

            Almost every leftist I know (on twitter or otherwise) thinks the existential comics guy is a baffoon, for what its worth.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            Not a communist here, but the more popular a self-identified X becomes by the very nature of things the more dumbed down their message will have to be to become accessible.

            An accessible communist is almost certainly going to be quite dumb. (As would be an accessible libertarian in all likelihood); But an accessible communist/libertarian is less accessible than an accessible conservative/liberal because the latter needs to be even more accessible.

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      Existential Comics is far, far more influential than Bukharin will ever be. A good rule of thumb: When someone says “your side is full of morons who say indefensible things on the internet”, just recognize that it’s true and doesn’t say anything about your side; it’s the universal result of filtering humanity through the broken lens of Twitter.

    • Cliff says:

      “Communists are well aware that capitalism requires a state to uphold (police to maintain property, bourgeois courts to adjudicate contract disputes, etc) liberal order.”

      What does that have to do with the claim that communists think libertarians are fundamentalist about property rights?

    • gbdub says:

      I think Marxism is an interesting case. Most of the other examples here are things that we assume evolved while mankind was in the “natural” state, and instinctive heuristics approximating a good model were the best that could be done. Over time, our understanding and mental capacity has improved, and we can do better with explicit models.

      But Marx was an explicit modeler if there ever was one. Argue all you want about the accuracy of the model he came up with, but Karl was clearly a high-IQ thinker looking to create an explicit, scientific model of human society. “Marxism”, in its theoretically pure version, is definitely something that ought to be slotted into the “explicit model” level.

      But communism, as actually implemented, had an awful lot of “smash the capitalists” endorsed values. That is, Marxism basically “devolved” in the opposite direction we’d expect given Scott’s model. Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to motivate large groups of intellectually diverse people, and keep them motivated, with a snappy endorsed value than with a well constructed explicit model, no matter how accurate or elegant.

      So perhaps the lesson for explicit modelers is to think about, and if possible steer, what sort of endorsed values their model is going to spawn. Because at the implementation level, a lot of the boots on the ground are going to be operating mostly on those endorsed values. A slightly less accurate explicit model that stays relatively true as it goes down the levels could be better than a more accurate model that cannot be easily distilled without becoming dangerously misleading.

      • cryptoshill says:

        I also have a model of how political movements (or less organized, zeitgeists) form. It almost entirely relies on this difference between explicit modeling and endorsed values. Mainly that the people that write the elegant solutions are mostly incapable of getting them popularized. Das Kapital was written in 1885, Bastiat’s The Law was written in 1850. The first communist revolution didn’t occur until more than thirty years later. Someone acted as a go between to help the footsoldiers who were either low-iq, irrational, or simply had more going on in their lives than thinking about economics (I put most people in the third category) crystallize the values.

        When we talk about “popular demagogues on social media” (as in the above argument) we are explicitly talking about those sorts of people. Without them nobody would even *read* Das Kapital, let alone consider Marxism or Leninism. The same way that I popularize some other libertarian writers (although I am not nearly as good at it as some other people). I am performing the work of attempting to distill theoretical libertarian model-values into easily repeated-and-followed libertarian maxim-values.

      • benwave says:

        ‘Being upset because I picked this apple but now that guy took it from me and is eating it’ sure sounds like something that evolved when mankind was in the “natural” state. Marx spent a lot of time building explicit frameworks around why it might be bad thing that this is so and wrote some books. Then later, other people waved this book above their heads as they declared that they were angry about that guy eating their apple. I still think that chronologically, the experience preceded the endorsed value (seize the means of production etc.)

      • carvenvisage says:

        Completely disagree with the characterisation of marx. He was a self confessed prophet: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

        “All those who do not submit to convert must die by the sword” is a precise doctrine too. Explicitness is not what makes something scientific. Most religious doctrines are both elaborate and definite.

    • J Mann says:

      That is, I see communists assuming every single libertarian in the world is a fundamentalist about property rights and thinks they’re so sacrosanct that they must be maintained even in the face of horrible suffering, whereas they (the communists) quite reasonably want what makes a flourishing society full of happy people.

      Where do you see communists doing this?

      Oh my freaking goodness, let me tell you, from my perspective, pretty much everybody other than libertarians themselves seems to assume you can’t be a libertarian without believing that we shouldn’t have roads or courts.

    • Scott Alexander’s original quote about communists isn’t exactly wrong, but it is framing the issue in a way that looks very alien to me as a communist. And this sort of thing is a recurring phenomenon, which tells me that Scott Alexander has basically a “communism for dummies” exposure to communist ideas.

      Maybe some communists would frame things in this way, that’s fine, they get to be called communists too, whatever. Such is the state of the world these days. I guess Scotsmen just ain’t what they used to be, and I have to get used to this pathetic company that I have to keep these days under the label “communist.” But here’s how I would frame it:

      The problem that communists like me have with libertarians is not that libertarians are fundamentalists about property rights and don’t care about suffering. As if communists cared about property rights (either for or against) or suffering in the abstract.

      In fact, I can’t think of hardly a specific thing that I would hold against libertarians specifically. Sure, they are idealists who elevate abstract principles above the objective material requirements that specific groups of people in specific historical contexts have for obtaining a satisfying existence, but so are all liberals. Sure, libertarians don’t see how abstract principles are social tools invented by humans for obtaining a particular material goal, rather than some “moral realist” absolute to be discovered through “pure reason.” But this is just liberalism.

      If anything, I feel bad for libertarians because they are naive liberals. Libertarians don’t understand that it is in their interest to have a strong bourgeois state, that they are better served by an Otto von Bismarck than by a…you know, I honestly can’t think of a notable head of state of a major world power who was ever a full (social + economic) libertarian.

      And don’t get me started on ancaps. I think they’ll want something a little beefier than competing private security companies when the barricades go up. I think they’ll lament no longer having a strong bourgeois authority consolidating commerce into a single customs-union, a single market, a single military to protect their domestic and foreign investments, a single judiciary to resolve disputes between rival capitalists, a single legislature to reconcile the interests of their class, etc. (As Brexiteers are abruptly realizing…)

      Regarding “suffering”…I could care less.

      Won’t capitalists suffer under a dictatorship of the proletariat? Of course! At least, the capitalists will perceive their state as one of intolerable suffering, even if it means they only have the same economic decision-making power as everyone else, and that they will be arrested and/or executed if they rebel against these rules. And yet, I have no bleeding heart for this suffering.

      Nor do I have any bleeding heart for the suffering of the millions of slaves of Ancient antiquity during the period in which it was historically necessary to have slaves to develop the means of production to the greatest potential given the technology and other material conditions of the time. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants, and many of those giants are the slaves who fed the Greek philosophers so that those philosophers could philosophize, etc. If I had a time machine, would I go back in time and liberate those slaves? Hell no! Their sacrifices paved the way for the human progress that we enjoy now. If I’m feeling particularly teary-eyed, I’ll honor them with a singing of something like “Glory and Fame” by David Rovics.

      Nor do I have any bleeding heart for the suffering of the millions of wage workers under capitalism during the period in which wage-work was historically necessary to develop the means of production to the greatest potential given the technology and other material conditions of the time. Once upon a time, capitalism was progressive and necessary, and it is altogether fortunate for me, sitting here in 2018 typing on a computer, that English peasants were once upon a time forced off the land and into the factories by the Acts of Enclosure, jumpstarting primitive accumulation.

      Lenin on “Left-Wing Narodism [Populism] and Marxism”:

      Only anarchists or petty-bourgeois, who do not under stand the conditions of historical development, can say: a feudal noose or a capitalist one—it makes no difference, for both are nooses! That means confining oneself to condemnation, and failing to understand the objective course of economic development.

      Condemnation means our subjective dissatisfaction. The objective course of feudalism’s evolution into capitalism enables millions of working people—thanks to the growth of cities, railways, large factories and the migration of workers—to escape from a condition of feudal torpor. Capitalism itself rouses and organises them.

      Both feudalism and capitalism oppress the workers and strive to keep them in ignorance. But feudalism can keep, and for centuries has kept, millions of peasants in a down trodden state (for example, in Russia from the ninth to the nineteenth century, in China for even more centuries). But capitalism cannot keep the workers in a state of immobility, torpor, downtroddenness and ignorance.

      The centuries of feudalism were centuries of torpor for the working people.

      The decades of capitalism have roused millions of wage-workers.

      Your failure to understand this, gentlemen of the Left Narodnik [Populist] fraternity, shows that you do not understand a thing about socialism, or that you are converting socialism from a struggle of millions engendered by objective conditions into a benevolent old gentleman’s fairy-tale!

      To advocate the slightest restriction of the freedom to mobilise allotment land [to freely sell individual peasant land] actually amounts to becoming a reactionary, an abettor of the feudalists. [Yes, here Lenin is advocating free trade in land].

      Restriction of the freedom to mobilise allotment land retards economic development, hinders the formation, growth, awakening and organisation of the wage-worker class, worsens the conditions of the workers and peasants, and increases the influence of the feudalists.

      • Aapje says:

        And this sort of thing is a recurring phenomenon, which tells me that Scott Alexander has basically a “communism for dummies” exposure to communist ideas.

        Perhaps this is the case because communists are often so poor at building a persuasive argument. I very often feel that communists think that they are making an highly advanced argument, while from my perspective large parts of the arguments are absurd, weak or unintelligible. If one ignores those bits, what is left is usually little more than criticisms of capitalism, which, while generally true to some extent, generally seem greatly exaggerated, one-sided and unpersuasive on their own, without a good alternative (which from my perspective is never provided, although the other person seems to think they did provide it).

        And don’t get me started on ancaps. […] As Brexiteers are abruptly realizing…

        It’s quite absurd that you criticize Brexiteers for being ancaps, when they want to have a powerful state, rather than to be part of a federation. Desiring to have your single market, military, migration policy, etc at the state level, rather than at the federal level doesn’t make one an anarchist.

        Won’t capitalists suffer under a dictatorship of the proletariat? Of course! At least, the capitalists will perceive their state as one of intolerable suffering, even if it means they only have the same economic decision-making power as everyone else, and that they will be arrested and/or executed if they rebel against these rules. And yet, I have no bleeding heart for this suffering.

        How does that dictatorship of the proletariat look? Is it like the USSR where ownership of capital was taken away from individuals? If so, don’t capitalists stop existing under such a dictatorship? How can capitalists suffer as capitalists, when capitalists no longer exist? Or do you mean that ex-capitalists suffer for losing their wealth/privileges and are put on par with the proletariat?

        Your argument seems to be missing crucial information, making it very unpersuasive to me.

        Nor do I have any bleeding heart for the suffering of the millions of wage workers under capitalism during the period in which wage-work was historically necessary to develop the means of production to the greatest potential given the technology and other material conditions of the time.

        It seems to me that today, the vast majority of workers are wage workers. However, you are treating wage work as some obsolete invention that we have left behind, while maintaining economic prosperity. Merely claiming that wage work is no longer necessary without any evidence or argument is not persuasive at all, to me.

        Lenin on “Left-Wing Narodism [Populism] and Marxism”:

        Lenin was correct that wage work can be exploitative. What he failed to appreciate is that regulations, unions, democracy, education, wealth redistribution and such can redress the balance of power to a substantial extent, greatly reducing the amount of exploitation. The fundamental mistake made by Marx and Marxism is in not believing that a balance of power can exist, but instead, to believe that the only possible outcome is grave oppression of one group by the other.

        So their solution is then to have the capitalists be oppressed by the proletariat, instead of the reverse. I think that this is quite unnecessary and produces great suffering. It also can’t actually work, as has been demonstrated time and again by states that tried to implement communism, yet left their proletariat worse off than capitalist nations.

      • J Mann says:

        @citizencocaine:

        In fact, I can’t think of hardly a specific thing that I would hold against libertarians specifically. Sure, they are idealists who elevate abstract principles above the objective material requirements that specific groups of people in specific historical contexts have for obtaining a satisfying existence, but so are all liberals.

        I think that supports Scott’s point about viewing other people’s motivations. I think I’m a libertarian because I think it fulfills Rawlsian utilitarian goals.

        2) Thanks for the clarification, but if you don’t mind, why do you identify as Communist? Do you think communism is a preferable state for human society at some point, and if so, why? Or do you just think it’s historically inevitable?

        • without a good alternative (which from my perspective is never provided, although the other person seems to think they did provide it).

          I would suggest: The Soviet Union + real decision-making power in the hands of the working class. If you don’t like that, then here’s another option: Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.” Also, Paul Cockshott’s ideas are compelling.

          Do you think communism is a preferable state for human society at some point, and if so, why? Or do you just think it’s historically inevitable?

          I don’t think communism is inevitable. I think there are two possibilities: communism, or the common ruin of the contending classes (which will look like something like nuclear war or civil war + social collapse to some sort of neo-feudalism). Obviously I would prefer communism.

          If I thought that capitalism’s contradictions could be reconciled through reforms, then I might think about how to maintain capitalism, as it is theoretically a pretty clever system of social organization, especially in its “pure” state where there is no unevenly inherited wealth and everyone starts off as an independent commodity producer owning some means of production or some equal share of larger enterprises. This “Paradise Lost” of true free-market capitalism, with no oligopolies, no proletariat, and no ability for any one person or group to weigh in on the political sphere more than others, is an attractive mirage. It’s basically what mutualist anarchists like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wanted, and in my earlier years I was very sympathetic to this idea. But I have since become convinced why this “Paradise Lost” never existed in reality in the first place (it was always an ideal construction) and why we cannot attain it.

          One reason is that attaining this “Paradise Lost” would require the state to act as some sort of “unmoved mover” that can manipulate social relations without itself being manipulated by pre-existing social relations. I don’t think that’s possible. This gets to Aapje’s point:

          Lenin was correct that wage work can be exploitative. What he failed to appreciate is that regulations, unions, democracy, education, wealth redistribution and such can redress the balance of power to a substantial extent, greatly reducing the amount of exploitation. The fundamental mistake made by Marx and Marxism is in not believing that a balance of power can exist, but instead, to believe that the only possible outcome is grave oppression of one group by the other.

          In other words, the argument is that class contradictions exist because we communists and others foment it, and if we weren’t constantly riling people up, capitalist society could indeed become non-exploitative and harmonious through various reforms that the State, as some disinterested 3rd party that is totally not under the thumb of the capitalist class, would grant. I disagree. I would argue that class conflicts under capitalism are objectively-given and will exist whether we draw attention to them or not. The German Ideology and Capital, Volumes 1-4 make convincing cases for this thesis.

          The nice reforms to which Aapje alludes were an historical idiosyncracy motivated by fear of the Soviet Union (and the need to prove how great capitalism was by contrast) and funded by imperialism and by the U.S. and its allies having a temporary monopoly on the most advanced means of production, making their workers’ concrete labor-hours count for more abstract labor-hours on the world market and thus allowing that unprecedented (and not likely to be repeated) combination of high wages, high taxes & social services, and high profits at the same time. Only in this unique situation were these reforms tolerable for capitalists.

          Hence, we observe that these reforms are never secure and are being constantly attacked. This only really makes sense if you believe that either there is some “neoliberal conspiracy” to erode these reforms just because some people like being greedy and sadistic (the left-liberal interpretation), or that the State is NOT an unmoved mover and MUST respond to the interests of capitalists (mainly because the state relies on capitalists for a large part of its funding, either through taxes or bonds), and that it remains in the interest of capitalists to erode these reforms except insofar as these reforms are deemed regrettably necessary to keep workers from accumulating anti-capitalist sentiments (the Marxist interpretation).

          As for inevitability, one way or the other I do think that the end of capitalism is inevitable, whether it results in communism or a common ruin of the contending classes. Probably after Sub-Saharan Africa and India have been fully developed up to the level of a middle-income society and proletarianized. There are still untapped wells of subsistence peasants in the world who are ripe for becoming desperate, low-wage proletarians, thus helping to keep the world rate of surplus value and average rate of profit up. But at some point that process will run its course. The end of independent farmers/artisans turning into wage-workers, along with declining birthrates everywhere as proletarians subconsciously realize that they would rather not bring new lives into this world destined for bondage, will cause an absolute overproduction of capital. This will be far worse for the rate of surplus value, the average rate of profit, and interest rates than the relative overproduction of capital (with respect to an underproduction of money-capital, gold) that occurs on a cyclical basis.

          The world economy will be perpetually stuck with interest rates at the zero-lower-bound, and there will be nothing that monetary authorities will be able to do about it. Sure, they will have the option of engineering higher interest rates in terms of fiat currency, but in terms of the money-commodity gold interest rates, and even rates of net profit of enterprise, will be stuck near zero or even negative. Capital owners and their representatives will consider this an intolerable situation and will seek to address it by grabbing market-share from rival capitals through means both peaceful and violent (war) and by cutting wages. Geopolitical contests and class struggles will erupt, and they will result in either the common ruin of the contending classes (and nations) or a new synthesis that resolves these contradictions.

          I think I’m a libertarian because I think it fulfills Rawlsian utilitarian goals.

          OK, but why do you care about Rawlsian utilitarian goals in the first place? (This rhetorical elevation of abstract moral principles above one’s material interests is what Marx would call idealism). Why would I care about these goals? I don’t see it as in my self-interest to do so.

          • Swami says:

            Pardon me for jumping in on the Rawlsian question….

            Broadly considered, self interest IS the primary reason for agreeing to impartial rules and a society which optimizes the flourishing of the general person.

            From behind a veil, what type of society would I join, knowing that not just me, but my family, loved ones, and descendants (of whom I know little or nothing of as most are not yet born) would live in this same society?

            The answer to me is obvious, I would live in a liberal society with representative government, relatively free markets and effective safety nets. IOW I would live in someplace like the US, Canada, Japan or Sweden. Immigration trends reveal that many other people share this answer. People flock to prosperous states with liberal institutions. They do not flock to illiberal states, especially communist ones. The walls on communist states point inward for good reason.

            I certainly respect one’s right to form a voluntary communist society, or ask to enter one already formed. I feel sorry for their descendants though, as history suggests they are choosing poorly.

            But back to Rawls (or Harsanyi, who first laid out the concept, and did so without the baggage of assuming maximum risk intolerance). The logic for choosing a society which is impartial, is similar to the logic of choosing to cooperate with fellow cooperators in a prisoners dilemma. It optimizes personal chance of success even as it optimizes median success and possibly total utility.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            I find Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” to be *hilarious*. For just two examples that make me laugh every time I remember them:

            * everybody else “shares”, but authors get paid 100% royalties PLUS their citizen’s share, while everyone else in the publication and distribution pipeline get paid 0% royalties.

            * the accounting, receiving, shelfstocking, and clerking of retail stores is so trivial that it is all done by children for the lolz and as a passing hobby

            After I read LB, I started collecting. There is an entire genre of this kind of sidesplitting comedy, of “some guy who is the viewpoint character for the unenlightened present day reader travels to the enlightened utopian socialist future, where someone takes him on a tour of the world, while explaining how awesome it is, how come you poor primitives don’t do it already, as written by some commie writer who thinks he’s being serious”.

            Robert Llewellyn has written a few in this genre too. They are even more hilarious and even more unrealistic than Bellamy’s comedy.

          • J Mann says:

            In fact, I can’t think of hardly a specific thing that I would hold against libertarians specifically. Sure, they are idealists who elevate abstract principles above the objective material requirements that specific groups of people in specific historical contexts have for obtaining a satisfying existence, but so are all liberals

            I think I’m a libertarian because I think it fulfills Rawlsian utilitarian goals.

            OK, but why do you care about Rawlsian utilitarian goals in the first place? (This rhetorical elevation of abstract moral principles above one’s material interests is what Marx would call idealism). Why would I care about these goals? I don’t see it as in my self-interest to do so.

            Thanks! I definitely read your accusation of “idealism” too narrowly to mean prioritizing liberty as an end goal instead of as a means to an end goal. Also, if you’ll accept a compliment, I currently consider you the most interesting commenter on SSC and appreciate the time you put into it.

            I perceive myself as having a general desire for a stable, productive utilitarian society. I do think that’s the best environment for me and my descendants to live in.

            Why do you prefer communism to what you predict with be the hellscape alternative in a non-communist post-capitalist world? Don’t you have a pretty good chance of being dead by then? If you prefer it because you think relevant groups (your descendants, your loved ones, people in general, whatever) would be better off in that environment, then isn’t is possible I have similar preferences but we disagree about what structure will lead to an optimal environment for the persons we care about?

          • From behind a veil, what type of society would I join, knowing that not just me, but my family, loved ones, and descendants (of whom I know little or nothing of as most are not yet born) would live in this same society?

            But I don’t live behind a veil. I live with a very concrete set of interests.

            Why do you prefer communism to what you predict with be the hellscape alternative in a non-communist post-capitalist world? Don’t you have a pretty good chance of being dead by then? If you prefer it because you think relevant groups (your descendants, your loved ones, people in general, whatever) would be better off in that environment, then isn’t is possible I have similar preferences but we disagree about what structure will lead to an optimal environment for the persons we care about?

            I think communism could come about within my lifetime…probably towards the very end. I have had a vasectomy so I don’t anticipate having any direct descendants.

            I agree that we probably have similar preferences but simply disagree over the object-level question of what structure will be best for those preferences.

          • Aapje says:

            @citizencokane

            I would suggest: The Soviet Union + real decision-making power in the hands of the working class.

            I addressed this in an earlier comment. Central planning cannot work because of a lack of transparency, so good central decision making is not possible. It also creates an immensely adversarial system where people are encouraged to lie, making it even worse.

            Ultimately, this solution is a system that we know didn’t work, combined with a ‘fix’ that is not actually a solution. Giving power to a specific group merely hands the levers of the machine to those people. If the machine is broken and no amount of pulling on the levers can make it work, you can’t get the desired outcome, no matter who pulls the levers. In general, many communists seem to make this mistake, thinking that if they hand the reigns of power to the right group, the right outcome will result. This is hopeless naive.

            That you are happy to present me with 3 different, under-thought alternatives makes me perceive you as a person who is very critical of existing systems, but very uncritical of alternatives and will just throw vague ideas out there, treating them as superior to proven systems. Of course, this is a general tendency of revolutionaries, who usually find out that their proposals don’t actually work in reality. Then you get the gulags, mass starvation and other unpleasantness. Forgive me for not signing up for this.

            In other words, the argument is that class contradictions exist because we communists and others foment it, and if we weren’t constantly riling people up, capitalist society could indeed become non-exploitative and harmonious through various reforms that the State, as some disinterested 3rd party that is totally not under the thumb of the capitalist class, would grant.

            This is not what I believe or claim. This is what I said: redress the balance of power to a substantial extent, greatly reducing the amount of exploitation.

            I did not claim that capitalist society can eliminate exploitation or redress the balance of power fully. Exploitation and imbalance of power is the natural state of humanity. We can do no better than to limit it. Eliminating it is impossible, unless we change humanity and/or introduce technology that makes differences between people insignificant.

            The nice reforms to which Aapje alludes were an historical idiosyncracy motivated by fear of the Soviet Union

            This is false. Unions, increased regulation for worker’s benefit, minimum wage laws, democratic reforms, etc all precede the Soviet Union. They were a response to the industrial revolution (just like communism was). Fear of communism merely sped up the acceptance of democratic and socialist reforms. Your narrative is provably inconsistent with history.

            Hence, we observe that these reforms are never secure and are being constantly attacked. This only really makes sense if you believe that either there is some “neoliberal conspiracy” to erode these reforms just because some people like being greedy and sadistic (the left-liberal interpretation), or that the State is NOT an unmoved mover and MUST respond to the interests of capitalists (mainly because the state relies on capitalists for a large part of its funding, either through taxes or bonds)

            In some ways these reforms are being attacked and in some ways they are still expanding. It’s true that for the last couple of decades, some of the reforms have been rolled back, but the reason for this is not that capitalists temporarily stopped oppressing society and went back to doing that.

            Some reforms exceeded our ability to fund them. Some reforms allowed for too much leeching behavior. A graying population means that the ratio of tax payers to non-tax payers will increase, reducing our ability to pay for nice things. Etc, etc. When circumstances change, this means that the equilibrium changes too. This is not evidence that the balance of power is gone.

            A balance of power always involves both people pushing in one direction and people pushing in the other. You completely ignore the people pushing back against ‘capitalists’ (and ignore the many power struggles that don’t fit in a capitalist vs worker dichotomy).

            The very idea that reforms could be or ought to be fully secure is wrong. It’s based on a static model, while reality is dynamic. It is based on the idea that you can permanently win, while the very nature of a balance of power is that you never conclusively win. You seem unable to be willing to live with a balance of power, which is why you propose a dictatorship of the proletariat. Unfortunately for you, that solution doesn’t solve conflicts between people. The proletariat doesn’t consist of interchangeable humans. There is diversity in that group and thus conflicts between them. So if you use the same solution, that you used to resolve the conflict between capitalists and workers, you have to make some workers dictators, oppressing other workers. But then those dictators will have diversity, so you will have conflict in that group…

            So if the only solution to resolve conflicts between groups or individuals is to have one of them oppress the other, this can only lead to a dictatorship of one, with one person oppresses everyone else. That is why the USSR (or China or Cambodia or …) never actually became a dictatorship of the proletariat, but had to become a dictatorship of one (Stalin).

            PS. Note that the dichotomy between workers and capitalists is a bit of a fantasy, since large parts of Western society own capital. Basically, if you own stock or have a pension plan, you are a capitalist.

          • Swami says:

            “But I don’t live behind a veil. I live with a very concrete set of interests.”

            And so do 7 billion other people. The value of choosing society impartially is that it helps to neutralize the zero sum dynamic of struggling for privilege (the inverse of impartial).

            One should not assume that the paths of an egoist, an altruist and a utilitarian diverge. It is possible to structure institutions in such a way that long term they converge.

            Again, I support your freedom to give up your freedom. I question your logic and take on history, but perhaps our values are just incompatible.

          • TDB says:

            The value of choosing society impartially is that it helps to neutralize the zero sum dynamic of struggling for privilege (the inverse of impartial).

            We are not impartial. We can try to approximate it. If we miss the target, will we know? What alternatives do we face, and how do we predict which is most likely to succeed??

            One should not assume that the paths of an egoist, an altruist and a utilitarian diverge. It is possible to structure institutions in such a way that long term they converge.

            Are you saying only that the solution exists, or that we can find the solution in some predictable way?

            Is it the paths that we wish to make converge, or their preferences over strategies? The status quo is a constraint on all three, so the paths must converge in the trivial sense that everyone is in the present, facing the same future social strategy options. The past is the same for everyone. Maybe I am quibbling.

            I could interpret your idea in at least two ways. One assumes that we become very adept at designing social arrangements and predicting the outcomes these generate. This seems highly optimistic, given our current reality. The other depends on the status quo being a strong attractor that effectively constrains the preferences of all three groups, so that no divergent strategy appeals to any of them. This seems more workable, but less desirable, as they may be unable to agree on strategies that would genuinely improve things. Maybe there is a third choice, one that allows some initial divergence and experimentation, but that results in an outcome that is genuinely preferred by all three groups.

      • @CitizenCokane:

        An interesting position, and one that was at least arguably defensible a century ago. Since then we have had a hundred years during which purportedly communist states have resulted not merely in continued poverty for the working classes but, in three independent cases, mass starvation. Meanwhile capitalist societies (in the Marxist sense–I would call them mixed economies) have produced, not immisseration for the working class but, by the standards of most past societies, at least moderate wealth. And we have had several experiments, most notably in China, in which the shift from communist to capitalist institutions resulted in enormous progress.

        I can only see two ways in which you could maintain your position, but perhaps you can offer a third. One is to claim that none of them, from Lenin on, were really communist. Another is to claim that the theory was right but the timing was wrong, that it required at least a century longer than Marx and his followers supposed for capitalism to finish its job of producing the necessary conditions for socialism.

        Is one of those your explanation? Do you have an alternative? Or do you reject my account of the facts of the past century?

        • purportedly communist states have resulted not merely in continued poverty for the working classes but, in three independent cases, mass starvation.

          I disagree. The allegations of poverty and mass starvation caused by socialist states aiming towards eventual communism are simply misleading scholarship. In fact, collectivization brought a huge increase to agricultural production. In fact, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries outproduced OECD countries in grain per capita after WWII and only imported grain after WWII because their workers wanted to eat far more beef and other animal products that were more grain-intensive. In fact, these socialist states brought even more rapid improvements to standard of living than capitalist development would have, except for a scenario where these states were subsidized by the advanced capitalist countries with Marshall Plan-like grants, preferential tariff agreements, local military bases, defense umbrellas, and technology transfers. In that unusual scenario, a capitalist Soviet Union might have experienced something like the “Trente Glorieuses” or the “East Asian Tiger” phenomenon.

          And China is still developing rapidly. And I do consider China to still be socialist. Right now I consider them to be going through a longer and more vigorous phase of NEP. The CCP still controls ~50% of the economy including all of the commanding heights, and they exert direction on the rest through party cells that are integrated with the governing boards of private companies.
          They also have not entirely subordinated their economic decision-making to the Law of Value.
          When a crisis in value-production hits, they do not stop producing use-values like concrete and steel that are still beneficial and necessary to their society in a use-value sense. They keep the workers on and the production going. People laugh at their ghost cities, but through such production of use-values China is setting the stage for an urbanized future without homelessness. Who cares if those structure don’t make a value profit in the immediate future?

          Whether the leadership is still building towards communism remains an open question. I have my hopes that one day the leadership will surprise everyone and say, “Congrats! Now all your advanced means of production are belong to us. We are socializing all of it.” Xi Jinping certainly is an encouraging sign.

          One is to claim that none of them, from Lenin on, were really communist.

          I consider the leadership of the Soviet Union up to Khrushchev to have been communist (including Stalin). From Khrushchev onwards, the leadership was increasingly market-socialist, and then eventually social-democratic by Gorbachev’s time.

          • Thank you. I think you are living in a fantasy, which is interesting.

            What is your explanation for the existence of the Berlin wall and, more generally, the unwillingness of the USSR to permit free emigration?

          • Germany is a good example because East and West started out at roughly the same level of development (unlike, say, comparisons between the U.S. and the Soviet Union). I don’t doubt that West Germany was more attractive for some skilled workers and members of the intelligentsia. They had some reasonable prospects of obtaining rent from their skilled labor (so long as it remained in short supply), of saving up money, of becoming small capitalists, of accumulating privileges. So I am not surprised that many people wanted to leave. But I would not have wanted to leave. Why give up your real material freedom under socialism for the theoretical freedoms of liberal society?

            In my current situation, I have no prospect of saying what I think in any public venue that is likely to appear on the radar of my boss. I live in a relationship of complete dependency and humiliation to him. I have no dignity. In my current situation, I have no prospect of having any significant decision-making power over my own destiny, or over the investment of society’s resources, or over whether the U.S. starts some stupid war. While it would be unreasonable to expect any society based on an extensive division of labor and mutual interdependence to be fundamentally different (I am always going to have to compromise with other human beings unless I become a self-sufficient homesteader in Alaska), at least I would have some say over things as a communist party member in, say, East Germany or the USSR. Contrary to mainstream scholarship, I do believe that there was some degree of internal party democracy in those parties and that they were not simply one-person dictatorships. And if Stalin had had his way, soviet elections would have become more democratic.

          • CatCube says:

            In my current situation, I have no prospect of saying what I think in any public venue that is likely to appear on the radar of my boss.

            And in East Germany, you just have to avoid saying what you think in private, lest somebody tell the Stasi. What an improvement in freedom!

          • Aapje says:

            @citizencokane

            In my current situation, I have no prospect of having any significant decision-making power over my own destiny, or over the investment of society’s resources, or over whether the U.S. starts some stupid war.

            Let’s consider that last decision, which is both impersonal and rather black and white (either you start the war or you do not).

            How much decision-making power do you believe you deserve to have over whether the US starts a war? A veto and thus 100% of the decision-making power? 1/130th of a million* of the decision-making power? 1/329th of a million* of the decision-making power? Please tell us the percentage of the decision-making power that you believe that you deserve and why.

            Furthermore, if your number is low, please explain why this is a significant level of decision-making power. If the number is high, then this must mean that the opinions of many other Americans is not considered. So in that case, I’d like to know how you justify being much more powerful than them.

            *130 million is the number of votes in the last presidential election
            ** 329 million is the number of Americans

          • TDB says:

            How much decision-making power do you believe you deserve to have over whether the US starts a war? A veto and thus 100% of the decision-making power?

            More than one person can have veto power, so having a veto is not 100% of the decision-making power. Perhaps thinking of it in percentages doesn’t help.

            Rather than just quibbling, I’d like to try to improve the question, but I’m not sure I can. Maybe it boils down to, what does a community owe to their dissenters? When are we justified in ignoring, expelling or exiling them, and when are they justified in constraining the rest of us? That seems like a really big question.

          • And in East Germany, you just have to avoid saying what you think in private, lest somebody tell the Stasi. What an improvement in freedom!

            Well, if the Stasi is doing its job, it won’t have anything against what I have to say. It will be protecting my material freedom by protecting my control over the means of production and access to the means of life against people who would want to take that away from me. Now, of course, if control over the Stasi gets hijacked by counter-revolutionaries, then that’s a big problem, so I would want rigorous mechanisms to make sure that the Stasi remains under the control and direction of workers like me.

