The Whole City Is Center

Related to yesterday’s post on people being too quick to assume value differences: some of the simplest fake value differences are where people make a big deal about routing around a certain word. And some of the most complicated real value differences are where some people follow a strategy explicitly and other people follow heuristics that approximate that strategy.

There’s a popular mental health mantra that “there’s no such thing as laziness” (here are ten different articles with approximately that title: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). They all make the same basically good point. We shame people who don’t work very hard as “lazy”, and think they should have lower status than the rest of us. But actually, these people don’t just randomly choose not to work. Some of them have psychological issues, like anxiety and trauma that are constantly distracting them from their work, or a fear of success, or self-defeating beliefs about how nothing they do matters anyway. Others have biological issues – maybe hypothyroidism, or vitamin deficiencies, or ADHD, or other things we don’t understand that lower their energy and motivation. Still others just don’t want to do the specific thing we are asking them to do right now and can’t force themselves to work uphill against that gradient. When we call people “lazy”, we’re ignorantly dismissing all these possibilities in favor of a moralistic judgment.

A dialogue:

Sophisticus: I don’t believe in laziness.

Simplicio: What about my cousin Larry? He keeps promising to do important errands for his friends and family, and then he never does them. Instead he just plays video games all the time. This has happened consistently over the past few years, every time he’s promised to do something. One time my aunt asked him to go to the DMV to get some paperwork filled out, he promised he would do it, and then he kept putting it off for a month until it was past the deadline and she almost lost her car. He didn’t forget about it or anything, he just couldn’t bring himself to go out and do it. And he’s been fired from his last three jobs for not showing up, and…

Sophisticus: Yes, yes, I’m sure there are people like this. But he probably has some self-defeating beliefs, or vitamin deficiencies, or mental health issues.

Simplicio: Okay. Well, my mother is going to be away for the next week, and she needs someone to dog-sit for her. Her dog is old and sick and requires a lot of care each day. She’s terrified that if he doesn’t get his food and medication and daily walk on time, something terrible will happen to him. She’s willing to pay a lot of money. Do you think I should recommend she ask my cousin Larry?

Sophisticus: No, of course not.

Simplicio: Why not?

Sophisticus: He probably won’t do it. He’ll just play video games instead.

Simplicio: Why do you think so?

Sophisticus: Because he has a long history of playing video games instead of doing important tasks.

Simplicio: If only there were a word for the sort of person who does that!

Sophisticus: Oh, I see. Now you’re making fun of me. But I’m not saying everyone is equally reliable. I’m saying that instead of denouncing someone as “lazy”, we should look for the cause and try to help them.

Simplicio: Hey, we did try to help him. Larry’s family has taken him to the doctor loads of times. They didn’t anything on the lab tests, but the psychiatrist thought he might be ADHD and gave him some Adderall. I would say now he pulls through on like 20% of the things we ask him to do instead of zero percent. We also tried to get him to go to therapy, but the therapist deferred because ADHD has a very low therapy response rate. His parents tried to change the way they asked him to do things to make it easier for him, or to let him choose a different set of tasks that were more to his liking, but that only worked a little, if at all. Probably there’s some cause we don’t understand, but it’s beyond the reach of medical science, incentive design, or the understanding that exists between loving family members to identify.

Sophisticus: See! The Adderall helped! And letting him choose his own tasks helped a little too!

Simplicio: I agree it helped a little. So should I recommend him to my mother as a dog-sitter?

Sophisticus: No, of course not.

Simplicio: Then I still don’t see what the difference between us is. I agree it was worth having him go to the doctor and the therapist to rule out any obvious biological or psychological issues, and to test different ways of interacting with him in case our interaction style was making things worse. You agree that since this still hasn’t made him reliably fulfill his responsibilities and we don’t have any better ideas, he’s a bad choice for a dog-sitter. Why can’t I communicate the state of affairs we both agree on to my mother using the word “lazy”?

I imagine Sophisticus believing he has a fundamental value difference with people who use the term “lazy”. They think that some people are just bad and should be condemned, whereas he wisely believes that everything has a cause and people who have issues with motivation should be helped. But it’s not clear to me that this is a real difference. I can imagine someone signaling hard-headedness and strictness by insisting that they were against laziness, and someone else signaling compassion by insisting that they don’t believe in laziness, but it’s pretty hazy exactly where their maps of the world diverge.

But back to the dialogue:

Sophisticus: Because “lazy” is laden with the idea that lazy people should be punished. You should yell at them to get off their ass and do some work.

Simplicio: I mean, I’m not sure that’s wrong? When my aunt and uncle tried to take Larry to the psychiatrist, he didn’t want to go. My uncle started screaming at him that if he didn’t make the appointment he would never amount to anything, and he would be a loser his entire life, and they would disown him – and I guess it freaked Larry out enough that he made the appointment. And it seems like if that kind of thing makes people do important stuff for their own good – whether it’s make appointments or hold down a job – then it might be reasonable, at least from people whom the lazy person has entered into some kind of relationship with.

Sophisticus: I think that kind of strategy might occasionally work in the short-term, but that in the long-term it makes things much worse.

Simplicio: I agree that’s possible, but it seems like we have a factual disagreement here. And I think that factual disagreement is best expressed by the question “Does laziness respond to social shaming or not?”, not a claim that laziness doesn’t exist. It certainly doesn’t seem like we have a value difference unrelated to any purely-factual beliefs.

Maybe both participants are wrong here. My impression is that some forms of laziness respond to incentives and others don’t. I know many people who will start work on a project they’ve been putting off if they know it’s due the next day and worth half their grade. I also know other people who won’t. But continuing:

Sophisticus: I can imagine some cases in which it’s useful to use external rewards and punishments to encourage people with low motivation to do something. But the word “lazy” doesn’t just mean “can be motivated by external reinforcement”. It’s an attempt to judge somebody, to say they’re lesser, to lower their social status.

Simplicio: You just said that my mother should avoid hiring Larry for a lucrative job. Surely that’s a judgment, and surely keeping him unemployed forever lowers his social status.

Sophisticus: I’m judging him as bad at one thing, not as a Universally Bad Person.

Simplicio: Do you think Larry would be a good pilot?

Sophisticus: Well, no…

Simplicio: Nuclear engineer?

Sophisticus: No, but…

Simplicio: Lieutenant colonel in the army?

Sophisticus: I agree there are many things Larry would not be good at.

Simplicio: And surely the person who thinks he is lazy agrees there are some things he might be good at – for example, he might be handsome, or intelligent. Indeed, the “lazy but bright” student is a stock cultural figure. The main judgment that “lazy” represents is that he’s not a very hard worker – a judgment you seem to share.

Sophisticus: I think that for them it’s a moral judgment, and for me it isn’t.

Simplicio: A moral judgment? I don’t think of a lazy person as more likely to rob or murder. Do you think others do?

Sophisticus: No, I don’t think so. It’s not a judgment that they’re bad at a specific field we both agree is moral. It’s a judgment that they should be considered less moral just because they’re lazy.

Simplicio: But how does that cash out? Both you and they want them to not get certain jobs. Both you and they believe some level of reinforcement might make them more motivated, though we can debate the factual specifics. Is there anything that a moralist would do that you wouldn’t?

Sophisticus: I’m not sure the belief would cash itself out in some specific way, but they would have it.

Simplicio: If you both give him the same jobs and treat him the same, what’s the difference? Just give him the Heartstone and call it a day!

Sophisticus: You’re mocking me again.

Simplicio: I think we’re treating the word “laziness” differently. I’m thinking of “lazy” as a way to communicate a true fact about the world. You agree that the true fact should be communicated by some word, but you’re interpreting “lazy” to mean some sort of awful concept like “a person who avoids responsibilities in a way not caused by anything whatsoever except being bad, and so we should hurt them and make them suffer”. Are you sure this isn’t kind of dumb? Given that we need a word for the first thing, and everyone currently uses “lazy” for it, and we don’t need a word for the second thing because it’s awful, and most people would deny that “lazy” means that, why don’t we just use “lazy” for the very useful purpose it’s served thus far?

Sophisticus: I think…

Simplicio: And it’s the same with “judgment”. I’m using it to mean a reasonable thing that everyone does and has to do. You’re demanding we reserve it for some kind of ultimate judgment about everything that doesn’t really make sense and probably should never happen.

Sophisticus: I think you’re wrong about common usage. I think a lot of people – maybe not you, but a lot of people – really do use “lazy” to mean the second thing. And that even for good people like yourself, “lazy” has a bit of a connotation of the second thing which you can’t avoid letting slip into your mind.

Simplicio: If you’re right, I worry you’re going up against the euphemism treadmill. If we invent another word to communicate the true fact, like “work-rarely-doer”, then anyone who believes that people who play video games instead of working deserve to suffer will quickly conclude that work-rarely-doers deserve to suffer.

Sophisticus: Then let’s not invent something like “work-rarely-doer”. Let’s just say things like “You shouldn’t have Larry as a dog-sitter, because due to some social or psychological issue he usually plays video games instead of doing difficult tasks.”

Simplicio: I think people are naturally going to try to compress that concept. You can try to stop them, but I think you’ll fail. And I think insofar as you can communicate the concept at all, people are going to think less of Larry because of it. It’s possible you can slightly decrease the degree to which people think less of Larry, but only by slightly decreasing their ability to communicate useful information.

Sophisticus: Well, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Simplicio: If there were such a thing as laziness, but it was rare, then it would make sense to argue “most people aren’t lazy”, since lazy would be pointing at a particular quality that most people don’t have. But if you say there’s no such thing as laziness, then it sounds like maybe you’re kind of weird to insist on defining “laziness” to refer a quality that nobody has, yet refuse to use any word to refer to the quality that many people do have. It would be like wanting our language to have a word for “unicorn” but not for “horse”.

I think Simplicio is working off one of these kinds of models (from How An Algorithm Feels From The Inside, but see also here):

…where “lazy” is the node at the center of the second one. He’s saying that if he and Sophisticus both agree on all of the outside nodes, why exactly are they holding a debate on the status of the center, when the center is just a way to help us predict the values of the others? He feels like Sophisticus is insisting on designing the structure such that the central node has some deep metaphysical meaning that he can’t explain but which is very bad, whereas he just wants it to be a perfectly ordinary predictor. Moving on:

Sophisticus: What about this? I think that people with low motivation sometimes can be helped by reinforcement – including negative reinforcement. But other people think they should be punished. There’s a big difference between simple negative reinforcement and punishment. If you’re just using negative reinforcement, you’re trying to use as little as possible to get the result you want. But when you’re judgmental and you divide people into good and bad, you usually add that the bad people deserve to suffer, regardless of the effect.

Simplicio: This is a strange distinction. Suppose I beat up my wife and threaten to do it again. Shouldn’t I go to jail?

Sophisticus: I think we shouldn’t be excessive about it, and I don’t support mass incarceration, but I don’t want you to get off scot-free, because it seems like that would encourage future domestic violence.

Simplicio: If only there were a word for the sort of thing where we made sure people didn’t get off scot-free in a way that encouraged future crime!

Sophisticus: No no no, you still don’t get it. There’s a difference between a principled consequentialist view of discouraging actions, and wanting people to suffer.

Simplicio: Look, I happen to know one of those Hogwarts wizards everyone keeps writing books about, and he’s offered to let me take a magic Unbreakable Vow that I won’t assault anyone ever again. Now that there’s no point in discouraging me, I don’t need to deal with this jail thing, right?

Sophisticus: It’s not just about discouraging you personally. It’s about making an example of you to discourage everyone else. Also, there’s a Parfit’s Hitch-Hiker type element – the threat of punishment now could have presented you from committing the crime in the past, and the threat couldn’t be credible unless we agreed to actually punish you.

Simplicio: Then I question whether the “principled consequentialist view” ever differs from the “believing in punishment and wanting bad people to suffer” view in terms of what actions it recommends.