            How much decision-making power do you believe you deserve to have over whether the US starts a war? A veto and thus 100% of the decision-making power? 1/130th of a million* of the decision-making power?…*130 million is the number of votes in the last presidential election

            Yes, 1/130,000,000th of a say would be sufficient. Especially because most of the other 130,000,000 will be in the same predicament as me and, with some persuasion to recognize their situation as similar to my own, can be persuaded to vote the same way as me.

            This is a far-cry from our current situation in which investors hold a veto over all major political decisions through their ability to make an economy scream, and to a lesser extent through their control of the mass media. And I don’t hold out any hope of convincing investors to vote in the way that I want because it would be against their interests to do so. I’d have to fool all of them. For them, imperialist war can be rational in certain circumstances, whereas it is never beneficial for me or someone in my position.

          • Viliam says:

            @citizencokane

            In fact, collectivization brought a huge increase to agricultural production. In fact, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries outproduced OECD countries in grain per capita after WWII and only imported grain after WWII because their workers wanted to eat far more beef and other animal products that were more grain-intensive. In fact, these socialist states brought even more rapid improvements to standard of living than capitalist development would have…

            Your sources of “facts” seem to be amateur YouTube videos with narrators saying “socialism was awesome“. Here are some (abbreviated) parts of transcripts for people who may feel that spending one hour listening to someone’s opinion about how socialism was awesome may be not the best way to spend their time.

            The first video:

            When talking about success of economics, and comparing USSR to USA, people fail to take into account that USA had hundreds of years to industrialize and become a world superpower, while in USSR most people started as peasants. Instead, you should compare pre-Revolution Russia with post-Revolution USSR. A backwards illiterate agrarian nation became a superpower rivaling USA, participating in the space race. USSR had economical growth of 8-9 % a year while USA had depression.

            Also, blaming Holodomor on socialism is confusing correlation with causation. Why don’t you instead talk about the record-breaking harvests after the kulaks were exterminated?

            In USSR there was full education, full employment, equality and meritocracy. Meanwhile in USA, workers, minorities and women were oppressed.

            It’s also ironic how the greatest inventions in USA were government-sponsored (how it that an argument against centralization?), such as Apple iPhone, or the algorithms that made Google rich. Similarly, in Finland the government sponsored Nokia. Also, USSR had rapidly improving healthcare.

            During Gorbachev, USSR was not at its peak. The USSR was dissolved by three men against majority vote; that’s your so-called “democracy”. Only then things became terrible. So it is not true that Soviet Union “collapsed”. (How do you explain why Russian Federation and the whole Eastern Europe didn’t also “collapse” despite inheriting the economy?)

            Most ex-Soviet citizens believe their lives were better under socialism. Now people are scared to live under horrors of capitalism they know from textbooks. People from Eastern Europe are also disappointed with capitalism; their salaries are low.

            The second video:

            The collapse of Soviet Union was a huge tragedy: population is now in poverty, the alcoholism increased, the birth rates decreased, our industrial growth has slowed down to US levels.

            Yeltsin carried out a coup, and believed in magic of free markets; instead the whole industry collapsed.

            (Saved you all about 1 hour of time. There is a lot of rambling in the videos; I tried to extract the parts containing some information.)

      • ReaperReader says:

        it is altogether fortunate for me, sitting here in 2018 typing on a computer, that English peasants were once upon a time forced off the land and into the factories by the Acts of Enclosure,

        It was fortunate for the English peasants too – that was the period when peacetime famines disappeared in the Netherlands and England, the first countries ever where this happened. I’d say that anyone with a heart would be delighted by this massive improvement in human well-being.

  7. lurking says:

    I think I can see where this is going next.

    First, crystallized heuristics can interact with each other. At least, the crystallization of a heuristic into a fully endorsed value can block another endorsed value from being crystallized out of a conflicting heuristic.

    Example 1: environmentalism as an endorsed value can block certain pro-industry and pro-business heuristics from crystallizing into fully endorsed values. As such, environmentalists are “forced” to use the other levels of values when thinking about industry or business.

    Example 2: the idea of “anti-sluttiness” or “purity” as an endorsed value can block certain pro-equality heuristics from forming endorsed values.

    Both of the above should work similarly in the opposite direction, and you can probably find many similar examples (capitalism vs. redistribution, “too big to fail” vs. moral hazard, federalism vs. whatever people think is too important to be held up by federalism at the moment?). I think this is a counterargument to Scott’s suggestions that tendency to think on a certain “level” is in part innate and depends on education or intelligence. Instead, I suspect that the endorsed values that get crystallized depend mostly on what other endorsed values you have already crystallized. Of course you may wonder what comes first if that’s the case. I guess that may depend on circumstance or what TV shows you watch or something, at least people get some kind of emotional experience from them.

    Second, these things can change over time, but due to how they interact it’s also possible that they form some kind of stable network. I’m thinking something similar to the Mental Disorders as Networks idea, as in “what if it’s just crystallized heuristics all the way down?” Naturally, people will usually like each other if they have similarly crystallized heuristics, so these networks will correspond to social groups and political movements.

    Third, sometimes different reified essences correspond to similar or even identical emotional experiences, at least in the way Scott described these concepts. Why doesn’t “anger when someone steals from you” correspond to the “justice” essence? What is the “natural rights” essence and why is it so different from “justice” anyway? And “virtue” is completely different from “utility”, but the way Scott described these concepts it seems almost like virtue ethics could be an endorsed value. I’m not sure we should think about this in a way such that theories of morality suddenly become “just another endorsed value”. Virtue ethics and utilitarianism seem more like frameworks used to justify/rationalize other endorsed values.

    • Randy M says:

      the crystallization of a heuristic into a fully endorsed value can block another endorsed value from being crystallized out of a conflicting heuristic.

      That’s a reasonable point, but it assumes people are reasonable! I expect you can find plenty of people who hold conflicting sacred values.

    • benwave says:

      Very dialectical. I like it!

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Think of all this as being complex and existing on a sliding scale, not deterministic and existing in fixed little compartments.

      It’s entirely possible for one bad experience (anger at having the apples you picked taken away and eaten) to give rise to different crystallized heuristics depending on context, or even more than one at the same time. The desire to punish those who have hurt you may crystallize the desire to ensure that everyone gets to keep what they made themselves can crystallize into ‘natural property rights’ OR into ‘redistribution’ depending on exactly who took your apple and why.

      And either way it may also crystallize into desire for ‘justice,’ to punish the big-government-takers or private-capitalist-takers who took your apples.

      It may crystallize into completely different values like, oh, ‘love-of-leisure’ (if I can’t keep my apples, why bust my butt picking them).

      The interesting insight here isn’t that there’s a grand mechanical system under which every emotion and value we have corresponds in a strict one-to-one way with a process that can be explicitly modeled. It’s that most of the values people care strongly about can be unpicked/unpacked into an explicit model that justifies why people behave that way, even if you think they’re mis-applying the principle in whatever particular instance you’re looking at.

      That is to say, very few debates actually resolve into cases where ones side is being purely rational while the other side is purely motivated by emotion and prejudice and being evil mutants.

    • Tenacious D says:

      First, crystallized heuristics can interact with each other.

      Now I’m imagining “moral crystallography” as a new field of study.

    • ReaperReader says:

      ‘Natural rights’ is roughly, that set of rules around the allocation of resources that seems to be a relatively-less worse way of getting society run smoothly. ‘Justice’ here Scott seems to be using in the sense of retribution to wrong-does.

  8. lurking says:

    It’s fun to think of more examples. How about this?

    EXPLICIT MODEL: What skills and knowledge do I need in my life?
    EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Curiosity, joy of learning, happiness from being able to do complicated tasks
    REIFIED ESSENCE: Education
    ENDORSED VALUE: It’s good to be knowledgeable in general, even about things not immediately useful in your life (getting degrees is also a way to signal this endorsed value, it’s not just credentialism)

    • helloo says:

      It’s more like this –

      EXPLICIT MODEL: Knowledge about things can often prove to be helpful when interacting with things
      EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Curiosity, innate learning/copying/role modeling
      REFINED ESSENCE: Education, Academia, Apprenticeship
      ENDORSED VALUE: Everyone should get a high-school education, and everyone who wants to be learned or get a high earning job needs to go to college

      The bottom one should be a general sentiment or slogan for some part of society rather than some piece of knowledge.

      Also a common theme in these are that, the bottom is so far removed from the top that while it might have been useful at some point, there’s issues with it being practiced all the time regardless of circumstances.

    • Jaskologist says:

      EXPLICIT MODEL: Human offspring take a long time to mature, and their odds improve vastly when both parents remain invested throughout
      EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Pleasure from being around your mate
      REIFIED ESSENCE: Love
      ENDORSED VALUE: Love is the central purpose of marriage, and loveless marriages should be dissolved.

    • Jaskologist says:

      EXPLICIT MODEL: The more organisms mate, the more they will reproduce.
      EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Sexual Attraction
      REIFIED ESSENCE: Sexual Orientation
      ENDORSED VALUE: Your sexual orientation is the most important thing about you, and you should follow where it leads.

    • Jonas says:

      EXPLICIT MODEL: If someone is stronger than you or can otherwise threaten you with violence more credibly than the other way around, they are likely to exploit you and impose win/lose interactions
      EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Anger and resentment at being oppressed and pushed around, reactance
      REIFIED ESSENCE: Autonomy, defiance of and rebellion against authority figures perceived to be unjust/illegitimate — “When in the course of human events…”, Μολον Λαβε
      ENDORSED VALUE: muh bill of rights, checks and balances, nullification, etc.

      Did I do it right?

  9. Robert Jones says:

    This probably comes from an evolutionary heuristic in favor of fertile areas and against barren ones; the closest chimpanzee-parseable equivalent to a concrete lot would be a desert or lava flow, where food and shelter are scarce.

    I’m skeptical of this. Firstly, any heuristic our ancestors had as to the availability of food and shelter should have been overridden by actual information as to the availability of food and shelter. It would obviously be maladaptive to move away from an area which looked like the sort of place with little food when you could see there was in fact abundant food there and you’d be outcompeted by some other fellow who utilised the resources you’d ignored. Since I can observe that my urban environment has ample food and shelter, it makes no sense for me to parse it as a scarcity environment.

    Secondly, I don’t see why our ancestors would need such a heuristic, since their range was limited to a small number of similar environments. If you live on broad savannah, you don’t get any evolutionary advantage from a preference for living in savannah, because you’re competing with other savannah dwellers.

    Thirdly, people like mountains, which are not fertile and would likely have been an inhospitable environment for early humans.

    • Randy M says:

      Thirdly, people like mountains, which are not fertile and would likely have been an inhospitable environment for early humans.

      Maybe a preference for mountians comes from the increased availability of clean running water?

      • Jiro says:

        I could easily explain away any preference that way regardless of whether the explanation is true or whether the preference even really exists. “People prefer lepers because the need to care for lepers taps into human instincts about protecting the helpless, that evolved for protecting babies and people with curable diseases”. That’s the big problem–Scott’s just creating just-so stories.

    • kokotajlod@gmail.com says:

      Relevant trivia: According to a book I read years ago, people didn’t like mountains until relatively recently. For most of human history mountains were not glorified in art, literature, etc. nor did anyone go out of their way to see them.

      • Joseph Greenwood says:

        Maybe related: In ancient times, mountains were viewed as sacred (hence dangerous to mortals) at least in the Middle East and Mediterranean area. Consider Mount Sinai and Mount Olympus as “still-in-common-memory” examples.

        • FLWAB says:

          Common among Native Americans as well: for instance, Mt. Rainier was considered sacred and the home of powerful spirits, so Natives avoided climbing it higher than the timberline (there’s no good game above the timber anyway). The first recorded people to climb it hired a Native guide, and he led them in circles around the foothills for a few days hoping they would give up. When he realized they weren’t going to give up he took them up to the timberline and refused to go further. He was also terrified because he was sure they were going to die up there and then he would get blamed for it, and maybe lynched. He was pretty stoked when they came back.

          I hear Mt. Shasta was also considered sacred, and consequentially too dangerous to climb. Of course climbing large mountains is dangerous, period, and there are few resources to be obtained on the higher slopes, so it could be an adaptive cultural response.

      • Robert Jones says:

        I have also heard that: grand tourists are said to have closed the blinds on their carriages to avoid seeing the Alps, but I’m not sure how much I believe it.

        • Deiseach says:

          grand tourists are said to have closed the blinds on their carriages to avoid seeing the Alps

          Not so much because of sacredness (though perhaps that was the concept lurking behind the aesthetic experience) but mountains and particular kinds of nature scenery in the 18th century were considered to be sublime, and that was associated with terror:

          Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous.

    • emiliobumachar says:

      Getting actual information can be very expensive.

      Suppose a group of hunters-gatherers needs to move. Should they go towards the desert or towards the forest?

      An intuitive fondness for forests and aversion to deserts would be useful here, assuming that the forest actually has more food and shelter. To try either first then change if needed can easily be fatal.

      I would think that sort of decision was frequent enough to matter.

      • FLWAB says:

        Yet, a lot of people find the desert beautiful. How does that fit?

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Because the second order meta-heuristic is “Make preferences for landscapes mostly heritable but diverse.”

          That way some fraction of people go to the desert, some fraction go to the forest, and some go to the swamp. Different fractions of each of those groups reproduce, and the next generation consists of more people who had the preference that resulted in a higher chance of reproducing.

          Not everyone who went to the desert failed to reproduce, so there are people who find the desert beautiful.

    • moridinamael says:

      Most people like looking at mountains, not being on mountains. Being on a mountain is distinctly uncomfortable and activates more of an “adventure” emotion than a “contentment” one.

      • Aapje says:

        Being near a high mountain often means that there are meltwater rivers.

      • fion says:

        Don’t know about you, but whenever I see a mountain, I have an urge to be on the top of it.

        (You could write a just-so story about this: being on high ground gives you a view and you can see danger/food/general lay-of-the-land.)

      • benjdenny says:

        I was thinking this – I’m pretty sure being near a mountain, especially in a valley, has a lot advantages what with the erosion eroding into you rather than away from you and the rivers/lakes and all.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      I’m skeptical of this. Firstly, any heuristic our ancestors had as to the availability of food and shelter should have been overridden by actual information as to the availability of food and shelter. It would obviously be maladaptive to move away from an area which looked like the sort of place with little food when you could see there was in fact abundant food there and you’d be outcompeted by some other fellow who utilised the resources you’d ignored. Since I can observe that my urban environment has ample food and shelter, it makes no sense for me to parse it as a scarcity environment.

      Having the ability to accurately calculate at a glance what resources an environment contains, recognizing that the apartment complex is a more desirable place to live than the forest, would be an example of explicit modeling.

      But chimpanzees (or tribes of homo habilis) aren’t necessarily smart enough to do that. And evolution does not automatically grant them the ability to do this because there is no “evolution fairy” trying to create the theoretically optimum hominid through conscious design. So sure, in theory, a tribe of cavemen who only have the vague heuristic “go where it’s green and like the green places” would be outcompeted by cavemen who can easily calculate the year-round food and water supply of an environment with a cursory inspection. But since the latter group didn’t exist, that didn’t matter.

      Furthermore, our homo habilis ancestors didn’t have a choice of moving to an apartment complex. For them, the forest (or a lush, tree-and-bush-heavy savannah) really was the best option available.

      The closest thing in the ancestral environment to a big brutalist apartment complex full of big concrete buildings and pavement would be a rocky badlands area full of giant rock outcroppings, where the soil is so poorly watered and infertile that it can’t support much plant cover. And those are exactly the kinds of place that our simian ancestors would be wise to stay clear of, because they’re lousy places to stay for any extended period of time.

      Secondly, I don’t see why our ancestors would need such a heuristic, since their range was limited to a small number of similar environments. If you live on broad savannah, you don’t get any evolutionary advantage from a preference for living in savannah, because you’re competing with other savannah dwellers.

      The thing is, hunter-gatherer tribes are nomadic and the ones at the edges of a given biome have a choice to move out into the biome.

      If there were early cavemen who had a strong preference for less greenery, they would be likely to move into the driest, least fertile areas of the broad savannah they lived on over time. They might even go whole hog and move into the desert or semi-arid regions at the fringe of the savannah. And they’d die.

      Conversely, tribes that evolve to covet the greenest and most fertile land are more incentivized to remain in those lands, and defend them from outsiders. Thus growing stronger over time assuming they don’t get their butts kicked by someone else who covets those lands even harder.

      Thirdly, people like mountains, which are not fertile and would likely have been an inhospitable environment for early humans.

      It may well be that our instinctive ‘nature-preference’ is entirely about “more green versus less green” areas and doesn’t really care much about how rugged or mountainous the terrain is. It may well be that other instinctive preferences played a role in discouraging our ancestors from moving into infertile mountainous terrain, instincts like “The thin air makes me uncomfortable” or “I don’t like having to climb a thousand meters each way to get from the campsite to the berry-picking grounds.”

  10. Robert Jones says:

    Instead of asking ordinary people and children to calculate their macronutrient and micronutrient profile, we ask them to eat “healthy” foods and avoid “unhealthy” foods.

    That’s not right. We give them high level advice: eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, eat fish twice a week, choose wholegrain varieties, avoid foods high in saturated fats, salt and/or sugar, drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week and so on.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      And then most of the general population (myself included) finds that advice too complicated to remember and/or difficult to execute, and distills it down to “fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains good; fat, salt, sugar, alcohol bad.” And the “high level advice” still doesn’t go into why you need 5 serving of fruits and veggies daily, or why some things are okay up to certain points but bad in excess, etc.

      • Randy M says:

        A lot of times the advice isn’t based on a model; or rather, of a more complicated model than implied. For instance, the reason babies are recommended to be vaccinated is not because vaccines work better on babies, but because people bring well babies into pediatricians with greater reliability than older children.

        Five servings of fruit might well be because “if we tell you three, you’ll do one, so we’ll say five.”

      • Robert Jones says:

        Yes, it can be frustrating, because it’s pretty obvious that fruits and vegetables are not all the same, but it comes back to Scott’s point that dumb people require simple heuristics, so whoever it is who’s responsbile for health advice picks a simple message and hammers it home.

        I mean, I’m a bit surprised if you really can’t remember (or execute) the advice to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but your distillation does contain the basic points. Whereas asking someone to eat healthy foods doesn’t help them at all if they don’t already know what food is healthy (in which case they aren’t the target demographic for public health advice).

        • FLWAB says:

          I’ve always dismissed portion advice because I find it too vague. How much, exactly, is a portion? And how does a portion of kale compare with a portion of carrot? How the heck do I know when I’ve eaten five portions? I’ve had portion size explained to me, but it doesn’t really stick: if a portion is the size of a deck of cards, does that mean I have to compress my salad to deck of card shape to test whether it’s a portion? That’s the main reason I mostly let portion advice pass over my head and focus on the idea of eating “healthy” food and not too much of it.

          • Deiseach says:

            And how does a portion of kale compare with a portion of carrot?

            If we take it that very roughly kale is much the same kind of thing as cabbage, and that “portion” and “serving” are equivalent, then back when I was carb counting I worked out (from various sites on the Internet that gave what a portion/serving of a particular vegetable worked out to in weight in grams – I can’t visualise ‘how much is a spoonful or deck of cards or palm of my hand’ that way).

            2 servings cooked sliced carrots = 1 serving chopped cabbage (235g in each case).

          • Robert Jones says:

            Practically, a portion of kale is the amount of kale you put on your plate and ditto carrots. It’s such a crude guideline that the the size doesn’t matter. The idea is to get you to include some veg in your meals.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Porque no los dos?

          We both remind people to eat healthy food (on the assumption that they’ve already absorbed the notion that salads are healthy and Oreos aren’t) AND specify more details about what constitutes ‘healthy’ by referencing explicit models.

          Any time you see one of these crystallizable models that can be reduced to a moral value, you can expect to see society using all the levels simultaneously, assuming there’s enough information available to use an explicit model at all.

  11. TheTime says:

    “First, let’s be blunt: dumber (here meaning either less educated or lower-IQ) people probably crystallize heuristics lower on the ladder. Chimpanzees, cavemen, and children can’t understand game theory and shouldn’t try. They usually run off instinct and taboo, and if you take that away from them they will just get confused.”

    Wait wait wait, that looks clearly wrong to me. Not the “Chimpanzees don’t know theories” part, but the assumption that your ladder’s depth corresponds to “height” of a a concept, complexity-wise. Here is an alternative ladder. I mean, it’s not really a ladder, it’s more like a cycle. Under this interpretation, the “EXPLICIT MODEL” and “ENDORSED VALUE” live under the same roof – they are both ways to explain our emotions and social reality with more complex concepts. Try to deal with some of the “ENDORSED VALUE”s of Aquinas and tell me his concept of Purity is, in any way, simple. Yes, I think the evolutionary and\or cultural explanation is more likely than Aquinas’ explanation of the, I don’t know, let’s say ‘divine essence of Pureness’ although it probably have another name. But I really don’t think you need more IQ for one model or the other.
    For this reason, Part III looks really weird. it’s not like the ways a metaphysical construct like “Right to Rule” behave are less complex than the way “Top-down organization efficiency” behave. I think it’s much more likely that we live in a society in which, for whatever unrelated reasons, conservationism is negatively correlated with education and IQ, and so construct complex liberal theories, than that there is some deep fundamental connections between EXPLICIT MODEL-liberalism and ENDORSED VALUE-conservatism.

    • MasteringTheClassics says:

      If I’m reading the essay correctly, EXPLICIT MODEL is a hypothesized subconscious sourcee of emotional experience. It’s a model that’s only explicable in retrospect (and even then it’s never more than a just-so story). As such, the whole “lower IQ folks operate at lower levels” thing should start at level 2; chimps and children and such work off emotion, most people work off reiffocation, scholars work off endorsed values. Nobody just works off explicit models – that part is pure speculation.

  12. Robert Jones says:

    The ordering seems odd to me. We start with the emotional experiences: hunger, disgust and anger are innate. No doubt they have evolutionary purposes, but these are hidden from us (at least in the state of nature). Both the reification and the explicit model are ways of making sense of those emotions. Maybe “explicitly model system” should move to the bottom, because you need to endorse values before you can usefully model a system, because you need to know what you’re trying to achieve.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      The relations between the levels are cause-and-effect relationships.

      It is an objective fact about the world that people need vitamins and nutrients to live. While our choices to model things in terms of this fact may themselves be effects of something else, the “you must eat such-and-such to live” part is simple fact.

      Hunger, satiety, and the sense of ill-health that comes with an unbalanced diet are emotional experiences caused by that objective fact.

      The crystallized value of “health-essence” that we attribute to foods that supply the vitamins and nutrients we need is a consequence of those emotions.

      And the endorsed essentialist value “we should eat the foods that have the most health-essence” is a consequence of the crystallization of the complex objective fact (you need a whole host of nutrients) into a simple heuristic (some foods are healthier than others).

  13. scottfree43 says:

    In Section 3 you say “First, let’s be blunt: dumber (here meaning either less educated or lower-IQ) people probably crystallize heuristics lower on the ladder. ” It is worth noting that education and IQ are correlated with each other and with income. I propose that wealthier people can afford to take more risk than poor people. That means they can take the risk that their model is wrong to get the reward of a better outcome since they can more easily recover from mistakes. If the cost of making a mistake is starvation and death you will be much more cautious. If you win 90% of the time you play the game and you can keep going when you lose 10% of the time you take the risk. When losing means losing all and game over you are guaranteed to lose everthhing eventually and you don’t play.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Yes, this seems like failure at the margins. When I was younger I was socially liberal, and did not care much about silly social hangups about sex. Then hook-up culture happened and I became aware of how many other people did not come out like I did, with a stable marriage and children. Perhaps I navigated casual sexual relationships just fine because of my intelligence and education. But lots of other people who did what I did failed miserably and wound up broken and alone. Now I’m a social conservative.

      • cryptoshill says:

        I think one of the most common things social conservatives will say (if they’re being nice and reasonable) is: “Sure, all of this stuff might be fun and interesting, but it seems like attaching your identity to it is a lot of *work*”.

        One of the best things the LGBT community ever did to win widespread approval was decouple the pattern-matching between homosexuality and hook-up culture.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          Part of that happened because the ones who were the most unyielding about having easy hookup be an intrinsic part of their gay identity…

          … died.

          • cryptoshill says:

            +1. It’s depressing, but I think you’re right. However, given no genetic inheritance – why do I feel like there’s just less hook-up culture influences on gay men? (Sure, there’s some, see pride. But I’ve noticed the people who complain the loudest about people asking for Pride to be toned down are not gay men). Cultural trauma response?

        • lazydragonboy says:

          @cryptshill

          “Sure, all of this stuff might be fun and interesting, but it seems like attaching your identity to it is a lot of *work*

          This line describes a large chunk of how I became more socially conservative in the past few years. Attaching to any identity (or opinion!) is a lot of work, and my own life became a lot more peaceful when I didn’t work all the time reinforcing my opinions and shoring up my views. I still have occasional bouts of being judgemental and bashing about with strong opinions…but they’re miserable and I am grateful when I tease out the bugs leading to the behavior.

      • Eigengrau says:

        This doesn’t seem like much of a reason to become a social conservative (on all issues?). Mind you, I’m firmly in the “social conservativism is obviously wrong and evil” camp. Was there anything else that made you a social conservative? How do you know that those people wound up broken and alone because of hookup culture and not because of something else?

        • MasteringTheClassics says:

          Social conservatism is basically the insight that certain taboos, if breached, will result in suffering and misery for most people. Watching a bunch of people breach a taboo and get destroyed is an excellent recipe for becoming a defender of the value of taboo (i.e. becoming a social conservative).

          • arlie says:

            Why does it often come with an inclination to punish people who violate the taboos, thereby creating suffering that would not otherwise be present, on top of any that might be there naturally?

            And in particular, why is it OK to do the moral equivalent of e.g. forcing everyone to consume sugar (good energy for the healthy majority), including diabetics?

            I.e. even if violating the taboo were truly and predictably harmful to most people, why does there seem to be a perceived need to translate it as “for any given person, violating the taboo will probably be harmful”.

            Obvious gratuitous example – a 1950s conservative enforcing appropriate gender roles. I’m old enough that as a child I witnessed e.g. the resulting substance abuse among those ill suited to the suburban housewife role.

            I may think certain choices are absurd or self destructive – but after witnessing this and other things, I’m going to allow adults to make their own choices, and be very careful of what major decisions I make for children.

          • Aapje says:

            @arlie

            One obvious socially conservative rebuttal is that most people don’t carefully analyze the risks and rewards of their choice, having a tendency to reinvent the wheel. Then a taboo can keep people from doing that and will reduce suffering. This is especially true when bad outcomes are permanent or very costly to reverse, so once people learn the lesson first-hand, they are already screwed. For example, learning that a face tattoo makes your near-unemployable after you already have it, is a bit late. A taboo may prevent this and/or make people much more aware of the consequences.

            Another objection is that people tend to undervalue externalities, for example, by doing things that greatly harm their children, while giving less benefit to themselves. So the taboo can reduce selfish behavior like this.

            A common objection is also that freedom is beneficial to those with high g, while harming those with low g, so some freedoms are then a happiness transfer from those with low g to those with high g. So a taboo can then create more egalitarian outcomes and actually be very progressive 🙂

          • MasteringTheClassics says:

            To fully generalize Aapje’s third point: any restriction of freedom is likely to help equalize outcomes in a way that hurts some individuals, and equalizing outcomes generally means helping low-g people at the cost of harming high-g people. Unless you are a very strict libertarian, there should be some part of you that understands the drive to restrict everyone’s freedom to promote the average good.

            To put the argument in economic terms, are you in favor of any policy that reduces personal freedom for the collective good (e.g. taxes collected for any public good)? Would you favor making such policies universal, even if it could be demonstrated that a certain cohort of rich guys experiences serious psychological harm due to having to pay taxes (sugar to a diabetic)?

            And to forestall an obvious objection: taboos aren’t just valuable to individuals, they’re also valuable to society at large. A taboo on polygamy sucks for people who would prefer (and have access to) multiple partners, but it leads to an overall less violent society. A taboo on drug use sucks for the Hamilton Morris’s of the world, but leads to a society where fewer people mug you for meth money. Etc. You can quibble with the object-level accuracy of those examples, but the meta- level point stands (unless you’re asserting that there can be no taboo which creates an overall better society).

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Obvious gratuitous example – a 1950s conservative enforcing appropriate gender roles. I’m old enough that as a child I witnessed e.g. the resulting substance abuse among those ill suited to the suburban housewife role.

            And I’ve witnessed the rows and rows of cubicles I walk through every day, each containing a woman who spends eight hours yelling at insurance company representatives. How wonderful that they have been unchained from their stoves where they would have been slaving away for such meaningless things as “children” and “husbands” and “family.” So much better that they be chained to their desks in service of capitalism.

            Now stay at home motherhood is a luxury of the rich. My wife is on internet forums for mothers, and so many women wish they could stay home with their children but can’t afford it.

            I’m certainly not interested in forcing anyone to conform to gender roles. But I think our culture has an unhealthy fixation with shoving women into the workforce. “More women in STEM!” “Teach girls to code!” Why? Most jobs are garbage. They are not “fulfilling.” They’re the things we slog through to afford the things that are actually fulfilling, like children, family, community, religion, hobbies.

            Yes, some people who are not well-suited for family life were worse off without the opportunity to do something besides “homemaker.” But today lots of women who would be much happier as a homemaker, and their children better off in their mother’s care instead of daycare either don’t have that opportunity or have been actively discouraged from seeking it for their entire lives. They don’t realize until they’re 30, still in debt from student loans, working a meaningless job, “Oh. This is awful and I’m going to be doing it for the next 35 years. I should have had a family instead.”

            Not saying you have to force anybody to do one thing or the other, but when you look at the harm done to some by expecting people to conform to gender roles, you also need to look at the harm done when you campaign against those gender roles. Are you sure that on balance you haven’t just traded one type of suffering for another? And maybe more of it?

          • arlie says:

            Lots of good responses here. I wish this interface would let me reply to them, rather than to MasteringTheClassics, but the thread is too deep.

            I think we have a good topic here. Several actually. And here I thought I was just pointing out a simple inconsistency.

            I’d hoped we’d all agree that the 1950s mores no longer applied, and I could take advantage of my age to use an in living memory example that was no longer an issue. It seems I was wrong.

            Topics I see here –

            1) is it OK to e.g. decide that certain people are to have their opportunities drastically limited for the sake of the whole? (Let’s say blue eyed people all get sacrificed to the local deity at the age of 10.) What limits are there on this? It would be tricky to debate this without landing in an argument about whether current-oppressed-minority (blue term :-() has some trait that produces a reasonable limitation or statistical effect.

            2) To what extent should people be restricted for their own good, because they won’t (on average) make good decisions?

            3) Is it good for society/humanity etc. as a whole to have outliers on every side of a common pattern, doing something different that probably won’t be as effective as the usual thing, unless conditions have changed, whereupon they’ll be the pioneers of the new best adaptive response? Is that good worth letting some people self destruct, perhaps after warning them?

            I suspect that the usual anomalies apply – people’s political choices + specific framing affect the answers they’ll give. Also, in most cases, people will tend to favour restrictions and inequalities that favour them in particular, or at least don’t significantly harm them. And that would make discussing the genereral question exceedingly difficult.

          • arlie says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            Poor women have always worked. I’m not convinced that the current situation – lots and lots of dual income families, many from economic necessity – is really related to the feminist phenomenon of women wanting to work, and encouraging other women to try it. It looks to me like it’s more likely to be related to increasing income inequality, combined with a decreasing economic value of work performed in the home.

            A handful of my peers can afford a non-working spouse. It is, as you say, currently an extreme luxury in large parts of the US. And many of those who could afford this prefer a more comfortable life style, or the extra safety net of being unlikely to both lose their jobs at the same time.

            My father could afford to support my mother. So could most of his peers, and many, perhaps the majority of their wives were happy. My mother, and at least one of her peers, basically crawled into a bottle. Life got much better when she decided to go to college, get a degree and a job.

            Unfortunately, we can do dueling anecdotes all day. It would be better if you and your wife had what you felt were viable choices. It would also have been better, IMO, if my mom hadn’t had to wait for feminism to tell her that her idyllic lifestyle obviously wasn’t working for her, and she should do something else, rather than trying to become a better housewife.

            If we had 50s customs along with the current economy, we’d just have more misery – men blaming themselves as “inadequate providers”; women blaming themselves for “neglecting their children” by working. We might get a few more willing to live with less money to avoid the dual income trap, but those would be on the margins. And none would be in the economic category where both spouses are currently working more than one job each. (Those would be, approximately, the same category where even in the 50s, both spouses worked.)

          • To fully generalize Aapje’s third point: any restriction of freedom is likely to help equalize outcomes in a way that hurts some individuals, and equalizing outcomes generally means helping low-g people at the cost of harming high-g people.

            That isn’t generally true. If you equalize outcomes by pulling down the people who were doing well it doesn’t follow that you will pull up those doing badly, unless your value system is entirely in terms of relative values.