Sophisticus: The people who believe in punishment often say things like “I hope that person rots in jail” or “Let’s make the conditions in jail extra bad”. Whereas I want domestic violence discouraged by nice Scandinavian-style prisons and – when possible – community service.

Simplicio: If you learned that having nice jails actually…

Sophisticus: Oh, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say this is just a factual difference between me and the pro-punishment faction. They believe, as a matter of fact, that bad conditions discourage crime extra effectively, since some criminals who would be willing to take the risk of a nice Scandinavian-style prison would be scared off by a dark overheated cage. And I agree this is a possible axis on which people can differ, and that if you proved to me that this was true I could be persuaded to reconsider my views. But I have talked to people who have literally said the words “I don’t care how much it discourages crime or not, I want criminals to suffer.”

Simplicio: Okay. I agree that’s good evidence for your view

Sophisticus: You…do? Really? I won one of these? REALLY?!

Simplicio: I guess.

Sophisticus: So you admit sometimes there are fundamental value differences?

Simplicio: Sometimes, yeah, I guess. But I want to be really careful with this. Humans are adaptation-executors, not fitness-maximizers. Only one person in a thousand could give the principled consequentialist defense of criminal justice that you’re giving here. The game theory necessary to understand the defense is only a few decades or centuries old, depending on how exactly you define it – but even chimpanzees need to discourage defectors. Since evolution couldn’t cram the whole principled consequentialist defense into a chimpanzee brain, it just gave us the urge to punish.

Sophisticus: I agree that’s a plausible scientific account of the genesis of the urge to punish. But that doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it. After all, evolution gave us an urge to eat sugary food, but I can ignore that urge when I don’t think it’s the healthy thing for me to do at the moment.

Simplicio: Thanks to modern medical science, you’re smarter than your urge telling you to eat sugar. I’m not sure how many people are smarter than their urges to punish. If you miss the Parfit’s Hitch-Hiker angle, you punish the wrong people. If you miss the angle where you have to adjust for probability of catching the crime, you punish people the wrong amount. But the person just following their evolutionary urges would get both of those right – more or less. Imagine that, using physics, you are able to approximate the ball-trajectory-predicting power of the world’s best golfer – but the golfer still does a little bit better. Would you pooh-pooh him for merely following his base evolutionary urges?

Sophisticus: If it harmed people, yes! You’re trying to reduce this to factual differences again, but you already admitted that’s not going to work. We’re not debating the effectiveness of different punishment levels here. For all I know, evolutionary urges are more effective at the goal of keeping me alive – which is notably different from the goal of being just. But that’s not the point. The point is that I think there are people who, even if God handed them a stone tablet saying “YOU ONLY NEED TO PUNISH THIS PERSON X AMOUNT TO EFFECTIVELY DISCOURAGE FUTURE ACTIONS”, would still punish them X+1 amount just to make them suffer.

Simplicio: Okay, I didn’t want to re-open the factual differences thing. I agree they are not aiming at the same thing you are. My point is just that the only difference between you and the pro-punishment faction is that you are following an explicitly-calculated version of the principled consequentialist defense of punishment, and they are following a heuristic approximating the principled consequentialist defense of punishment, and their heuristic might actually be more accurate than your explicit calculation.

Sophisticus: So what? Again, they outright say they would deviate from the principled consequentialist position.

Simplicio: Yes. Adaptation-execution rather than fitness-maximization again. Evolution can’t quite cram the entire principled consequentialist position into our heads, so it just gives us an urge, and sometimes the urge does weird stuff that the principles wouldn’t.

Sophisticus: Again, so what? I agree there’s a biological/psychological cause for other people being wrong about punishment – just as there is a biological/psychological cause for other people being bad at fulfilling responsibilities – “lazy”, you would say – but that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to disagree with them.

Simplicio: My point is that, if you squint, this is sort of a factual disagreement. It’s not a factual disagreement between you and them. It’s a factual disagreement between you and the evolutionary/biochemical process that created their sense of justice. The evolution/biochemistry is trying to instantiate a view of punishment that does the best job of protecting them and their loved ones without expending unnecessary resources. But it’s getting it wrong – probably erring on the side of caution, as you would expect these sorts of processes to do. I agree you have a value disagreement with them, but this is less them having some value totally foreign to you, and more them attempting to implement your values but not doing a very good job.

Sophisticus: You’re screwing up levels again! If what you’re saying is true, then I have a mere “factual disagreement” with the evolutionary/biological process that produced their values, insofar as you can have a factual disagreement with a blind impersonal force. But I still don’t agree with the people who are the end result of the process! They should be abandoning their evolutionary/biochemical process in favor of what’s actually right.

Simplicio: Nobody has a coherent theory of when to abandon their evolutionary/biochemical processes, though. I have the urge to care about my children more than I care about some random people somewhere else. That’s clearly an evolutionary/biochemical process. I cannot justify it based on pure reason. But I choose, in reflective equilibrium, to keep that urge. What moral law can you tell me that allows me to ditch the irrational consequences of my excessive-punishment-urge, but keep the irrational consequences of my love-children-urge?

Sophisticus: Hmmm…what about “the excessive-punishment urge is wrong, even by the standards of the evolutionary/biochemical process that produced it, but the love children urge is right?”

Simplicio: I’ve been told that we love kittens based on a misfiring of our evolutionary urge to love children. Should I abandon that one? I’ve been told I love beauty and nature and high mountains and deep forests based on evolutionary heuristics about what kind of places will have a good food supply – now that I can order take-out, should I ditch that too? Huge chunks of our hopes and dreams are the godshatter of misfired-evolutionary processes. Tell me what principled decision lets us judge among them, rejecting one as evil but the other as good?

Sophisticus: I cannot. I make no claim that I can. I only say that, by my arbitrary choice of methods of reaching reflective equilibrium, natural beauty is good but punishment is bad. And that if someone else’s arbitrary choice of methods of reaching reflective equilibrium pronounces the opposite, they have a fundamental value difference from me, and I won’t shirk from saying so.

Simplicio: Then all I am saying is to be understanding. They’re not people who are coming from some sort of alien ideology of suffering being good for its own sake. They’re people who are taking the same godshatter you are, and applying a different process of arbitrary reflective equilibrium to it, in a world where none of us really understand or control the process of reflective equlibrium we go through. That gives me a different and more understanding perspective on them. It may not make me agree with them, but it makes me more willing to think of them as an odd but sympathetic potential-negotiating-partner rather than some sort of hostile villain.

I need to admit here that I personally am neither as saintly as Sophisticus nor as reasonable as Simplicio. A while ago, I learned that my great-grandfather was murdered, and my great-grandmother – normally a deeply kind and compassionate woman – demanded the death penalty rather than life imprisonment for his murderers. When the jury went with life imprisonment anyway, she yelled at them that she hoped someone killed their loved ones so they knew how it felt. This story had a pretty big impact on me and made me try to generate examples of things that could happen such that I would really want the perpetrators to suffer, even more than consequentialism demanded. I may have turned some very nasty and imaginative parts of my brain, the ones that wrote the Broadcast interlude in Unsong, to imagining crimes perfectly calculated to enrage me. And in the end I did it. I broke my brain to the point where I can very much imagine certain things that would happen and make me want the perpetrator to suffer – not infinitely, but not zero either. I am not going to claim that this is just some misfiring of evolutionary urges which I obviously denounce. I think I stick to them the same way I stick to liking kittens. I’m not sure I would promote them as policy – in the same kind of second-level way where I can think of some people who would make good dictators but still don’t actually want them to set up a dictatorship – but I don’t renounce them entirely either. I guess reflective equilibrium is easier to disturb than I thought.

Sophisticus: I’ve been thinking, Simplicio – doesn’t your philosophy hoist itself on its own petard?

Simplicio: What do you mean?

Sophisticus: You insist that much of what people consider value differences is actually a difference in what words they are willing to use while describing basically the same values. And that if a term seems unsavory to us, we should use it to describe the closest useful concept, rather than condemning it for applying to a bad concept we shouldn’t have. If we hear “laziness”, we should assume it stands for the way your cousin Larry is, rather than some package of moral and metaphysical assumptions. If we hear “judgment”, we should assume it stands for assessing someone’s ability as a dog-walker, rather than some package of moral evaluations. If we hear “punishment”, we should assume it stands for some kind of consequentialist negative reinforcement, rather than the belief that some people deserve to suffer.

Simplicio: I’m not sure that’s exactly how I would describe my position, but go on.

Sophisticus: What about the term “value difference” itself? It seems like you’re being a hypocrite here. After all, there are plenty of things that look like value differences to us – I disagree with people on moral questions about a thousand times a day. But you insist that none of those are real value differences, and instead we must reserve the concept of “value difference” for some Platonic perfect value difference that doesn’t exist in real life.

Simplicio: I agree these rarely exist in practice. I think the difference is that they can exist in theory. Imagine a paperclip maximizer robot vs. a paperclip minimizer robot. These have a true value difference. They’re not doing the same thing and applying different words to it. If I were a paperclip minimizer, I could never get a paperclip maximizer to say it wanted to do a specific thing, and then sarcastically say “If only there was a word for that thing!”, and then it would have to admit that word was “paperclip minimization”.

Sophisticus: Okay. But there are no paperclip maximizers or minimizers in real life. So I still think you’re denying real-life use of a term in favor of some Platonic version that doesn’t exist.

Simplicio: I just don’t like the connotations of “value difference”. I think they suggest the non-existent thing.

Sophisticus: That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you is true of “laziness” or “judgment”, and you never let me get away with it!

Simplicio: I just realized I have to, uh, wash my toaster. I’ll be back in a minute.

Ten years go by. Sophisticus is never able to find Simplicio again. He seems to have disappeared. Sophisticus knows it’s bizarre to think somebody would skip town and change identities just to avoid a philosophical debate, but he cannot think of any other explanation. One day, Sophisticus goes on a vacation to a city very far away, and becomes hopelessly lost. He notices a stranger in glasses and a mustache, who looks familiar in a way he cannot quite place, and asks him for directions.

Sophisticus: Excuse me, do you know the way to city center?

Stranger: Don’t worry, good sir! You’re in city center right now!

Sophisticus: But…this whole area looks suburban. And the edge of the city is right there – past that street there’s only rolling fields as far as the eye can see. How can this be city center?

Stranger: The whole city is the city center!

Sophisticus: What?

Stranger: That’s right. We decided that it was pretty stigmatizing to say that certain parts of the city were non-central. You know, it implied that the people there were just a bunch of yokels who weren’t real citizens the same way everyone else was. So we held a referendum, and everyone agreed that the whole city would be classified as the city center.

Sophisticus: That’s pretty weird, but…look, I need to get to the tourist office, and I know it’s in city center, so if you’re not going to direct me to city center..can you just tell me what part of town the tourist office is in?

Stranger: It’s in the center. The whole city is center.

Sophisticus: Let’s try this again. Please point me in the direction of the Tourist Office.

Stranger: Perhaps you think the Tourist Office is some kind of mystical place that will answer all of your tourist-related questions and give you a perfect vacation, but that everywhere-not-the-Tourist-Office is some kind of hellscape with nothing of any value to visitors? In that case, I reject your Tourist-Office vs. Non-Tourist-Office distinction. There is no such thing as the Tourist Office.

Sophisticus: By “Tourist Office”, I just mean an ordinary non-perfect building with a greater-than-average propensity to give tourist information!

Stranger: Well, if you mean “building” to mean something 100% artificial without even natural materials which is hermetically insulated from the outside, then really there aren’t any buildings here. There are just –

Sophisticus: Wait, I know you! You’re my old friend Simplicio, who skipped town so he didn’t have to answer my challenge about his theory of value differences.

Simplicio: Guilty as charged. But now I hope you better understand what I mean. There is a sense in which you’re right, and a sense in which I’m right. Words both convey useful information, and shape our connotations and perceptions. While we can’t completely ignore the latter role, it’s also dangerous to posit fundamental value differences between people who use words one way and people who use them another. My concern is that I’ve seen people say “I am the kind of person who doesn’t believe in laziness, or in punishment, or in judging others. But that guy over there accuses people of being lazy, wants people to suffer, and does judge others. Clearly we have fundamental value differences and must be enemies.” All I’m trying to do is say that those people may have differing factual beliefs on how to balance the information-bearing-content of words versus their potential connotations. If we understand the degree to which other people’s differences from us are based on factual rather than fundamental value differences, we can be humbler and more understanding when we have to interact with them.

Sophisticus: Okay, but seriously, I need to get to city center.

Simplicio: The whole city is the city center.

Sophisticus: Screw you.

Simplicio: Hey, don’t be so judgmental.

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414 Responses to The Whole City Is Center

  1. Randy M says:

    Good post. I hate to nit-pick on the first comment, but I agree with the general thrust of it (and think I gestured in this direction in the comments earlier) that it’s easy to mistake differences in definition or degree for more fundamental ones–and also perhaps vice versa, where in people will both attempt to use the same label for their opposed positions, for example both taxing and not taxing can be justified by the term “fairness” but the people who want to redistribute wealth and the people who want to take as little as possible do often have different preferences (though also probably factual differences about how hard the wealthy or poor work, and so on).

    Okay, nit-pick time:

    I have the urge to care about my children more than I care about some random people somewhere else. That’s clearly an evolutionary/biochemical process. I cannot justify it based on pure reason.

    Is this a Scott position or a character position? Because it doesn’t seem to be hard to come up with reasons why it is better for people to care more for their own children, for example based on factors like coordination, genetic similarity, division of labor, and so on.

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      Because it doesn’t seem to be hard to come up with reasons why it is better for people to care more for their own children, for example based on factors like coordination, genetic similarity, division of labor, and so on.

      This is all true, but in the “evolutionary heuristic that resembles consequentialist goals in some ways” sense rather than the “this is what a perfectly unbiased agent would choose” way. Like, in the least convenient possible world where someone gets teleported off to the Acausal Realm and has a single choice left to affect the material world with, it still seems like the vast majority of parents would prefer, ceteris paribus, that some other random kid suffer a given bad event than their own. (And that they’d endorse such preferences under reflective equilibrium.)

    • loophole says:

      Those might be arguments for spending time/energy on one’s own child, but I don’t think they apply to money. It’s fungible, and charities make it easy to coordinate a transfer.

      • keaswaran says:

        I think they do apply to money. Charities do make it easier, and money is quite fungible, but a lot of the value of money to a child is mediated by the time and energy that is spent in figuring out what is the best way to spend money on this child’s needs and interests. (Though I suppose if the charity just gives your money directly to the parents of children elsewhere, and lets the parents be the local agents applying that money to the well-being of the children, then you get pretty close to the optimum child-helping per unit money.)

    • siduri says:

      I’m not at all sure this is what Scott means by “justify it based on pure reason” (he probably means a full meta-ethical framework), but when I first had a baby and experienced the overpowering chemical changes that come with it, I flashed to the scene in Buffy where it seems like her sister Dawn–to whom she is now acting as a guardian after the death of their mother–might be used against her will to bring about the end of the world. Buffy’s companions want to know if Buffy will do her job as the one person meant to prevent world-ending scenarios by, if necessary, killing Dawn. And Buffy responds that not only will she refuse to save the world in that event, she’ll fight to prevent anyone else from doing so either.

      This is presented within the show as a sort of trolley problem–one where our intuitions about the right thing to do conflict with a consequentialist analysis. Obviously if it’s one person’s fate against the whole world, then we should be willing to sacrifice the one person, no matter how painful. Right?

      But Buffy says no, and I knew that would also be my answer–that I would fight to protect my baby no matter what. If it was my baby’s life versus the fate of the world, and it was up to me, then the world would die. And this felt right, it felt VERY right, even though it rationally seemed very wrong.

      I ended up reconciling my moral intuitions with my rational beliefs by considering my role as similar to that of a lawyer within an adversarial justice system. Nobody truly believes that the adversarial justice system delivers perfect justice, just that it delivers about the best approximation of such as we can currently provide. And yet, a lawyer who believes their client to be guilty would be doing wrong if they intentionally sabotaged their client’s defense, even if doing so might result in a more just outcome for the individual case. Because the broader system really depends on every defendant having an advocate, so sometimes lawyers must advocate for clients as well as they can–even if they suspect the client to actually be guilty.

      So, in this world, this arbitrary and unjust world, evolution has dumped a bunch of chemicals into my brain that make me my children’s advocate. I am utterly prepared to sacrifice everything to protect them. It is not even a question that feels like it admits the possibility of another action. My moral intuitions tell me that parents who feel the possibility of any other action than defending their children’s lives to the last breath are bad parents, and this intuition feels stronger the more young and innocent and helpless the child is. (I can imagine situations where I would not stand between a grown-up child and consequences of their own decisions, such as if they committed a very terrible crime and the police were coming for them, but I would still probably do everything I could to help them avoid the death penalty.)

      It may be up to the Gileses of the world to spill innocent blood sometimes, to sacrifice the few to protect the many. But unjust as the world is, we humans have evolved a system of collective justice-approximation that we call “society,” and it relies on the most defenseless among us being provided with advocates. I am the advocate to my babies; I would be failing in my role within the system if I willingly allowed them to come to harm, even if it were to the immense benefit of everyone else on the planet. They would have to kill me first, and my willingness to fight to the death in defense of my babies is in fact a feature of the system and not a bug–it provides a built-in check on people’s willingness to commit such drastic sacrifices, for one thing. Giles can’t make the terrible trade-off of spilling innocent blood to save the world unless he’s willing and able to go through Buffy first, which (if you put aside the fact that she’s supernaturally powerful) you can see as kind of a way of forcing the would-be world-savers to demonstrate that they truly have no better option. It’s ensuring that a decision like that will be costly for the decision-makers too.

      So like Buffy, I will protect my children at all costs, and like a lawyer I will trust that my completely biased advocacy is in fact required for the larger, impartial system to produce outcomes that approximate justice.

      • Randy M says:

        And, hormones aside, having the child’s advocate be their parent is the easiest Schelling point possible. We don’t have to take the children and search for the best available advocate–you have a child, you also have a duty to care for it.
        Schelling points are not perfection, but we should be quite wary of throwing such a reasonable one away in search of perfection, and it is silly to say there is no basis in reason for it. And luckily many children will have other people in their lives who can provide some care and checks in the situations where parents are inadequate.

        I do disagree slightly about weighting a child so high–and similarly for a lawyer who knows absolutely his client is guilty they should work to get them a fair sentence but it seems unjust for them to get them off. I suspect this is to an extent a gender difference, and a healthy one, fathers being more ready to hold a child to a standard, mothers to accepting the child as is. Both are good influences provided they aren’t entirely unchecked.

        • John Schilling says:

          and similarly for a lawyer who knows absolutely his client is guilty they should work to get them a fair sentence but it seems unjust for them to get them off.

          If a lawyer knows absolutely that his client is guilty, that’s almost certainly because the client told them so, based on the societal promise that the lawyer would still represent their interests as strongly as possible – which includes getting them off, if off they can be gotten.

          Degrading social trust for a one-time gain is probably not a net win here.

          • Randy M says:

            What happens if the trust between defendants and their lawyers is degraded to the level that guilty parties no longer admit to that guilt even to their lawyer in private?
            It seems like this would lead to slightly worse representation for the guilty, which is a net gain. Also, probably slightly fewer plea bargaining, which might be a net loss, but over time we’d probably get an equilibrium of lower sentences.
            Lawyers would probably trust their clients a little less, since they think that the clients are more likely to be lying to them–possibly leading to slightly worse representation for guilty and innocent. This might be counterbalanced by greater trust in the lawyers themselves allowing them to better represent their clients.

            What’s the upside? Fewer repeat offenders, assuming the justice system has any success at preventing such through it’s actions.

            I don’t know. As technicalities are a part of the law, I don’t object to lawyers getting people off on technicalities, including arguing whether a defendant as in their right mind, or a crime was first or second degree, etc.

            In a case where, say, the lawyer knew his client was guilty by his own admission, I think an ethical lawyer would refrain from implying that the police planted evidence on account of their racism or something similar. I see real gains if we shift the norm a hair away from advocacy and towards justice. (epistemic status–honestly, quite low!)

          • Gazeboist says:

            (speaking purely in ideal terms – obviously the justice system we have falls short of that described below in a variety of ways)

            If a lawyer knows absolutely that his client is guilty and that he can get his client off, we can usually assume that this is because of some flaw in the prosecution. Part of the purpose of an adversarial justice system is to ensure that the prosecution is very good at acquiring true evidence while not harming innocents in the process, because we have decided as a society that punishing innocents for crimes they did not commit (where punishment is fairly broad and includes things ranging from pretrial detention to invasions of privacy during a search) is a high cost, which comes with the further cost of failing to find the actual guilty party. The end result of all of this is that the system is weighted in favor of the defense and some guilty people get off, but we minimize other important downsides.

            Damaging the long term quality of the prosecutorial institution is not worth any individual conviction (and if it seems to be for some particular accused party, that likely means that the case is not one the legal system is equipped to handle).

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I’m fine with the guilty having good representation. If too many of them are “getting away with it,” there are other dials that should be tuned to fix that problem.

          • hls2003 says:

            Just on this specific point, knowing one’s client is guilty does create limits on a lawyer’s representation, and it is supposed to. For example, a defense attorney whose client has confessed guilt has an ethical obligation not to allow his client to testify falsely to his innocence.

          • Randy M says:

            That pretty much satisfies me.

      • JulieK says:

        Great comment!
        I think the rationality community doesn’t always sufficiently appreciate the value of “irrational” impulses.

      • Matt says:

        I will make Maggie safe. If the world burns because of that then so be it. Me and the kid will roast some marshmallows.

        ~ Jim Butcher’s character Harry Dresden, about his daughter

        Feels right to me, too.

        • Koken says:

          I got very frustrated with the bit and now refuse to to accept that Dresden is a good guy.

          • John Schilling says:

            I absolutely sympathize with the sentiment, and if you’re looking for the basis of an antiheroic character, having him burn the world to protect his child would be a good way to set that up. And Dresden as antihero is definitely a plausible path.

            The big problem, from my POV, is that Maggie isn’t Dresden’s daughter. Biologically, perhaps, but Harry didn’t have the opportunity to make any emotional connection with her until a few chapters before he burned the world for her. More importantly, we didn’t have any connection to her.

            If it had been, “I will make Molly safe…”, that would have worked as a story in spite of biology.

          • Koken says:

            The thing is I have a pretty clear sense that the author thinks that Harry has done some very dodgy things but that one is unimpeachable and not at all antiheroic. I often find the morality a little heavy-handed but it’s much more frustrating when you flat-out disagree.

            The obsession with bloodline is actually in character for Dresden, but unsatisfying for the reader given the lack of relationship you noted.

      • DavidS says:

        The corrolary of this is that we sometimes need to make sure the Gileses are in charge.

        This also reminds me of West Wing and the idea of stopping yourself being in charge when it’s your child in danger. I can definitely imagine surrendering power to someone more capable of being objective (even though that indirectly is putting my child at risk) more easily than more directly harming/risking my child for overall good.

      • gbdub says:

        It is interesting to me that Genesis has the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac – a story in which Abraham’s loyalty to God’s command is considered praiseworthy (and ultimately rewarded).

        And of course the basis of Christianity is God’s willingness to sacrifice His son for the good of humanity.

        So there certainly seems to be a long history of recognizing virtue in a willingness to go against the parental protection instinct, for the right cause.