            I think your implicit model is of a philosopher king government (or norm creation system) that only forbids everyone from some decision when the result is that some people who would make that decision unwisely get a better outcome. But there is no reason why you can’t end up with rules that make almost everyone, in particular the low g people, worse off.

            Two obvious examples are the War on Drugs and the minimum wage law, although there are, of course, people who would dispute both. Most of the negative consequences of illegal drugs are due to their high price and unreliable quality, both results of their being illegal. So the result of making them illegal is bad both for the high g people who would only use the drug if doing so really benefitted them (Freud, for example) and the low g people who continue to take the drugs at a high price and risk of overdose. Also their low g neighbors who don’t use the drugs but suffer the indirect negative effects of the illegal market.

            For the minimum wage case, suppose you accept the conventional economic account and assume a reasonably high demand elasticity for low skill labor–whether or not you agree with either, neither assumption is impossible. The minimum wage then benefits skilled workers in direct competition with less skilled (but less expensive) workers–the standard example being northern textile workers trying to slow the shift of the industry south. They are not particular low g. It imposes a small cost in higher prices on everyone. It imposes a large cost–lifetime unemployment, continued poverty, welfare class life, on the unskilled workers, the relatively low g group.

            And the justification is that it is keeping the unskilled workers from making an incorrect decision–accepting a low wage job when, if all of them refused, it is supposed they would be better off.

          • MasteringTheClassics says:

            @DavidFriedman, I phrased that indefensibly poorly, allow me to restate: a restriction of freedom which raises the average utility of a population in absolute terms will generally achieve this end by helping low-g people at the cost of harming high-g people. I stand by this new statement, and think that such restrictions of freedom are possible.

            Consider the following statement: an unregulated life is likely to be both short and miserable. Assuming you accept this as true, you acknowledge that regulation is necessary for a fulfilling life. This regulation can come from outside you (culture, government) or within you. An environment of maximal freedom (i.e., no external regulation) will benefit those with good autoregulation, but harm those with poor autoregulation, relative to a society that judiciously imposes external regulations. By and large, high-g individuals are better than low-g individuals at autoregulation, so greater freedom will on average benefit high-g individuals at the expense of low-g individuals.

            I’m willing to grant that “judiciously” leaves a lot of wiggle room, and that brilliant thinkers have been harming everybody with stupid external regulations for most of recorded history, but I’m not willing to grant that there is no such thing as judiciously applied external controls.

            As an example, consider the classic: roads. The cost of constructing roads falls disproportionately on the wealthy, and therefore harms them in order to benefit society at large. Could Bezos have come up with a better use for his money than paving roads? Probably. Could Joe Schmo? Probably not. Is the average person better off for roads having been constructed by the government? I think so, though you may not agree.

            Let me put a bit of a twist on one of your examples: drug use. I’ll grant that the war on drugs had been a disaster, and as such I would prefer drug legalization. At the same time, an environment of maximal freedom re. drugs is likely to increase their consumption, especially among low-g individuals (drugs of abuse are famous for putting up a good fight against regulation of all types, so in an environment with no external regulation, those with low ability to autoregulate will have no defense). This state of affairs would harm both individuals and society at large, so I favor a strong cultural norm of never taking drugs (nongovernmental external control, aka social conservatism, aka taboo).

            So I still think taboos are important and worth defending in some instances. Do you disagree with this?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Poor women have always worked.

            Poor women, yes, but working and middle class women, not so much. It’s undeniable that the rates of women working outside the home have dramatically increased since the 1950s.

            I’m not convinced that the current situation – lots and lots of dual income families, many from economic necessity – is really related to the feminist phenomenon of women wanting to work, and encouraging other women to try it. It looks to me like it’s more likely to be related to increasing income inequality, combined with a decreasing economic value of work performed in the home.

            I’d say it’s the whole general mishmash. Double the labor pool, wages go down, you need two incomes in the place of one, combine with immigration and offshoring for 40 years and here we are. I don’t have a simple fix for this, but I do reject the idea that women working out of the home is a good in and of itself. I don’t think men working is a good in and of itself. Work is the drudgery we perform in support of the things that give life meaning. It does not give meaning itself.

            Say “more women in STEM” and “teach girls to code” and all the right-thinking people will applaud. Say, “you know, girls might want to consider thinking deeply about what they really want out of life, and ask if they’d find a more meaningful existence focusing on a role as wife and mother rather than a career” and you can expect some nasty heat coming your way from some types of feminists. It’s like they didn’t grasp arbeit macht frei was a cruel taunt rather than a statement of fact.

            It would be better if you and your wife had what you felt were viable choices.

            My wife stays at home with the kids while I work. I’ve got a good job and can afford that. High g and all. It’s the lower pay-scale women at my workplace, the women on my wife’s mommy forum, the record numbers of unmarried and childless young people who I think are getting the short end of the stick.

          • arlie says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            I don’t have a simple fix for this, but I do reject the idea that women working out of the home is a good in and of itself. I don’t think men working is a good in and of itself.

            FWIW, my argument here is not that women – or men – working is a good in itself. My argument is that people being pigeonholed into roles particularly ill suited to them is generally a bad thing, and that this is my problem with most social conservative positions.

            Personally, I’m heartily sick of working, and will be glad to retire, but meanwhile I’m personally in a lot better position as an official employee of some boss, than I’d ever be as a dependent spouse and homemaker. I’m fortunate in that I have the skills and talents to generally find myself in a seller’s market when I decide to replace the current employer. (Of course I put some work into getting those, but not all of that comes from anything I actually did.)

            Another person will have different experiences. They don’t have exactly the same skills, talents, and opportunities. They may find a better deal with a loyal, competent etc. breadwinning spouse. Or they may get to support their family and raise their children while their “can’t keep a job” spouse can’t manage childcare or housekeeping either 🙁

            The important thing is that they get to make their own mistakes, not have their parents, or teachers, or government, or pastor, or neighbours, decide which package of risks and rewards they’ll be assigned to. All those people can advise, if they want to, and maybe even be listened to. But that’s all they should be doing(*).

            [*With the possible exception of ‘nudges’. I don’t mind at all that my employer automatically enrolls everyone in the 401K, unless they fill out the forms to change that election, rather than not enrolling them unless they fill out forms.]

          • So I still think taboos are important and worth defending in some instances. Do you disagree with this?

            No. But I don’t know of any governmental mechanism for restricting choice that can be predicted to, on average, result in better outcomes for low g individuals than leaving them free to make their own decisions.

            That doesn’t mean that a government will impose no such restrictions, just that I think the mechanism for creating restrictions will, on average, do a worse job of serving the welfare of low g individuals than their own choices would.

            The same may not be true for norms. I have an old piece that briefly discusses under what circumstances one can expect norms to evolve that produce net benefits.

          • mtl1882 says:

            I think this is a really good and insightful definition, and it has some truth to it. Most people need clear rules, and can’t manage their lives otherwise. I’m not a social conservative, but I certainly get that. But at the same time, I’m very into history, and I think we are really underestimating the costs of those taboos. When you start looking through the private, unfiltered accounts of normal people, things get pretty messed up. The fact that people were married/had a home and family doesn’t mean those marriages/families were at all safe/healthy/faithful etc. It certainly benefited many people, but the overall downsides of hookup culture do not necessarily outweigh the downsides of prior cultures. And I also think the nature of a free society is always going to move away from social conservatism, so that if we went back, it would move away from it pretty quickly. However, if things get too liberal, we could also see a swing back to conservative values. It is probably like a pendulum. I also think an emphasis on marriage is almost always accompanied by a strict limitation on women’s roles, which is difficult to accomplish at this point and also damaging in its own ways. Reading diaries of many intelligent, spirited early-married women in the 1800s is like watching an implosion due to undirected mental energy. As was pointed out, many women circa the 1950s were on tranquilizers, and that just got ignored.

          • MasteringTheClassics says:

            @Davidfriedman, that’s an interesting article, thanks for the link.

            I don’t know of any governmental mechanism for restricting choice that can be predicted to, on average, result in better outcomes for low g individuals than leaving them free to make their own decisions.

            I get that you’re an ancap, but this seems patently false – isn’t this tantamount to saying that the rule of law has no benefit?

          • Michael Handy says:

            @arlie

            In addition, I’d note that many cultures have ritually approved Taboo Breaking roles. Or allow Taboo breaking in strictly delineated circumstances

            Unmarried Women taking Holy orders, or Trans-Gender individuals taking some form of ritual role, for instance. Most of these are existences that are stricter than average in terms of social freedoms and resource availability, which mean that only the extreme outliers that would suffer in normal society are pulled to them.

          • isn’t this tantamount to saying that the rule of law has no benefit?

            Two answers:

            1. An A-C society as I imagine it has law, it’s just not law produced by a government. For details see part III of my Machinery of Freedom.

            2. I was talking about laws that restrict A’s choices purportedly for A’s benefit. There are benefits to law, produced by government or private institutions, that restricts A’s choices for the benefit of other people, such as a law against murder.

          • Aapje says:

            It seems rather clear that modern people on average are better educated and thus have higher g than people of the past. So from that perspective it makes perfect sense to have fewer taboos than in the past.

            This observation is part of a more general belief that I hold: that many advances that are claimed by activists are actually primarily the result of changed circumstances, which enabled the activism, rather than the activism enabling the change.

            I also want to point out that social conservatism in this context is not equivalent to right wing beliefs, Christian conservatism or a desire to return to the 50’s. A feminist who wants to ban prostitution because she believes that women are coerced into selling their bodies and exploited by men is also a social conservative (on this topic).

            @David Friedman

            Note that a lot of behavior is good some of the time and bad some of the time, depending on the circumstances.

            In a situation where individuals have zero ability to tailor their behavior to the circumstances, you want to taboo everything that works less than 50% of the time, because that harms the average person more than it helps.

            The better people are at making choices, the more freedom you can give people to make choices that are only beneficial a very small percentage of the time.

            If some people in society are better at decision making, then it benefits them to have the option to make choices that are only rarely beneficial. That is different for people who are worse at decision making, who will much more often draw the false conclusion that making a certain choice is beneficial to them.

            So weaker taboos are better for high g people and stronger taboos for low g people (assuming that the taboos match how often the choice is beneficial).

          • TDB says:

            In a situation where individuals have zero ability to tailor their behavior to the circumstances, you want to taboo everything that works less than 50% of the time, because that harms the average person more than it helps.

            This seems to ignore the expected value. If success provides a high payoff with a low downside, 50% is the wrong cut-off, too high. If failure may create a black swan, 50% is too low.

          • Randy M says:

            Personally I have pretty strong beliefs about what most people should do to improve their odds at happiness and avoid inflicting costs on others–but basically zero confidence in any scheme to encourage or enforce behavior to do so without net negatives.
            So I approve of taboos and “-normativity” of various sorts, I don’t endorse any enforcement mechanism. I’m also aware I could be erring in either direction.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            @DavidFriedman

            “Rules” if you define them as everything from arcane regulatory policies to social heuristics are not necessarily good.

            But when people here were talking about rules we’re talking more about social heuristics that effectively circumscribe people’s behaviors. These rules are often enforced so harshly by society that they’re more regularly complied with than government regulations (Do you feel safer driving 5mph above the speed limit or yelling racial slurs (even at no particular person) at your workplace)

            Take for example the “No premarital sex” rule. A high G individual can most better estimate the physical and mental health risks of deviating from social norms, such as STDs, and can take measures to avoid them. For such a person ‘the rule’ if enforced even socially impedes their freedom with little benefit they would get otherwise from sound judgement. A low G individual [so we assume] is less capable of mapping out the consequences of their actions and so is more likely in the absence of strong social taboos to do something harmful to themselves. There’s also the fact that wealthier people (And wealth increasingly is a function of G anyway) can better cushion themselves from stupid decisions.

            Something like the minimum wage is arguably an explicit model of some charitable principle combined with a misunderstanding of how labor markets work.

            In the case of drugs, banning something in the face of lessening taboos against it is hard to pin down. The heuristic against the use of these substances is weakening and the law itself is a relatively recent phenomenon.

            The relevant comparison would be, taking human health as the terminal value, whether it’s necessary to guilt people across the board for using controlled substances even though there will be capable of taking these things without it inflicting major negative harm on themselves and others.

          • MasteringTheClassics says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I was talking about laws that restrict A’s choices purportedly for A’s benefit. There are benefits to law, produced by government or private institutions, that restricts A’s choices for the benefit of other people, such as a law against murder.

            Ah, that makes significantly more sense. Thanks for the clarification.

            This still seems false to me, however. Consider a classic example:

            The girls of Miletus, a town in Greece, were seized with a mania that led them to believe self-destruction an act of heroism; and many accordingly destroyed themselves. Physic and argument having been ineffectually tried, the authorities, to prevent the spread of this fatal rage, ordered the bodies of the suicides to be dragged naked through the streets of the city. From that moment the mania ceased.

            What is this if not a government mechanism for restricting choice that resulted in better outcomes for the girls in gueston?

          • What is this if not a government mechanism for restricting choice that resulted in better outcomes for the girls in gueston?

            What I wrote was:

            That doesn’t mean that a government will impose no such restrictions, just that I think the mechanism for creating restrictions will, on average, do a worse job of serving the welfare of low g individuals than their own choices would.

            A single example of a government restriction that provides net benefits isn’t inconsistent with that, any more than the observation that someone won a lottery isn’t inconsistent with the claim that buying a lottery ticket is, on average, a losing bet.

            That said, I wouldn’t assume that your historical anecdote is true. It fits my rule of “distrust any historical anecdote that makes a good enough story to have survived on its literary merit.”

          • Aapje says:

            @TBD

            This seems to ignore the expected value. If success provides a high payoff with a low downside, 50% is the wrong cut-off, too high.

            I intentionally simplified my argument to make it more understandable, at the expense of accuracy.

            I expected smart readers to realize it on their own and less intelligent readers to be put off by a more complicated argument.

            A better writer might be able to make the more accurate argument without losing legibility that much.

        • Eigengrau says:

          This is still incoherent. Why is it that women ought to be the ones who stay at home? Why not men or women if they so choose (and given the freedom, I’m sure a plurality of us would)? Have you not considered that these women have these jobs not because they expect to be happy and fulfilled by them, but due to economic necessity?

          The rest of the discussion broke down into a debate about taboos in general, which I think is a bit beside the point since the right and left will always have their own sets of taboos, and social taboos are fine as long as they are useful. But some social taboos ceased to be useful generations ago. The problem with social conservatism is that it refuses to update its positions even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them (see, for example, the war on drugs).

          Surely it is irrational to observe miserable women in office jobs and conclude that old-fashioned gender roles are the way to go, while failing to observe or consider:

          1) miserable men in office jobs
          2) happy women in office jobs
          3) miserable housewives
          4) happy househusbands
          5) the economic situations which restrict people from choosing one way or the other

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I’m objecting to the idea that women are now somehow better off because of feminist attitudes towards the education and guidance of girls have resulted in women in the workplace. Work sucks. At least if you’re working at home for your family, maybe your family will love you. Your manager never will.

          • Adam Treat says:

            @Conrad Honcho

            You’ve missed a qualifier. Work sometimes sucks. Do all men bite on the offer not to work? With this added qualifier we can see that some women are better off because of feminist attitudes towards the education and guidance of girls. Another way of figuring this out is to just ask them while believing they have capacity to represent their own interests.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            With this added qualifier we can see that some women are better off because of feminist attitudes towards the education and guidance of girls.

            I’m absolutely certain some are better off. But you’ll agree not all of them are, right? Maybe even more women might be worse off now pursing careers over family?

            I don’t know how you can really tell. It’s hard to quantify “is your existence meaningful” and run modern numbers against what women in the 1950s would have said.

            But my “lived experience” is that the women who are able to focus on their families have more long term satisfaction than women who don’t or aren’t able to do that. So maybe we should take a slightly more holistic approach to advising young girls on their life options rather than focusing almost exclusively on careerism while throwing barbs at those who suggest traditionalism.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Sure, that’s why I used the qualifier “some.” I don’t know many who disagree that these social movements have had second order effects that are less than purely awesome. That said, very few women I’ve met express that they don’t wish to have the *choice* of whether to work. In fact, exactly zero have said this in my experience.

          • Eigengrau says:

            I’m not sure what the issue here is then, if your belief is “maybe we should take a slightly more holistic approach to advising young girls on their life options rather than focusing almost exclusively on careerism while throwing barbs at those who suggest traditionalism.”

            This is exactly the position that socially liberal people have: that a woman should be able to choose for herself. It has been out of fashion for a long time for feminists to scorn at homemakers (as far as I know). The push for women in the workplace is an attempt to undo the overwhelming bias toward traditionalism which has spilled over from previous generations, such that there is maximal freedom of choice. Sometimes this attitude is misguided (as we’ve recently learned about women in tech) but historically it has been the right thing to do (i.e. allowing women to be scientists, pilots, etc.)

            Opposing a bias towards female careerism does not make you a traditionalist. Indeed if you believe that women should be able to freely decide whether to pursue a career or a family (or both) then that makes you more a feminist than a social conservative.

            Do you believe men would be happier as well if they could focus more on family?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Are you sure it’s me who’s the unwitting feminist and not you who’s the unwitting social conservative? Nothing you’ve said sounds anything like smashing the patriarchy.

          • Aapje says:

            @Eigengrau

            This is still incoherent. Why is it that women ought to be the ones who stay at home?

            The current outcome, where most women lost the choice to stay at home, suggests that perhaps social and/or economic forces operate in such a way that the only stable outcomes are one gender working or one gender not working. Perhaps it is not possible for people to have an actual choice.

            Then if you decide to choose to have one gender stay home, the reason why the choice would then fall on women might be that women are a lot more people-oriented than men, on average. If caring for children is more people-oriented than the average job, this would result in larger happiness than to have men stay at home.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            To add to what Aapje said, you also need to account for female mate preference. It’s all well and good to say being a house husband is a good and respectable role, but the revealed preference of most women is to mate across and up the socioeconomic ladder, not down. Until the majority of women are satisfied with partners who produce less wealth than they do, such arrangements will remain outliers. And I don’t really see any big cultural push by feminists to convince women to date down.

          • Eigengrau says:

            Now I’m wondering how much of people’s self-identified political orientations has to do not with differences in object-level beliefs but merely positioning oneself in opposition to the extremes of one side.

            That said, the notion that women ought to have the freedom of opportunity to pursue whatever they desire in life, in parity with men, is inarguably a feminist one. The social conservative line is more “keeping women at home got us this far as a species, best to not mess with things”.

            It’s besides the point that, given the choice, more women might choose to be homemakers because they are on average more people-oriented, or that women are on average more attracted to those higher up on social ladder. The point is you shouldn’t put up barriers one way or the other — women shouldn’t be scorned if they decide to focus on career and men shouldn’t be mocked if they decide to stay at home to raise kids. Historically, the barrier for women in the workplace is social conservatism. Conversely, the current barrier against women focusing on family is not so much feminism as it is a high cost of living — people can’t afford to keep one parent at home. Again, the shaming of housewives was a second-wave feminism thing and is no longer in vogue.

            If your position is “I think women would be happier on average as housewives, so there should be a taboo against women in the workplace / men as househusbands” then I’d say that’s an unethical and counterproductive solution. But earlier you said you supported choice so I’m not sure if there’s an actual disagreement here.

          • quanta413 says:

            Female mate preferences seem like the hardest barrier to the sort of change radical feminists would like. I’ve read a few feminists who definitely noticed the difficulty, but it seems 95% ignored. I don’t think male preferences are as difficult to satisfy in this regard. A lot of men I’ve met don’t like their jobs any more than women do or even like them notably less, and I’ve met some who at least said they would like to spend their time raising their children. I’ve never met a woman who said they wanted a house husband.

            We’re relatively close to equalizing choices, but if your goal is to equalize outcomes then that requires being a stable house husband to not only be a viable choice but a fairly common one. That or women will have to work as many hours as men. Seems like a crappy outcome to me since most work sucks so at some point the not sucky work to split runs out and you’re redistributing sucky work. Turning more full time work into part time work has issues. You could imagine more part-time work being normal, but I don’t know how that would happen in a positive way.

            My parents owned a business together and job-shared which left them with a lot more flexibility to work from home. So they worked much more than part-time but they’d only be at their business for fixed hours about 20 hours a week each. I think it was a really great arrangement, but I don’t see how that arrangement scales. My parents are both very educated professionals who also wanted to run their own business.

            Selfishly, I’d like it if I could have a similar arrangement because I’d rather spend only 15-20 hours “at work” even if I need to spend 30 or 40 hours total working so I can spend more time with my kids and more easily arrange that time. And I’d rather my wife spend some time at work as well so she doesn’t feel totally dependent on me, which would be a lot of pressure for me.

          • Aapje says:

            @Eigengrau

            I think that there are different ways to look at the issue. If you strongly favor gender egalitarianism, then a situation where women are forced to work probably gives the most egalitarian outcome, as it is doubtful that we can open up the opportunity for large numbers of men to choose to be house husbands. So putting somewhat similar pressure on women to work as is now applied to men* is then optimal.

            If you strongly favor freedom of choice, then allowing women to choose is best, although if you also value gender egalitarianism, you’d also have to support choice for men (and in the same way, so if you favor removing social taboos for working women and want men to be willing to date working women, then you should also favor removing social taboos for house husbands and want women to be willing to date homemaking men).

            If you favor maximum happiness, then the solution is unclear, because there is no truly solid evidence that working or homemaking makes women happier.

            * Which is a lot

          • Eigengrau says:

            @Aapje “Egalitarianism” (which you have defined as equal outcome), “freedom of choice” (i.e. equal opportunity, what egalitarianism usually refers to), and “happiness” are not mutually exclusive values though. Everyone in this discussion is evaluating happiness as the terminal value, not choice or egalitarianism. The difference in opinion comes down to object-level beliefs (though again, I’m not entirely sure whether Conrad Honcho and I actually disagree)

            -If you’re a confused radfem who assumes that women always have the same preferences as men, then you would support equal outcomes because it would follow that that would align most with women’s happiness, so any vocation with less than 50% female representation is an injustice
            -If you believe that people generally understand their own preferences, then you would support tearing down social stigmas which prevent them from choosing what they prefer, because that would make them happier
            -If you’re a confused conservative who thinks most women want to be housewives and that we still live in the economy of the 1950s, then you’d support taboos which keep women at home and men at work, because that would make more women happy.

            I clearly fit into the second paradigm, so here’s what I think the solution is:

            1. Encourage women in areas of work where they are historically underrepresented. If it turns out women just aren’t interested in that line of work after all, then leave it be.
            2. Encourage women to be capable of self-sufficiency in general (through e.g. higher education) in case they don’t want/can’t find a supportive spouse.
            3. Break down taboos against men being househusbands. It will follow that women will be more open to dating stay-at-home men if there is no stigma against it. If it turns out women still prefer working men on average, then that’s fine but at least there will be some househusbands/working women who are happier.
            4. Magically fix the economy so that people can spend more time with their kids in general 😀

  14. CognitivelyDissonated says:

    Very helpful post.

    Models need input and output (i.e. lowering stats, optimizing society, feeling good, etc). You’ve got to agree on the output to have a discussion on those terms. Can be very hard to keep on topic though.

    Also, am I right in thinking values as applied by 90%+ of people can be steelmanned as an explicitly modeled system for which the output is pleasing God?

    • D-Source says:

      You’re not, and it’s ironic how you appeal to authority to confirm your preexisting notions.

      • CognitivelyDissonated says:

        Hah, touche.

        Look maybe I’m not right, but to illustrate what I was thinking by referring to the property right example:

        EXPLICIT MODEL: Letting people keep what they produce incentivizes further production
        EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Anger when someone takes something rightfully yours
        REIFIED ESSENCE: Natural rights; governments cannot take away property rights because they are ordained by God or natural law
        ENDORSED VALUE: You can’t take people’s property, whether or not this will affect further production

        The assumption here is that we want to maximize production, and therefore that is the explicit model. This is based on a value system (illustrated by the Simplicio/ Sophisticus example). If a Judeo Christian God exists then all values are derived from that, and therefore the actual explicit model should be “what pleases God”. What has this got to do with Steelmanning? I’m no longer sure and take it back.

        More practically, imagine someone (lets call him “Henry”) is deciding whether the government should seize some assets, maybe its a factory needed for a war effort, or maybe its a socialist reoganisation of production. If that Henry believes property rights are derived from God, two paths for Henry to arrive at the “yes do it” conclusion through explicit modelling:
        a) Abandon religion and decide the war effort / socialism is necessary based on his new (or relabeled) value system.
        or
        b) The infidels offending God / Jesus being a commie outweighs property rights bits in eyes of the Lord.

        Now clearly, the attachment to that particular tenant is probably a result of the emotional experience rather than theology (the same could be said for the entire belief…), but when does (a) ever happen through explicitly modelling things.

        And if you wanted to persuade someone of something you wouldn’t go for (a) either. You’d either do (b) or address the underlying emotional issue, probably through offering something in return (probably the threat of violence).

  15. tentor says:

    Gaaah. Sentences in the form “it is (bad) to have too much (something)” are tautological. Of course it’s bad, otherwise it wouldn’t be too much. But how much is too much is left unsaid and everyone assumes that whatever they feel is too much is therefore bad.

    Sorry this was totally off topic

  16. Anon. says:

    I feel this is one of the more egregious examples of “rationalists independently reinvent thing philosophers have said more clearly and concisely N years ago”. In this case Nietzsche.

    So, next up a post about genealogy? Can’t make sense of this stuff without truly understanding the source and connection between the models and values after all.

    Historical refutation as the definitive refutation. In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God — today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous.

    And then for the finale: does this superior knowledge actually put us in a position to meaningfully choose/create values, or must we succumb to nihilism?

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      This is probably the first time I’ve seen Nietzsche described as clear and concise.

      Historical refutation as the definitive refutation…

      I’m not sure his conclusion is correct. Coming up with a plausible-sounding explanation of how people might have come to endorse a purportedly false belief doesn’t automatically disprove that belief. For example:

      In former times one sought to prove that there is no quantum mechanics – today one indicates how the belief in the theorems of quantum mechanics could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance. Humans have always been prone to imagine mystical worlds of wonder both beyond our horizons, and within the world we inhabit. The prophets of QM propose that at a scale too small for any layperson to detect or verify, particles turn into waves and move according to the toy equations they’ve developed. Of course, they say, the only way to test these theories is to hand them billions of dollars to build vast networks of tunnels and machinery beneath our feet. The general population simply eats this up, amazed at the ideas of connections between all things and other fanciful nonsense. Whether the motives of the prophets are simple financial gain or something far more sinister remains to be seen. It is clear how belief in QM was instilled in the masses; a counter-proof that there is no quantum mechanics thereby becomes superfluous.

      • bkennedy99 says:

        It doesn’t mean the belief is false, but if a belief is learned via unreliable methodology we can certainly doubt our justification for holding it. Suppose I intuitively believe that apples are evil – but then I am told that last night, a stage magician hypnotized me to believe in the evilness of apples, and I saw empirically verifiable evidence that it happened. At that point, if I am honest, I could no longer say that belief is justified (though of course it might still be true)

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          I agree. However, there’s a difference between reflecting on and possibly doubting my reasons for believing something, and trying to guess at your reasons for believing something (and then telling you how your core beliefs are false because I just explained how I think you’ve been duped).

          There might be a place for trying to analyze why someone else falsely believes X. However, I think it’s limited to responding to arguments of the form “if X is false why do so many people believe X is true?”, after you’ve given object-level reasons why you think X is false.

          • bkennedy99 says:

            “after you’ve given object-level reasons why you think X is false.”

            It’s not about false belief, it’s about justified belief. If someone who believes in astrology says “I think I’m going to have a bad day tomorrow”, it wouldn’t be productive to give reasons why their day might be still be ok. I’d stick with the unreliable belief formation to say that the belief (whatever it is) is not justified

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            True, but in this case I see “astrology is valid” as “X”, not “I’m going to have a bad day tomorrow”. And to argue against astrology, I’d first say “There’s no possible way for the mechanical motion of heavenly bodies to precisely affect or predict your life.” Not, “Often people have a desire for their life to be cosmically meaningful, and to satisfy this some have projected the goings-on of their lives onto the positions of the stars. You’re probably doing that, with a healthy dose of confirmation bias to keep you believing that nonsense.” I might get to the second point eventually, but I’d be wary of it, since even if true it’s more of a personal attack on the believer than a refutation of the belief.

      • bkennedy99 says:

        [the comment system is kicking my butt, replying to this one hoping it appears]

        A few points (hopefully more agreement than not)

        – “it is true that X is a valid methodology for belief formation” is functionally equivalent to saying “beliefs formed by methodology X are justified”

        – I agree (contra Anon) that having a genealogical explanation as to why people believe something doesn’t by itself prove or disprove anything. So it’s important to note the specific role it has: countering arguments that if a methodology produces widely and forcefully held beliefs, then the methodology is reliable.

        The big culprit here is Michael Huemer style moral intuitionism, that says that because certainly moral truths are A) very very intuitive, and B) common through many different societies and times, that moral intuition is at least a somewhat reliable methodology for gaining access to a metaphysical realm of moral truth. On the surface, this is pretty compelling because with other senses, we completely agree – if 60,000 people in a stadium witness with their own eye that “it is true so-and-so scored a touchdown”, we tend to not doubt it. So too with 97% of people endorsing a statement “it is true that Hitler was very evil”. The fact that belief in Hitler-evilness is so widespread is the actual evidence to the reliability of moral intuition.

        By contrast, an evolutionary account of morality produces the exact same world we live in today, and importantly without reference to whether any moral belief happens to be true or not. Beliefs are forcefully held because rules that feel objective and non-optional will guide behavior more consistently than optional preferences, which accounts for our strong emotions. The fact that beliefs are widespread is also expected, as morality facilitates pro-social behavior. Morality is distinct from something like sight and hearing, which did evolve to track truths about the world – it’s important to know where that lion is.

        The point is to put the ball back into the court of the moral intuitionist, or whoever is coming up with the justified belief formation methodology. You have to either accept the rather astounding coincidence that morality just happened to evolve instincts that correspond with a metaphysical realm (dubious), figure out some causal mechanism by which metaphysical truths could assert themselves in evolution (hard), or change your definition of “moral truth” to something that doesn’t evolve metaphysics (uncompelling)

        – I also agree that coming at an individual with “by the way, your beliefs aren’t even real, they are just the product of evolutionary algorithms” is rude and just a personal attack. This stuff belongs firmly in the realm of meta-ethics

    • Jayson Virissimo says:

      This argument is a pretty straightforward example of the genetic fallacy. Giving a naturalistic account of how a belief came to be adopted absolutely does not demonstrate that belief to be false (thereby making a counter-argument superfluous).

      • Jiro says:

        It suggest an alternate explanation other than “that person found evidence” and thus reduces your confidence that the other person has good evidence, even if it doesn’t actually disprove it.

        • Jayson Virissimo says:

          Demonstrating that someone isn’t justified in believing X is absolutely not a good reason for concluding that X is false (which is what is happening if “a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous”). For example, consider this pattern of reasoning:

          1. Alice’s kindergarten teacher taught her that humans are animals.
          2. But, Alice’s kindergarten teacher was an unreliable truth teller.
          3. Therefore, humans aren’t animals.

          • Eponymous says:

            But it is Bayesian evidence, which is all Jiro was claiming.

            Someone stating that they believe X is an observable event with some causal sequence lying behind it. Some such causal sequences are more likely if in fact X is true; thus hearing a claim of X should generally raise your estimate that X is true.

            If you determine that the actual causal sequence is not of this kind (the belief is not justified), the fact that the person claims X is no longer evidence for the truth of X.

          • Jayson Virissimo says:

            But it is Bayesian evidence, which is all Jiro was claiming.

            Okay.

            Someone stating that they believe X is an observable event with some causal sequence lying behind it. Some such causal sequences are more likely if in fact X is true; thus hearing a claim of X should generally raise your estimate that X is true.

            Completely agree.

            If you determine that the actual causal sequence is not of this kind (the belief is not justified), the fact that the person claims X is no longer evidence for the truth of X.

            Agreed, but the fact that someone’s claims are no longer evidence for the truth of X still does not warrant the inference to not-X, which is the mistake I take Nietzsche to be making in the quoted passage.

          • Eponymous says:

            Sure, but most complex beliefs are wrong. If belief in X was promoted to your attention by the fact that it is widely believed, then discovering an explanation for the widespread belief in X unrelated to its truth is pretty strong evidence that X is false. The prior is low.

            Now are you obligated to wrestle with all the other arguments people subsequently cooked up for believing in X? Maybe. But a priori it’s likely they’re wrong.

      • Anon. says:

        Nothing fallacious about it when applied correctly. Given competing explanations “god said so” and “it was expedient”, if you show the latter to be the case you automatically disprove the former.

        The Hansonian “X is not about Y” approach is essentially an application of this method.

        • Spookykou says:

          For this to be true, wouldn’t the explanations have to be mutually exclusive? Sure in a case of ‘It was rats’ vs ‘it was wind’, showing that it was the wind automatically disproves that it was rats, because nobody thinks rats can control the wind. God having influence over how expedient something turned out to be, or literally anything else in all of creation, seems more plausible, if you are into that sort of thing.