  2. phi says:

    I like to make a distinction between two concepts. I’ll call them ‘values’ and ‘preferences.’ To see why we need these two concepts, let’s suppose we have a society consisting of two perfect utilitarians, Alice and Bob. Alice, being a perfect utilitarian, wants Bob to get what he wants, and Bob likewise wants Alice to get what she wants. This leads to an infinite regress: What Alice wants is for Bob to get what he wants, while what Bob wants is simply for Alice to get what she wants. The source of the paradox is that I’m carelessly using the word ‘want’ in two different ways.

    Let’s say that Alice likes chocolate ice cream, while Bob likes vanilla. Then both of them would be happy with an outcome where Alice gets to eat chocolate ice cream, and Bob gets to eat vanilla. According to my definitions of ‘value’ and ‘preference,’ we would say that Alice prefers chocolate ice cream, and Bob prefers vanilla ice cream. We would also say that both Alice and Bob value outcomes where as many people’s preferences are satisfied as possible.

    In other words, my values determine my utility function, while my preferences determine what experiences give me pleasure.

    A few more examples:
    – For a purely selfish person, their values are exactly the same as their preferences. Certain things please them, and so all they care about is making those things happen.
    – In the case of a paperclip maximizer, its values are maximizing the number of paperclips in existence. Depending on the design of its mind, however, it may not even be the sort of thing that can have preferences.

    Why have I gone on this digression? Because it seems to me that people are more likely to stick with their evolutionary instincts when it comes to preferences than when it comes to values. Taking the example of cute kittens, it seems like a pretty clear case of people having a preference for cute kittens. On the other hand our instinct for punishment seems to be a value: We don’t derive joy from punishing people, but we feel compelled to do it anyway. This is probably why (many) people have replaced their their instinctive ideas about punishment with the conseqentialist concept of deterrence, while pretty much no one has decided to switch from finding cute kittens adorable to finding piles of pebbles containing a prime number of pebbles adorable.

    Does anyone agree? Are there counterexamples to this (alleged) trend?

    • Tarpitz says:

      Small point: I believe many people do derive, if not joy, at any rate some form of positive subjective experience, from punishment.

      Larger point: it is very much not uncontroversial that values are anything other than a type of preference, or that any agent is other than fully selfish.

      • edgepatrol says:

        On your small point: I’m not sure they derive pleasure from it, so much as they derive *relief* from the unpleasantness of seeing someone do harm, and then waltz around unpunished. Seems a minor distinction, perhaps, but it’s as though the punishment “balances” the wrong. You might not get joy in applying hydrocortisone to your skin, if nothing was wrong with you, but if you’ve gotten into the poison ivy, hydrocortisone suddenly becomes quite appealing.

        • Jiro says:

          On your small point: I’m not sure they derive pleasure from it, so much as they derive *relief* from the unpleasantness of seeing someone do harm, and then waltz around unpunished.

          You’re typical-minding here. Consider people who like causing the outgroup to suffer. You could always argue that they think the outgroup is evil and that they really are relieved at reducing evil, but I think that’s a distortion of how such people think and behave. Also, note that the idea that it’s wrong to make your enemies suffer is a modern Western invention; it’s not universal.

          • AG says:

            Isn’t that usually the end-result of the person having Pavlov’d themselves into associating “hurt the outgroup” with “helps the ingroup”?

            “Always punch up” is associated with “and then we have more equality,” but eventually the reward is triggered for “punch,” not “equality.”

            “Purge the unpure” is associated with “impurity will corrode the group” but the reward gets shifted over to “purge,” not “prevent corrosion.”

            The question is how often people can untangle those associations, and for the most part, it has been possible, shown by how we moved away from duels to arbitration, removing the association between “violence/force” and “honor and/or loyalty.” We went from “death and glory” to “war is hell.”

            People are starting to form those associations again because it can be short-term effective, defecting before the other guy has realized cooperate is no longer the default assumption. But “defect-defect forever” is not inevitable.

      • thevoiceofthevoid says:

        On the “Larger point”:
        (I’m unclear on the purported difference between “value” and “preference” so I’m going to completely gloss over it and use “want/desire” for the time being.)
        If Alice genuinely wants good to befall Bob (maybe because it gives her a nice tingly feeling), are you implying that her acting to benefit him is still “fully selfish” since his happiness fulfills her desire? And that one can only be truly selfless by…doing good for others without wanting to? or after reasoning from a priori moral principles of some sort without ever feeling good about it? And thus everyone is truly selfish?
        If so…odd way to define a word, when “not desiring good for others beside oneself” seems to work pretty well as a definition of selfish (and the inverse for selfless/altruistic) and carves out two nonzero-sized subsets of “all agents”.

        • Tarpitz says:

          I’m using Phi’s definition of selfishness as having values identical to one’s preferences in their sense of the terms.

          I agree that there is a perfectly good every day use of selfish/selfless, which I think is what you’re getting at.

        • Viliam says:

          If Alice genuinely wants good to befall Bob (maybe because it gives her a nice tingly feeling), are you implying that her acting to benefit him is still “fully selfish” since his happiness fulfills her desire? And that one can only be truly selfless by…doing good for others without wanting to? or after reasoning from a priori moral principles of some sort without ever feeling good about it? And thus everyone is truly selfish?
          If so…odd way to define a word

          I agree that it is odd, but that’s exactly how the person who coined the word meant it. (So when Ayn Rand argued against it, she was not attacking a strawman. Perhaps we should say that this term is used today as a motte and bailey; people arbitrarily switch between the sane definition of “helping others” and the insane counter-argument “but he or she has a happy feeling from helping others, and that somehow negates the whole outcome, therefore this is not the true altruism”.)

          Wikipedia on Altruism:

          Much debate exists as to whether “true” altruism is possible in human psychology. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as “benefits”. The actor also may not be expecting a reward.

          Wikipedia on Psychological egoism:

          Psychological egoism is controversial. Proponents cite evidence from introspection: reflection on one’s own actions may reveal their motives and intended results to be based on self-interest. Psychological egoists and hedonists have found through numerous observations of natural human behavior that behavior can be manipulated through reward and punishment both of which have direct effects of pain and pleasure. (…) Critics have stated that proponents of psychological egoism often confuse the satisfaction of their own desires with the satisfaction of their own self-regarding desires. Even though it is true that every human being seeks his own satisfaction, this sometimes may only be achieved via the well-being of his neighbor. An example of this situation could be phoning for an ambulance when a car accident has happened. In this case, the caller desires the well-being of the victim, even though the desire itself is the caller’s own. (…) To counter this critique, psychological egoism asserts that all such desires for the well being of others are ultimately derived from self-interest.

          My opinion is that this philosophical debate is hopelessly confused because its participants do not distinguish properly between various levels of causation, i.e. whether the “egoism” means that (1) I believe to be rewarded for doing X; or (2) I am doing X automatically, because it is my habit now, but in the past I have developed this habit because X was often rewarded; or (3) I am doing X based on instinct, but the instinct exists because my ancestors were often rewarded for doing X. Or maybe I am not aware of doing X, or maybe X is an unintended side effect of me doing something else. (Probably a few more options I forgot here.)

          As a sidenote, confusions of this type, which appear very frequently in philosophy and then remain unsolved for centuries, are a good reason to read the Sequences.

          • thevoiceofthevoid says:

            The sequences (the parts of them I read, at least) were actually what helped me clear up some of my confusion on this topic. If it wasn’t clear, my questions were mostly rhetorical and I agree with you and Yudkowsky on this. To borrow his example, I think anyone who knowingly sacrifices themself to save someone else (a rare but extant occurrence if we define it strictly enough to invalidate claims of “they did it for the glory”) is damn good evidence against psychological egoism.

          • HowardHolmes says:


            Being a firm believer in psychological egoism, I need more details on your example. Give me a short story containing such a sacrifice.

    • peterispaikens says:

      “We don’t derive joy from punishing people” is definitely not an absolute – it has some truth in it, for example, in the rather common scenario of making some punishment for the sake of enforcing rules, e.g. parent-children, judge-convict, teacher-student, manager-subordinate, officer-soldier relationships usually pleasure isn’t involved; however, there are at least three scenarios that come to mind which violate this thesis:

      1) *vengeance and retribution* (and even anticipation of it) certainly *does* drive desirable emotions in many people;

      2) Enforcing rules and especially “punishing defectors” drives desirable emotions in many people, this is well documented and possibly is the evolutionary solution to many “tragedy of commons” issues in small tribal environments;

      3) and, of course, there is a certain sub-group of people which do derive pleasure directly from seeing or making others suffer; it’s not the typical mindset but it does exist.

    • AlexanderTheGrand says:

      This doesn’t counter your point, but I believe your paradox isn’t exactly correct. If they’re utilitarians, they value their own desires exactly as much as others, while your examples seems to assume they ONLY value other’s desires.

      If the point is that their only “preference” is to have other people succeed, then the problem is more like a “divide by zero” problem of not having a bucket to put your caring into.

      Let’s say their preference is 1/2 a specific flavor of ice cream, and 1/2 the other person having a specific flavor of ice cream. Then, they don’t prefer them getting the right flavor and the other person not, to the reverse. But, they still more prefer both people getting what they want, and less prefer neither.

      In other words, in this specific example, you can turn “value” into “preference” with a little bit of math. So I’d have to agree with some others that it’s not clear there’s a difference, from a very pure point of view.

      • phi says:

        I agree. That example could have been presented much better. It doesn’t change the outcome of the paradox, since Alice’s values happen to be exactly the same as Bob’s, but I wish I could go back and edit it.

        However, I’m not sure that it’s true that there’s no difference between value and preference. For example, AFAIK, it’s impossible to define utilitarianism without some notion of ‘preference’. On the other hand, if people acted only according to their preferences, we have no way of explaining why someone would sacrifice some personal enjoyment for the sake of ‘doing the right thing’.

        And I think Alice’s preferences can’t be reduced to 1/2(Alice getting chocolate) + 1/2(Bob getting vanilla). If Bob changed his favorite ice cream flavor from vanilla to strawberry, then utilitarian Alice would value Bob getting to eat strawberry ice cream, while this other Alice would still want Bob to get vanilla.

        • Uncorrelated says:

          I’m glad you posted this because I was thinking along very similar lines after reading both the two recent posts here and the one linked at Ozy’s blog. In addition to what you’ve said I was thinking that you would have do the same decomposition of the utility function to make sense of the moral foundations stuff, at least in a utilitarian context. To interpret the harm/care foundation one needs to have an idea of what is good or bad for another person and, again in a utilitarian framework, that means looking at their utility function. If that person is also a utilitarian then part of their utility function points back to yours and we end up in the situation you described. More interestingly, I think, if their utility function includes terms like purity/sanctity, don’t you need to care about those now, at least indirectly, even if you didn’t at first?

    • Jonas says:

      > I like to make a distinction between two concepts. I’ll call them ‘values’ and ‘preferences.’

      Random association time: ‘preferences’ seems to map on to individual utility functions; they correspond to factual statements like “I derive pleasure from having sex and eating steak and reading SSC and […]”. As you use ‘values’, they seem to map onto normative statements; economist-utilitarians typically make normative statements about social utility functions—such as, for example, “let u_A and u_B be Alice and Bob’s utility function over world configurations; world w1 is better than world w2 if u_A(w1) + u_B(w1) > u_A(w2) + u_B(w2)”.

      > In other words, my values determine my utility function, while my preferences determine what experiences give me pleasure.

      It’s my understanding that utility is understood by classical utilitarians as exactly meaning pleasure (and the avoidance of pain), c.f.

      > For a purely selfish person, their values are exactly the same as their preferences.

      I probably would’ve used the term solipsistic, but Wikipedia suggests ‘individual ethical egoist’ to be the appropriate term (on At least in my economist-like rendition, which goes something like “a purely selfish person is one whose social utility function equals their individual utility function”.

      And maybe I’ve braided “social utility function” and “normative statement” together in my mind. Probably because I’m lazy and judgmental 😉 one could perfectly sensibly make the statement that “policy X maximizes social utility function U_1 but not U_2”. Re-read everything I said, where “a person’s social utility function” means “the social utility function the person considers normative”.