        • sharper13 says:

          Nothing fallacious about it when applied correctly. Given competing explanations “god said so” and “it was expedient”, if you show the latter to be the case you automatically disprove the former.

          That really depends on how much you think there is a normal correlation between what God says and what is expedient, doesn’t it?

          I mean, the “competing” ideas that:
          1. God gives us moral laws based on how things work in order to increase our long term happiness.
          and
          2. We should do things which increase our long term happiness based on our understanding of natural laws.

          Would mean that you can’t decide morality from God is bunk because we can just explain the origin of that morality as something which happened to increase long term happiness and thus was evolutionary kept, because there is an obvious correlation between the two explanations where both could be an accurate description.

        • Jayson Virissimo says:

          Given competing explanations “god said so” and “it was expedient”, if you show the latter to be the case you automatically disprove the former.

          Firstly, this is a false dichotomy, as there are far more possibilities than just “God said so” and “it was expedient” (nor were these the only options discussed during Nietzsche’s day). Secondly, even if it weren’t a false dichotomy this inference is committing the fallacy of the alternative disjunct.

          It should also be noted that in general, the flavors of theism Nietzsche would have been most familiar with, would deny that “God said so” and “it was expedient” are really competing explanations, since (in their conception) God designed both man and the law, and the latter with the former’s ultimate good in mind.

          Consider the following argument of similar logical form:
          1. Alice is an atheist.
          2. But, Alice is attempting to woo Bob, who is the leader of his local Secular Student Alliance chapter, so it is very expedient of her to hold that belief.
          3. So, a counter-proof that there is a God thereby becomes superfluous.

          I submit to you that the above argument is deficient in the same way that Nietzsche’s is.

          EDIT: It appears that the points made in the first two paragraphs were already made by Spookykou and sharper13. Whoops.

  17. MartMart says:

    I have been trying to map what little I know about niceness with what little I know about game theory.
    In a way, being a jerk is sort of like defecting. In a land of nice people, the one jerk has at least a temporary advantage. Meanwhile, we’re all better off if we are all nice.
    The optimal single play strategy is defect, and the optimal long term strategy is tit-for-tat. Which predicts that cities should be full of jerks, and small towns should be full of alturistic punishers. Which doesn’t seem to be entirely true or entirely false.
    The whole idea justifies alturistic punishers, making them a force for maintaining a nice society. Yet my intuitive sense is that they are largely wrong (and perhaps composed in no small part of people who want to be jerks, and found a way to justify this to themselves), and that its important to be nice even to jerks under most not dire circumstances. That we’d really be better off if more people develop a version of Scotts superpower of making everyone at least temporarily nice (he’s not the first person I’ve encountered with that strange ability, and in my experience its holders tend to be doctors).
    I’m trying to justify this belief intellectually, and the best I can come up with is that tit-for-tat strategies can lock players in a perpetual cycle of defect-defect, particularly if it’s not clear who was the first to defect (the defect may not look like defect to the player at the time, or the players are groups whose membership isn’t clearly defined and disagreed upon). So choosing to cooperate more often can break the cycle, or in the more intuitive sense it can set a good example (and possibly shame people into being nice, which is how I feel when I’m not especially nice around nice superpower people).
    However, that whole justification seems a bit weak. Any thoughts?

    • Jon S says:

      I’m trying to justify this belief intellectually, and the best I can come up with is that tit-for-tat strategies can lock players in a perpetual cycle of defect-defect, particularly if it’s not clear who was the first to defect

      I think tit-for-tat in real world situations needs to have a small probability of turning the other cheek – letting bygones be bygones – to account for that. This allows a chance of resetting to a nice equilibrium if you’re facing an altruistic punisher. If you know that your society has a lot of jerks, you shouldn’t try this too often. But if your society is pretty nice overall, you should be more forgiving – your prior on jerkiness is pretty low, so there’s a decent chance you’re caught up in a misunderstanding.

      • MartMart says:

        Interesting concept, really tough to calibrate for (and amusing to think of what that calibration would even look like)
        Doesn’t account for leading by example/using niceness to shame jerkness)

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      You might enjoy playing around with this prisoner’s dilemma tournament simulator. Though it depends highly on the specifics, the best strategy for the game with a low level of random mistakes is a modified version of tit-for-tat where you cooperate until someone cheats you twice in a row.
      The real-world equivalent would probably be something the lines of “assume the best of people to start, don’t hold a grudge for a single possibly-unintentional slight, but if someone is repeatedly being a jerk go ahead and punish them for it.”

      • Kestrellius says:

        So… “Fool me twice, won’t get fooled again”?

      • MartMart says:

        Firstly, many thanks for that link, I really enjoyed it. I think I need to play with it for a while, as I don’t grasp the tournament level games. I mean, I see the answer, and I can remember the rule set fine, but I don’t grok it.
        It’s interesting how sensitive the outcome/optimal strategy is to relatively small changes in the rule set. Given that, I wonder if we aren’t loosing something in the simplification. Namely: there is no option not to play, even if it carried some cost. In the real world jerks/cheaters can at least sometimes be ignored. The other part is that players have no way to communicate aside from by their actions, where as people do. Obviously, communication isn’t perfect, and subject to flalsehoods (which in a way is the same game at an even higher level), but it isn’t completely worthless to the point that it can be discounted.
        Is there a set of conditions under which the always cooperate strategy is optimal? What if there was a “almost always cooperate” strategy, that required a large number of cheats before retaliating?
        I find it somewhat interesting that random is never a winning strategy. There is a lesson there.

    • Tenacious D says:

      I’ve been pondering something along the same lines, about value differences as perceptions of situations as one-off vs repeated games.
      To take the sexual purity example, reputational systems can provide a rough forecast of the fidelity and longevity of a relationship with a prospective partner. But if each relationship is perceived in isolation (perhaps in a big city where anonymity comes easily) then factors like attraction and compatibility will matter more than reputation.

    • mtl1882 says:

      I’m having trouble articulating my idea with precision, but I think the key here is that there are different kinds of “jerks.” People are jerks in different ways and for different reasons. The “super power” often held by doctors most likely results from the fact that: a) they see a wide variety of people in stressful situations b) they can’t really avoid such people, and c) they have a clear job to do, which isn’t really related to the likeability or cooperation of the patient/family members/”policy experts” etc.

      In those situations, causing “temporary niceness” is somewhat natural and almost necessary. They know people are eccentric/difficult/offputting/clueless in countless different ways, and they don’t take offense very easily. Their job is to get through the interaction in a reasonably productive way. I’m sure they can get annoyed by actual jerks, although they probably know how to keep their cool. But a lot of people classified as “jerks” are just awkward, blunt, mentally ill etc. A surprising number of people have no tolerance for this sort of human variety, and inevitably react with shock and personal offense. Someone who has to work with the public regularly without running to a supervisor ends up developing these skills. It’s not so much making people temporarily nice as treating them straightforwardly and confidently, but not condescendingly or in a manner that signifies uneasiness. Increasing the number of people with this ability would greatly improve society. It’s not so much turning the other cheek as just accepting human nature.

      I’m fascinated by the dynamics of this issue, so I think about it a lot. I have the ability to make almost anyone “temporarily nice,” and I am surprised at how rare and underrated it is. I work in a place where it is necessary and where most of my co-workers have it, and it is interesting to see the different styles at play. It also means we have little to no workplace drama.

      I have a theory this used to be much more common, especially in towns, as you suggest. Back then, everyone knew that the man who ran the mill was really cranky or weird or offputting and that was just the way he was. Nothing personal, you just accepted it. Now, people generally aren’t familiar with their communities, and that type of understanding is just gone. There are still plenty of people like that who have friends, but in professional contexts, it generally goes over terribly. But some people, like doctors, don’t get to screen their patients for amiability and obedience.

      • Aapje says:

        Tolerance has a cost though, in that you will have endure unpleasant behavior by others. People don’t just do social policing for no reason.

        I assume that doctors and other people who do jobs where they have to deal with jerks a lot heavily select for people who are able and willing to be tolerant to such an extent that might drive some other people crazy.

        When less tolerant people get those jobs, it can go very wrong.

  18. MartMart says:

    That is, I see communists assuming every single libertarian in the world is a fundamentalist about property rights and thinks they’re so sacrosanct that they must be maintained even in the face of horrible suffering, whereas they (the communists) quite reasonably want what makes a flourishing society full of happy people. Whereas the libertarians say they just want universal wealth and prosperity, whereas communists so bloody-mindedly attached to the metaphysical principle of Equality that they don’t care whether attempts to create it will lead to gulags and total economic collapse.

    I see cosmopolitans believing that they want what’s best for society, but that nativists are working off an essentialist racism, where foreigners are inherently inferior in some vague metaphysical way. And the nativists, for their part, are arguing that they’re really concerned about the effects of too much immigration, but the cosmopolitans’ blind adherence to Multiculturalism as good in itself makes them unwilling to debate the real-world consequences of their actions.

    I think this cross understanding is extremely unlikely in the face of group dynamics. Leaders of groups tend to use oversized arguments (“eat the rich”, “immigrants are rapists”) in order to energize their groups, and group members tend to assume extreme positions for signaling group loyalty.
    Members of opposite groups are then have to somehow distinguish the oversized arguments from the base ones, when it’s no longer clear to anyone where the actual position is.

  19. MartMart says:

    It’s interesting how people slowly come to a preferred rung on the ladder overtime when they change values.
    Someone I know became a plant eater for health reasons. After a period of time, they rather predictably became and advocate against the suffering of animals caused by a meat diet. I assumed that this was entirely about signaling, but wanted to be more charitable.
    It could be that they arrived at a new value at a high rung, and slowly climbing down to a lower one where, perhaps they feel more comfortable.
    It suggests something (I’m not sure what) about persuading people. Maybe persuasion is more effective at different rungs that people normally operate at?

  20. The real explanation here is that virtue is a habit, and habits can only be established with much broader bounds than suggested by any sort of consequentialist reasoning. For example, if you want to be an honest person, you have to not only avoid lies, but even things sort of like lies.

  21. baconbits9 says:

    In past societies, STDs were a common cause of death and disfigurement. Nobody had the medical knowledge to really understand what an STD was or how to avoid getting one. But every society had some kind of complicated code of sexual purity. Usually this was designed from a male perspective, and said that women who had sex with too many other men were “impure”, virgins were especially “pure”, and a woman who had only had sex with you was “pure” relative to you

    If you primary explanation for purity norms are for STD avoidance then wouldn’t you expect that women and gay men would demand purity from their partners rather than straight men demanding it from theirs? Male to female and male to male transmission rates are higher than female to male (or female to female) for most situations, to protect oneself women should be aggressively selecting for males with few or no partners, not the other way around.

    • Randy M says:

      You think people were more concerned with another kind of germ?

      • baconbits9 says:

        Well I wouldn’t call a fetus a germ, but…

        Really the objection is that there is a difference between a heuristic and an explanation. Heuristics work (survive) because they are applicable across a broad range of actions, and any explanation of why they work is going to be partial. Attempts to move beyond the explanation into altered behaviors because we now “understand” the basis eventually hits one of those scenarios that the heuristic was good for but our analysis didn’t include and the damn thing falls apart.

        • jkranak says:

          I think the STD explanation for our aversion to female promiscuity is wrong. STDs weren’t really a problem before we had big, crowded cities. Maybe the norm could’ve evolved after the emergence of cities, but then you wouldn’t expect to find it in more diffusely populated cultures or in people descended from such cultures. But the aversion to promiscuity seems quite universal. That suggests that it probably emerged before cities. And the most plausible explanation is, as mentioned, that its men’s fear of raising a child that’s not their own. That makes more evolutionary sense because you could easily imagine how men who don’t car about who their wife sleeps with would be less likely to pass on their genes and thus would be selected against.

          • notpeerreviewed says:

            Absolutely. The situation with syphilis in Europe during the Columbus-to-penicillin era was a historical aberration; most other STDs (gonorrhea, HPV, herpes, and the like) are nuisances that sometimes have long-term side effects subtle enough that pre-modern medicine didn’t know about them.

            Pregnancy is clearly the main driver here.

          • Robert Jones says:

            I don’t believe the aversion is universal, e.g. I don’t believe it was present in traditional Polynesian societies.

            There’s a fairly standard explanation that it arose with patrilineal inheritance, which requires paternity to be reliably established. More particularly, it started with the Babylonians, was picked up (with much else) by the Judeans during the Exile, was codified in the Hebrew Bible and hence became part of Christian morality.

            Of course since cities and patrilineal inheritance arrived together, it could also have been an adaptation to urban life, perhaps spreading to non-urban areas for reasons of prestige.

          • Randy M says:

            @Robert Jones, a surprisingly contentious subject.

          • Spookykou says:

            Given how commonly animals seem to fight over exclusive mating rights I would imagine some desire for sexual purity is hard coded well before you get to inheritance law.

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      Good point. Clearly the obsession with female virginity has a lot more to do with “am I as a man raising my own kids, or someone else’s?” than with STDs, and the obsession of women with other women’s sexual behaviors is probably more about suppressing competition.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        The thing is, if ALL human taboos and customs around sexual purity were related to paternity issues, there wouldn’t be much of anything pushing to create a custom discouraging men from consorting with loose women. Nor would there be any strong pressure to create customs against ‘respectable’ women interacting ‘loose’ women, since it’s not like they’d get you pregnant.

        Now, the social customs against men “consorting with loose women” are weaker, as a rule, than the customs against female promiscuity in general.

        What I think is going on is, “you’re both right.”

        On the one hand, humans almost certainly do have a reflex-deep desire on the part of men to limit female promiscuity so as to make sure they know paternity reliably. And also for women to enforce norms that make this possible, lest the men start defecting en masse. We’ve probably had that since caveman times, and while acculturation may be able to cancel it out, it’s still a “human nature” thing in the sense that, say, peeing on trees to mark territory is a “dog nature” thing. Not every dog necessarily does it, but a lot do if you don’t stop them.

        On the other hand, people ALSO have a generalized reflex to avoid disease by avoiding anything that possesses the quality “impure.” Such as bodily fluids, such as certain foods… such as mates who have been ‘polluted’ by too much sex. Since the definition of what qualifies as ‘impure’ is fluid and determined by cultural factors (the received knowledge you get as a child from the elders of your own society), it stands to reason that mates who’ve had too much sex in the past might be seen as more ‘impure’ in a society where having sex with a promiscuous partner carries greater direct risks.

        So Scott can be right about where one of the two ‘sexual purity’ concepts comes from, and you can be right about where the other one comes from. And the two concepts coincide well enough that they start to blur together into one- but where both concepts line up (e.g. “a bride should go to the altar a virgin”) they produce extra-strong customs, whereas either concept operating alone (“men should not consort with loose women”) produces a weaker custom.

    • Gazeboist says:

      There’s a bunch of stuff that goes into the purity heuristic, including the pregnancy and cuckoldry concerns other people have brought up. Also too, I think it’s possible (even likely) that the lack of purity demands from women and gay men has or had more to do with a reduced expectation of success, rather than a lack of a preference. If you think that making a demand about the quality of something can only reduce the likelyhood that you get the thing, rather than increasing the likelyhood that you get the thing and it has the quality you want, then you should be cautious about making the demand.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      The obvious response is that when the traditional purity intuition formed, straight men were the ones with the influence. The easiest way to check this would be to look at a culture such as Greece or Rome when lots of influential men openly had sex with men, and see if they cared more about male purity.

      • Gazeboist says:

        (epistemic status: spitballing)

        It seems like this is the case, given all the concern Roman (at least; I don’t recall if the Greeks had the same or similar hangups) sexuality shows over who is the penetrator and who is the penatrated. Anyone with better knowledge of historical Roman sexual mores and/or STD transmission rates have anything more certain to add?

    • MasteringTheClassics says:

      If you primary explanation for purity norms are for STD avoidance then wouldn’t you expect that women and gay men would demand purity from their partners rather than straight men demanding it from theirs? Male to female and male to male transmission rates are higher than female to male (or female to female) for most situations, to protect oneself women should be aggressively selecting for males with few or no partners, not the other way around.

      Not for long-term partners, no.

      If MTF transmission rates are higher than FTM transmission rates, then the chances of a promiscuous man being infected with an STD are lower than the chances of a promiscuous woman being infected. Therefore, settling down with a promiscuous woman is more dangerous than settling down with a promiscuous man, and a straight man should be more concerned about the purity of his wife than a straight woman should be about the purity of her husband.

    • mtl1882 says:

      Yeah, I think the main issue was keeping track of who had fathered which child, which was important for splitting resources/inheritance/determining noble bloodline etc. That’s why women were obsessively targeted. STDs were relatively rare before cities, and people did figure out that you could get them from prostitutes pretty quickly. Men got around, STDs or not. It also explains a lot of the legitimacy laws. Men wanted rules on which kid was officially theirs for largely material reasons. But they were ok with lots of unofficial kids.

      I’ve always been a bit confused about this though, because the most logical explanation is that the preference evolved early on so that a man knew what wife/kids to provide for. But are humans naturally monogamous? In several species, the new male partner of a female whose partner has died will kill her existing offspring. They want her to be devoted to them and their offspring only. But I think those groups are usually made up an alpha male with several females.

      • Spookykou says:

        I think tigers are basically monogamous but also kill the offspring of a previous male that are still being raised by their mate.

        • mtl1882 says:

          Yeah, but the male doesn’t stick around to support the female or offspring. Which is the case for most animals, but it seems like human males are meant to be involved. The helplessness of human babies (and their lack of ability to hang on like a baby monkey) makes it a lot harder for a woman to do alone than for most female animals.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Everyone has a vague sense that potato chips are “unhealthy” and spinach is “healthy”, though most people can’t explain why.

    Which is funny, because with the amount oxalates that spinach has, it’s useless for the one thing it is touted as good for (iron content).

  23. Anonymous says:

    In past societies, STDs were a common cause of death and disfigurement. Nobody had the medical knowledge to really understand what an STD was or how to avoid getting one. But every society had some kind of complicated code of sexual purity. Usually this was designed from a male perspective, and said that women who had sex with too many other men were “impure”, virgins were especially “pure”, and a woman who had only had sex with you was “pure” relative to you. These rules protect people who follow them against STDs, and plausibly culturally evolved for that purpose (among others). But because no one knew about STDs, the rules rely on a kind of metaphysical notion of “purity” that doesn’t correspond to any real-world characteristic. For example, someone who’s had sex with a hundred people but who nevertheless never contracted an STD would seem metaphysically “impure” by the rules, but in reality safe to have sex with; this would be irrelevant to medievals who had no way to identify such people, but is very relevant now. Or: if you have good sexual protection and STDs are easily treatable, the whole “purity” system seems a lot less important, but if you think of it as a metaphysical construct important in its own right you might not realize this.

    (before you tell me that STDs aren’t important enough to inspire something as universal and compelling as sexual purity laws, remember that in the pre-antibiotic era about 10% of city-dwellers had syphilis (see studies from early Mesoamerica, 1700s Chester, early 1900s London. During this period syphilis had a mortality rate of up to 20%, with survivors often permanently unhealthy and disfigured. And this is just one of many dangerous STDs!)

    Sexual purity isn’t *just* STDs. It’s also the ability to form a pair bond and provide some paternal certainty of offspring (and probably some things I forget ATM). Having a hundred partners prior to the current one does not exactly build trust that you will settle down *this* time, as opposed to the hundred prior times – it may be biological, too. Having a hundred partners prior to the current one also does not build trust that you will henceforth limit yourself to just this one, even and especially if procreation and parental investment are involved. We currently know just how to measure STD presence. As yet, we don’t have a better heuristic for defecting in a relationship than demonstrable prior restraint.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Hmm, and this WOULD apply to both men and women- which explains a lot of where the “avoid seducers and rakish men, they’ll break your heart” memes come from for women. Women who want their relationships to go well would be well-advised to avoid men who have a habit of starting and then breaking relationships as convenient, especially if they’re doing it in series-parallel.

  24. Guy in TN says:

    Explicit modeling vs. heuristics is a good explanation for an intellectual/non-intellectual divide, but it maps poorly on the left/right spectrum. There’s the stereotypes, of course, of the aloof and detached left-wing egghead professor, and the down-to-Earth simple-right-wing country folk, but I seriously question how real these stereotypes are. For example, SSC is filled with intellectual conservative capitalist-libertarian types. And my experience talking to the leftist-on-the-street shows that a good number of them are just going off of emotional response, with only the “thought-leaders” doing the intellectual heavy lifting (i.e., the explicit modeling).

    You gave us a few examples, like STDs, punishment of wrongdoers, incentivizing production, harm reduction, and environmentalism. And you suggest that the left/right differences are based off of people operating a different levels of the Explicit modeling vs. heuristics ladder.

    Rather than talking too much about fundamental value differences, we should be asking where a given person has chosen to place themselves on the metaphysical-heuristic-to-explicit-model ladder at any particular moment.

    Instead, what I think is going on, is that people are placing various importance values on the concepts in general. For example, for a given conservative you might have the following importance values:
    STD: 7
    Punishment: 8
    Production: 9
    Harm reduction: 4
    Environmentalism: 3

    And a leftist might assign them the values:
    STD: 4
    Punishment: 6
    Production: 2
    Harm reduction: 9
    Environmentalism: 8

    And this has nothing to do with the modeling/heuristic ladder. Instead, you’ve got models/ethics that I just don’t care about at all, regardless of what point on the ladder, while others I care very strongly about. You hint at this when you are talking about the STD purity axis. When pushed to your very limits involving HIV blood, sure, you can dredge up some disease aversion. That puts you at about a 2 or 3. I know a person who involuntarily vomits when watching a movie with blood in it. She is about a 8 or 9. This doesn’t map on the ladder at all, and instead looks like the old, dreaded, Difference of Values rearing its head.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      To come up with a really good system for analyzing value-related disagreements, we’d probably need about a dozen different factors. The relationship between explicit modeling and crystallized values is one of them. Others include, yes, differential weight put on different values. And differential framing of issues (to me this is a purity issue and therefore important, to you it’s an environmental issue and therefore unimportant). And a bunch of other things. All of which interlock to produce the complicated, shifting, often seemingly self-contradictory patterns that describe how people think and talk about issues that are important to them.

    • fion says:

      I’m on the fence about the intellectual/liberal vs. unintellectual/conservative thing. It’s certainly true that most liberals and left-wingers are unintellectual, and as you point out there are certainly intellectual conservatives… but I still feel as though the stereotype is mostly true, and that a higher fraction of intellectuals are left/liberal than the fraction of the general population that is left/liberal.

      But my confidence is low.

      • Eponymous says:

        There’s a correlation, but most correlations are not causal.

        Besides, if you imagine peoples’ ideologies as points in a high-dimensional space, with clusters corresponding to standard “left” and “right” positions, and with a line through it mapping out a rough “spectrum”, then there’s no particular reason to think that the gradient with respect to IQ points parallel to this spectrum. My best guess is that the projection of this gradient on the spectrum points towards the left (slightly), but the orthogonal component is much larger.

  25. Gazeboist says:

    (here being called “consequentialism”, but it seems like both of them are working from an implicitly utilitarian framework)

    Don’chyoo do it…

    Consequentialism says that what’s really important is reducing suffering

    No! Bad Scott! You are being wrong in a way which causes people to reject consequentialism due to flaws in utilitarianism! This is bad! Do not be wrong in this way!

    Consequentialism says that we cannot sensibly judge actions without making some reference to their outcomes. Now, you can have different consequentialisms based on whether you’re judging by expected, desired, plausible, or actual outcomes, but the main point here is rejecting the idea that there’s a metaphysical essence of badness attached to eg lying, or a metaphysical essence of goodness attached to altruism. Instead, you would claim that these things are good or bad for reasons, or should be presumptively assumed to be good or bad in particular frameworks.

    (Incoming uncharitable description of utilitarianism)

    Utilitarianism says that there is a metaphysical essence of goodness called utility (and/or a metaphysical essence of badness called disutility) which attaches itself to certain kinds of consequences, and expectations over this essence in the consequences are what appear to give actions metaphysical essences of goodneds and badness. It is not consequentialism but (negative hedonic) utilitarianism which claims that reducing suffering is the proper moral goal. There are many other systems that have other moral goals but use consequentialist reasoning to assess actions.

    • qwints says:

      Having studied just a bit of moral philosophy, I’ve been finding these posts quite painful as well.

    • Spookykou says:

      use consequentialist reasoning

      I am bad at philosophy so maybe this is a stupid comment, but it has always bugged me.

      I have a hard time modeling anyone who isn’t basically using consequentialist reasoning. Who are these non-consequential people who actually think that something is good or bad regardless of the ‘outcomes’? How is more or less metaphysical goodness, not an outcome?

      Orange is bad, this is not because Orange makes the world worse, or people worse, or God sad, or otherwise produces any outcomes anywhere that we care about, Orange is just evil because it is evil but this otherwise never has any influence over anything anywhere.

      Is the best I can do, and it sounds like total nonsense. Is there a ‘measurable’ term missing from your definition of consequentialisim, or am I just too stupid to understand, please help.

      • Philosophisticat says:

        I don’t think Gazeboist’s characterization is accurate or helpful. There’s some dispute in philosophy over how exactly to characterize consequentialism, but here’s a pretty standard way: consequentialists think that what we ought to do, our reasons for action, etc. are all ultimately grounded in the goodness or badness of states of affairs (“outcomes”, “ways the world could be”, etc.) In other words, you start with a ranking of possible worlds in terms of betterness/worseness, and that tells you, directly or indirectly, what you ought to do.

        Non-consequentialists also care about what outcomes your actions have, but they don’t think that all your reasons are explained by the overall goodness or badness of the outcomes. So for instance, many non-consequentialists think you should not break your promises, even to prevent two other people from breaking their promises. This is not because a world (outcome) in which you break your promise is worse than a world in which two other people break their promises – if anything, it’s better. It’s because you have reasons that aren’t just grounded in how good or bad an outcome is. Similarly, non-consequentialists who think you ought not kill one to save five don’t think that a world in which one person is killed is worse than one in which five people die; they think you have a reason not to kill which isn’t explained by the outcome of your killing being worse.

        I hope that helps.

        • Spookykou says:

          It does, thank you.

          Maybe I am typical minding, but I can’t shake the feeling that the ‘don’t kill one to save five’ person, is working with a model of the world, such that the world where people do not intentional kill other people, even if that prohibition produces more death on net, is a better world.

          Or to look at it from another angle, do non-consequentialists ever explicitly endorse the idea that their moral beliefs will result in a worse world, and they are ok with that? They might be forced to agree it creates a world with more death, but to actually admit it creates a worse world, just seems anathema to the whole enterprise of formalizing morality. It is like admitting you lost.

          I guess I could also see dodging the world state question all together,

          I refuse to let arithmetic decide questions like that-Picard

          but that leaves me a bit unsatisfied.

          *Edit Assuming the distinction is not simply that they embrace making the world worse, the best distinction I can come up with between consequentialists and non-consequentialists that feels substantive is that consequentialists want to ‘check the math’ on how we get to a better world, and the non-consequentialists think they got the math right already.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            We can tell that “don’t kill one to save five” people aren’t just thinking that worlds with intentional killings are worse than worlds with deaths, because they also think you shouldn’t intentionally kill in order to prevent five intentional killings.

            Yes, many non-consequentialists do explicitly endorse the idea that sometimes you have to make a choice that results in a worse world, in order to satisfy your other obligations, and are okay with that (in fact, even some consequentialists, notably indirect consequentialists, e.g. rule consequentialists, endorse that). Some non-consequentialists are skeptical of the evaluation of worlds altogether or at least have almost nothing to say about it, because they think it plays no significant role in what you ought to do.

            I don’t think the non-consequentialist (or indirect consequentialist) is somehow abandoning the enterprise of formalizing morality. We want to know what we have reason to do. The idea that we always have most reason to make the best world is a substantive, though attractive view, which may or may not be correct.

          • “Or to look at it from another angle, do non-consequentialists ever explicitly endorse the idea that their moral beliefs will result in a worse world, and they are ok with that?”

            Yes, they do. Consider St. Paul. He says that if you ask the question “if my sin results in God’s glory, why am I condemned?” then you deserve to be condemned. In other words, God brings a greater good out of evil. So the more evil you do, the better the world will be. But if you go and do as much evil as possible, to make the world as good as possible, you will be totally condemnable.

        • Gazeboist says:

          The fact that outcomes can be good or bad does not imply that possible worlds can be ranked, only that they can be partitioned into good and bad ones. Only utilitarianism assumes a ranking, and many variations of utilitarianism do not concern themselves with a simple partition into good and bad worldstates. To the extent that “consequentialism” is used as a synonym for utilitarianism, I think it is a bad term – it pulls outcome analysis away from other moral philosophies that care about consequences of actions but disagree with utilitarianism* and tries to claim it exclusively for the utilitarians, or somehow deny that the consequences that non-utilitarians care about are consequences at all. The non-utilitarian philosophies are then weakmanned by default in the way Spookykou describes.

          In short: if you mean utilitarianism, just say that. If consequentialism is ill-defined, don’t try to use the word; you only make communication harder by doing so.

          * Virtue ethics, for example, is very concerned about the consequences of your actions (specifically, the effect of your actions on your and other people’s moral reasoning faculties), but does not map well onto utilitarianism because it does not (necessarily) assume the existence of a global utility function. The Categorical Imperative is also a plainly consequentialist rule, it just cares about consequences that aren’t normally relevant in problems utilitarians like to talk about.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            You may be misunderstanding what it means to rank worlds in terms of betterness. If you can partition worldstates into good and bad, then you have a ranking – the good ones are better than the bad ones. Any view which evaluates worlds as good and bad has a betterness ranking. If the “ranking” thing is throwing you off, just talk about sets of betterness relations – the consequentialist thinks that what you ought to do is determined by the facts about betterness relations between worlds (or the goodness or badness of worlds, if you don’t want to think comparatively).

            This is true of consequentialism generally and not just utilitarianism, which is a family of views that are more committal about what makes one world better than another. I don’t understand the rest of your criticism.

            The categorical imperative is not “a plainly consequentialist rule” – it is THE paradigmatic example of a nonconsequentialist moral principle. If you’re labeling Kant’s view as consequentialist then you are missing the distinction that philosophers are making with these terms. You should take my word on this; this is my area of professional expertise.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Hm. My understanding of the categorical imperative is “you should do things, and/or follow whatever rules, such that you could will/desire that these things/rules be made into universal laws, without giving rise to internal contradictions or undesired results.”

            Am I wrong to think ‘undesired results’ is supposed to be in there?

            Even if the phrase IS put in there, though, the categorical imperative wouldn’t be consequentialism, because instead of thinking about the actual consequences of an action, it thinks about the purely hypothetical consequences in a contrived counterfactual case where everyone does the same thing you’re thinking about doing, all the time.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            @Simon_Jester “Undesired results” is not in there. The view you’re imagining is closer to rule consequentialism.

            What the categorical imperative says is a bit tricky, because Kant gives several different and arguably incompatible formulations. The one you’re latching onto is the universal law formulation – it’s also pretty controversial exactly what it entails, but it’s widely agreed that it’s not just about undesirable consequences. A discussion by a contemporary Kantian is here: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3201869/korsgaard_kantforumulauniversallaw.pdf?sequence=2

            Generally, consequentialism is meant to include views where the rightness of actions depends not on the value of the consequences of the actions themselves but on some other consequences – this is captured by the distinction between direct and indirect consequentialism. So rule consequentialism is a kind of consequentialism.

  26. Yosarian2 says:

    >A: Barack Obama was the president, and his opponents should have treated him with respect even when they disagreed with his policies
    >B: Donald Trump is the president, and his opponents should treat him with respect even when they disagree with his policies

    Ouch. Well there goes my rationalist superiority complex, lol, because I have to admit I would have answered those questions differently.

    Part of my brain is trying to backfill with some reasonable unifying value that covers both (like “A president who treats his political opponents with respect should in turn be treated with respect” or something) but honestly that’s probably just ex post facto reasoning.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      While yes, politics is mindkilling, I also think this is a bad question for sussing out what I think Scott wants to suss out. If you ask people who don’t like Trump why they don’t like Trump, very few will cite his policies.

      • Gazeboist says:

        Plenty will cite his policies, I think, but they will also cite non-policy characteristics which make him very unusual among politicians, in a way in which recent prior presidents could not honestly be said to be unusual (which is the relevant thing).

        A better question would probably compare Obama to the more recent Bush (a politician who is generally like other politicians, broadly speaking), or maybe to Reagan (a politician bearing some notable similarities to Obama specifically, while not being significantly different from other politicians in unrelated ways).

        • but they will also cite non-policy characteristics which make him very unusual among politicians,

          At a slight tangent, I’m wondering how much of that difference is superficial, a result of Trump being more obvious in his unattractive characteristics.

          I’m thinking specifically of things I have read about LBJ, suggesting that he was also a crude bully. Perhaps if he had had access to twitter … . Or, more plausibly, had taken less care to restrict his bad behavior to reasonably private places.

          Also, previous presidents, at least recently, had more sympathetic media to deal with. The extreme case is FDR concealing the fact that he was a cripple, but I think both he and JFK, and probably others, had extra-merital affairs that were mostly kept quiet.