      That was a bunch of hot air about words. Now onto your actual point.

      > Because it seems to me that people are more likely to stick with their evolutionary instincts when it comes to preferences than when it comes to values.

      This seems reasonable. I can’t reason myself into enjoying a turd burger, but I can reason myself into favoring Marxism/Minarchy/Monarchy.*

      From the land of mainstream science, see also Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, e.g. The latter stages seem to load heavily on reason; I can much more easily come up with (admittedly just-so) stories about un-reflective adaptation-executing humans behaving like the earlier than the later stages.

      (* Side conjecture: those are the maximally systemizing-loaded ideologies of the three political directions of modernity, those being socialism, liberalism and conservatism, if you allow each of my M-words to also cover some adjacent ground, e.g. an-caps and some parts of the new right.)

  3. Briefling says:

    I liked this post, you got in the groove it seems like.
    Godshatter is a terrible neologism though, all respect to Eliezer.

    EDIT: I’ve commented this before but, I think it would be really interesting if you ever read & reviewed Taleb’s Antifragile (or perhaps The Black Swan). It’s a genuinely important philosophical work (IMO) and I think your underlying philosophy has a lot in common with Taleb’s, but you are polar opposites in style. Would be fun to hear your reaction to it.

    • Evan Þ says:

      It’s derived from Vernor Vinge’s very good book Fire Upon the Deep, where it’s the remnants left by a Sufficiently Advanced General AI in one of the main characters’ minds, directing him toward defeating the villain but frustrating him by how it’s impossible for him to come close to understanding it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m reading Black Swan now, will review.

      • Briefling says:

        Ooh. I am excite.

        (Although… I do think Black Swan is missing most of his best ideas, including the all-important idea of antifragility itself. If you have any reaction to it besides indifference, it may be worth flipping through Antifragile as well.)

    • andrewflicker says:

      I’ll repeat my usual criticism of Taleb- he’s almost entirely right, his style is terribly off-putting, and he constantly repeats himself in self-aggrandizing ways. He also appears to be a jerk, but that’s more from his public behavior than his books.

  4. manwhoisthursday says:

    Edward Feser and and Joseph Bessette’s new book on capital punishment By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed is about as clear a presentation as you could want of the argument that punishment of crime is a positive good in itself, regardless of the consequential aspect. In fact, they, following C.S. Lewis, argue that consequentialism in this area is potentially dangerous and unjust.

  5. conradical says:

    First time commenting, reading since 2014.

    Had to comment on this part:

    I broke my brain to the point where I can very much imagine certain things that would happen and make me want the perpetrator to suffer – not infinitely, but not zero either. I am not going to claim that this is just some misfiring of evolutionary urges which I obviously denounce. I think I stick to them the same way I stick to liking kittens. I’m not sure I would promote them as policy – in the same kind of second-level way where I can think of some people who would make good dictators but still don’t actually want them to set up a dictatorship – but I don’t renounce them entirely either. I guess reflective equilibrium is easier to disturb than I thought.

    From reading you and your commentators over the years, I’ve continually felt that the majority of people in the loose-knit “rationalist” community don’t understand the core emotional experience of most people outside this community.

    You say “broke my brain to the point where I can imagine things that make me want someone to suffer” — like it was some huge leap for you (it sounds like it was, I don’t mean to diminish the effort at all). And you use the verb “broke” like wanting to harm someone, to inflict pain and suffering almost without any greater consequentialist claim to morality, is broken and wrong.

    I disagree, and I disagree so strongly I wanted to chime in.

    I think this is a common, perhaps even the default, emotional state for human beings. For some of us from our earliest memories. That doesn’t mean we/they all act on it. Not at all. But I do think, in response to your old post “What Universal Human Experience Are You Missing“, that this level of default-on emotional response is a big one for the rationalist community.

    I’m not saying having these emotional responses is a good thing. Though I think they have a huge positive side when supported by good principles. But understanding them changes how you talk about them. The empathy helps communicate the higher value of acting rationally. All the talk in the world about “broken evolutionary urges” isn’t going to change someone’s mind.

    Just food for thought. One day I’d like to write a lot more about it. Good post, as always.

    • liquidpotato says:

      To me, this is such a great comment. I have been reading SSC for about 3 years, and the same comment you quoted generated a huge amount of respect for Scott from me, and your reply captured what I have also felt about the rationalist community.

      It takes a great deal of mental fortitude to look inwards like Scott did and recognizing that darker aspect. There’s a book by a Vietnam War veteran, Karl Marlantes, titled Why We Go To War. It is a sort of confessional. An inward looking thing like Scott did but on a larger scale about his emotional state on why he did what he did during the war.

      There’s a lot of Jungian and spiritual stuff in there that I think most of the people here wouldn’t take to, but the key part he was trying to get across is that when we see that shadow in ourselves, we can recognize it when it arises in others.

      To him, that plays a huge part in how we can humanise the other. When we see that the same ‘broken evolutionary urges’ are in both us and the other, it puts everyone on the same level. It’s much easier to change minds that way, because then we are having a conversation as equals and as humans.

      I read the article by Ozy and the reddit comment that sparked this off. I found it really difficult to go through because the sanctimony was so thick, especially in the reddit comment. Ozy’s article was more measured, but it was so close in spirit to the reddit comment that my emotional response to it was projected onto Ozy’s. I had to force myself to re-read Ozy’s to seperate the two, and even then, the part about indoctrinating children and shaming other people’s values out of existence repelled me. It’s needlessly raising resistance in people who don’t share her values, and making it so much harder to change minds.

      • conradical says:

        Hey man, thanks for saying that! I almost didn’t comment when it asked me to sign up and started linking to old WordPress accounts of mine.

        I’m familiar with the book by Karl Marlantes and Jung’s writing. And I agree that the rationalist community in general is pretty skeptical about this stuff (as am I, rationally speaking). I really do believe that most of the time it’s because they’re “missing” some of that human experience, or at least experiencing it to a much smaller degree.

        I’m impressed (proud?) of Scott for owning up to his own darker impulses, although he couched them in “broken” language.

        It’s much easier to change minds that way, because then we are having a conversation as equals and as humans.

        If only more people understood this 🙂 Ozy, in particular.

        I too went and read her (?) little rant. The sanctimony, the self-righteousness, the castigation — I’m still not sure it wasn’t just the intellectual-rationalist-community version of clickbait.

        She begins with observing different values and ends by sacrificing (someone else’s) children to Moloch (“Moloch is exactly what the history books say he is. He is the god of child sacrifice, the fiery furnace into which you can toss your babies in exchange for victory in war.“). Into the metaphorical-fire go the children, any price worth paying so long as she can have victory. So her values win.

        People with the same moral and ethical stance towards those of different values, and just an extra small helping of the dark, “broken”, violent urges that Scott eventually discovered in himself, have been responsible for much real bloodshed throughout history.

        I’m not saying Ozy actually wants to do harm to others, beyond social shaming and indoctrination. But it’s a short stone’s throw from her moral-outrage to real violence. And the weight of that stone seems to me to be tied to how naturally dark and “broken” impulses come to the thrower.

      • emblem14 says:

        @liquidpotato and @conradical,

        Thanks to both of you for bringing this up. I’ve also had the nagging frustration that a whole lot of people in this rationalist orbit, including Scott, just don’t feel or understand the full range of human emotional responses – especially the ones that fuel anger, aggression and the other aspects of our “Dark Side”. They implicitly condemn these emotional reactions in their rigid moralities which treat things like the desire to inflict punishment as the Worst Thing In The World. Too bad the rest of humanity is flush with them.

        We should avoid punitive thinking and instead be a bunch of bloodless, indifferent, harm-reducing bean counters addressing the consequences of social dysfunction as dispassionately as possible.

        God Forbid someone ever had a urge to enact vengeance, or be less than nice and compassionate to a person who did a real injury to you, or your family, or your tribe. God forbid we would ever feel contempt for people who threaten hard cooperative endeavors through cheating, stealing, freeloading or deceit. If someone fails in their social obligations by acting destructively or irresponsibly, we shouldn’t make them feel bad about it, or punish them, because that might make them feel ashamed and that would be the WORST. They would suffer, and other people would treat them badly and their social status would plummet – how utterly monstrous.

        A lot of this kind of morality seems to stem from people who have struggled with depression, social anxiety, feelings of self-loathing, bullying, low self esteem, and are very psychologically vulnerable to shaming, opprobrium, castigation, social sanction…Just a theory.

        The entirety of human history is filled with feuding, grudges, recriminations, scapegoating and self-immolating crusades for “justice”. Whatever it is that makes us do this, we should be trying to harness it toward the most socially useful and ethical ends, not repress it. Repression of natural impulses leads to pathology, does not solve the problem, and will backfire.

        • conradical says:

          Whatever it is that makes us do this, we should be trying to harness it toward the most socially useful and ethical ends, not repress it. Repression of natural impulses leads to pathology, does not solve the problem, and will backfire.

          Every point you made is strongly aligned with my own thinking. This one in particular.

          Sometimes I want to remind people, here and elsewhere, that how people feel does not determine how they act. If your own emotional range is confined to mostly-morally-neutral-or-positive responses and the magnitude of those emotions is small, then perhaps this is easy to forget, especially given that all of your negative interactions with other people (“bullying, shaming, opprobrium, castigation, social sanction, etc.“) will likely be by people who are expressing the Dark Side/Dark Triad emotions that you yourself have a low propensity to feel.

          I understand and empathize with how easy it is to end up condemning the emotional response itself (“broken“). I just don’t think it’s right or helpful to the community and spreading its (very positive, not-well-defined) message.

          • Adam Treat says:

            The path you are treading on is full danger and will lead to nothing but suffering. This is exemplar of our societies addiction to righteous anger. That somehow we are correct to feel this way and that it is a good in and of itself. It’s not.

          • emblem14 says:


            Very true – The act of feeling, understanding and processing negative emotion – and not thinking yourself broken for feeling it, is critical to “Integrating the Shadow” as Jung put it, and allows you more control over acting on those emotions than you’d otherwise have – because you understand their genesis and how they’re affecting your cognition. As you say , this is NOT the same as justifying action based on these emotions. In fact, facing them forthrightly can minimize the chance that our rationalizing minds make excuses to indulge them.

            @Adam Treat,

            It’s interesting the way you put that it is “not correct” to feel this way, as if people have a choice about what emotions bubble up inside of them! If you think humans can somehow train ourselves en mass to not merely handle these feelings responsibly, but turn them off like a light switch, (in an effort to make us more like, what, Vulcans?) you’ll be sorely disappointed. I’m surprised you could even think this possible.

            We have to deal with the evolutionary baggage we have as constructively as we can. Strong feelings always find an outlet, and repression and denial will ENSURE they manifest pathologically.

          • Adam Treat says:


            People don’t lack agency. Neural plasticity and impermanence together with millennia of experience show that people do in fact change. Constantly so.

            I do believe it is possible to completely abandon negative mental habits like anger. I’m not alone. There is a tradition thousands of years old that has worked to empirically validate this and shown it to be true. Modern psychology is now catching up to what this tradition has known for centuries. Anger, greed, envy, hatred can be eradicated. It is not easy. It takes tons of practice and effort. Success in a single lifetime is not guaranteed. But the truths are clear…

            The first thing one has to do in order to abandon negative habits like anger is to deeply understand and appreciate how poisonous they are. To see how manifesting anger in your mind results in nothing but suffering for yourself and for others. Without becoming firmly convinced that anger has zero redeeming qualities it will impossible to completely abandon. So investigate. See if there are any good qualities to your anger. See if it ever helps you or others. Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Really investigate. Probe it deeply.