      • cuke says:

        To me this isn’t a question about whether you like Trump or Obama or their policies; it’s a question about whether you think people are entitled to respect whether you agree with them or not.

        And I suppose that might get at whether a person is reasoning consistently from general principles or they are applying tribal emotions. Though I suppose a person could respond by saying “if I don’t respect a person, I’m not going to treat them respectfully” and that could be its own kind of consistent position.

        From where I sit, people are worthy of being treated respectfully whether I agree with them or not, so the two statements don’t present any particular difficulty for me.

    • shakeddown says:

      I think the unifying value reason is correct here – if you ask about Bush instead of Trump (or a trollish democratic figure instead of Obama), most of the intuitions gap goes away (at least for me).

      • Banananon says:

        The implicit assumption of the original choice is that respect flows from the office of the presidency.
        I’d argue instead that the unifying value is something like “Those that respect the civic norms of discourse should be engaged within those norms”.

        While formulating this response though, I realized I’m not actually sure what ‘respect’ means in this context. Every kid called into the principal’s office knows the phrase “I’ll respect you if you respect me” is bullshit. The principal demands deference while in return only offering civility. (Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten where I’ve cribbed this insight from.) Even though I instinctively and vehemently disagree with choice B, I’m not clear on what I mean by that.

        What sorts of actions is the phrase “the president should be respected” meant to proscribe? If I don’t want someone to tell me to respect Trump, what am I trying deny him?

        Do we mean that the President should be able to address Congress without being heckled/interrupted? If so then fine, I agree.
        Do they mean the president shouldn’t be mocked in comedy shows or in email chains, e.g. FWD:FWD:FWD:ObjectionableOpinion.Joke? I recommend a brief refresher on the first amendment and the centralish place of free speech in American Society.
        Contrariwise, if they mean we shouldn’t attack the legitimacy of a sitting president, and are somehow equating Birtherism with the Russia Investigations, I’d be confidant our interlocutor was arguing in bad faith.

      • J Mann says:

        if you ask about Bush instead of Trump (or a trollish democratic figure instead of Obama), most of the intuitions gap goes away (at least for me)

        Mmm, if you found a way to ask about Chimpy McHalliburton Nazi Face during his presidency, you could probably still get a substantial split regarding who thought the Presidency deserved respect. (Maybe not for you, but still for a lot of people.) In hindsight, it costs a lot less to say that of course that dry drunk war criminal loser fraud deserves respect.

        • MasteringTheClassics says:

          If this is the case, then Bush is still a better choice than Trump because Trump is in office right now, while Obama and Bush are not.

          • J Mann says:

            I suspect that the farther back in time a president gets, and the more you have a current president of the opposing party not to like, the more tolerable the president becomes and the more people think the office deserved respect when that guy was in it. Ideally, we could compare people who thought Bush deserved respect solely for being the president during his tenure with people who thought that about Obama during his, or measure them both a constant number of years out with a similar number of intolerable successors. Of course, even then people would argue factual differences – that there is line past which no president deserves respect and that the other guy is factually over it.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        I think the unifying value reason is correct here – if you ask about Bush instead of Trump (or a trollish democratic figure instead of Obama), most of the intuitions gap goes away (at least for me).

        Yeah.

        I mean, comparing Bush the Younger to Obama, my own intuitions line up pretty well. In either case I think it’s okay and not-too-crass to use disrespectful nicknames (e.g. “Dubya,” “Zerobama”). It’s likewise okay to poke fun of their sillier character traits, to use derogatory adjectives like “stupid” and “wishy-washy” if one has some plausible reason to think they apply, and so on.

        The respect due a president in any case, my intuitions say, is limited purely to “don’t lie about them” (which always applies) and “don’t actively disrupt or interrupt them during ceremonies” (which I have no problem conceding to Trump).

    • Robert Jones says:

      I think the question is misleading because it’s not clear what work “is/was the president” is supposed to do. People might think that everyone deserves to be treated with respect unless and until they give us a reason to do otherwise and might then assess Obama and Trump differently on that criterion.

    • Philosophisticat says:

      I don’t think there’s anything strange or hypocritical about the view that you should treat some presidents with respect even when you disagree with their policy but not others.

      • Randy M says:

        It would only be hypocritical if you then claimed respect for authority in and of itself is irrational.

        • Philosophisticat says:

          I don’t think anyone has the view that it’s never appropriate to respect anyone in a position of authority under any conditions. People might have the view that you should never respect someone MERELY because they are in a position of authority, but that’s perfectly consistent with what I said.

          People are really desperate for “gotchas” against their ideological opponents.

    • arlie says:

      Part of my brain is trying to backfill with some reasonable unifying value that covers both (like “A president who treats his political opponents with respect should in turn be treated with respect” or something) but honestly that’s probably just ex post facto reasoning

      This is easy. If you don’t believe that someone’s role entitles them to respectful treatment, or that this entitlement is not absolute, then there’s no problem. I’m disinclined to treat people with power or titles as in any way more worthy than others. There’s a certain amount of role-related theater that’s customary – e.g. “Madame President” vs “Mrs Smith” – but that doesn’t feel like differing respect to me.

      In the case of any political leader, they rate being treated politely. But so does the homeless guy sleeping in the park. And if either one of them makes enough of a PITA out of themselves, this entitlement reduces, then goes away entirely.

      To take a less loaded example – retail people are polite to customers, and to random people wandering through their store and not buying. It’s part of the job. Until their behaviour creates enough trouble to get them escorted off the premises – and even then, security will probably be polite, if they can. “I’m sorry sir, but you need to leave now” ;-(

      The question above seems to me, a non-respector of office qua office, as being about whether any particular recent US president has forfeited their claim to some indicators of respect.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Policy and respect are different vectors in the “governing” space

      To the extent that the institution in norms of governing are respected, so, in turn, respect is due. This is merely about what actions are considered to be non-defecting in the process of resolving policy differences.

      This isn’t to say that respect and policy are completely orthogonal. But they aren’t on the same vector either.

  27. manwhoisthursday says:

    You could probably avoid any potential problems with Soylent or similar things by eating a regular meal from time to time. I mean most grocery stores have sushi trays or prepared salads. And there are these things called restaurants. I’m not saying you have to eat at them all the time, but if you’re out and about, why not have a chicken salad.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Well yes, but the entire point of Soylent wafers is that you’re supposed to be able to live on a diet of nothing but Soylent wafers. Even if the manufacturer doesn’t strictly advise that you try, that was the intent.

      So if you can’t, due to Soylent not containing some particular key nutrient, then they screwed up.

  28. manwhoisthursday says:

    The IQ differences between social conservatives and social liberals are small. Most of that probably loads on low Big 5 Openness, which slightly tilts one in the direction of social conservatism. Low Openness is also associated with lower IQ. The biggest personality factor pushing someone towards social conservatism (and religiosity) is high Orderliness, an aspect of Big 5 Conscientiousness, and that is completely independent of IQ.

  29. quitelikelyblog says:

    This was great, really effective synthesis of a lot of the bits and bobs of insight that were floating around in the discussion on this series of articles. We really are in the modern day intellectual salon around here.

    This may just be my bias on the issue talking, but it seems like this does swing back around to the idea that a lot of our conflicts are driven by fairly fundamental value differences, or at least differences in crystallization levels. What can you say to someone who favors more punishment than is ideal in utilitarian terms based on valuing punishment for its own sake? There’s not really an argument that’s going to convince them that their fundamental “punishment” value is wrong, you just have to be in political conflict with them over what level of punishment is appropriate.

    I don’t have any hesitation in doing that on the environmental end as well – I think doing more to preserve the environment than we are now is probably the utility maximizing move, but I’d in theory be perfectly willing to pave over Yellowstone or drive the spotted owl to extinction for a big enough utility payoff.

    Viewed through this framework I’d describe progress as the process of breaking down values into explicit models that better maximize whatever it was that value was aiming at. It’s perfectly possible to screw this up as you describe of course, thus providing some justification for Chesterton style conservatism that says not to embrace the explicit model unless you’re sufficiently confident of your explicit model. As society advances we figure more things out and are able to replace more and more vague intuitive values with systems that we can understand and exploit directly.

  30. qwints says:

    NOW this is the next tale, and it tells how the Camel got his big hump.

    In the beginning of years, when the world was so new and all, and the Animals were just beginning to work for Man, there was a Camel, and he lived in the middle of a Howling Desert because he did not want to work; and besides, he was a Howler himself. So he ate sticks and thorns and tamarisks and milkweed and prickles, most ‘scruciating idle; and when anybody spoke to him he said ‘Humph!’ Just ‘Humph!’ and no more.

    Presently the Horse came to him on Monday morning, with a saddle on his back and a bit in his mouth, and said, ‘Camel, O Camel, come out and trot like the rest of us.’

    ‘Humph!’ said the Camel; and the Horse went away and told the Man.

    Presently the Dog came to him, with a stick in his mouth, and said, ‘Camel, O Camel, come and fetch and carry like the rest of us.’

    ‘Humph!’ said the Camel; and the Dog went away and told the Man.

    Presently the Ox came to him, with the yoke on his neck and said, ‘Camel, O Camel, come and plough like the rest of us.’

    ‘Humph!’ said the Camel; and the Ox went away and told the Man.

  31. Zephalinda says:

    The bottom half of the chart seems like a decent description of how humans form ideas. I’m confused as to why we think that “explicit models” are a thing that exists, and especially why they get ontological privilege over “metaphysical essences”. Aren’t most of what’s described as “explicit models” above also just more metaphysical essences, except in non-obvious ways because they happen to be our own personalmetaphysical essences?

    For example: not just altruism but utility itself is a metaphysical essence. We, as organisms, sometimes experience a highly emotionally-salient “biochemical state of being motivated to repeat something” and “biochemical state that motivates us to avoid something.” We experience these emotional states and reify them as mysterious metaphysical essences called Pleasure/Utility and Pain. Then we develop a whole system around the bizarre moral imperative of extending our own biochemical states to the universe in general.

    Scientific elegance is a metaphysical essence: we have a positive emotional reaction to particular shapes based on atavistic savannah-style habitability and disease risk instincts, reify this into a metaphysical essence of “satisfying elegance,” and assume an a priori desirability for ideas that seem to fit that desired shape.

    Rationalism is a metaphysical essence. A minority of people have certain inbuilt cognitive structures for e.g. counting objects and understanding physical cause-and-effect mechanisms; they have the emotional experience of (a) positively associating these cognitive moves with their own identities, and (b) being rewarded for counting and cause-and-effect thinking in unrelated cultural contexts, and they generalize that positive emotion into a metaphysical essence of Logical Correctness for that specific subset of cognitive moves.

    (And then they further reify the subset of stories that vaguely possess that essential quality of numbery/mechanical/counterintuitive Logical Correctness as “Explicit Models,” and assume those are the types of stories that capture The Way Reality Really Is.)

    I guess what I’m saying is:
    (a) seriously, is there any normative concept anywhere that can’t just be explained away as deriving from primitive emotional experiences? Not just despised “moral values,” but absolutely any conceptual framework we use to make judgments about the world ever? And..
    (b) all this is just Bulverism, isn’t it? “How cute, I can totally see why someone like you would have that primitive belief.”

    • Simon_Jester says:

      a)

      All normative concepts can, but not all normative concepts should; in some cases the inferences are stronger or weaker than others. Like, if the only argument you can make for why a concept SHOULD be viewed as the crystallization of an emotional state brought on by some underlying fact is “well, we’re evolved from savannah apes so everything that goes on in our brain is clearly the product of the evolved impulses of an over-brained savannah ape,” then that’s a pretty weak argument. Precisely because it can be used to prove anything, it proves very little.

      To make it worthwhile to deconstruct a normative concept, there has to be some relevant non-nihilistic insight to be had by doing so. For example, we learn something by understanding how explicit models of nutrition relate to the crystallized concept of “some foods are healthy, seek them out; others are unhealthy, avoid them” lets us relate better to people who don’t seem to be running the same kind of analysis we are. People who are willing to eat food we wouldn’t consider eating (or vice versa) may be running an objective analysis we’re not (or vice versa).

      b) It can be used for Bulverism, but Bulverism isn’t the only reason to use it. As others including Scott have pointed out, all values reside on the level of “crystallized beliefs associated with emotional states that are in turn caused by the things that really exist.” The goal isn’t to deconstruct everyone’s feelings and values to death, it’s to understand other people who feel differently as something other than “bizarre evil mutants don’t care about the obviously important things in life.”

      • Zephalinda says:

        Precisely because it can be used to prove anything, it proves very little.To make it worthwhile to deconstruct a normative concept, there has to be some relevant non-nihilistic insight to be had by doing so.

        I think more deconstructive self-awareness is needed around your assumed values of “non-nihilistic” and “insightful” in this case. Who says what the “non-nothingness” is that we’re supposed to build? What determines what types of ideas count as “insights”?

        If we can agree that everyone’s values (including epistemic values) are largely conditioned by individual emotional experience, then… great, relativism? But I worry that what’s actually intended is a one-sided “deconstructing those people’s normative concepts will allow me to patronizingly bracket their beliefs rather than openly hating them.”

        For example, in the instance you cite, the idea is clearly that Jim who holds 21c-rationalist-flavored ideas about nutrition gets to call his the “explicit model” and thus to patronizingly tolerate the primitive “metaphysical essences” of Bob’s beliefs about healthy and unhealthy foods. But why shouldn’t Bob turn around and say it’s equally adorable that all Jim’s A+s in second-grade arithmetic and his remembered confidence with childhood LEGO have made him and his friends most comfortable working out his instincts about food using (completely artificial) numbers and mechanical models? Those don’t map particularly well to the biological “reality,” either, as far as I can see. And in any case our perception of what the “biological reality” is is itself conditioned by accumulated emotional experiences acting on inbuilt cognitive structures. So what is the universal, non-emotionally-conditioned meta-framework that allows us to dub Jim’s ways of thinking advanced and “explicit”, while Bob’s are primitive and “metaphysical”?

  32. moridinamael says:

    “Maybe,” said the Big Green Bat, “This idea of ‘getting out of the car’ more or less refers to having stared at reality long enough and in close enough detail – or having consumed the right substances – until absolutely everything has been decomposed from metaphysical essences and into explicit direct perceptions and/or explicit causal models untainted by anything like connotation. Then all that’s left is the cosmic sense that Universal Love resides in everything and Transcendent Joy is the true nature of existence, because you don’t have any more of those, frankly, stupid/wrong brain modules applying their glaze of metaphysical essence to absolutely every sense percept and turning it into a threat and a vestige of the Enemy.”

    “Of course,” said the Cactus Person, “You would be dead without exactly those stupid/wrong modules. And Enlightenment probably doesn’t look like eradicating everything below ‘explicitly model system’ on the hierarchy, but it involves perceiving everything below that point as essentially sense percepts that are being internally generated. The sense of a particular metaphysical essence, rather than being reified, is recognized as a hollow mental construct, to which you hold no particular attachment, and which has no real hold on your mind.”

    “But,” said the Big Green Bat, “This is a really weird and non-adaptive position to hold a mind in. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an evolved limitation to your ability to do this, in order to preserve your subconscious, emotional approach/avoid impulses, which frankly keep you alive more effectively than your alleged neocortical superpowers. It’s also empirically evident that some Enlightened humans turn into dickbags, implying that ripping out the human value system like so much pumpkin innards doesn’t by default transform a person into a saint. It’s more likely to leave them without an emotional experience of good and evil – or more prosaically, approach/avoid.”

    “That’s a bit of a tangent,” chided the Cactus Person. “The reason we showed up was to address the question of whether there is a correct place to stand on the continuum from explicit modeling to endorsed values based on essences. We appear to be entities representing the state of being that remains after the annihilation of all cognitive value-assignment processes, and perhaps the replacement of those processes with kooky ones that aren’t hooked up to anything adaptive. Humans can’t really live here in the DMT dimension and truly remain human, but by visiting this place they can perceive the fundamental hollowness and arbitrariness of their accustomed, natural value-assignment processes. Having done that, the answer is probably that they should just take their natural emotional reactions less seriously, but not throw them in the garbage – a la Scott’s mention of the rationalist skill of accepting your own hypocrisy in certain matters and not making too big a deal out of it.”

    “In other words,” the Big Green Bat concluded, “You should probably recognize your own ridiculousness as an organism without worrying too much about it. And when it comes discussions of policy, you should try to solve problems via explicit modeling in ways that don’t destroy value at the lower levels of the hierarchy, and avoid disqualifying your opponents positions even if they do rely on lower levels of the hierarchy. Because the lower levels of the hierarchy are where value resides.”

    • Adam Treat says:

      Thank you for this!

      I’ll just note that there are centuries old techniques – and people who have employed these techniques to great success – that deliver someone akin to your DMT dimension in a much more stable way than those who choose to visit via a bad trip *smiley*

  33. Eponymous says:

    Great post. I think we’re getting very close to having this sorted out.

    There’s something you’re getting at here that I want to make explicit. This is that central nodes in reasoning networks (“concepts”) fulfill multiple functions. One is simply as a cognitive reasoning shortcut; and one is as a means of encoding values.

    Thus we might argue about whether a particular object is *really* a rube or a bleg. And we might also argue about whether a particular action is *really* right or wrong. Let’s say that we agree that the first argument should be recognized for what it is and dissolved. Should the second one likewise be dissolved?

    There’s a problem. We have a pretty clear idea of what algorithm the rube network is trying to approximate. It’s Bayesian inference on different attributes of the object in question. But what is the true algorithm that the “good” network is trying to approximate?

    One answer is something like “utilitarianism”; but this is only defined up to an assignment of utility. For that we need a concept of value. If I remember correctly, Eliezer says that there is no compact answer (certainly nowhere near as compact as “Bayesian inference + occam prior”). He basically says that our values are a bunch of random things spit out by evolution.

    That sounds an awful lot like saying that we just have a bunch of central nodes in our moral reasoning reasoning network, and we can’t fully dissolve them. We might be able to compress it to some degree, and infer the underlying algorithm. But I’m not sure how far we can get.

    So what happens when we do moral reasoning, and especially when we dissolve moral questions? One thing we do is that we decide to treat some of our moral central nodes as having precedence over others. Thus we might dissolve our moral preference for purity with reference to our moral preference for pleasure and happiness.

    But this choice is ultimately arbitrary. We each have a set of moral central nodes, and we probably all choose a slightly different subset to designate as fundamental. This is probably based on subtle differences in their strengths, based on genes + upbringing, together with what issues are foremost when we undertake the particular moral reasoning.

    I think this makes me less sure that value differences don’t matter. A priori, I don’t expect humans to have the same weights across their moral nodes. Thus we might easily have a situation where people have roughly similar moralities without much reflection, but when we really apply reflective moral updates we end up in very different places, depending on what values we decide are fundamental.

  34. carvenvisage says:

    First some high praise by (not actual) condemnation:

    This is the first one of the “explaining a basic thing” posts where I remember distinctly thinking it was quote “Obvious”. -Usually I either have some vague intuition or an explicit understanding that nonetheless I end up with a new perspective/appreciation for. This “series” has been great.

    _

    And now onto the criticism-transition-into-soapbox.

    The “explicit models” are all probably guesses on some level, but the sexual purity one seems clearly wrong, -how can it be based on STDs if it only applies to women?

    Some imo more-plausible (part-)explanations:

    1. Like swans, wolves, and penguins, women are naturally soft and cuddly, and prone to bond over intimate experiences. If you expect someone to stick by you for life, and to bond so naturally and warmly with their babies as to engender infinite patience and good humour in that special way men have less talent for, you’d much prefer someone who: 1. has the reaction in the first place 2. has not dulled it by oversaturation. 3. Shows self control and ascendance of high ideals like love, patience, fidelity, over pleasure seeking and feeling caged in by normal expectations.

    2. From the point of view of males, guys are touchy about their -I could say “prowess” to avoid eliding appearance, athleticism, wealth, etc, but that seems like dancing around the issue so,- dicks. If a woman sleeps around she’s probably sampled the higher end of the bell curve at some point, -she’s chosen to “know what she’s missing” with an average schmoe. So sleeping around implies a certain offhanded disrespect for (average or below) males’ delicate fee-fees (this but unironically), and acceptance of it normalises a competitive arrangement where guys are more likely to be measured against their peers.–The average guy benefits hugely from a societal level non-compete clause, it’s one of the main effects of (specifically monogamous) marriage, encouraging people to pair off for life on a 1 to 1 basis.

    3. From a female perspective, it’s best that men don’t expect to get sex without commitment and love, and that in general they restrain their well-known far greater sex-drives rather than feel entitled to let them loose. If society becomes more sexualised, specifically more “free for all” rabidly sexualised, that is almost neutral for many men, a minor boon/loss, but a great less for women. -“Sluts” do a little to knock women as a group off the pedestal which is their best-considered place to avoid being exploited as the physically weaker, less aggressive, and less martial sex, and to secure a lifelong mate to provide for their children. (who they are naturally far more prone to want, and to stick by)

    4. Actual mental health and life (particularly marriage) outcome correlations observed over millenia.–Perhaps partially due to being a somewhat fringe stance even as late as currentyear(“There’s an unfortunate corollary to this, which is that if you try to create a libertarian paradise, you will attract three deeply virtuous people with a strong committment to the principle of universal freedom, plus millions of scoundrels. Declare that you’re going to stop holding witch hunts, and your coalition is certain to include more than its share of witches.”) -and other confounding factors.

  35. Adam Treat says:

    Much of the view illustrated in this post comports with Buddhist understanding. Still, some of it is incompatible and some of it deserves further elaboration. For instance, the cause and effect order is wrong with regards to emotions and essences. Belief in metaphysical essence gives rise to emotion and not the other way around. You can see this by unraveling it a bit. Investigate and see if your emotion about a situation doesn’t slacken by discovering the absence of metaphysical essence behind it. Take your second example and test whether understanding the lack of essence in “justice” dissipates anger arising from injustice.

    Some other qualms and elaborations:

    “I have tried very hard to cultivate a vital rationalist skill called “admitting I am being an idiot while feeling no obligation to change”.”

    It is good to admit when one is being an idiot. It is also good to try and stop being an idiot or to reduce idiotic tendencies. There is no obligation to change – you owe this to no one – but generally speaking being an idiot has negative consequences. If one does not wish to suffer those negative consequences, then best to refrain from that which causes them. I think what you are trying to say is that there are some idiotic tendancies you believe have no negative consequences or that trying to refrain from them itself has negative consequences. To adjudicate this would require a case-by-case basis.

    A natural interpretation of Part I: people with explicit modeling are smart and good, people who still use metaphysical heuristics are either too hidebound to switch or too stupid to do the modeling.

    You don’t have to do the explicit modeling for any given thing in order to be convinced that things generally lack essence. In other words, it is not simply smarts which allow people to arrive at the conceptual understanding of emptiness. To be sure, some level of intellect or capacity for rationale thinking is necessary, but it is not like the understanding of emptiness is linearly and perfectly correlated with IQ. Because all negative emotions at root are caused by misunderstanding that things lack essence the only thing that can truly uproot those emotions is the direct realization of emptiness. Once this realization has been achieved and the illusory nature of all phenomena is revealed it does fundamental violence to our propensity for negative emotions. Again, consider the dreams of a mother:

    “For example, a young woman may want to have a child. When she is asleep, she dreams she gives birth to a child and is elated. But later in the dream, the child dies and she is devastated. However, on waking, she sees that neither the exhilarating appearance of having a child that brought her joy nor the horrible appearance of the child’s death that caused her anguish is real.”

    Upon awakening and discovering that it was all just a dream, both the passionate joy and the deep sorrow dissipate. It all fades as the young woman realizes it was all just a dream. In this exact way, the direct realization of emptiness dissipates the passionate emotions. How can these emotions carry on for long supported only by mere illusion? They cannot. The foundation for them has been ripped out.

    Or consider:

    Two friends walk along a grassy meadow on a moonlit night. Suddenly, one of the friends gives a jump and yells, “snake!” The other looks in the same direction and sees only a coiled rope. She begs her friend to look closer. He does and now likewise sees only a coiled rope and gives a little laugh of relief as his heart slows.

    Upon discovering that the appearance of the snake is completely illusory all panic dissipates. In this exact same way, the negative emotions dissipate upon discovering the lack of essence in all things.

    Second, all of our values are unjustifiable crystallizations of heuristics at some level, and we have to have some value.

    If you mean to say that all knowledge is based on a belief in essences, then this is wrong. If you think that understanding emptiness gives rise to impotency or lack of agency, then this is similarly wrong. All beings wish to be free from suffering. All beings wish to be happy. The way to achieve this is to directly realize the lack of essence in all things. There is no contradiction.

    “Does this mean we should stop caring about nature, and cut down all our forests and national parks and replace them with concrete lots?”

    All things that cause dhukka or suffering should be abandoned. What truly causes dhukka and suffering is not our national parks or forests. What causes dhukka and suffering is our ignorance. Based upon ignorance we develop attachments and aversions. We must eradicate our ignorance and understand the lack of essence in all things. National parks and forests lack essence. Understand this and there is no reason to cut them down. And there is also no basis for suffering if someone else cuts them down.

    “Consequentialism says that what’s really important is reducing suffering, but we can invent an evolutionary story for that too.”

    So? Suffering is also a dependent phenomena that utterly lacks essence. Understanding this is crucial to being able to abandon it. IOW, if suffering didn’t lack essence, then there would be no way to abandon it. It is precisely because it lacks essence that we can be rid of it.

    Suffering exists. The world exists. Justice exists. Injustice exists. That all these things lack essence is true. That they nonetheless exist is also true. There is no contradiction.

    So I want to talk about how in principle people end up choosing what level to crystallize heuristics at.

    All beings believe the world or reality to be full of essence. Why? Because that is how the world and reality appear to us. Generally speaking, we don’t *choose* to see essence in things, we see essence in things because that is how the world manifests.

    When we are young children we wake up from a nightmares very upset. Even after waking up it takes quite some time usually for our parents to soothe us. The nightmares feel so real that it continues to bother us even minutes or hours after we awake. Slowly, as we grow older we begin to regard dreams as unreal. Similarly with TV shows and horror movies. The effects of nightmares and scary shows don’t last as long as we grow up. We learn to see these nightmares, TV shows, and horror movies as unreal. We learn that they lack essence and in so doing they gradually lose their capacity to traumatize us. Why do we have to learn this? Because they appear real to us. They appear as if they have essence. It is our deep ignorance that things lack essence that causes us to engender such fear. As we grow up, through instruction and experience we begin to regard dreams and TV shows as unreal and the capacity they have to scare correspondingly decreases. As we learn that other things lack essence it similarly helps dissipate the negative emotions that arise as consequence.

    You are correct that all political/cultural tribes believe in essences and that some of these are acquired or learned. The belief in a creator God is one such belief that is acquired by some tribes, but not others. But all tribes share the root belief that things have essence because that is just how the world appears. And understanding that we all suffer from this is one way of cultivating our compassion.

    • carvenvisage says:

      Take your second example and test whether understanding the lack of essence in “justice” dissipates anger arising from injustice.

      Just because something is reified extrapolation doesn’t mean it isn’t real. The concept of quantity- the very foundation of maths, is a reified extrapolation too. There absolutely is an essence of justice (well, multiple, the word isn’t that precise).

      It’s ultimately no different from there being an essence of “chair”. both categories are arbitrary and somewhat imprecise. Justice is that which, game-theoretically, ameliorates the wounds of betrayal and makes future occurences less likely. Not everyone would 100.0% sign off, but all that proves is that it’s imprecise, fuzzy, interpetable, not that it isn’t real, -the latter of which is proved by the broad agreement and traceable game-theoretical basis. (including a huge amount in the value of precommitment, which Scott understandably didn’t touch in this post on another topic)

      Fairness is similiarly something like the inversion of treating people with venal greed or selfish bias. You can’t point to the essence of fairness in some well somewhere, but it’s not much less ontologically questionable than e.g. “chair”, just because it is a limit or an aim rather than a tangible physical object.

      I think what you are trying to say is that there are some idiotic tendancies you believe have no negative consequences or that trying to refrain from them itself has negative consequences.

      My guess was impractical or impossible (-currently) mixed with negative consequences.

      • Adam Treat says:

        Define real. Not sure if the one I’d use agrees with yours.

        Anyway, to Plato’s – and many a mathematician’s – great chagrin even the very foundations of math lack essence. The view espousing the lack of essence in things also lacks essence and I’m happy to debate anyone who claims this a contradiction.

        In what way can the essence of “chair” be said to exist? Is it permanent? Is it unitary? Is it independent of causes and conditions? Is it self-sufficient? Is it substantially existent?

        Here are some definitions I’m using to make sure we are on the same page:

        Permanent means something that does not change from one moment to the next
        Impermanent means that something changes under the influences of causes and conditions
        Unitary is something that is one seamless whole that has no parts
        Independent has different definitions given different contexts:
        1. Independent is something not being affected by or not relying upon causes and conditions
        2. In the context of the essence of chair it means being independent of the parts of the chair
        3. It means existing without depending on being merely imputed by name and concept
        Self-sufficient means being able to exist independently in a self-supporting manner, without depending on anything else, such as parts
        Substantially existent means being able to know such a thing exists without the appearance of it

        So given the above definitions or with your own can you explain how the essence of chair exists?

        • carvenvisage says:

          Real as in modelling it as an essence misses nothing except maybe a technicality. Or as in a solid reliable foundation.

          Or fundamentally grounded in (physical) reality, even if through several layers, so long as the steps are all valid.

          -The content of a novel is “real”, even if physically there is only ink and paper and bindings.

          edit: I see your edit-update and hope you will overlook that I did one also:)

        • carvenvisage says:

          Reply to edit:

          In what way can the essence of “chair” be said to exist? Is it permanent? Is it unitary? Is it independent of causes and conditions? Is it self-sufficient? Is it substantially existent?

          Here are some definitions I’m using to make sure we are on the same page:

          Permanent means something that does not change from one moment to the next
          Impermanent means that something changes under the influences of causes and conditions
          Unitary is something that is one seamless whole that has no parts
          Independent has different definitions given different contexts:
          1. Independent is something not being affected by or not relying upon causes and conditions
          2. In the context of the essence of chair it means being independent of the parts of the chair
          3. It means existing without depending on being merely imputed by name and concept
          Self-sufficient means being able to exist independently in a self-supporting manner, without depending on anything else, such as parts
          Substantially existent means being able to know such a thing exists without the appearance of it

          In what way can the essence of “chair” be said to exist? Is it permanent? Is it unitary? Is it independent of causes and conditions? Is it self-sufficient? Is it substantially existent?

          My issue isn’t with the word, it’s with the idea that proving a lack of a particular kind of ontological foundation means the idea is based on sand and should lose meaning/emotional attachment. When I say real I mean, like, “not made up”, not a delusional projection. If I’m in a simulation, the simulation is “real”, -it doesn’t mean operating at a particular level of abstraction (novel-content case shows) or even of reality.

          -I could instead phrase my objection as “Why cares about essences when things seem to have “natures”, well grounded patterns and shapes?

          _

          If everything is without essence then “essence” is also without essence, and we are free to abandon the idea as you propose, but we are also free draw the lines of essence where they are most- metaphorically, useful rather than where they are 100% technically correct (nowhere). -To reshape it a little, excise the impossible requirement and keep the rest, like some people do with “free will”.

          And “words are sticky”, so it may be easier to correct a word to a reasonable meaning than purge it from the language and concurrently proliferate a replacement.

          If “essences” are how we naturally think, why not use our natural ways of thinking? You say that dissolving them undercuts negative emotions, and I’m sure that’s true, but they also undercut positive emotions and also imo positive system building.

          _

          The essence of “chair” can be said to exist in how closely the idea of chair adheres to the expectations we would have of a genuine, magical, platonic essence, -metaphorically. it is also a term over which the disagreement is mainly on the fuzzy fringes, not the basic meaning of “thing to sit upon”, that part is not fuzzy.

          The answer to probably all those specific qualities is no, but that is mainly because it is a synthetic ‘essence’, one we created, and less because it is a bit fuzzy. A computer program or a novel’s contents are clearer examples of immaterial essences, -a real existence best understood by reified extrapolations built on reified extrapolations layer on layer. There’s no point looking at it at the fundamental level of quarks and atoms or whatever it is nowadays, it’s not a workable perspective for understanding the thing’s nature.

          If Platonic essences are reified extrapolations (or creations) of patterns, then some reified extrapolations or creations of patterns are by far more Self-sufficient, permanent, and independent in all senses (unless I misunderstand 2), -including 3 because something being delineated by an act of will does not mean it cannot float sustainably in the platonic ether, like the concepts of justice and goodness do.

          For an example, the extrapolation of the concept “2” is nothing other than an “essence” (in my sense of “fundamentally sound reified extrapolation”), but it is extremely solid. It is substantially existent, Self-sufficientent, independent in the first and third sense, and permanent.

          Does “goodness” have an essence? A bit more complicated, but yes, we can fundamentally ground it in reality, we just change our definition a bit and drop the superstitious wrappings. The question is simply good for what, and how? For example, usually when we say “good” we mean good for humanity in the sense of promoting things humans almost universally value.

          The distinction is bridged for me between subjectively-universal and objective. -Was there an essential badness about the nazi’s? Maybe not in some technically-fundamental sense, but so long as I am talking to people who share enough of my values to make conversation worthwhile, they were essentially bad so far as we are concerned. –Without some minimal level of shared values communication is largely pointless, and that minimal level is enough to bootstrap most of “objective” morality. Insofar as we bother to talk to earnestly communicate with someone, we do so in the assumption that they prefer for things to be better, however they might honestly understand that, in some way compatible with our own, rather than worse.

          Once we’ve established mutual communication we can derive the need for honour from there. Even someone who means well (wishes others to benefit) can be subject to short term temptations or moved by fear to snatch something. honour is the reified extrapolation (like a limit) of a particular way (invented as well as discovered) to have better dealings with others.

          You can drill down on all of these ideas, e.g. benefit, and say well what does that mean exactly? But it’s only difficult, and not impossible, to answer in each and every case.

          _

          p.s. I wonder if you took issue with the concept of infinity in maths class? I was very pleased to learn there is a school of mathematics that proceeds without the idea.

          _

          • Adam Treat says:

            Essence is a, “very particular kind of ontological foundation” right? If that is shown to be non-existent, then it necessarily proves that essence is non-existent, no? Otherwise what does “essence” mean?

            We believe in essences because that is how the world manifestly appears to us. The problem is we believe this manifest appearance is true while it is actually completely false. IOW, it is deceptive. Contrary to being useful, it is actively harmful.

            To be absolutely clear, I’m not arguing against the the utility of conventions. Conventions are obviously very, very, useful. What I’m arguing against is believing that what is mere convention is something it is not ie., inherent existence. Taking what are mere concepts as basis for believing the world is filled with essences has no positive upside. Mistaking the map for the territory is just that… a mistake.

            You say a chair is a “thing to sit upon” and that this is not fuzzy. Really? Many things can be sat upon… are they all chairs? Take a chair broken in a bar fight – hence no one could sit upon it – which is then subsequently hurled across the bar… do we not describe that as a chair being thrown?

            You describe “essence” as created, synthetic and fuzzy. How is that so? I don’t think that matches any common definition I’ve heard of. What is essence and how does it exist?

            Later you take the concept “2” and bite the bullet. The essence of two appears extremely solid to your mind. Here is something that seems not fuzzy, or synthetic. You take it as substantially existent, self-sufficient, independent, and permanent according to the definitions above. Let’s examine and see if this is true.

            Can the concept two stand alone? Is it not dependent upon anything other than it? No, it depends upon the axioms of peano arithmetic. Is it constructed? Yes, it is constructed via the successor function applied to another number. It is also dependent upon a mind to grasp the concept.

            If it is dependent, then in what way can it be said to be substantially existent? Strictly speaking, independence is a necessary but insufficient condition of substantial existence. The latter is in turn a necessary but insufficient condition for a self-existent. In what way can it be said to be permanent? If the universe ends in heat death as is currently posited does the number two remain? If the universe ends in a great crunch does the number two remain? No, the number two cannot be said to be permanent.

            I’m afraid the number two is a completely contingent thing without even an ounce of essence behind it. It’s a very useful convention.

            p.s. No, I’ve always been fascinated by infinity. Cantor’s infinity proofs transfixed me when I first read them. The AC+Banach–Tarski Paradox vs non-AC disaster also fascinates me and I think tells us something about the lack of essence in mathematics.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            @Adam Treat

            You say a chair is a “thing to sit upon” and that this is not fuzzy. Really? Many things can be sat upon… are they all chairs? Take a chair broken in a bar fight – hence no one could sit upon it – which is then subsequently hurled across the bar… do we not describe that as a chair being thrown?

            I agree, the concept of a chair is fuzzy. “Thing to sit upon” doesn’t perfectly describe it, and neither does any other phase. If I wanted to get closer to the idea of what I mean by “chair”, I’d probably say “something built for a single person to sit on, with a raised seat and a backrest,” but then you could show me this and I’d still want to call it a “giant chair”, despite the fact that it’s obviously too large for anyone to sit on. However, we can still have a coherent concept of “chair” despite the fuzziness: I hope we all agree that this is [a picture of] a chair, and that this duck is not a chair.
            Furthermore, I think it’s valid (or at the very least useful) to talk about what constitutes a “real chair.” For instance, if I see something that kind of looks like a chair, but on closer examination is just some shadows, I might say “Darn, that’s not a real chair.” And if I see something that is…well you know, something built with a seat and a backrest I can sit on in the physical world, I might say “Yay, a real chair! I can sit down now!” It is by no means permanent–likely it’ll be gone in a century or two. It definitely changes under the influence of causes and conditions, for instance if I throw it against a concrete wall. It is made up of parts: a backrest, a seat, legs, and zooming in to a more fundamental level, quarks and electrons; and without those parts it would not exist. And I certainly can’t know it exists without seeing the appearance of it (or alternatively tripping over the appearance of it if I’ve left the lights off, or hearing from someone else who’s seen its appearance). But I can sit down on it or otherwise interact with it in the physical universe, and for that reason I say that it exists, by the definition I like to use (“those things in the physical universe”). And knowing that there’s no eternal metaphysical essence of chair-ness, and that it’s merely made of molecules, in no way lessens my desire to sit in it if I’m tired of standing.

          • Adam Treat says:

            @thevoiceofthevoid

            What does ‘real’ mean to you? Some existent thing embodied in the physical world? How is it useful to partition all existent things into those that are embodied in the physical world vs those that are not? IOW, Why do you think it useful to place emphasis on this dichotomy with the word ‘real’?

            “And knowing that there’s no eternal metaphysical essence of chair-ness, and that it’s merely made of molecules, in no way lessens my desire to sit in it if I’m tired of standing.”

            Some people grow very attached to their possessions including chairs.

            Let’s take a different thing – ships for instance – and imagine a captain growing very attached to the ship she’s sailed upon for 25 years. She’s named the ship and suffered both tragedy and high adventure aboard the ship. Over the course of her long travels the ship has been broken and repaired many, many, times. Upon retirement she reflects on her long career and the ship she called home. She recollects all the repairs the ship underwent and realizes for the first time that the ship she returned home with was not the one she set out with. Every single piece of the original ship had been replaced over the course of its journey. Some pieces many times over. She begins to think of the young women she was when she set out in comparison to the older women she is now. Every part of her has similarly been replaced. This is a cathartic and profound realization for her. The attachment she once had to her ship transforms. Some of it dissipates altogether.

            Believing that things have essence has consequences. It is a mistake. It causes attachments and aversions that induce suffering. It is quite possible to grow weary and sit on that chair with full knowledge that the chair utterly lacks essence. It’s also possible to do so while making the mistake and thinking the chair has essence. Consequences ensue.

          • carvenvisage says:

            Essence is a, “very particular kind of ontological foundation” right? If that is shown to be non-existent, then it necessarily proves that essence is non-existent, no? Otherwise what does “essence” mean?

            Perhaps I “cross-edited” with your post. If so, sorry, but it’s whether the thing is “real” that matters to me, not whether it has a fictional ontological characteristic.

            “Essence” in the sense I responded is either a metaphor, or something like a mathematical limit of a valid abstraction or both. Or even that essence refers to essence of an idea in one’s head or in a culture/society/language.

            I have no problem with someone who decides that because there are no essences, then chairs, justice, etc (etc) aren’t fundamentally real, or even built on sand/shifting foundations. That seems perfectly consistent way to look at things, and probably useful for a buddhist-type way of approaching the world which minimises attachment. -I went in for this myself for half a decade or so and may do so again. What I’m disputing is whether this follows from a lack of essences in the literal-platonic or technical sense. -I don’t see why something has to to be irreducible, non-fuzzy, etc, and certainly not to exist in a literal platonic plane, in order to be solidly grounded and based: –a firm foundation rather than one of sand.

            Even something as nebulous as an author’s words are “real”, -the platonic shadows of ink a layer thin on paper hardly thicker.

            -They don’t exist at the base level of reality, but they surely arise from it.

            _

            Where there are multiple layers of reified extrapolations between what I’m looking at and base reality (and also in cases where there are extremely few), “essences” are an excellent way of looking at them because the metaphor corresponds very closely to reality. In the bracketed case because there is so little fuzziness-etc, the derivation is so clear, things like that, in the other case because there is so many layers that a “raw reality” based schema is inapplicable in the first place, and we are better off with our mind’s clumsy essentialising tendencies (whether we call them essences or not). Imo the reason plato came up with this idea in the first place is because it’s impossible to understand many things at the base “earth wind and fire”/”quantum waves” level of reality”. He might have misattributed this to a platonic realm, -sought to ground the phenomenon on more tangible but false ground, but the phenomenon remains.

            You say a chair is a “thing to sit upon” and that this is not fuzzy. Really? Many things can be sat upon… are they all chairs?

            The point is that all chairs are things to sit upon, not all things to sit upon are chairs. -A bench is not a chair.

            Take a chair broken in a bar fight – hence no one could sit upon it – which is then subsequently hurled across the bar… do we not describe that as a chair being thrown?

            Yes, it is still “to sit upon”, in the sense that it was still built to be sit upon, though it’s less of a chair and one might be within their rights to deny the designation (its ‘fuzzy’) as it’s no longer “to sit upon” in the sense that it is well structured to bear a person’s weight. (Some people might draw the line between whether they intend to repair it or not)

            A chair wholly intact but falling into a lake of lava would also still bear the original meaning imbued by the purpose/intent of its manufacture.

            You describe “essence” as created, synthetic and fuzzy. How is that so? I don’t think that matches any common definition I’ve heard of. What is essence and how does it exist?

            No I described “chair” as such an essence. It seems trivially compatible with a conventional or extrapolation based view. We can extrapolate a natural form but also a form we invented or even merely chose ourselves, and a form can be strictly or loosely delineated or defined.

            Can the concept two stand alone? Is it not dependent upon anything other than it? No, it depends upon the axioms of peano arithmetic. Is it constructed? Yes, it is constructed via the successor function applied to another number. It is also dependent upon a mind to grasp the concept.

            It doesn’t depend on the axioms of peano arithmetic at all, people have been using the concept of two for (at least) thousands of years. All it depends on is that “one thing and one thing”, -by the nature of the words “one”, “and”, and “thing”, will never be three or one and a half, but a certain fixed quantity for which it useful to have a name and also an abbreviated symbol.”

            And no it’s not constructed, it’s discovered, the relation will hold in all times and all places. Nor is it dependent on a mind to grasp it, it names relations which are an a priori fact of reality. (in a broader sense than the present universe)

            If the universe ends in heat death as is currently posited does the number two remain? If the universe ends in a great crunch does the number two remain?

            Yes and yes, the quantity won’t be instantiated anywhere but it will still reflect a fundamental fact of reality, or rather something broader, a relation between quantities. If a new universe arises or even if not the relations “two” is a name for will still hold. “Two” of all concepts is far more than a mere convention.

            p.s. No, I’ve always been fascinated by infinity. Cantor’s infinity proofs transfixed me when I first read them. The AC+Banach–Tarski Paradox vs non-AC disaster also fascinates me and I think tells us something about the lack of essence in mathematics.

            Any particular reason you don’t blithely assume these are epicycles, artifacts of kludged approximations? My guess would be that it’s simply easier to have a working model for something than to pinpoint the exact underlying reality.

            And weren’t a lot of these things that lead to paradoxes invented to fill a theoretical hole, much like how people invent god to provide a fountain-foundation of meaning/morality or unmoved mover? On the face of it, it seems to me like if you seize on a concept for the purpose of filling a theoretical hole you’re likely to end up with something like god or epicycles.

          • carvenvisage says:

            It is a mistake. It causes attachments and aversions that induce suffering.

            What does the former have to do with the latter? According to most people’s preferences and values, suffering and attachment are good in some contexts.

            Take an extreme example- if someone killed your family (thought experiment from other thread), then even assuming reform and healing and non-vengeance is our only motive, and not social stability or justice or any of the other things people actually value, -is it an irrational delusion for them to feel guilty?

            _

            And how is it irrational for people to e.g. have a natural precommitment to avenge themselves for grievious malicious wrongs, that thereby disentivise them not only for themselves but also at a societal level?

            I don’t think it’s crazy for a murderer to take their own life if they realise what they’ve done, let alone to feel guilty.

            _

            Freedom from attachment is a cool path, but it’s not a universal obligation to walk it at all, let alone to the end. (nor to stay there even if one reaches it)

          • Adam Treat says:

            Hi carvenvisage,

            You seem to be going back and forth between a number of philosophical views. I understand the first part of your response as attempting to defend the scientific reductionist or realist worldview as independent from the question of whether platonic ideals actually exist or not. You say the validity of the scientific reductionist view and the question of platonic essences are orthogonal matters. Is this a correct reading of what you are after?

            When you speak of the “base level of reality” I wonder what you are referring to. I’m assuming that you are still adopting the scientific reductionist view and not disembodied platonic essences? That you believe this base level to consist of quarks and leptons and such or QM wavefunctions? You think that there are physical laws of the universe which when fully figured out will leave no explanatory gap to understanding all that exists?

            “The point is that all chairs are things to sit upon”

            Not strictly true. Some chairs are not made for sitting. These chairs were not intended for sitting, but rather made to defraud the curators at Versailles where the chair would be sealed off never to be sat upon. What if upon inspection the curator discovered the chair to be a fraud and broke one of the legs off and threw it at the forger? Would it be a chair? It was not made for sitting and after it was broken it wouldn’t even function as a chair if one tried and yet we would call it a chair, no?

            – “It seems trivially compatible with a conventional or extrapolation based view.”

            But that’s because “chair” is a convention! The very idea of essence or believing “chair” has essence is by definition *not* a convention. To reduce essence to convention is to throw out the word entirely. By equating the two you’re no longer defending essence, but merely arguing for the usefulness of conventions which no one is attacking in the first place.

            As for your defense of the number two you seem to be completely walking back to defending the existence of platonic essences while setting aside your earlier argument that the scientific reductionist worldview doesn’t depend on platonic essence actually existing. While it is true that the concept of “two” has been around for quite awhile before Giuseppe Peano came around it doesn’t negate the concepts dependence on other things as you yourself admit. The concept of “two” in your more primitive formulation depends upon the concept of “one” and the concept of “addition” and the concept of a “thing” with which to apply these former concepts. Being a dependent phenomenon it can not be said to be independent. Therefore whatever space or place where this platonic ideal exists must necessarily also be inhabited by platonic ideals for “one”, “addition”, and “thing.”

            What you’ve done with the number two is an excellent illustration of what Scott is on about in this post. You’ve taken an extremely useful concept and grown so fond of the appearance of reified essence that you’ve become convinced in its existence. So much so that it appears so “extremely solid” and firmly grounded in your mind to even outlast the heat death of the universe. In exactly the same way an artist having fallen in love with the color red and seeing examples of this extremely useful concept might entertain notions of the platonic essence of “red” that would similarly escape the heat death of the universe. In exactly the same way a person enamored might conceive Justice, Nature, Special Relativity, Turing Machines or any number of other mere conventions or concepts as existing solidly in an independent manner in some reified realm outside of ordinary spacetime.

            Why do we do this? Why does it appear so blatantly obvious that there exists a fundamental base level of reality. That these ideas are so “extremely solid” that the essence of them must exist somewhere outside our own concepts and conventions? This is the root ignorance that has afflicted us since beginningless time. So much so that it is nearly impossible to conceive of the world as it actually exists: completely void of essence or inherent existence. When we first become skeptical of essence many of us become despondent and terrified thinking it implies that nothing exists at all. That if essences don’t exist that everything is based upon sand without any firm foundation. But that’s not true at all. It is precisely because of lack of essence that the world exists as it does: with laws of nature and convention and the entire infinite morass of utterly dependent phenomena.

            You ask if it is an irrational delusion for people who’ve committed murder to feel guilty. The answer is yes. That is because guilt is a non-virtuous and completely destructive habit of mind. To be very clear, regret is a virtuous and completely constructive habit of mind after committing non-virtuous deeds. GUILT != REGRET

            To understand the difference between the two imagine that you’ve come into your house from a hot day working in the yard and discover on the kitchen counter a tall bottle of ice water. You pick up the bottle and drink the ice water only to subsequently turn it over in your hand and discover a label on the other side that says POISON. Now, what is the instant feeling that will go through your mind upon discovering that you’ve just down a bottle of poison… guilt or regret? I would say that on your way to the hospital you’d have zero guilt and loads of regret. All of our non-virtuous actions such as taking the life of another being should be understood in a similar fashion as drinking poison. Regret should follow along with the firm conviction to try and steer clear of poison in the future.

          • carvenvisage says:

            You seem to be going back and forth between a number of philosophical views. I understand the first part of your response as attempting to defend the scientific reductionist or realist worldview as independent from the question of whether platonic ideals actually exist or not. You say the validity of the scientific reductionist view and the question of platonic essences are orthogonal matters. Is this a correct reading of what you are after?

            Roughly what I am interested in is defending the action of “essentializing” certain things regardless of how we ontologically/philosophically categorise this mental attitude or action.

            You’ve made a number of real world practical claims, like the idea that attachment is the essence of all evil, and that guilt is unhealthy if one has grieviously inflicted an abomination on another (-as clearly distinct from an amoral error such as harming oneself through carelessness).

            These are my main disagreements. If someone wants to view the idea of chair as an arbitrary convention I’m sure a perfectly self-consistent way can be found to do that, I know because I did it myself. The reason I casually equivocating between “has essence” and “real” is because in practice you are doing so yourself. When I say justice very much has an essence I mean it is very much real and not “just a/merely a convention”, not that there’s a literal platonic plane DnD style where it reclines on its days off.

            My main objection is to the ideas that that: 1. relinquishing all attachment is anything but a particular path, interesting for many to tread on, for some to pursue towards the depths 2. that its supposed supremacy is known because buddhism happens to say so as you seem to blithely assume, any more than the neccessity of swordpoint conversion is known because muhammad says so.

            I like buddhism, but it’s not like we can just ask buddha, and buddha isn’t an omniscient god. These are simply buddhism’s values which you have adopted and are repeating uncritically, as if a proven immutable truth rather than a particular set of values.

            _

            The natural psychological tendency to sort things into categories and to regard these categories as real or as essences does not need to be underpinned by specifically platonic essences any more than, if “god is dead”, it undeniably follows that “everything is permitted”.

            -Humans, as you yourself posit, are notorious for projecting false ontologies, and as such their attributing something to an obviously fictional/metaphorical/metaphorical or just plain wrong grounding, does not mean that the thing they falsely attribute is valueless, bad, or incorrect. If I say novels contain more than ink and paper because writing on paper is a way to send messages for storage to the pixie realm, and that when someone reads a book the pixies are dictating that meaning back to the reader, that doesn’t mean that an absence of literal pixies means an absence of a story between first and last page, it just means I’ve made up a metaphor for something unintuitive on a [materialist] level and that metaphor has turned out to be wrong.

            _

            Must the idea e.g. of “knowing”, be fundamentally sound in the sense you require “essence” to be sound, lest we must abandon our psychological/mental habit of using it as a shorthand?

            Well, it (imo) isn’t . As descartes showed, we can doubt almost everything if we want, and in fact if we want to doubt more than that we can too (“what exactly is I”?). There is no clear place to draw the line, the concept is almost impossible to formalise, and attempts lead to gibberish.

            So what does “know” actually mean then then? Well, ontologically-fundamentally-metaphysically, nothing. -It’s just a projection of a certain psychological phenomenon, a metaphor.

            But does it follow from that that we must abandon the word? No, of course not.

            It’s an option, but it does not follow from having projected a false ontological basis on something that the thing is bad or false. “knowing” is a metaphorical (whether one realises it or not) projection of the idea that something has a firm foundation, that it need not be doubted, that one may or ought to stake their reputation on it’s truth.

            “Do you know that for sure?”

            When we answer yes, we mean “rest assured, trust me, I stake (some of) my status on the matter.

            It’s a similiar thing with essences. If nothing can have an essence, questions of whether something has an essence or not can only be interpreted metaphorically or otherwise practically.

            Asking if justice “really has an essence” is like asking if we can really know the world wasn’t constructed a moment ago including false memories of time leading up to this point. -By the formulation of the question it nudges us towards a useless definition of the property in question.

            It would make more sense to say that the concept of essences is incoherent than to say some specific thing is not an essence. (and especially than to imply this proves something about the falsity or groundlessness of its nature).

            Now you’re not inconsistent on this point, because you think it’s even a delusion to “essentialise” your kids, and that surprises me, but this is an intractably alien value system to myself and many others. I don’t believe one can be “too attached” to the few people one is directly responsible for, and specifically one’s children. One can choose to be detached what happens to oneself, but for people one bring’s unasked into the world I don’t believe one has the same privelege.

            I could get into practical reasons why this sentiment is good for society, good for a family on a micro level etc, but I’ll leave it at noting the value differnce as this post/conversation is long enough already.

            When you speak of the “base level of reality” I wonder what you are referring to. I’m assuming that you are still adopting the scientific reductionist view and not disembodied platonic essences? That you believe this base level to consist of quarks and leptons and such or QM wavefunctions?

            I don’t really know what “scientific reductionist view” means, but I mean the physical level, whatever is actually there whether it be earth wind and fire, quantum voodoo, or somet as yet undiscovered thing underlying the latter. -The level out of which other things arise.

            You think that there are physical laws of the universe which when fully figured out will leave no explanatory gap to understanding all that exists?

            No, -I explicitly contradicted this. If we understand all the physical laws that doesn’t explain writing or fighting or when it’s appropriate to laugh or when it’s proper to feel guilty. (Perhaps some entity, e.g. “god” with access to the sum totality of those raw inputs would have no need for abstractions but that is clearly very counterfactual- humans are not such entities, and I’m not sure even in that case.)

            Not strictly true. Some chairs are not made for sitting. These chairs were not intended for sitting, but rather made to defraud the curators at Versailles where the chair would be sealed off never to be sat upon. What if upon inspection the curator discovered the chair to be a fraud and broke one of the legs off and threw it at the forger? Would it be a chair? It was not made for sitting and after it was broken it wouldn’t even function as a chair if one tried and yet we would call it a chair, no?

            Firstly, you might be able to find some subtle error, but I won’t consider that equal to failing to distinguish between a chair and a bench, which is the kind of error I was constantly making when I was enamoured with how much less grounded some ideas were than I’d been led to believe and missing how relatively well grounded were others.

            That said, these particular chairs are still “to sit on” in the sense that they are built to specifications of sitting. Insofar as they lacked these specifications, the original articles would not be of interest as chairs of louis the so and so’s, and in the same sense the imitations would not pass as the others. -Imitation imbues a shadow of essence. There you go, bizarre corner case closed, problem solved, even my amateur bro-philosophy definition is perfectly consistent.

            As for your defense of the number two you seem to be completely walking back to defending the existence of platonic essences while setting aside your earlier argument that the scientific reductionist worldview doesn’t depend on platonic essence actually existing. While it is true that the concept of “two” has been around for quite awhile before Giuseppe Peano came around it doesn’t negate the concepts dependence on other things as you yourself admit. The concept of “two” in your more primitive formulation depends upon the concept of “one” and the concept of “addition” and the concept of a “thing” with which to apply these former concepts. Being a dependent phenomenon it can not be said to be independent. Therefore whatever space or place where this platonic ideal exists must necessarily also be inhabited by platonic ideals for “one”, “addition”, and “thing.”

            Two doesn’t “depend on” the concept of one, it is an alternative name for “one and one”, a shorthand. It’s not seperate from the concept of one in order to be dependent. It contains all of the preliminary neccessarry innovations.

            And yes the “platonic space” certainly is inhabited by “ideals” for “one”, “addition” and “thing”. “Thing” in particular is a very interesting concept, -the concept of an object specifically as abstracted from any specific object.

            I freely admit that inventing/discovering the idea of quantity is based on other innovations. A caveman has to learn to make noise before he can talk, and he’ll talk before he writes, but each has a seed in the previous one- talking is a form of making noise, and writing is a form of talking.

            The concept of “two” in your more primitive formulation depends upon the concept of “one” and the concept of “addition” and the concept of a “thing” with which to apply these former concepts.

            In addition to these being implicit in the concept of “two”, these meaning are well established constants and in any case granted by the fact that we are speaking english.

            _

            This is a first, -I hit the max comment size. Second half below.

          • carvenvisage says:

            What you’ve done with the number two is an excellent illustration of what Scott is on about in this post. You’ve taken an extremely useful concept and grown so fond of the appearance of reified essence that you’ve become convinced in its existence. So much so that it appears so “extremely solid” and firmly grounded in your mind to even outlast the heat death of the universe. In exactly the same way an artist having fallen in love with the color red and seeing examples of this extremely useful concept might entertain notions of the platonic essence of “red” that would similarly escape the heat death of the universe. In exactly the same way a person enamored might conceive Justice, Nature, Special Relativity, Turing Machines or any number of other mere conventions or concepts as existing solidly in an independent manner in some reified realm outside of ordinary spacetime.

            I haven’t “grown fond” at all, I was as shocked as anyone to realise how easy it is to ground these abstract floating concepts in concrete undeniable reality.

            I was raised in a religion that told me I would burn in hell for having taken the lord’s name in vain, and that others would burn their merely for the bad luck of being raised differently, and that this was not only good and holy but sort of the essence of good and holy, that told the story of jobe, etc (etc).

            So psychologically, I feel as though I escaped hell and the most abject mental slavery that way. -You’re absolutely wrong here, what I’m personally attached is lack of attachment and deconstructing meanings. Coming to acknowledge how well grounded many other ideas are was quite a painful and even embarassing process. -How the fuck did I miss this?

            Well I think my excuses are sufficient, and perhaps the deadening effects of the education system were an even greater stunting influence in this regard than the horror of projected meanings I picked up from organised religion or observing the opposite error in some of my more simple-minded companions, but what I’m certainly not is a natural meaning seeker or projector. I’d much rather be a nihilist. (I do admit some social influence comes to play here as well, for example part of the reason I choose to use words like know and essence is because I know that is how others think, and I prefer (in this case and for now) to adapt my language to be compatible with others than to insist on the absolute purity of my natural “deconstructionist” way of looking at things)

            Why do we do this? Why does it appear so blatantly obvious that there exists a fundamental base level of reality. That these ideas are so “extremely solid” that the essence of them must exist somewhere outside our own concepts and conventions? This is the root ignorance that has afflicted us since beginningless time. So much so that it is nearly impossible to conceive of the world as it actually exists: completely void of essence or inherent existence. When we first become skeptical of essence many of us become despondent and terrified thinking it implies that nothing exists at all. That if essences don’t exist that everything is based upon sand without any firm foundation. But that’s not true at all. It is precisely because of lack of essence that the world exists as it does: with laws of nature and convention and the entire infinite morass of utterly dependent phenomena.

            Well, some categories really are quite natural. “Me” for example is a categories that even some animals seem provably to have.

            That if essences don’t exist that everything is based upon sand without any firm foundation.

            We should indeed be wary of this psychological phenomenon, -it might lead us to think that ideas like goodness and justice are just conventions.

            You ask if it is an irrational delusion for people who’ve committed murder to feel guilty. The answer is yes. That is because guilt is a non-virtuous and completely destructive habit of mind. To be very clear, regret is a virtuous and completely constructive habit of mind after committing non-virtuous deeds. GUILT != REGRET

            non-virtuous is a value judgement. destructive is true, ..and in fact the whole point. By being destructive it 1. can be harnessed as negative reinforcement tool to motivate oneself 2. can serve as a “costly signal” of genuine repentance and engagement with harms one has caused.

            What’s wrong with “destructive”? Why is it always, -inherently, –essentially, bad?

            I don’t think This guy did a bad thing. Nor do I don’t think a man who chops down a tree to warm his family and sick mother does a bad thing.

            It is worse to be strong without being good than the opposite, but good and strong is better than only good, and strong often means the capacity for destruction.

            To understand the difference between the two imagine that you’ve come into your house from a hot day working in the yard and discover on the kitchen counter a tall bottle of ice water. You pick up the bottle and drink the ice water only to subsequently turn it over in your hand and discover a label on the other side that says POISON. Now, what is the instant feeling that will go through your mind upon discovering that you’ve just down a bottle of poison… guilt or regret? I would say that on your way to the hospital you’d have zero guilt and loads of regret. All of our non-virtuous actions such as taking the life of another being should be understood in a similar fashion as drinking poison. Regret should follow along with the firm conviction to try and steer clear of poison in the future.

            Murdering someone’s family is an abomination, it has no moral relation to disadvantaging oneself through carelessness. None of the reasons why a murderer should feel guilty apply to someone who trips and breaks a leg.

          • Adam Treat says:

            @carvenvisage

            You are right that this sub-thread is long enough. I want to clear up a few misconceptions, but then leave it to you for any parting thoughts.

            Some of our disagreement might be rooted in different choices of words. When you say that justice is very much real and therefore has an essence perhaps you are just trying to say that justice exists. If so, then we are in agreement. The question is how it exists and there I think it is useful to draw a distinction between conventions and essences and perhaps you disagree.

            There is a line of thought in Buddhist philosophy that maintains that essence itself is just a convention. I think this might be what you are trying to articulate. That it is useful to think about things as if they had essence even though “essence” is just a convention. I do not think this is correct but if this is what you are after then perhaps we can leave that debate for another day/place.

            It is generally frowned upon in Buddhism to proselytize. That is not what I’m trying to do here. If you separate out Buddhist philosophy from its soteriological goals I think the philosophy/practice has many things in common with the rationalist community. For instance, if you cross your eyes and squint you can think of the higher tenet systems of Buddhism as hyper refined criticisms of dogma in all its forms. Another similarity is that logic, debate, empirical validation and willingness to keep an open mind are highly valued practices. When I saw Scott’s dialogue it struck me that the interlocutors were coming close to some fairly comparative Buddhist philosophical positions. I’ve always thought the rationalist communities predilections might make it particularly suitable to grok a bit about Buddhist philosophy so I took the opportunity.

            Anyway, I’m sorry if my participation is perceived as uncritical or as proselytizing as that is quite the opposite of what I intended. Part of that might be because I have lots of confidence in the subject through much critical study and practice, but perhaps I’m wrong and can learn a thing or two from rational discussion and debate.

            Last thought: Buddhist philosophy is concerned with what is empirically and logically true in much the same way as modern scientific practice. I believe what I’m saying and asserting in this thread can be empirically and logically verified. As such, I’m opening myself up to being proven wrong and welcome the attempt. This goes equally for what I’m saying about the nature of reality as well as what is good/virtuous vs what is bad/non-virtuous. Perhaps Buddhism is unique among moral/religious philosophies in postulating that morality itself can be subject to empirical verification. When I say that something is non-virtuous or that it should be abandoned it is not because some authority said so or for some subjective aesthetic reason, but rather because I believe it can be empirically verified to cause suffering. Now, you may ask, “Why is suffering bad isn’t that a moral absolute that you are introducing a priori?” I would answer that *no* it is not a moral absolute, but rather again simply an empirically verified truth that no sentient being wishes to suffer given a sufficient understanding of what “suffer” means. It is in this context in which I’m talking about the non-virtue of attachment and guilt vs regret and so on. I don’t doubt that it is alien to many, but it is not alien to quite a few others. What’s more, I submit that these assertions can be personally verified.

            To be very clear, I’m not saying that someone who revels in attachment or guilt or condemnation or believing in essence is a bad person in any kind of moral absolute way. Just that they are being unskillful in the same way a monkey caught in a monkey trap is being unskillful when it rips off its arm in order to free itself. That is why we say that the root of all suffering is ignorance.

            Anyway, thanks for the talk and I’ll leave it at that.

          • carvenvisage says:

            @Adam Treat

            Even if I think you ‘preach’ the buddhist perspective (by speaking as if contentious matters are known to be conclusively settled), the perspective you share remains very interesting, -undiminishedly so, and I enjoy/appreciate your sharing it.

            I will refrain from answering any remaining disagreements except to clear up a clear miscommunication and make a brief remark on what this gives me some excuse to comment:

            Now, you may ask, “Why is suffering bad isn’t that a moral absolute that you are introducing a priori?” I would answer that *no* it is not a moral absolute, but rather again simply an empirically verified truth that no sentient being wishes to suffer given a sufficient understanding of what “suffer” means

            Actually, I asked about “destruction”, not suffering, but this is the less significant part of what got lost in translation: what I meant to question is what is so bad about it as to justify the conclusions you purport to support by the fact, not what is bad about it at all. I did give 2 illustrating examples of situations where destructive actions seemed very clearly positive on net, though destructive in the commission, but nevertheless “what is so wrong..” would have been a clearer and more accurate formulation than “what is wrong..”.

            _

            On the topic: destruction doesn’t seem to be inherently bad in the same way that suffering is inherently bad. -To destroy, e.g. a landmine, left near where children play, seems clearly a grand and fine thing.

            And I disagree that no living being prefers suffering given a sufficiently complete understanding, even suffering for its own sake. -Suffering is obviously bad, but it does not follow from something being bad that it can never be legitimately preferred, -for that you have to prove that 1. punishing oneself 2. using negative reinforcement to condition oneself, -are necessarily a net negative, not only that they contain a negative.