            If you investigate very deeply and come to the conclusion that there is nothing wholesome about anger, the next step is to investigate whether this is possible. Can anger actually be totally abandoned? Is anger a permanent quality or feature of being human? Is it intrinsic to who we are? Or is it merely a result of causes and conditions that only manifest when those causes and conditions arise? What are those causes and conditions? Is it possible to abandon those causes and conditions?

            Once you become convinced that anger is merely a contingent state of mind that merely arises do to causes and conditions, then you will gain confidence that it can be abandoned if those causes and conditions are themselves abandoned.

            Then the next step is figuring out how to abandon them. The answer is a series of trainings for your mind. Techniques that have been formulated by Buddhist masters over the centuries. These techniques do have efficacy. I’ve tried them and I’m happy to say it has resulted in a definite lessening of propensity to anger. Moreover, I see my spiritual heroes and the qualities of their minds and have gained confidence that anger *can* be completely abandoned.

            You say, “Strong feelings always find an outlet, and repression and denial will ENSURE they manifest pathologically.”

            I think this is the view of naive pop-cultural psychology. A western discipline that has only been practicing for a century or two. I don’t doubt that people adhering to this view and the practices thereof have had less than complete success in abandoning anger. That does not mean that others of a different view and utilizing different techniques must also meet with failure.

    • DavidS says:

      I read the piece as recognising this was common but that it ‘breaks’ Scott’s own way of thinking: with ‘broke’ meaning a combo of
      – he thinks this position is irrational
      – making himself feel this way feels wrong to him
      – it’s a sudden shift

      Not that thinking this way is somehow evolution ‘gone wrong’: the entire argument seems to me to clearly recognise that this isn’t the case.

      • conradical says:

        Hey David,

        Sorry if my post was unclear. Here’s a longer explanation:

        I’m not talking about evolution going wrong at all. I wasn’t making any observations on what is or is not the “natural” way of things (with no implications on “good” or “bad” judgment derived from “natural/evolutionary”).

        You say “broke my brain to the point where I can imagine things that make me want someone to suffer” — like it was some huge leap for you (it sounds like it was, I don’t mean to diminish the effort at all). And you use the verb “broke” like wanting to harm someone, to inflict pain and suffering almost without any greater consequentialist claim to morality, is broken and wrong.

        I disagree, and I disagree so strongly I wanted to chime in.

        There are really just two points I wanted to highlight:

        1) For Scott (and from my observations of the broader rationalist community), experiencing an internal response of “Dark Side” (per emblem14) or Dark Triad emotions does not happen reflexively to the same set of stimuli that in most people triggers a response of “pride/lack of empathy/egotism/callousness/impulsivity/remorselessness” (per wiki for Dark Triad).

        To me, this has clearly been a source of struggle that the rationalist community has for reaching outside its bounds and spreading its (good) message further than its own gated enclosure, and I wanted to flag it to Scott and other readers after reading this piece. At some point I’d like to write a longer piece laying this out more properly.

        2) Even more strongly than making the point “I think you might be missing this general human experience“, I wanted to make the point that I think these things are NOT universally bad/wrong. This is a deeper and more personal point and likely even harder to understand for Scott et al. than 1) above.

        Your second bullet, “making himself feel this way feels wrong to him” is what I also noticed. See the final sentence in the bigger paragraph I quoted from myself. And I think Scott does himself a disservice by brushing past that internal conflict with “I broke my brain, heh” — it’s not broken, this is how most people experience daily life, and it’s worth exploring and accepting instead of rejecting with casual dismissiveness.

        “Dark Triad” traits, with a strong rational framework, can be a force for tremendous good in society, both on a large scale and on a small scale.

        • Adam Treat says:

          Just because someone does not reflexively respond with irrational delusional behavior does not mean they become incapable of understanding or communicating with people who do. One does not need to *feel* what another is feeling to correctly *understand* what another is feeling. To take a dark example, many sociopaths have no trouble *understanding* how to manipulate the emotions of others even though they do not share predilections to *feel* those same emotions.

          It is just a red herring to suppose that your Doctor necessarily needs to suffer from the same disease you do in order to successfully treat you.

          • conradical says:

            The “rationalist community” as a whole does a terrible job with PR for itself and communicating its (positive) aspects to those outside of the internet blogosphere/bubble. Even among readers here, one of the most pro-rationalist places outside of lesswrong, you can see from Scott’s annual surveys that there is low interest in attending community events or becoming more involved / supportive.

            A big part of its failure for me has been the poor way that key people discuss emotional responses to various stimuli — such that it appears to me (and apparently other commenters here) that they are somewhat lacking or underdeveloped in these areas.

            This bleeds through into their judgments, responses, language, and recommended course of action in a way that I think hurts the image of the community to those who don’t immediately identify with the writer/speaker. This is worth highlighting in and of itself, to make sure that writers/speakers are aware of how they seem.

            Of course, if writers/speakers don’t actually care about communicating with those who aren’t already well-aligned with themselves, then none of this matters. But I happen to be a big fan of dialogue and changing minds.

            The second point, that I said would be harder to understand, appears to have struck a nerve with you and I think your language choice isn’t helpful to having a conversation here. “Irrational delusional behavior” leaves me with no idea what you understand by what I’ve said, other than the firm sense that you did not understand — but I will note that this is a meta-example of the exact thing I’m talking about: the specific example in question from Scott’s piece was wanting to cause harm to someone who murdered a relative. “Irrational delusional behavior” indeed.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Hi conradical,

            Sorry if you took my language as a pejorative. It was meant to be an inclusive descriptive. Buddhists talk a lot about the delusions. In our view, we all suffer from them and I would very much consider myself among that group. Delusions are by their very definition irrational. We consider the three poisons to be fundamentally based on ignorance which manifest as non-virtuous minds ie., delusions.

            To take the specific example you cite of wanting to cause harm to someone who murdered a relative: Buddhists consider this to be irrational behavior caused by delusion. To be very clear, I am making no claim at all that I don’t suffer from this delusion. I have no doubt that if someone were to harm my relatives or kids that I would be under the control of a very fierce irrational delusion. More’s the pity.

            The only difference between myself and most others in this regard may be that I recognize this is an unwholesome quality that I wish to get rid of. That I regret this about myself. Whereas most people feel that it is not only unnatural to try rid themselves of this or even impossible to do, but that to do so would be a shame or even a moral fault. I look to people like Robbie Parker and many others as my spiritual heroes. Exhibiting a level of compassion and abandonment of hatred that I can only dream of.

            In short, I do think I understand the motivation to want to cause harm to those who hurt our relatives. Only too well! Yet, I still think that this is an irrational and delusional state of mind that I myself wish to abandon and get rid of.

            Anyway, I say the above as something I’ve understood studying the Buddha dharma and not anything coming from the rationalist community.

  6. Sniffnoy says:

    So, I think it’s a mistake to attempt to factor all these disagreements into factual disagreements and value differences. I think there’s a bunch that those two together still fail to capture, and while here you’ve kind of had your two characters fit everything they’re discussing into that framework, I think if you replaced them with their real-life counterparts, they wouldn’t really fit like that.

    I really think this is a substantial mistake a number of your recent posts have made — supposing that all disagreements can be factored into disagreements over facts and disagreements over values. Now obviously one reason that doesn’t work in real life is because real people unfortunately don’t really distinguish very strongly between facts and values, but also because I think these two together still fail to cover more basic philosophical disagreements, which are definitely not about values but also not really about facts.

    Remember: Most people have not read the sequences! (Or the many other texts that say essentially the same things, but the sequences are the canonical example around here.) If they have a disagreement over the value of some hanging node that doesn’t correspond to anything in the external world, they’re going to argue about it. Is that a disagreement about values? Definitely not. Is it a disagreement about facts? Well, not really, no, not that either. And that’s before we get into arguments over how the nodes are arranged at all.

    Like, people get into arguments over definitions rather than, you know, inventing new terminology to distinguish, all the freaking time. People who are used to the idea that there are no correct definitions, only useful ones, will apply these to the diagrams above as well, but most people won’t, they’ll just argue over it as if they’re factual matters.

    I think it’s really worth noting that people are by default essentialists — we believe that things have inherent essences. (And by inherent, I don’t mean “immutable” — though that often may come along for the ride — I mean, like, “metaphysical”.) “Little XML tags”, in Eliezer’s memorable phrasing. Essences don’t actually exist, of course, but that’s something that people have to learn. And I think you’re forgetting this, in your factorization, because a lot of disagreements are about these essences that don’t actually exist. And yeah you could class those as factual disagreements, kind of, but you still seem to have missed this possibility above.

    I mean you kind of touch on all this in this paragraph:

    I think Simplicio is working off one of these kinds of models, where “lazy” is the node at the center of the second one. He’s saying that if he and Sophisticus both agree on all of the outside nodes, why exactly are they holding a debate on the status of the center, when the center is just a way to help us predict the values of the others? He feels like Sophisticus is insisting on designing the structure such that the central node has some deep metaphysical meaning that he can’t explain but which is very bad, whereas he just wants it to be a perfectly ordinary predictor.

    A “perfectly ordinary” predictor! No, Scott, it’s only people who’ve really thought about or studied this sort of thing who would consider the plain predictor to be ordinary and deep metaphysical meaning to be unusual — most people really do think in terms of the latter, though they wouldn’t put it in those terms. You seem to have assigned these characters the wrong names; what takes learning is not assigning metaphysical significance to these hanging nodes.

    I was going to apply this at some length to the example above, but in fact I think I can keep this quite short: Does laziness the behavior exist? Yes, obviously. Does laziness the essence exist? No, because essences don’t exist, period. Of course not everyone has gotten that far and may not be able to formulate ideas like “essences don’t exist”, instead just selectively noticing that certain essences (such as laziness) don’t exist and then unclearly stating ideas like “laziness doesn’t exist”. In any case, both of these are worth keeping in mind.

    (Note Sophisticus’s initial argument for why laziness doesn’t exist — he explains laziness-the-behavior. If laziness-the-behavior is caused by, like, actual things in the world, then in particular it’s not caused by laziness-the-essence, which shows that no such essence exists, is his thinking. Where here of course I have replaced Sophisticus by my own version of him. 😛 )

    But really Scott I think you in general understimate these sorts of differences in basic ways of thinking that are definitely not value differences but not really factual disagreements either.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hm. That’s a good way of framing it, but even once you frame it that way, I feel like the dialogues above are still the right way to analyze it.

      “Hey, there’s no metaphysical essence of laziness!”

      “Okay, but there’s normal non-metaphysical laziness, which we treat exactly the same way as the metaphysics-believers treat the metaphysical form, so this doesn’t actually change our behavior. Some of us just talk about the thing how it is, and other people talk about a useful heuristic that helps them point at the thing.”

      “But what if the heuristic is slightly wrong?”

      “Well then, we have real value differences. But these heuristics tend to be pretty good and we can often consequentially rederive the parts of the heuristic that looked wrong on first glance. In a lot of cases, this turns into factual differences about how important each aspect of the situation is.”

      In particular, I’m concerned that if no essences exist, emphasizing that Essence Of Laziness doesn’t exist is misleading. If you think it’s worth saying “laziness doesn’t exist” but you don’t say “sadness doesn’t exist”, then it sounds like you’re proposing some sort of additional nonexistence for laziness, which seems wrong and misleading.

      See eg discussion of whether Glasgow coma scale exists vs. whether IQ exists.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        “Okay, but there’s normal non-metaphysical laziness,

        Once again, for most people things without essences are not normal. 😛

        which we treat exactly the same way as the metaphysics-believers treat the metaphysical form,

        But that’s not true, is the thing! To someone who believes in essences, these things matter. In particular they make a moral difference, as you kind of discuss above.

        (Is that a value difference, then? I guess kind of, yeah. But also it doesn’t cleanly separate, because we’re talking about people who haven’t yet really grasped the fact-value distinction here, who still believe in little XML tags of morality.)