          • lazydragonboy says:

            @adam Treat
            @carvenvisage

            Thank you both for the lively debate. I quite enjoyed it.

    • Pseudocydonia says:

      I notice you’ve posted before in the vein of “this thing can also be understood with the Buddhist concept of [-]”.

      If you were to recommend half a dozen texts in Buddhist philosophy, what would they be? I read the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch a while back and enjoyed it, but otherwise I’m pretty ignorant of this area.

      • lazydragonboy says:

        Have you read any of Ajahn Chah’s stuff? Adam seems like he’s got more of a Mahayana(perhaps Tibetan) background, but Ajahn Chah you might like anyway. He is funny, accessable, and profound.

      • Adam Treat says:

        This is a difficult question. The best answer would take into account your current knowledge as well as aptitude for Buddha dharma. The Buddha employed upaya (skillful means) when teaching beings of different skill level and predilection. He tailored his teachings to best meet the needs and aims of those in the audience for any particular teaching. This sometimes lead to confusion among students who would recollect the teachings at a later point and recall different teachings that seemed to be in apparent tension.

        Buddhist philosophy is not a linear subject. It is a rich and varied field with many sub paths. There are many traditions that emphasize different points of doctrine. My own tradition emphasizes learning through reason, debate and derives its philosophical point of view from Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Buddhapalita, Chandrakirti, and Je Tsongkhapa. It emphasizes what is called the Middle Way philosophy with the highest understanding called prasangika madhyamaka.

        With that said, here is what I’d recommend in order:

        In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

        This book is where I started. I have a predilection for looking at primary sources first when attempting to learn a new subject. This group of discourses is considered authentic Buddhavacana (words of the historical Buddha) by all extent traditions of Buddhism.

        Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions

        This book gives an excellent overview of the extent traditions of Buddhism. What they agree upon and where they diverge. You’ll get a preliminary education in how the various traditions alive today interpret the words in the previous book. The book is respectful of all while not shying away from detailing differences.

        Now, if you wish to go further after these two to try and understand the deepest philosophical tenet school of prasangika madhyamaka I’d recommend:

        Insight into Emptiness

        This is the best contemporary book that I know of on prasangika madhyamaka understanding of emptiness.

        The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika

        This is the root text or primary source of my lineages understanding of emptiness. It wins my vote as the most profound philosophical treatise ever laid down on paper.

        You should probably read the former along with:

        Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika

        And for extra detail you can read it along with:

        The Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path To Enlightenment Vol 3

    • cuke says:

      I want to add to this part: “it is not simply smarts which allow people to arrive at the conceptual understanding of emptiness.”

      A recent Hidden Brain podcast talks about how people’s psychology/perceptions are shaped by the language(s) they speak. The research they reported on showed that people who speak only one language that uses gendered nouns are more likely to associate gendered qualities with those objects (chairs, say). So a chair being feminine in French will lead a monolingual French person to talk about chairs in more feminine terms while a chair being masculine in German will lead a monolingual German speaker to talk about chairs in more masculine terms.

      But, they learned, people who speak more than one language, don’t reflect these same gendered filters on objects. The researcher said something like, once a person realizes that different languages gender nouns differently, they see the gender frame as belonging to the language, not to the world.

      What this says to me is that being able to see the the lack of essences — or to detach in a way from one’s beloved assumptions — is sometimes just a matter of adding a perspective, of having an additional angle to look at one’s experience from. Some people are very resistant to trying on new perspectives and some people are more open to it, but the defining factor in whether someone can do that, in my experience, is not IQ. Though sometimes it can help a little.

  36. ilkarnal says:

    But there is a way of stepping mostly outside of this and judging different value-systems. Value-systems that make their proponents LESS likely to survive and proliferate are bad, with the only axiom necessary being that life and sense-experience are valuable. Value-systems that make their proponents MORE likely to survive and proliferate are good, with the same axiom.

    I believe I can defend the proposition that conservative-cluster value systems lie in the latter category, liberal-cluster value systems in the former. Liberal values devour those who hold them – they send populations and sub-populations that embrace them into oblivion.

    • Value-systems that make their proponents LESS likely to survive and proliferate are bad, with the only axiom necessary being that life and sense-experience are valuable.

      I don’t think that follows. Suppose my value system makes me less likely to survive and proliferate but makes other people much more likely to. If the axiom is that life and sense-experience are valuable, my value system is good.

      • ilkarnal says:

        This is an objection that disappears when we fill in a little more knowledge about how the world works at scale. If you have an evolutionary strategy that hurts you and your immediate relatives, and helps others, that’s an evolutionary strategy that instantly eats itself and dies. Genes and the traits that they create must be self-advocates. Eusocial insects are an example of this, not an exception to it. Every eusocial worker insect is working to maximize the copying of its own genetic material at the direct expense of the prospects of ALL eusocial insects that are less related to it than its mother (or in rare cases mother + aunties.) And it has to be this way, or it couldn’t work.

        If you are working to maximize ‘other people’ that’s an uninteresting strategy because it makes those who adhere to it vanish instantly on relevant timescales. The only strategies that do not cause those that utilize them to evaporate are those that work to maximize one’s own individual reproduction and/or that of IMMEDIATE relatives. The immediacy is important. You couldn’t have ants evolve to support the reproduction of ants generally. It doesn’t work. The strategy is devoured by those that don’t adopt it.

        All ‘cooperation’ from multicellular organisms to eusocial insects is based on destroying the chances of those who are cooperating to reproduce independently. Eusocial insects actively devour the eggs of their sisters to favor their mothers, preventing them from reproducing independently with direct action. Your body actively kills cells that don’t toe the line, preventing them from reproducing independently with direct action. If I make a eunuch of you, metaphorically, then we can have this deep cooperation of the sort we see with eusocial insects and multicellular organisms. But with independently reproducing organisms the first loyalty is ALWAYS to the self, with loyalty to everything else reducing faster than fraction of relatedness for practical reasons (individuals can’t practically affect large numbers of distantly related people, and can’t practically distinguish the relatedness of very distantly related people.)

        Life and sense-experience have limitations, and this is one of them. We need to focus more on limitations and working within them.

        • My only disagreement with this comment is with the idea that it post defends the comment of yours I responded to, which was:

          Value-systems that make their proponents LESS likely to survive and proliferate are bad, with the only axiom necessary being that life and sense-experience are valuable.

          You are now arguing not that they are bad by that axiom but only that they are unlikely to exist.

        • Eponymous says:

          If you have an evolutionary strategy that hurts you and your immediate relatives, and helps others, that’s an evolutionary strategy that instantly eats itself and dies.

          Keep in mind that, while some parts of moral reasoning are governed by genes, whose frequency is regulated by biological natural selection, a lot is also governed by cultural memes. Memes are spread through symbolic communication (i.e. argument), and so don’t need to increase biological fitness. Thus you can have a meme that tends to kill its holders as long as it is sufficiently infectious.

          • quanta413 says:

            True. There is a genetic analogy though. There are selfish genetic elements that spread via infection but are deleterious for the organism with the selfish genetic element.

            There are probably significant constraints on how deleterious such a meme could be in the same way there are constraints on how deleterious a mobile genetic element can be if it is to spread successfully.

          • Eponymous says:

            @quanta413

            True. A gene cares about its *own* fitness, not the fitness of its carrier. The same is true for a meme.

            The difference is in how they are *usually* spread. Yes, children are easier to convince, so there’s some value in biological fitness; and you have to be alive to be infectious. But the main vector for memes is persuasion, not reproduction.

            A better analogy might be a virus. It can’t be too virulent (kill its host too quickly), but you can trade off virulence for infectiousness. A meme might evolve to make its bearers take great personal (or reproductive) risks to spread the word. Become missionaries in foreign lands, celibate priests, etc.

            Of course, a culture develops antibodies to its memes; some cultural, some biological. People easily persuaded to become missionaries in dangerous lands tend not to pass on their genes.

            There’s also a kind of group selection on memes that operates at the level of a culture. Not sure how important that is relative to the infection model.

            (Side note: if you want to steer memetic evolution, teach people better thinking skills. Call it eumemics. Or invent IQ drugs.)

    • Eponymous says:

      Value-systems that make their proponents LESS likely to survive and proliferate are bad, with the only axiom necessary being that life and sense-experience are valuable. Value-systems that make their proponents MORE likely to survive and proliferate are good, with the same axiom.

      Reminds me of the moral philosophy referred to, and explicitly developed to a small degree, by Heinlein in Star Ship Troopers. Basically that you can derive all morality from survival.

      Whether or not this is true morally (if moral truths exist), it certainly is true from an evolutionary perspective that such moral systems will proliferate, and thus most moral creatures will hold such moral systems.

      I don’t know what we can infer from this; but I do like the idea of taking a generalized “right to exist” as a starting point for moral reasoning. Basically take evolution’s goal, and universalize it. I’m not sure whether that actually works to derive morality, but I think it’s an avenue worth exploring.

      (Obviously I don’t know the moral philosophy literature here, since my go to reference is Heinlein).

  37. Deiseach says:

    A natural interpretation of Part I: people with explicit modeling are smart and good, people who still use metaphysical heuristics are either too hidebound to switch or too stupid to do the modeling.

    Hey, some of us are hidebound and stupid! 🙂

    I do appreciate the effort of charity involved in trying to present a plausible case for “why do traditionalists traditional?” that is not “what evil lurks in the heart of these evil beings to make them hate joy, freedom and love?”

    smarter people are probably more successful at explicit models, or at least have a higher estimation of their likelihood of success at such models

    One benefit of being not so smart and crystallising your heuristics (and I do love the notion of crystallised essences, thank you for that!) is that when you’re watching the smart people tying themselves in knots over why Thing that was absolutely dreadful/wonderful is now wonderful/dreadful, or simultaneously is dreadful if Those Ones do it but wonderful if Our Ones do it (and besides that makes it completely different), you tend to go “I may not be so smart but at least I am consistent in my stupidity; when I bashed Jones for doing Thing, I can go right ahead and bash Smith for doing it with no hypocrisy, instead of having to work out is Smith one of Us or one of Them?”

    A: Barack Obama was the president, and his opponents should have treated him with respect even when they disagreed with his policies
    B: Donald Trump is the president, and his opponents should treat him with respect even when they disagree with his policies

    I don’t know what it means that I would answer “true” to both, save that maybe I’ve crystallised my heuristics about “you salute the uniform not the man”. Or I suppose Haidt would say I’m an authoritarian, so of course I Respect Yur Authoritah!

    But suffer some amount proportional to how much they hurt others. I want this regardless of whether it deters them or not.

    This hovers around the concept like a moth around a candle without, I think, quite getting there (or maybe Simplicio is simply naturally vengeful). Justice is not primarily about punishment (or at least not about punishment for the sake of punishment, punishment as vengeance), it’s about setting the scales back to balance. You did damage/harm, now you must make up for that. The simplest measure is to do proportionate harm (e.g. cutting off a thief’s hand, though you can argue if that’s exactly proportionate). Less crudely physical measures mean deprivation of liberty and the enjoyment of certain rights (and this is why felons lose the vote: they have put themselves outside of society by breaking the social contract and harming their fellow citizens, therefore until they have purged their trespass against society they cannot participate in it like ordinary citizens).

    It’s why penance is part of the sacrament of confession: sincerely repented sins are totally forgiven. Forgiveness is not conditional on “do this act of sacrifice and then you have earned forgiveness”. However there still remains the duty of reparation or or making satisfaction for the harm/damage done, even in a notional way (such as saying a few prayers). Or if you’re a bank robber, giving back the loot you stole – you don’t get to keep the fruits of wrongdoing:

    Satisfaction

    1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”

    1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, “provided we suffer with him.”

    • Randy M says:

      The simplest measure is to do proportionate harm (e.g. cutting off a thief’s hand, though you can argue if that’s exactly proportionate).

      Thank you, I will.
      Cutting off a thief’s hand is about prevention and deterrence, not proportional justice, except perhaps if what the thief stole was absolutely vital to the victims livelihood, like a farmer’s only beast of burden, and cannot return it.

      An “eye for an eye” is setting a standard for proportionality which cutting off the thief’s hand violates.
      Tangentially, “An eye for an eye” leaves us all blind, assuming roughly half of us enjoy putting out eyes and do not respond to incentives.

      • baconbits9 says:

        No, you need 75%+ of people to enjoy eye putting out for everyone to be blind.

        • thevoiceofthevoid says:

          Nah, it works with 50%. Each eye-putter-outer can put out two eyes, and have their own two eyes put out in just retaliation, before they are blind and presumably less capable of putting out eyes. That makes 4 eyes put out and a net 2 people blinded per eye-putter-outer. Thus, you need just about half your population…..
          Except that the eye putter-outers are probably going to put out each others eyes, assuming they’re indiscriminate about whose eyes they put out. You’re right, you need more than half. hmmm how would I calculate the exact percentage…

    • Eponymous says:

      Justice is not primarily about punishment (or at least not about punishment for the sake of punishment, punishment as vengeance), it’s about setting the scales back to balance…. It’s why penance is part of the sacrament of confession: sincerely repented sins are totally forgiven. Forgiveness is not conditional on “do this act of sacrifice and then you have earned forgiveness”.

      But that’s just the way things work post-Jesus. Pre-Jesus, God’s desire for Justice lead Him to decree punishment of evildoers for its own sake. But since this wasn’t Merciful, He decided to have Jesus take on the sin of humanity and receive the due punishment, thus satisfying the need for Justice.

      This definitely presupposes that Justice is an essence that requires evil acts be punished. And strangely enough, it’s possible to *transfer* these wrong acts onto another being, who can then receive this punishment in your place.

      So yes, the Catholic Church says you are forgiven immediately. But that’s not because Justice does not require punishment for your sin. It’s because this requirement was already supplied by Jesus.

  38. Urstoff says:

    It’s etiology all the way down; there are no justifications, possible or actual.

    foucaultsmiling.gif

  39. sclmlw says:

    1. I don’t think people operate at different levels of the ladder. In the end, the world is a complicated place, and you operate on your heuristics nearly all the time, but the important insight is that the heuristic is not itself immutable. You can pull it up, examine it, tell yourself stories about it, tell your children stories to shape their heuristics, etc. This seeps back down the ladder to the heuristics level where functionality happens. There are multiple ways to impact the heuristic, but in the end you’re not making snap decisions based on explicit models. Perhaps you explain your actions to yourself ex-post in terms of the explicit model, but if you relied always on explicit modelling you’d never make any decisions.

    I recently read a fascinating book that detailed the story of a man whose brain injury adversely impacted his ability to feel emotions. (Forgot the reference, sorry.) The man was a successful CEO prior to the injury, but afterward became entirely incapable of making any decisions at all. He would do anything, if prodded to do so, but when asked what actions he wished to take on his own, he would demur. He’d even watch the same TV channel – even if it was just static – because he couldn’t get the motivation to grab the remote and change the channel. I suspect human motivation and decision-making is more complicated than the standard idea of, “I rationally considered what to do and then I did it.”

    2. It’s probably better to work from a model where heuristics are decision-making algorithms that can be tweaked through observation and societal norms anyway. The problem with hypotheses is that they are really convincing, and they’re almost all wrong. Even when you think there’s no way they could possibly be wrong, they’re probably wrong. I learned this through years of designing experiments in the lab, but if you want to avoid that fate and still learn the same lesson about how wrong hypotheses almost always are, I recommend reading the book Ending Medical Reversal. In nearly every case examined by the book, (from vertebroplasty to medical checklists) some idea would seem too rational not to be true. There would be lots of preliminary evidence that it must be true. People would be true believers, and implement the idea widely. And a RCT would later find no evidence that it did anything at all. To this day, I see checklists in medical charts and wonder at the waste that was introduced by a bad hypothesis that resists falsification because it sounds like it must be true.

    Take, for example, the idea that conservatives have more crystallized heuristics that liberals. This isn’t my area of expertise (I’m sure someone here can provide a better survey of the literature) but my understanding is that most of the foundational work in that field was done by liberal scholars. Personally, I read the reports and I think “I know a few conservative friends and family that could easily describe.” But then again, I would be partial to a result that confirms my biases, wouldn’t I? If there were any openly conservative social scientists collaborating on these studies, would the results have turned out differently? Do I want to replace my heuristics about inter-group dynamics with experimentally-derived models during a replication crisis in scientific publications?

    Through trial and error, I have developed a heuristic that “nearly every hypothesis is probably wrong.” I’m skeptical of models that require me to rely too heavily on hypothesis over crystallized experience.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      I think everyone operates on all levels of the ladder, but some of us shift our emphasis as needed to suit our interests and aptitudes. A professional nutritionist probably operates almost entirely on the ‘explicit model’ level when talking about diet, but she may turn around and operate almost entirely on the ‘crystallized received values’ level on some other subject.

      I think the real takeaway lesson of the piece isn’t “some people model explicitly and others rely on received values that are the crystallization of our emotional experiences.” It’s “this structure underlies a lot of how we think and feel about things, and when people operate on different levels of the structure on the same subject for whatever reason, it can create extra dissonance.”

  40. greghb says:

    On an intellectual level, they believe that sexual purity is more than just a predictive model of STD risk, or that they’ve gained some additional function in the meantime, or that the predictive model still works better than calculating it out explicitly.

    If the person really does believe this on an intellectual level, it can screen off any possible true value differences and we can mostly have a fact-based conversation. But even then it will be a pretty hard conversation, for two reasons. (I’m just using the purity example because Scott did — there’s nothing special about it.)

    The first reason is related to what Scott wrote about soylent and dystopias: no one is smart enough to say whether throwing out the purity heuristic will lead to a big mess. Even if it has worked out in some short-term context, who knows but that the negative consequences rear their heads on the timescale of seven generations. (I guess this is Chesterton’s fence?)

    The second reason is that no one is above suspicion of motivated reasoning. Maybe they say they honestly believe these facts, but how can I or they really know they’re not just post-hoc justifying their instinctive feelings. And of course the same goes for me and mine.

    But I found those couple of sentences interesting, because I think many debates can be brought down to that level where we don’t have to invoke anything like fundamental values differences, and we’ll still have a plenty hard time reaching any conclusion.

    That’s where the dialog went in a different direction than how I imagined it would go: I thought they were going to spend much more time arguing the factual questions about the use of “lazy”, without getting to the fundamental differences point. I guess the point the dialog turned away from there was the point where Simplicio reluctantly conceded that people saying “no, I really want criminals to suffer, period” was evidence for something deeper. I guess I agree with Simplicio/Scott that it’s sort of a distracting concession most of the time. If that’s even Scott’s point.

  41. Crowstep says:

    I think that the main driver of the sexual purity taboo is pregnancy, rather than STDs. This explains why the focus is on a woman’s sexual purity. If she gets pregnant, it’s her (or her family’s) responsibility, while the father has no such responsibility (unless they’re married, which is the main reason the institution exists). From the male perspective, her sexual purity matters to him far more than his does to her because he can be cuckolded, while she cannot.

    The other models seem good though, and I’m really glad you’ve expanded on the original post.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      Sex is powerful and troublesome for far more than infections and pregnancy.

      It’s blatantly obvious sexual activity is deeply wired into emotions and thoughts, and has all sorts of knock on effects that are not unimportant, and that are not well understood. And that in the current climate, are politically unwise to describe as incongruent with various [current year] popular narratives.

      • sclmlw says:

        This is the problem with assuming the explicit model is either complete or accurate. Explicit modelling can only ever inform the heuristic, not replace it.

        Knowing about STDs can help you to better avoid getting them. That’s important information to have. But it’s also important to understand the difference between an improved understanding of a part of a thing, and a full understanding of the whole of it.

        Given that complex systems often defy holistic understanding, humility seems more appropriate from a global perspective. I feel like this concept should be drilled into anyone who wears around those T-shirts that amount to cheer-leading “Science!” The Scientific method is more about becoming – to steal a term – less-wrong over time. We often think we have a general overall understanding a thing, and then someone comes along and discovers, say, siRNA and completely overturns our understanding of how complex a system really is.

      • lazydragonboy says:

        EDIT: this was in response to Mark’s post.

        You know, it’s funny but as I became religious I became aware of this and this began to seem obviously true, but before then while I may have been willing to explicitly acknowledge the emotional consequences of sex, I would have downplayed them and probably not altered or recommended altering many decisions based on them.

  42. sclmlw says:

    I think this whole post could have been re-written to frame political arguments as disagreements about whether Chesterton fences should be removed when a plausible-sounding argument for why the fence was originally constructed can be convincingly advanced.

    But can’t a plausible-sounding argument always be generated for just about any fact pattern? Let’s take the least-convincing argument about environmentalism and wanting to be surrounded by nature. I live in a desert. I recently visited friends and family who live in the Eastern US, where lush forests are the norm. In fact, I recently moved from that area to the desert. Per the narrative of a preference for food availability, I should be longing to return to the forests out East.

    I like the forests, but I prefer the desert. Why?
    – We have NO mosquitoes, ticks, etc.
    – We have almost no buildup of mold, moss, etc.
    – I can see for miles from almost anywhere; getting lost is nearly impossible, and were this hundreds of years ago and were I concerned about the possibility of an ambush, I’d rather be somewhere I could see that coming from a mile away (literally).

    So why isn’t there an innate urge for people to love deserts and hate forests? Or is all this a just-so story that maybe I should be less confident about when faced with a centuries-old Chesterton fence? Convincing explanations are easy to come by, but that doesn’t mean they’re true. At what point should we replace a heuristic with an explicit model? Should we ever fully replace the heuristic?

    And what about heuristics that are deeply encoded, such as the sexual purity heuristic? Say we accept the hypothesis that this heuristic is mainly encoded to protect against disease transmission. Let’s assume that encoding is sufficiently deep as to create visceral reactions similar to Scott’s aversion to contacting the dried blood of a person whom he knows is infected with HIV. What other edifices might be built on an old Chesterton fence that we didn’t realize were there? Human relationship dynamics are complex; surely some elements of the purity heuristic have become hard-coded in important ways in the millennia during which that heuristic has been around. Say you reject the purity heuristic, preferring to prove to your partner that you are protected against disease transmission. But your partner views your infidelity as a betrayal of trust, and evidence you would not be a good mate; because of hard-coded relationship-trust heuristics built atop the purity heuristic neither of you is able to expressly articulate in advance.

    Maybe ancillary heuristics can be wholly re-written based on explicit modelling. But to what extent should we re-write more fundamental heuristics that we have only recently become convinced we fully understand?

    • skybrian says:

      Yes, good point that we don’t want to descend into just-so evolutionary reasoning. But when making a decision between emotion and “rational” thought based on a model, it doesn’t have to be based solely on having a correct understanding of evolution. It could also be whether they seem to apply to the same decision.

      It seems like in the desert, people still like to live near water? Having some plants around is nice. Wildflower blooms are pretty, etc. And the desire for good views isn’t solely a desert thing; it will make a home more desirable anywhere.

      • sclmlw says:

        I guess my problem is that saying, “don’t you still like to live near water?” dives right back into the just-so story without realizing that the reasoning based on evolutionary theory isn’t really knowledge at all. Most “evolutionary perspective” thinking runs along these lines. “I can think of a reason this would be selected for” is closer to creative writing and science fiction than it relates to the scientific method.

        At least with the heuristic it is, presumably, something that was adopted and retained because it functioned well for survival and genetic propagation. (In the least, we know that an organism that survived and propagated did so while simultaneously holding to the heuristic.) In that sense, it has been experimentally tested – not for truth, but for functionality. We might say, “Yes, but I value truth,” to which we should ask ourselves, “to what purpose?”

        And I do love truth, but if I’m trying to figure out the best survival strategy, or if I’m at least interested in ensuring I don’t implement an actively deleterious survival strategy, I should probably give more weight to the strategy that has a demonstrable track record than to one that has a really nice-sounding story. The point isn’t to devalue truth, but to understand to what purpose it should be pursued. The purpose of the heuristic isn’t to produce truth, it’s to produce successful great-grandchildren. But the purpose of truth-seeking isn’t to produce successful great-grandchildren.

        In that sense, it’s possible for me to seek the truth and realize twenty years down the road that I was wrong. But if I stake my life – or rather my genetic propagation – on being right about a particular point of truth I may find it difficult to later admit when I am wrong. On one hand, I can admire someone who has skin in the game about some specific intellectual hypothesis. On the other hand, I don’t personally want to be that individual, because in my experience most hypotheses turn out to be wrong. So I might think something is true rationally, and even defend an idea intellectually, but still be circumspect about replacing a reliable heuristic with an untested truth.

        I think this is kind of what Scott is getting at when he says sometimes he finds himself irrationally following a heuristic that runs counter to his beliefs. Not only is that okay, it allows him to develop his beliefs and ideas about fundamental aspects of reality without risking everything and trying to build a whole new set of heuristics out of whole cloth.

        The smart move, it seems to me, is to follow the heuristics while they continue to work. As Scott himself points out in a different post, heuristics work – until they don’t. And I think the nature of rationality is to provide us with instructive frameworks we can use to reformulate workable heuristics the next generation can carry forward when some one of the current heuristics fails. Because it will, but we don’t know which one. And it seems folly to reject functional heuristics because we’ve told ourselves a story that convinces us we understand a complex concept that’s still far beyond us. “People like beauty because it’s directly related to resource availability” will likely sound hopelessly naive and simplistic to future researchers. But by then will they assume, as we do now, that they understand the whole of the subject?

        • skybrian says:

          Just-so stories are a danger of armchair theorizing (versus doing research). I think for Internet commenting purposes, they’re okay to discuss as long as they’re considered to be guesswork, or maybe stand-in pseudo-examples that would need to be replaced if the argument were to be made rigorous. Of course real examples based on research would be better, but that would require work.

          But figuring out people’s preferences doesn’t necessarily depend on research into evolution. You could do a survey or look at real estate prices, for example. Having some understanding of other people’s preferences is useful for living in a market-based economy.

          I like this article not because I particularly buy into its examples, but because I thought it introduces an interesting framework. Anyone wanting to understand the origins of emotional reasoning for real would need something better than just-so stories.

  43. Michael Arc says:

    Here’s a model.

    “liberal values”, caring and justice, are terminal for most people.
    “conservative values” are the fuel and machinery by which liberal values are supposed to be built.
    For instance, the conservative value of “purity” is the structural material for the intuition of exclusive and exhaustive sets and for other machinery out of which the metaphysical value of “explicitly model systems” is built.

  44. Philosophisticat says:

    I find this post confusing. When I try to understand the relationship between the “explicit model” and the “emotion”, the best I can see it’s that the “explicit model” is supposed to be an explanation of the existence of the emotion. I.e. it’s because the emotion roughly tracks the facts mentioned in the explicit model that it exists and occurs where it does. But nobody has justice emotions because they’re trying to optimize society or have utilitarian values etc. The real explanation is that things that optimize society in certain ways in certain ways were good for genes/the survival of social groups etc. The explanation doesn’t go through some higher individual values – it goes through the valueless causal mechanism of natural or social selection. The individual valuing of social optimization along such and such dimension is posterior to the emotions and the values associated with them. Going backwards to assign value to the conducivity-explanation for emotions etc. rather than the things the emotions are responding to directly is the weird move- someone who is directly calculating the effect of all their actions on the propagation of their own genes is not somehow being a better or more successful modeler than the one who is, through a “heuristic” for gene propagation, trying to make themselves happy.

    I think that wasn’t put in a very clear way so let me try and put a related worry in the form of a dilemma: whatever the “explicit model” is supposed to be getting at, either it’s not going to be an explanation of the emotions, or it’s not going to be a place where peoples’ values get attached. It feels like Scott is mixing up a chain of causal explanation with a chain of value propagation. But it seems confused both as a story of causal explanation and as a story about the generation of and relationship between values.

    Sometimes, when you go backwards up the chain of causal explanation for some emotion, you’ll find something we independently value, like the general welfare. And sometimes you don’t, like the propagation of our genes. But the fact that we independently value the thing is almost never what explains the heuristic emotion. Basic emotions are heuristics for valueless impersonal incentives of evolution – things natural and social selection ‘care about’, not for our other values. If we value justice in the emotion-driven way, it’s because (something like) valuing justice was conducive to social stability/ gene propagation (perhaps through general welfare), and if we value the general welfare, it’s because (something like) valuing the general welfare was conducive to social stability/gene propagation. But we do not value justice (in the emotion-driven way) because we value the general welfare, and it is a mistake to put one above another in some ladder. The structure is parallel, not hierarchical.

    Now maybe the relationship between the “explicit model” and the “emotion” is supposed to be normative rather than explanatory – i.e. it’s the value of the thing in the explicit model that justifies the emotion, which roughly tracks it. But then putting one thing above another in the “ladder” is just question-begging about matters of value.

    This wasn’t the clearest thing I ever posted. Hopefully putting it in a few different ways helps.

    • skybrian says:

      Yes, I think there are some underlying assumptions for this relationship:

      1) We can choose to make some decisions either using emotions or “rational” thinking using a model.
      2) We have emotions due to evolution.
      3) Understanding why an emotion evolved is helpful for deciding whether we should ignore it in favor of rational thought.

      But of course the model is still not reality and might do worse than emotional reasoning at solving the problem. And we also might disagree on why the emotion evolved.

    • Spookykou says:

      I am very confused by the line model/spectrum idea, as presented.

      EXPLICIT MODEL: E.M.
      EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: E.E.
      REIFIED ESSENCE: R.E.
      ENDORSED VALUE: E.V.

      I don’t really see how the E.E. is supposed to fit on the spectrum as Scott lays it out. It looks to me like, we have an E.E. to stuff, we make up an R.E. loosely based on the E.E. causing experiences to explain it. Then over time we either double down on the R.E. and create an E.V. or we ‘science’ vaguely in the direction of the R.E. and come up with an E.M. instead. The E.V. and the E.M. both look like attempts to generalize the R.E. and only indirectly related to the E.E., the only spectrum that I see might run between formalized E.M. to vague R.E. ideas to formalized E.V. on the other side.

      *I tried really hard to visualize this and failed*

  45. TheMadMapmaker says:

    Some feedback on this: I liked the post, but found the initial scale too abstract and hard to understand, I had to reread it several times to make it clear what it was talking about and only really understood it with the examples. *Maybe* less metaphysical terms would help? Or introducing some examples immediately in the diagram?

    The fact that the nodes in the diagram are verbal phrases doesn’t help, and it’s also a bit confusing how the bottom two seem more closely related to each other than the others.

    Anyway, this is nitpicking, I’m not really sure how I’d make a better introductory explanation of these ideas.

  46. elisabeth davis says:

    Why did you choose to use the ablist word “idiot”?

  47. jooyous says:

    @Scott would you willingly take a pill that would make your brain 10% more okay with eating AIDS blood?

    I also think this is a problem because of tit-for-tat reasons:

    A: Barack Obama was the president, and his opponents should have treated him with respect even when they disagreed with his policies
    B: Donald Trump is the president, and his opponents should treat him with respect even when they disagree with his policies

    I disagree with a bunch of Obama policies, but I’ll respect him ‘cuz he’s respectful to people? Whereas I really get the sense that Trump isn’t … respectful to …people? Or rather, a lot of the outrage against Trump is .. that. I think I’d be a better question if you replaced him with Bush.

    • HowardHolmes says:

      @Scott would you willingly take a pill that would make your brain 10% more okay with eating AIDS blood?

      While we await Scott’s reply I will predict this reply will be “no.” This is because his current brain settings have certain beliefs about eating AIDS blood. He currently believes these beliefs are correct or else he would change them. Since his desire is to believe correctly, he would not want to change his current beliefs. It is possible for us to hold that some of our beliefs are incorrect, but it is not possible to hold that a specific belief is incorrect.

      • Crowstep says:

        Seems like the word ‘belief’ here is covering several different types of reasoning, as per the article. The HIV-blood thing seems to be more ’emotionally experience’ than ‘explicitly model’ or ‘endorse value’, so it’s less of a belief than an instinct. I can’t say for sure, but I think most rationalists would take such a pill.

  48. But I am saying that nobody has done this experiment correctly, and I am suspicious that the groups would be closer than people think.

    I raised essentially the same point in an exchange with Robert Altemeyer on my blog some years back. His test for authoritarianism consistently used authority figures more popular with the right, anti-authority figures more popular with the left–and concluded that people on the right were more authoritarian than people on the left.

  49. P. George Stewart says:

    I think you’ve rather got it back-asswards with a lot of these. The “essence” comes first, which is the “intuition” that comes unbidden into our minds, pushed into consciousness in a simplistic nugget form as a result of our genetic propensities plus the training and socialization around us of people similarly genetically inclined (first family, then our Folk) – then we try to understand what we’re doing intuitively, and then maybe we eventually ascend to a rational understanding and justification of the “free-floating rationale” for what we formerly intuitively believed. (Somewhat analogous process with the discovery of law.)

    Only autists dream up principles first then reify them 🙂

    • Eponymous says:

      No, I think the emotion comes first (point 2 on the ladder). Then humans naturally abstract essences from these emotions and then reify them into concepts.

      Going down the ladder instead to a reductionist model is much more difficult, and consequently much rarer.

      • Adam Treat says:

        Appearance of essence comes first and emotion arises based on taking the appearance of essence as true. See my comment above for example and a way to verify this.