        In particular, I’m concerned that if no essences exist, emphasizing that Essence Of Laziness doesn’t exist is misleading. If you think it’s worth saying “laziness doesn’t exist” but you don’t say “sadness doesn’t exist”, then it sounds like you’re proposing some sort of additional nonexistence for laziness, which seems wrong and misleading.

        Yes, that’s a good point. I think the real-life version of Sophisticus is probably making that mistake… or if not that mistake then a related one. Like, maybe they have realized more generally that essences don’t exist… except they’re still thinking like someone who thinks that they may exist. Meaning that rather than remembering that it all adds up to normality and taking the lack of essences as a basically philosophical statement, they take the lack of essences as a meaningful statement and start drawing bad conclusions about the real world based on that.

        Basically, ultimately the only way to resolve this confusion is to point out that essences don’t exist — and to point out that no that does not mean the stupid thing above — and most people haven’t gotten that far.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I’m confused because a lot of people seem to think it’s very important that the Essence of Laziness doesn’t exist, but not so important that the Essence Of Sadness doesn’t exist, and it feels like they probably think this is important because knowing the former should change our actions/behaviors in some way, and I’m still not sure I have a good feel for whether you think that’s true or what that way is.

          • Tarpitz says:

            I think it’s much less clear that the essence of sadness doesn’t exist than the essence of laziness. Qualia and their attributes seem to me much better candidates for metaphysical existence than personality traits.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            Presumably it’s that those people think others are being led meaningfully astray by the implicit heuristic of belief in an Essence of Laziness, in a way not true with respect to the Essence of Sadness.

            In other words, after the Simplicio lists all the ways they tried to help Larry, Sophisticus should reply:
            “Oh wow, I guess you’re using the concept of laziness in a reasonable way then. But most people who use it, use it as an excuse to go straight to punishment and shame without considering any of those things you tried.”

          • Quo Vadimus says:

            The relevant difference between “Essence Of Laziness” and “Essence Of Sadness” here might be that we can also conceptualize the former as the activation of the brain center implementing the moral evolutionary heuristics.
            So “Essence Of Laziness” is not merely a classification algorithm from the inside, it is a trigger to an avalanche of decisions. And from mixing the discussions of “Are we as the society better off with or without this heuristic?” and “What does it feel like to have this heuristic active?” ensues much hilarity.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Buddhists who hold that prasangika madhyamaka is the highest form of wisdom do not believe that anything whatsoever has essence.

            I don’t believe that laziness has essence anymore than sadness has essence. Suffering does not have essence. Nothing whatsoever has essence including the philosophy espousing that “Nothing whatsoever has essence.” I’d also take issue with anyone saying this is a contradiction.

            Sniffoy is *right* though that most people don’t know that essences don’t exist. This is the root of the disagreement illustrated in your dialogue. You have two people who have some belief in essences generally, arguing about what is metaphysically *real* and what is merely relative. What is essential vs what is merely contingent.

            That’s how you find Simplicio foisted on his own petard. He is forced to admit that he’s doing more or less the same thing when pointing out the lack of essence in “real value difference” that Sophisticus is doing by pointing out the lack of essence in “laziness.”

            What is interesting is that both interlocutors believe that the disagreement is worth having! Simplicio believes he’s conveying something meaningful by pointing out the non-essence of “real value differences” while Sophisticus believes he’s conveying something meaningful by pointing out the non-essence of “laziness.” I agree with both of them. Why? Because it is this belief in essence that is the root of suffering. Essence utterly does not exist. All is contingent and merely relative.

            Buddha believed that this lack of essence in anything is profoundly meaningful and directly realizing it is the key to achieving the soteriological goal of Buddhism: enlightenment. Might be worth pondering why Buddha believed this… 🙂

        • Adam Treat says:

          “Meaning that rather than remembering that it all adds up to normality and taking the lack of essences as a basically philosophical statement, they take the lack of essences as a meaningful statement and start drawing bad conclusions about the real world based on that.”

          The fact that nothing has essence is profoundly meaningful. Indeed, the direct realization of truth is nothing short of the most incredible jewel of knowledge or wisdom that one could possess!

          The entire argument of this dialogue is predicated on the belief that drawing a distinction between what is merely contingent and what is *essential* is important. That is the entire motivation for the dialogue. As I said before, the petard that Simplicio finds himself festooned upon is his motivation to point out to Sophisticus the essencelessness of “value difference!”

          How does all of this cash out? Turns out that people act differently towards what they regard as essential and what they regard as merely contingent. You could say that it is merely a matter of degree or the difference in error between a heuristic vs a true algorithmic solution, but those degrees add up!

          Emphasis matters and we very much place more emphasis on that which we feel is essential vs what we view as merely contingent. This is easy to see and with just a smidgen of thought nearly self-evident.

          Scott very much thinks that Simplicio’s final point matters. That fundamental value differences are not that fundamental. He thinks it is *meaningful* and important to point this out? Why? Because people who believe they have fundamental value differences with others might *act* differently towards those people compared to if they understood that the differences were not so fundamental nor were they actual value differences.

          Sophisticus on the other hand believes that pointing out that laziness is not fundamental might alter the behavior of those who believe it is. Perhaps it will make them more empathetic towards them.

          In the end, both sides are arguing for *understanding* or empathy for a group that they feel are only contingently different. If we believe people are fundamentally different vs only contingently different we alter our behavior toward them.

        • HowardHolmes says:

          Adam Treat

          Well said. And would you not also agree that people who believe in fundamental differences do so because they, in order to exist, must see themselves as different?

          • Adam Treat says:

            People believe that things have essence because that is how the world appears to us. The illusion of essence is all around us. We believe deeply that there is a *fundamental* difference between this waking world and a mere dream. This is not a learned habit, but something that has been with us since beginningless time.

            Our existence is not predicated on our belief in essences or fundamental differences between things. That is, if someone were to see through the false appearance of essences that doesn’t mean they will suddenly wink out of existence. That’d be absurd. Although it is correct to say that if things *did* have essence, then they would not exist. Why? Because a thing having essence is an impossible mode of existence which can be known through pure reason, but that is argument for another day…

    • Deiseach says:

      Simplicio is being disingenuous here, because people do use terms like laziness as moral judgements. He’s doing it himself when talking about cousin Larry! All his examples are about how Larry lets other people down, is unreliable, is a disappointment to his parents, is a loser who will go nowhere in life – he certainly acts as if he thinks all Larry needs is a good kick in the pants because he’s choosing to be lazy because he’s just a selfish bum who puts his own gratification over his obligations to others.

      And yeah, there are people like that, but Simplicio should take on board Sophisticus’ argument: contra Sophisticus, there is such a thing as laziness and lazy people, but this is something that should be reserved only for those who truly are lazy (in the sense that they can do something, have nothing hindering them, and simply prefer their own ease over the inconvenience of expending effort – the lazy man’s load) and not for those who may have some non-visible disability that means they aren’t deliberately being lazy.

      There is a difference between “Yeah, I know I should do that, but i’m too comfortable here to get up and do that” and “I’ve been sitting here for the past hour trying to make myself get up and do that thing which I know I need to do, I want to get it done, why can’t I make myself stand up and do it?” I’ve had both of those experiences, and one of those is laziness and the other is not.

      • March says:

        There is a difference between “Yeah, I know I should do that, but i’m too comfortable here to get up and do that” and “I’ve been sitting here for the past hour trying to make myself get up and do that thing which I know I need to do, I want to get it done, why can’t I make myself stand up and do it?” I’ve had both of those experiences, and one of those is laziness and the other is not.

        Yeah, this.

        I have a friend who would be the first to tell everyone he’s capital-l Lazy. He just does what he wants to (which often isn’t much, unless he’s driven about something) and happily takes his lumps if the stuff that goes undone has consequences. He doesn’t have a traditional career but has an enjoyable life, a good network of friends (who he has a lot of time for, given that his laziness causes him to not have many commitments) and always enough work to stay afloat.

        I have too many friends to count who beat themselves up for being lazy all the time, but who are really just anxious or perfectionist or ADD or ill or autistic or overextended to the brink of collapse. They usually get a lot done, measured to their capacity, but have this perfect imagine in their minds of what they SHOULD be able to get done if they didn’t do stuff like hang out on Facebook or snooze the alarm on weekends.

        It’s that second group that’s haunted by the specter of the Essence of Laziness. They’re the ones that feel terrible shame when they do stuff that might carry just the most remote chance of being called lazy by someone somewhere. And that terrible shame actually causes them more emotional distress, which causes them to fall short of their own targets even more.

        I don’t think there’s a specter of the Essence of Sadness that has an effect like that. People can be lazy in the same way that people can be sad ( ‘I’m feeling a little happy-lazy/stressed-out-can’t-seem-to-get-things-done lazy/sad today’ and ‘my life is dominated by laziness of either the happy or anxious variety/sadness over longer periods of time’) but I don’t think there’s a cultural idea that being sad makes you a selfish, good-for-nothing loser. (There’s the cultural idea that being sad makes you WEAK and that WEAKNESS is for LOSERS, but I don’t think the shame spiral spins out in the same way – the kind of shaming that’s done for sadness is usually ‘dust yourself off, put your emotion aside and go do something’, which seems to prevent wallowing and stress-based paralysis. Or maybe that’s just how my brain takes it.)

        It’s not the term itself, it’s the connotation.

        I think a limiting factor in the Simplicio/Sophisticus argument is that they seem to be arguing this as adults. Part of the Essence of Laziness shame seems to be installed in childhood, where parents yell at their kids for being lazy for not putting away their shoes, often with threats and expletives and doom scenarios, and the kid internalizes ‘lazy’ as something essential to them that makes them worthless. My self-flagellating friends all know intellectually that if there is such a thing as laziness it applies to my happy friend, not to them, but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in how they feel about the word and the world.

        • cuke says:

          Wow, well said. To follow on that, my reaction reading Scott’s dialogue was that if there’s a value difference between these two, it has to do with differing concern about the toxic impact of shame on people.

          People raised in families where routinely shaming each other was considered acceptable (in my experience) tends to produce grown kids who are more paralyzed by shame as they seek to go after their goals, or even in considering what goals might be “okay” for them to go after. The cost of shame that I witness (as a therapist) is so huge that I would place a very high value on characterizations of people’s behavior that are non-shaming whenever possible.

          And then I think about it pragmatically — which kinds of communications with and about people are most likely to lead to good outcomes? Which kinds of communications with and about people are more likely to motivate people to make desired changes? It turns out shaming is not effective for outcomes, so it matters whether you work to remove the shaming impulse from your communication or if you let it on through because it’s just easier or more gratifying to do that.

    • Deiseach says:

      No, because essences don’t exist, period.

      This gets us far down the rabbit hole, though. It’s the classic “redness existing as a thing in itself” where you can have a red apple and a red book and a red dress and a red ball and a red sunset and so on. Then where do you get the concept or notion of “red” such that it can be held in common by all these different things? If “redness” is a physical property that is part of an object (like the apple’s physical properties of having a skin that has this particular colouration, it is round, it is a fruit, it is sweet, etc.) then you cannot ‘take’ the redness of the apple away from the apple, thus how can you say the sunset is red? A sunset is not at all the same cluster of physical phenomena as an apple!

      And yet there is something we identify as “red” and can say “the apple and the sunset are red, the grass is not”. And it’s not simply a matter of semantic trickery, because else we could say “the apple, the sunset and the grass are red (where ‘red’ just means ‘placeholder for colour we don’t define any finer’)”, because we do perceive a difference between “red” and “green”. Hence essences creep in.

      I don’t know if any Platonic essences or ideal forms exist, but I think it’s a concept that gets at something, so declaring “essences don’t exist” is true in one way, but not particularly useful in another. I don’t think there is a cloud of “perfect redness” hovering somewhere off by the Andromeda galaxy, but there definitely is “an idea we have in our minds of what is meant by ‘red’ such that we can recognise it even in things we haven’t seen before”.