        • lazydragonboy says:

          What lineage of Buddhism are you grounded it? I am guessing mahayana because it seems like you’re referencing Shunyata a lot.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Your guesses are correct. Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Prominent lineage holders include Shakyamuni, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Bhuddapalita, Chandrakirti, Je Tsongkhapa, and Tenzin Gyatso.

          • lazydragonboy says:

            How long have you been practicing?

        • Eponymous says:

          I assume you’re talking about this:

          Belief in metaphysical essence gives rise to emotion and not the other way around. You can see this by unraveling it a bit. Investigate and see if your emotion about a situation doesn’t slacken by discovering the absence of metaphysical essence behind it. Take your second example and test whether understanding the lack of essence in “justice” dissipates anger arising from injustice.

          I disagree.

          If you take a fairly young child, and take away something that you previously gave to them, they will get mad at you. Their anger will have the appearance of “righteous indignation”, the same sort of emotion invoked by suffering injustice. They do this without generalizing the concept of justice.

          You can observe the same thing in chimps. They execute reciprocal altruism and enforce coalitions through emotional responses. This includes feeling indignant at betrayal. I doubt they perceive an underlying essence, but it’s hard to ask them.

          I agree that it’s possible to alter emotional responses to things by changing our beliefs about their nature. But that merely indicates that beliefs are a means of rewiring our brains right now, not that essence preceded emotion originally.

          (It’s possible that we don’t actually disagree and are just using words differently in a subtle way. So maybe we should try to find different predictions of our models.)

          • Adam Treat says:

            “If you take a fairly young child, and take away something that you previously gave to them, they will get mad at you.”

            Indeed. This is because they believe in the appearance of essence in “I”, “You” and “That thing you took away!” The same holds for animals lacking language as well. The minds of all sentient beings are afflicted with the root ignorance believing that things exist inherently.

          • Deiseach says:

            No, Adam, it’s because they were enjoying playing with the toy before you took it away, and they’re too young to understand why you might do that. Not everything is complicated.

            To quote from my religious tradition, don’t strain a gnat and swallow a camel.

            You now have me wondering if someone took food away from you and caused you to starve to death, with your last breath would you be triumphant that at least you weren’t deceived by the notion that “food”, “bodies” and “necessity to eat to survive” were all separate things existing of themselves!

          • Adam Treat says:

            LOL, Deiseach. Touche!

            More seriously, one of the practices in Buddhism is training to die well. This can mean many things according to the various skill level of practitioners including harboring no non-virtuous thoughts at the moment of death. Many highly advanced Buddhist monks and nuns train during their lives to concentrate the mind at the moment of death on the direct realization of emptiness. This is much more than not being deceived by the notion of separate essence in things. Rather, it is the direct perception of emptiness where illusory essence makes no appearance at all.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        Hmm, yeah, I suppose the emotion is closely connected to the essence-intuition. The essence is the first-pass approximation (and representation to the conscious mind) of the full “free-floating rationale” that remains to be articulated at the full rational level.

        In effect, I think the essence and the emotion are intimately tied together. One reacts a certain way, and the reason for the action is immediately represented to the mind by the simple stereotype, essence or exemplary category; but that might have been inculcated by one’s parents, for example, at now-forgotten stage of one’s development, or it might be an urge coming from deeper biological layers AND be something trained in (the one reinforcing the other).

        At any rate, what I don’t think happens, or happens only rarely, is the scenario of a reason or rationale being first articulated, then used and simplified and entombed in a stereotypical essence. It’s just not how human beings function. People do things first, and as you say feel things first, then they either find or don’t find a representation or articulation for it. (IOW, this is basically Plato’s “Recollection” – Plato explained fairly well why Recollection has to be the basis, only he didn’t have genetics and biology to give the full explanation of how it works and functions. Now that we have biology and evolutionary psychology, etc., we can understand it better.)

        • Eponymous says:

          At any rate, what I don’t think happens, or happens only rarely, is the scenario of a reason or rationale being first articulated, then used and simplified and entombed in a stereotypical essence. It’s just not how human beings function.

          But that is exactly what happened! It’s just that the first reasoning step was carried out by evolution, not humans.

          For example, evolution “wants” to encode tit for tat in humans; so it makes us get angry at people who do bad things to us (and *especially* angry at betrayal), and feel generous towards people who do good things.

          Then we use general symbolic reasoning ability (evolved *later*) to abstract concepts like justice and loyalty (and injustice and betrayal). Then we reify, generalize, and turn them into a general moral rule.

          So at the human level, emotion comes first. But causally, you can model this as evolution carrying out the explicit reasoning process first.

          (You also have cultural evolution generating learned concepts. And obviously culture coevolves with biology.)

          • P. George Stewart says:

            “But that is exactly what happened! It’s just that the first reasoning step was carried out by evolution, not humans.”

            Of course I agree with that, that’s what I was referring to when I mentioned “free-floating rationales” (a Daniel Dennett coinage in the context of evolution).

            But one still has to be careful of course – strictly speaking, it just happens that certain combinations of chemical lego had a propensity to latch together in a way that created things that “satisficed” the free-floating rationales – they passed, and didn’t fail, but that’s only by virtue of the lego pieces contingently fitting together the “right” way.

            Or at least that would be the naturalistic explanation. These days I’m more and more doubting that any of it makes sense without some kind of telos, and therefore some kind of God (or at least Logos).

    • Simon_Jester says:

      I think the idea is that the relationship between “explicit model” and “emotional experience” is that the thing being explicitly modeled has an objective reality, that causes us to feel emotions and desires. These emotions and desires then ‘crystallize’ into a hypothesized ‘essence’ which we use to inform our actions.

      Humans are capable of feeling these emotions while being entirely ignorant of the thing being explicitly modeled. For example, Bronze Age humans didn’t understand how diseases spread- that some diseases are spread by infected bodily fluids, others by insects and other vermin, others by airborne spores, and so on.

      But Bronze Age humans COULD perceive that ‘filth’ and ‘unclean things’ were in some way correlated with disease, and so develop an aversion to them. We could break it down like:

      OBJECTIVE REALITY: Diseases spread through a variety of vectors. Disease safety is correlated to hygiene and avoiding infected persons.
      EMOTIONAL RESPONSE: Disease provokes fear and disgust; over time, lack of hygeine and infected persons provoke it, too.
      CRYSTALLIZED CONCEPT: These notions of fear and disgust evolve into an abstract concept of ‘purity,’ in the physical and even metaphysical sense. The exact nature of ‘purity’ is a social construct that people learn from their elders and from experience, but the concept of purity is instilled by the process we’re discussing.
      ENDORSED VALUE: We should do things that preserve ‘purity,’ which may have be strongly correlated with disease-avoidance, or a tangential correlation, or a correlation that no longer exists, because the concept of ‘purity’ takes on a life of its own and can exist in the absence of ongoing reinforcement from direct physical experience.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        “But Bronze Age humans COULD perceive that ‘filth’ and ‘unclean things’ were in some way correlated with disease, and so develop an aversion to them.”

        But they didn’t need to perceive that – for example some animals already have a rudimentary sense of cleanliness, presumably without knowing anything about correlation, and you can feel that they feel disgust too sometimes (if they have limbic systems like us – the emotional message comes across, even if it’s not very clear).

        All that happens is that animals that happened to have that disgust reaction survived to reproduce, so that trait became stable in the gene pool; and then shared social habits reinforce or resonate with whatever propensity is naturally there in the community of genetically relatively similar creatures. And THEN the feelings and intuitions get articulated, first in symbol, then language, then concepts, then the full understanding comes of what was already in Platonic “Recollection.”

  50. skybrian says:

    Great article except that it seems like the explicit model for nature has been weak-manned to sound unscientific? This isn’t true of the other explicit models that seem closer to something a rationalist would endorse.

    EXPLICIT MODEL: More plants and less gray rock means a more hospitable area with more food sources

    Maybe something like this would be better:

    EXPLICIT MODEL: We need food, water, and other resources, so we need to make sure lots of different plants and animals survive.

  51. brec says:

    having literally zero cholesterol in your diet is long-term dangerous.

    Hmmm? AFAIK I have none in my diet, which is all plant-based. Of course I have some in my blood and (I hope) brain. All of my cells make some, with my liver cells being the champs. Isn’t there at best a weak relation between dietary and lipid cholesterol?

    I am an not M.D. (although I am available to play one on stage, screen, or TV) nor biochemist or the like, and I invite correction.

  52. lazydragonboy says:

    On specifically the topic of organic food, anybody have any knowledge about how legit critiques of pesticides are? I have read that pesticide residue is pretty common, but I haven’t really found impartial sources for how much of a problem that is. (Except maybe this guy, but I haven’t really checked out whether he is legit or just sounds legit, nor do I know how I would go about this without sinking a while bunch of time.)

  53. Orwell's Ghost says:

    I don’t get why the most charitable you can be in trying to understand where people with non-utilitarian values are coming from is ‘they mistakenly reify useful (or at-some-point-useful) utilitarian heuristics’. Why can’t those of us who are, say, deontologists, actually have arguments for deontology that we find convincing? And maybe — maybe? — some of us are just as (apparently) smart as you consequentialists?

    This was brought up yeeaaars ago with reference to steelmanning: If you’re trying to bridge fundamental value divides by saying that we’re all really utilitarians and some of us are just really bad at it, you’re not really trying to bridge fundamental value differences.

    In fact, it seems at least close to a form of Bulverising:

    KANTIAN: So, as you can see from this argument, there are deontological norms inherent in the nature of practical reason itself . . .
    UTILITARIAN: You only say that because you’re a human with evolutionary tendencies that inhibit rationality!
    KANTIAN: . . .

    This really bothers me, since I’m a devoted reader of this blog, and one of the things I really like about it is your sincere attempt to understand the people who disagree with you. But deontologists seem to be something of an exception. It seems like the only explanation for us is that we’re fooled by our own evolutionary psychology.

    I know from the surveys that deontologists are a small minority of the readership here. But I want you to know that you have at least one hardcore Kantian reader who’s more than happy to dialogue with you, if you need a conversation partner to understand where we might be coming from rationally, and not just what the evolutionary genesis of our mistake is.

    • thevoiceofthevoid says:

      Not Scott, just a random lurker-recently-turned-commenter, but I’d honestly be intrigued to hear your arguments for deontology. I would self identify as a consequentialist/utilitarian of some sort, but with enough instincts in the deontology and virtue ethics directions not to think you’re stupid or confused. As I’m sure you know, the rationalist blogosphere has an extremely high ratio of strawman deontological arguments to actual deontologists, so it’d be a refreshing change of pace to read the perspective of someone who actually believes the philosophy. (And who writes in modern language and knows some of the SSC/LW lingo. I’ve tried reading some excerpts from Kant and I couldn’t quite see through the archaic language to appreciate the actual philosophical arguments he was trying to make.)

      • Orwell's Ghost says:

        I really appreciate the comment. I’m not sure I’m up to the daunting task of trying to make the case for Kantianism on-one-foot as it were at the moment, but I’ll come back to it. Maybe I’ll even make it my first real blog post.

        (And, speaking as a devoted Kantian, I don’t blame you in the slightest for having a terrible time getting through Kant’s writings. He’s a dreadful writer.)

    • wonderer says:

      I don’t think the post implies you don’t have arguments for deontology that you find convincing, any more than it assumes religious fundamentalists don’t have arguments for sexual purity that they find convincing. Scott thinks your arguments are wrong, of course; otherwise, he’d be a deontologist.

      • Orwell's Ghost says:

        Of course. But rather than address the errors in reasoning, Scott gives a bulverising account of why we non-utilitarians make such errors in the first place. That’s what I’m objecting to. (In a friendly manner, I hope. I really do respect and like Scott a lot.)

      • Deiseach says:

        any more than it assumes religious fundamentalists don’t have arguments for sexual purity that they find convincing

        From “God in the Dock” by C.S. Lewis:

        As for fornication, contraceptives have made a profound difference. As long as this sin might socially ruin a girl by making her the mother of a bastard, most men recognized the sin against charity which it involved, and their consciences were often troubled by it. Now that it need have no such consequences, it is not, I think, generally felt to be a sin at all.

        And I think this is what Orwell’s Ghost and I are both murmuring about: the idea that now the fear of pregnancy/STIs is done away with, then naturally it’s not a sin (as it was never a sin in the first place, but since people had no reliable means of preventing unwanted pregnancy or diseases, they made a big to-do about sexual purity for those ends).

        It’s sort of telling us “No no, you may think you have a reason for constructing a model of licit and illicit sexual relations, but really it’s all down to this purity modeling due to fear of disease, so now you know that” – and what follows after “and now you know the real reason, which has nothing to do with God” depends on the interlocutor. Scott is too charitable to say “you can now stop believing in silly taboos and silly deities which demand them”, but others are not. They’re perfectly content to tell us they know our own minds better than we do.

    • Eponymous says:

      I don’t get why the most charitable you can be in trying to understand where people with non-utilitarian values are coming from is ‘they mistakenly reify useful (or at-some-point-useful) utilitarian heuristics’.

      But it’s worse than that! Utilitarianism itself “mistakenly” reifies concepts useful for implementing evolutionarily advantageous social behavior. If you dissolve all concepts down to their evolutionary etiology, you don’t have anything moral left.

      So if we want to have moral values at all, we have to retain some of our higher level moral concepts.

      We can then interpret various systems of ethics as different ways of extracting an underlying moral algorithm from our existing moral processes. It’s not clear to me that this has to end up being consequentialist, let alone utilitarian.

      (I too would love to hear good arguments for deontology. Maybe an adversarial collaboration to summarize the best arguments on both sides?)

  54. MasteringTheClassics says:

    Ooh, Scott, you’ve just understood something entirely off-topic:

    “My urge to relieve suffering conflict with my urge to inflict punishment on evildoers. Both urges have their place, and either can be extended out to infinity with weird results. Today I choose my urge to inflict punishment; tomorrow I might choose the other. So it goes.”

    I’m 98% sure this is Caplan’s meta-rationality in a nutshell.

  55. False says:

    Rather than talking too much about fundamental value differences, we should be asking where a given person has chosen to place themselves on the metaphysical-heuristic-to-explicit-model ladder at any particular moment.

    This seems really off to me. I feel like this doesn’t do enough work to explain the way ideologies develop. Are these ladders really so unmalleable, much less accurately describing the way people think in the first place?

    Cherry picking the easiest one, let’s subvert your libertarian example to model how a communist might crystalize their heuristics.

    EXPLICIT MODEL: Letting people keep what they produce incentivizes further production
    EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Anger when someone takes something rightfully yours
    REIFIED ESSENCE: Labor rights; corporations cannot exploit the labor rights of workers because they are ordained by Marx or natural law
    ENDORSED VALUE: You can’t profit from other people’s labor, whether or not this will affect further production

    In this sense, a communist may experience the exact same higher level components of the model, but come to a completely different set of crystalized heuristics. Wouldn’t this be considered something like, say, a difference in values? Or is this simply a problem with the explicit model (in that it’s not robust enough)?

    I don’t believe that someone goes from a being communist to a libertarian/vice versa, or that the ideological and value differences between the two, disappear completely just by moving one step up the ladder.

    • moridinamael says:

      Both the communist and libertarian are equally wrong in that they are elevating a simplistic model-based factual observation about the nature of incentives into a mental object that feels like a moral law, rather than treating it as one term in a large and complex equation. I would say exactly the same thing to both of them, if I found myself arguing with them: Yeah, letting people keep what they create produces incentives for further production. Granted. Let’s leave emotions out of it and discuss the mitigating and second-order effects that maximizing your particular sense of “keeping what you create” would lead to, and how those consequences might cut against even your own values in a more holistic sense.

  56. wonderer says:

    Sophisticus doesn’t seem like a very good utilitarian, or a utilitarian at all. I’m mostly utilitarian in my ethics, and I love nature for what I fully admit are irrational reasons. If someone can prove that paving over Yellowstone would lead to an economic boom that creates enough utility to override the happiness of all visitors to Yellowstone (current and future), I’d support paving over Yellowstone. I still wouldn’t be happy about it–in the same way that I’m unhappy when I get rejected for a job in favor of a more qualified candidate–but I’d grudgingly admit that it was the morally correct choice. That’s probably what almost every utilitarian would say.

  57. ajfirecracker says:

    This is the most advanced fallacy generator I have yet seen

    Here’s why:
    If my concern about property rights or the environment or whatever is based on something other than (or more than) your explicit model that sometimes produces that concern, you get to attack me for having a “crystallized essence” that has misfired rather than a rational argument (which is basically saying that because my position doesn’t match your straw man, there is some sort of ad hominem flaw with me)

    So for example, if I support property rights as a way to minimize violent conflict, then you come up with some example where marginal gains in short-term productivity can be achieved by disregarding property rights that would otherwise be seen as valid legal/moral claims, my failure to acquiesce to your argument doesn’t mean that I have a shamanic connection to property rights as a metaphysical concept, it just means you failed to present an argument that addressed my actual concerns or reasoning (which I may be incapable of articulating in your most preferred form of expression)

  58. hnau says:

    You missed one big reason why people might prefer more crystallized values.

    If you don’t trust that everyone is trying to optimize the same thing you are– i.e. if you think that some people really don’t share your ultimate, explicitly modeled goal– then crystallized values are a very good way to make it hard for them to defect.

    To use the “utility” example: if you model everything as “increase overall net utility”, then many people will (consciously or not) turn their minds to discovering a plausible justification of how, say, murdering a pawnbroker will increase overall net utility. Treating “Don’t murder people” as an essential value makes it much harder to find such a plausible justification, and much easier for the justice system to convincingly refute the justifications that people do come up with.

  59. conradical says:

    280 comments deep so not sure this’ll be seen by you Scott, but wanted to comment again and say that this post really is great. I wasn’t that sold on this little 3-part (so far?) series, but this post is fantastic.

    They don’t seem like weird mutants too stupid to figure out what an STD is, they feel like people with my instincts magnified a million times until they’ve become irresistible.

    I did want to chime in on this throwaway comment you made though.

    I would say I am in (what appears to be? Hard to know what’s in everyone else’s head!) the far-right of the bell curve on this topic of emotional / instinctual response to various stimuli.

    But I think the part I bolded is a dangerous line of thinking for you (and others).

    Discussing “values differences” (or their absence) and describing those on the other side of the fence to you on some topic as subject to “irresistible” urges isn’t a good look. The intensity of the “urges” might influence how much import is given to them, but the only people who have “irresistible” urges for non-biological-necessities are the kinds of people we lock up.

    You linked a great “Map of Humanity” image the other day. There’s a reason “Wisdom” and “Knowledge” were on separate continents. See also: most all of Taleb’s recent writing.

    Your anecdote about literally eating the blood of another human went to a lot of work to paint yourself as “silly” — the word I think you were looking for was “wise”. Part of being Rational that the rational community hasn’t caught up to in-full is that knowledge (and rationality) are bounded by the unknown.

    You yourself introduced me to Lovecraft’s tale, The Other Gods.

    Barzai knew so much of the gods that he could tell of their comings and goings, and guessed so many of their secrets that he was deemed half a god himself.

    You == Barzai
    Knowledge of the gods == Knowledge of AIDS in blood, transmission rates, likely mortality rate from eating it
    The other gods == Hep B, Hep C, Bacteria, Plague, Fentanyl, mysterious-reason-why-there-is-blood-on-the-ground

    So yeah, if you knew everything there was to know across all Time-dimensions, past-present-future, and knew you’d be safe in with probability == 1, then maybe you’d be “silly.” You’d also be a god. And of course, you’d have to also know with probability == 1 that there were no ill-intentioned other gods.

    Knowing that you are not, in fact, a god, is called “wisdom.”

    And to all the examples you gave, wisdom says:
    Don’t eat blood. Use protection when you have sex, even if they say they’re clean. Don’t pave the whole world with concrete parking lots. Listen to your body and eat the food that it likes and is accustomed to. Be wary always of people who try to take (from you, or others). Respond with extreme force to people who violate NAP upon you or your family.

    • Ninmesara says:

      Glad someone brought this up! Do you know what happened when people started screening lood for Hepatitis B before blood transfusions? People stopped getting Hepatitis B but continues to get Hepatitis B, which was later discoverd.

      So yeah, don’t drink people’s blood…

      In all fairness, people who got contaminated blood products really needed them and qould have died without them (that’s why doctors prescribed them!). Recieving a contaminated transfusion probably prolonged life more than nor getting it (even if they caught Hep C), it’s just that you can’t claim the blood was “safe” because you only tested it for the viruses you knew about…

  60. Innovance says:

    The Reified Essence, and Endorsed Values are partially going to be Outcomes of how we are taught. A Child who’s trying to learn about the World around them is immediately introduced to the notion that their Actions have Moral Stakes, even when they inherently don’t. “Be a good boy!” it is already presented in Reified Essence and Endorsed Values from the beginning.

    These things are implicit to the Environment, the Parent isn’t teaching the Child to Explicitly Model they are presenting them with their own Biases and Heuristics and the Child has to construct the Explicit Model and the Emotional Associations there after from their own Experiences. The Child is presented with higher level Concepts and over time comes to Conceptualise them and flesh them out. But the “Framework” was presented to the Child, there was no opportunity for an alternative. And the time it takes for this to occur and the repeated cycle from generation to generation gives the impression of Human Nature.

    Where it gets interesting as that it also gives the impression of consistent “Concepts”, but the contents of those Concepts, the surrounding Theory and our general inability to agree on them suggests we aren’t necessarily working from the Same Concepts and some of us are handling the concepts differently, even when supposedly being concerned with the Same ones.

    It is as though even though we know they are not, we are operating as if all Minds are doing the Same thing and Constructing the Same Concepts, and engaging with them in the Same way, and something is going “Wrong” somewhere else.

    But observably we are not, this is before we even get to the further problem of entangling these Concepts and Models with Identity which further complicates matters.

    So therein the fundamental problem is that “Meaning” is an Individual Subjective Experience.

    You have to Self-Construct the Concept within your Mind, You have to Self-Define it within your mind, these and other processes occur in a such a way that it is obfuscated from us that we are Self-Programming, Self-Conceptualising, Self-Defining and as such the Construction of the Concept and its functioning will invariably differ from Person to Person, as will “Meaning”.

    This is in a way shown with the Ladder, the lower down the ladder we are the more Values are likely to align but this is because we are Operating on higher levels of Abstraction that allow us to further obfuscate Individual Meaning, Conceptualisation and Understanding. But the closer to the Explicit Model we are the more apparent the differences in Outcomes becomes so the less we are able to ignore the Differences in Individual Meaning, Conceptualisation and Understanding.

    Though it rarely appears that people are aware of the differences in Individual Meaning, Conceptualisation and Understanding or that “Meaning” is an Individual Subjective Experience in itself.

    The “Whole City is Centre”, almost engages this but it doesn’t really overcome the issue. Simplicios suggestion that Words shape our Connotations and Perceptions isn’t true. Our Perceptions shape our Connotations and Perceptions. This was what their debate was predicated upon to begin with, their Individual Perceptions of the Word, not the Word itself. The Word itself is inert, we give “Meaning” to the Word and as such “Meaning” varies from Individual to Individual. This occurs even when we Think we “Mean” the Same thing. Operating as though it doesn’t is why the World and People seem Chaotic and Irrational.

    The ladder works well as a metaphor for Different levels of Abstraction and in a sense it may possibly be easier to Agree if we were all operating or engaging from the Same level of Abstraction, but that too achieves “Agreement” through obfuscating Individual Meaning, Conceptualisation and Understanding.

  61. IdleKing says:

    Except my actual position is that the same sort of experiences that give you the metaphysical Justice intuition… are also likely to make you overestimate the consequentialist value of deterring crime (and vice versa for the other side). It’s just a natural consequences of the way our values get produced and the fuzziness in everybody’s value syste.m

    There’s another factor that causes alignment between explicit models and endorsed values. It’s what Yudkowsky calls the desire to make policy debates appear “one-sided”.

    It often goes something like this…
    Person A: Prison is torture, therefore we should make sentencing laws less stringent.
    Person B: What about deterrence?
    A: *thinking fast* Prison is a weak deterrent, according to this clever argument I just came up with.

    I guess fundamentally its just a stronger case of motivated reasoning. It’s easy to see how endorsed values could drive explicit models in this way; I’m not sure whether to also expect explicit model content to sometimes drive value decisions.

  62. IdleKing says:

    When a labor union leader tells the workers to strike, they will probably strike, even if they don’t feel like it, because they know that unless they act as a coordinated group they’ll never be able to exert any power.

    You’re probably right that leftists have their own respected authorities. But this specific example is wrong: generally, labor unions vote to decide whether to strike.

  63. onyomi says:

    I was mentally objecting as I read (I) that it was question begging with respect to utilitarianism; fortunately (II) came along and that part of me shut up.

    However, I still think there is a little question begging here (maybe questions Scott doesn’t mind begging, but which I think are worth pointing out) related to the “evolutionary biology as just-so stories” objections many have raised: why assume that ethical intuitions are biological adaptations designed to maximize fitness rather than perceptions about reality arising as a (to some degree, epiphenomenal) result of biological adaptations?

    I’m not sure moral realism is right and morality as pure adaptation/accident is right, but I see good arguments both ways. For example, the types of moral intuitions we might expect to maximize evolutionary fitness behind a veil of ignorance, such as “having sex with as many healthy young people as possible is the highest moral good” don’t map well onto the intuitions we actually see. Plus, the alternative to moral realism is the idea that no set of values, however seemingly repugnant or bizarre to the vast majority of people, is any better or worse than any other. This might be true, and seems maybe to be taken for granted in rationalist circles, but it seems a fairly high bar to clear.

    If we assume, for the sake of argument, the moral realist position, it seems to turn your basic formulations on their heads, because rather than being a logical justification for evolved heuristics, explicitly stated moral principles are instead just attempts to clarify or explain why we perceive the things we do, and to adjudicate among differences in those perceptions. For example, the infamous dress was actually blue and black, but there was a good reason one could explain why many people perceived it as yellow and white.

  64. VolumeWarrior says:

    First, for the 4 categories, I’d like to emphasize just how much overlap there is IRL. People who prefer organic food have explicit models, an emotional reaction, a metaphysical belief, and a deontological commitment towards organic food. You almost never find one without the other 3. It would be strange to see someone say: “There never will be any scientific support for my beliefs, but I believe them anyway”.

    Similarly, it is very rare to see explicit models ever override the other 3. For example, no liberal says: “I really wish I could be racist, but the explicit models are so strong and convincing that I choose to abandon my gut feeling”.

    So in terms of debating fundamental value differences, I think it all goes back to emotion or whatever you’re biologically programmed to do. Higher-level values, like preferring an inclusive cosmopolitan society, are strongly instrumental towards raising status within certain groups, and cannot be perceived as reliable indicators of a fundamental value.

    At the risk of reducing what you could probably make into an entire book-length topic to a single sentence – people just behave the way biology tells them to. Even if someone comes to you with a bunch of highly thought-out explicit models, they’re doing this because society tells them logic and reason are high status, or because they’ve observed that explicit models usually triumph over emotional/religious ones. They didn’t solve the is-ought problem and derive values from the cosmos. There’s almost certainly an “arbitrary” biological base for their values. A boring, nihilistic conclusion, but I think still true.

    What I think is much more interesting is that we have the option between explicit models and emotional/intuitive heuristics when it comes to questions of FACT (rather than values). The food example is a good one. For example, it’s a popular goal to want to eat in a way that makes you look and feel fit and energetic.

    It’s common to adopt explicit models where you count how many calories you’re supposed to eat, what complex carbs are, macronutrients, etc. Compare this to another option, which might be to just eat your traditional cultural food. Or, eat whatever you feel like.

    The debate between these two camps boils down to how much can we trust explicit accuracy vs. iterated cultural/evolutionary accuracy. The strength of eating cultural food is that you know it works, is sustainable, and produces an outcome that you can observe within that culture.

    The only reason to move to an explicit model of accuracy is if you reject that histogram of results. For example, if you want to hone in on something not commonly observed in groups, like a fitness bod.

    You could also move to explicit models for the purposes of social signaling, but then we’re not talking about achieving factual accuracy anymore.

    The pitfall of explicit models is exactly what you said about lacking chromium in early soylent models. Even the best RCT don’t last for years. Who knows if dry chicken breast salads are sustainable? And if you want really, really tail end results, then there probably is no RCT. Studies with large sample sizes will trend towards population means. I am confident that statistically robust RCTs would conclude that it is impossible to deadlift 400 lbs, for example.

    Also IRL, our explicit models for health and fitness are all bound up with the other 3 implicit models. There’s a tremendous amount of performative signaling that goes with being healthy. So I’d wager that popular explicit models are actually likely to be quite bad. Refer to the broader point about the replication crisis in research.

  65. Rm says:

    Against explicit modelling from first principles:

    wasn’t there a trouble with Soylent having both chelating agents and chelatable minerals together in exactly the way that they just embrace each other?

    And the lack of fiber thing?

    And let’s not forget the arguable benefits of having intestinal parasites which produce chemicals that reduce inflammation? I mean, even if the worms are proven to not be beneficial in any way whatsoever, there are lots of single-cell organisms living in the guts and when their relationship gets unbalanced, bad things happen to the host, so – what resolution of explicit modelling is even enough to make up a diet in a bottle?.. Shouldn’t doctors first establish why amoebae go on strike?

  66. Rm says:

    Re: a reason to still want national parks.

    There’s a thing called evolution of communities. It is (a branch of biology that studies) the changes of the environment as a whole, at the level of higher than “assembly of populations”. It’s not about year-to-year differences, but rather geological-scale events.

    For examples, when grasses (Poaceae) appeared, they cracked the code. Meadows and steppes appeared (and other grasslands). Perhaps the grasses were not the cause, but only capitalised on the climate change – we cannot know, but after they took hold, the balance of vegetation was forever changed; there is a rule of thumb that in temperate meadows, Poaceae and Fabaceae are the two main players who shape the nitrogen and phosphorus fluxes (and the relevant microbial service). One year, more beans grow on the site, next year, more grain. It’s a rough rule, to be sure, but people use it for practical purposes like evaluating pastures.

    Right now there is a concern that the family of Asteraceae, Chenopodiaceae and maybe Brassicaceae joined the race. A typical invasion plant, like Ambrosia artemisiifolia, has deep-reaching roots to get water, wind-born pollen, plenty of tiny light seeds to disseminate, adaptations that help it resist drought etc. In temperate zones, the “old” grasslands get ploughed and so on, while the “new” kinds – wastelands, etc. – grow in size. Ruderals become the new community staples; and then soil biota changes, especially under Chenopodiaceae and Brassicaceae which as a rule don’t have mycorrhiza (unlike about 80% of all other terrestrial vascular plants). It’s hard to predict the composition of the new (probably drier) grasslands, moreso, given the yearly fluctuations; there should be some way to compare the “anthropogenic-impacted” environments to the “traditional” ones.

    And that’s why you need national parks.

    Don’t go to relax there. Don’t feed the bears. Don’t tell your children about cute little squirrels begging for nuts.

    Just let scientists do their job of trying to see how the Earth adapts to the passage of time.

  67. Murali says:

    It’s really weird that you think that the reified essence of “EXPLICIT MODEL: Helping others will key me in to networks of reciprocal altruism and raise my status in the community” is Utility, rather than Justice. Being the guy who punishes defectors also keys you into networks of reciprocal altruism and raises your status in the community.

    Its also really weird that you think our values are produced by reifying the heuristics that people invoke because they are subconsciously or secretly consequentialist. Once you admit that morality itself is the reification of a heuristic for people to be fit for social acceptance, then it seems unclear why you prefer an account according to which commonsense morality is a reified heuristic of certain utilitarian calculations which is itself a reified heuristic to plug yourself into networks of reciprocal altruism to an account in which the various values of commonsense morality are directly reified heuristics to plug yourself into networks of reciprocal altruism.

    Finally, it’s also weird how you think that being a sincere moral realist is somehow something for the rubes when most contemporary moral and political philosophers are moral realists.

  68. Rm says:

    But why aren’t you asking the third question?

    I mean, if you ask people to choose between true or false of “a dead hero is better than a living coward” and “for the purposes of X, a dead hero is better than a living coward”, and show that group A is more liable to write T in the first case and F in the second; why isn’t there the question of “for any given political purpose, a dead hero is better…”?

    (It’s not like you are limited to heroes and cowards currently alive. Find an appropriate dead hero, and he will do more for your cause than any living coward, after all. The first question addresses “the worth” of a human being, but the second one addresses “the usefulness”, which is an entirely different thing.)

  69. Sniffnoy says:

    Scott, there’s a lot good in this post, but a number of the things you call “essences” here aren’t essences. In particular (while I would not endorse utilitarianism), utility — whether meant in the utilitarian sense or the decision-theoretic one, and btw I object as always to your use of just the word “utility” without disambiguating 😛 — is a function, not an essence. It supervenes on the state of the world. That’s not how essences work.

    (Also I agree with the other commenters who have pointed out that the idea of sexual purity probably has a lot more to do with instincts surrounding mate-selection, sex, and reproduction than with disease. But I’m no expert there, obviously.)

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