      • Adam Treat says:

        It is relatively simple to understand and realize the lack of red essence. Sentient beings think it is a very complicated philosophical matter because we’ve believed in essence since beginningless time. It is much like a dog tethered to a pole. To the dog, the issue of how to unwind itself from the pole is a subject that “gets us far down the rabbit hole.” Why? Because the dog is ignorant. It lacks understanding. It can’t conceive that the predicament has a very easy solution and not complicated at all.

        Our situation is similar to that dog. Not because the actual lack of essence in anything is so hard to understand or complex… it is just so counter to a habit of believing in essence that we’ve had since beginningless time.

      • sharper13 says:

        I’m not sure red is a good example. I think of red as a particular set of light wavelengths, about 700–635 nm. Things described as red are those objects which cause light to reflect within that set of wavelengths.

        So in the absence of any light to transform, an apple wouldn’t be red, thus it’s not an inherent property of the apple, it’s a description of how the apple affects other things.

        So also an anvil or a piano or a fire truck or a moon could all smash someone if they impacted them with great force, but that doesn’t make “smashingness” some essence which those objects all posses.

        • Tarpitz says:

          I think we end up with a lot of confusion by our failure to distinguish two importantly different meanings of “red”. There is the physical property of reflecting light of a certain wavelength. And there’s a qualitative property of how those things subjectively appear to me. They tend to occur together, but they’re different properties of different things and using the same word for both leads to muddles.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Which one do you think has essence? How will distinguishing “red” in the way you recommend lead to a better understanding of whether “red” has essence or not?

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Things described as red are those objects which cause light to reflect within that set of wavelengths.

          There is a massive philosophical literature, and, relatedly, a massive psychological literature, about how this is simply not accurate as a matter of empirical fact (that is, it utterly fails to capture how people in fact think and talk about color).

          Some bits to think about:

          On your view, how do you make sense of comments like “this banana looks brown/grey, but is yellow”? (Due to being viewed under spectrally pure blue light, say.)

          On your view, how do you make sense of talk about the color of imaginary objects? (To borrow Dennett’s example from Consciousness Explained—what is the difference between imagining a yellow cow and imagining a purple cow? In neither is there any physical object that reflects the “yellow” wavelengths in the former case, and the “purple” wavelengths in the latter.)

          On your view, how do you make sense of saying that a physical tangerine that you’re holding in your hand is “orange”, but that the tangerine shown in an Instagram photo you’re viewing on your laptop is also “orange”? The wavelengths that reach your eye in these two cases are very different (in fact, the two wavelength ranges may be entirely non-overlapping); none of the light reaching your eyes in the latter case is in what we’d normally call the “orange” wavelength range.

          On your view, how do you make sense of talk about the “color” of afterimages? For instance, if you look directly at a yellow light, and then immediately look away from that yellow light to a white wall, you will see blue/purple spots; and yet there is nothing at all in this scenario that is reflecting any light in the “blue” wavelength range.

          On your view, how do you make sense of the existence of the color “magenta”? There is no single wavelength of light, nor any contiguous range of wavelengths, that will generate the perception of magenta in humans.

          On your view, how do you make sense of perceptual color constancy? View a tomato outdoors at high noon, the same tomato indoors under a bright fluorescent light, and the same tomato by the light of a campfire at night, and you will judge it to be “red” in each case (and the same shade or quality of red, to boot); yet the wavelengths of light that reach your eye after reflecting from the tomato will be very different in the three cases (once again, they may even be largely non-overlapping).

          And a bonus, more esoteric, question:

          On your view, how do you make sense of color space asymmetries/anomalies in human vision, perhaps most relevantly the fact that the impact of “wavelength” (i.e. radiometric hue) on judgments of perceptual (i.e. photometric) hue vary with lightness (i.e. dark blue is still blue, but dark yellow is brown, and dark orange is brown, and dark yellow-green is brown), and also such curiosities as the fact that color/hue judgments (as well as hue discrimination precision) vary across linguistic communities (e.g. Russian speakers being able to discern more shades of blue, but at the same time, judging navy blue as more “distant” from cyan, relative to other hue distance judgments, than English speakers)?

          • Watchman says:

            We should add that whilst we can find words analogous to red in other languages that does not mean the same range of perceived colour is meant. Indeed historically the English word red has covered a much wider range of the spectrum (we only borrowed orange as an ‘essence’ in the sixteenth century, with yellow and red sharing the space previously). An essence that is linguistically and chronologically limited is not so much an essence as a mental categorisation.

          • sharper13 says:

            “this banana looks brown/grey, but is yellow”

            In the current light environment, the banana is brown/grey. In an Earth-normal set of light, the banana is normally yellow.

            the color of imaginary objects?

            Jut like everything else about imaginary objects, I’m imagining they look a certain way or influence the world a certain way. I can imagine my pet cat to be 10,000 pounds or 10 feet tall, that doesn’t make height nor weight less real somehow.

            Re: wavelengths of reflected vs transmitted light, as well as afterimages, magenta, color consistency, anomalies:
            Our perception of color, just like our perceptions of physical objects (how much actual stuff is really there in a “solid” object), isn’t metaphysical. Our eyes are an imperfect sensor which our brain collects data from and attempts to make sense of the world around us with. Just because we aren’t perfect in that process (although we’re really amazingly good at it) doesn’t influence the actual physical reality surrounding us, it just means we sometimes have a difficult time seeing things as accurately as possible. You don’t see actual reality, it’s all filtered and interpreted. That doesn’t change the actual reality to match what you perceive, though, and if you perceive something which doesn’t match reality, it doesn’t mean something actually exists just because you perceive it. See also dreams, hallucinations, optical illusions, imagination, etc..

          • Said Achmiz says:


            an Earth-normal set of light

            What, specifically, is the spectral power distribution function of “an Earth-normal set of light”? (Earth where? When?)

            I can imagine my pet cat to be 10,000 pounds or 10 feet tall, that doesn’t make height nor weight less real somehow.

            That is a non sequitur. However, this is one of the subtler and more arguable points in my list, so if you’re in a hurry and can only respond briefly, see below.

            As for the rest, please read my questions more carefully, and if you’re going to answer them, then answer them individually. You are definitely not engaging with the very serious challenges I have posed to the “color is wavelengths” view. Almost none of what I listed has anything at all to do with “our eyes are an imperfect sensor”; and they are different problems, not examples of the same thing.

            At the very least, please say something that makes me think that you understood the point of the “physical tangerine vs. Instagram picture of tangerine” question!

          • sharper13 says:

            By Earth normal set of light, I mean the set of light waves most commonly found at the surface of this planet after they’ve been filtered through our most common atmosphere. That light environment where we decide on the default color of things, because that’s the environment we most commonly see them in. Obviously, you can relatively easily create a different light environment and make things look virtually however you want instead.

            Re: Tangerine, I took your example as referring to the differences between reflected light vs. emitted light. If you were referring to something else, then please expound.

            Re: Imagination, you said there wasn’t any physical object to reflect light in your imagination. But there isn’t any physical object in your imagination to have weight, to have height, or any other property we normally consider as something physical. You imagination doesn’t have any physical objects at all, so imagining a color in your mind is the same as imaging a height, or whatever. There is no requirement for a physical process of gravity to be present in your imagination for you to be able to imagine something’s weight. For all those properties, we have experience of them from our mental perceptions and we imagine a variation of them in our minds.

            As for individual examples, I took all of your examples and am able to group them into being based on the difference between the physical reality and how our minds interpret how that physical reality affects our eyes. If you can’t “see” that, then I suggest binge-watching brain games, as many of their episodes demonstrate lots of those quirks. Your brain doesn’t see what’s _really_ there the vast majority of the time. That doesn’t mean reality doesn’t exist outside your head, just that what you see is your brain’s interpretation of it’s sensory data.

          • Said Achmiz says:


            Re: Tangerine, I took your example as referring to the differences between reflected light vs. emitted light. If you were referring to something else, then please expound.

            Ok, I’m going to focus on this point, because (a) you definitely did not understand it (it has absolutely nothing to do with emitted vs. reflect light), and (b) it is possibly the most stark illustration of what I’m saying. (Your responses to the other stuff are also unsatisfactory, but deep into an SSC comment thread isn’t a convenient place to explore multiple branches of a discussion, sadly.)

            Here are several true facts:

            If you hold a tangerine in one hand, and an iPad that’s displaying a picture of that same tangerine (on a black background, let’s say, just to minimize the necessity of certain caveats in the description), then—assuming the iPad is not broken, the ambient illumination is daylight, etc., etc.—the physical tangerine in your hand, and the displayed tangerine on the iPad screen, will look to you to be of the same color (i.e., orange—what specific shade of orange will depend on cultivar, etc.).

            Almost all of the visible light that is reaching your eyes after being reflected from the physical tangerine will be in the 590–620 nm wavelength range.

            Almost none of the visible light that is reaching your eyes after being emitted from the tangerine image on the iPad screen will be in that wavelength range.

            Again: these two things (physical tangerine, tangerine image on iPad screen) will look to you to have the same color, and yet the spectral power distributions of the light that strikes your eyes from these two things will have almost no wavelengths in common.

            (If the light that reaches your eyes from the tangerine image on the screen contains no light in the 590-620 nm range, what wavelengths does it contain? Well, there’s going to be a lot of 620–750 nm [red], and roughly half as much of 495–570 nm [green].)

            The point, if it isn’t already obvious, is that computer screens can’t produce “orange” light (590–620 nm). They can’t produce “yellow” light (570–590 nm). They can’t produce “violet” light (380–450 nm). They can only produce red, green, and blue light. Yet somehow, a computer screen can display tangerines, bananas, and eggplants!

            This is because your eyes can be stimulated to generate the sensation of seeing the color “orange” by light that contains only 590–620 nm wavelength light, but then again your eyes can also be stimulated to generate that very same sensation of seeing the color “orange” by light that contains absolutely no 590-620 nm light (and instead a combination of light of several other, totally different, wavelengths). This is a consequence of the way that human color vision is implemented.

            Edited to add: Note again that “emitted vs. reflected light” is totally irrelevant to this distinction, since we can easily construct a device that emits only 590-620 nm (a.k.a. “orange”) light, and have that take the place of the physical tangerine in the example above; and, conversely, we can print out a color photograph of a tangerine (which will, of course, still be reflecting no light in the 590-620 nm range), and have that take the place of the displayed tangerine image in the example above. This would reverse the association from “spectrally pure orange & reflected / spectrally mixed-lacking-orange & emitted” to “spectrally pure orange & emitted / spectrally mixed-lacking-orange & reflected”—and it would, of course, change the point not one iota.

            Edit 2: Or, of course, you could compare the photograph to the physical tangerine, or the device-emitting-only-orange-light to the iPad-displayed tangerine, etc., if you really want to assure yourself that “emitted vs. reflected” is a total non sequitur.

          • Adam Treat says:

            @Said Achmiz

            Your comments and counterexamples of “red” not being a “particular set of light wavelengths, about 700–635 nm” are well taken. However, I’m curious if this indicates evidence for or against the existence of the platonic essence “red” to your mind?

          • Said Achmiz says:

            @Adam Treat:

            I don’t think I have ever said anything to suggest that I believe in “Platonic essences”. What is your question apropos of…?

          • Adam Treat says:

            You didn’t. However, I have seen people argue the inability to pin down a definitive definition of a thing as positive evidence of a thing’s essence.

    • j r says:

      No, because essences don’t exist, period.

      I don’t agree with the “period” here. I’m a an existentialist (more of a phenomenologist really), so I don’t believe in the primacy of essence. But that doesn’t mean that essence doesn’t exist. Rather, essence exists as an observable a posteriori reflection of lived experience. Essence is an emergent phenomenon that arises from existence. Or to put it as Sartre did in what is essentially existentialism’s central claim, “existence precedes essence.”

      There is certainly an essence of laziness that some people have and others don’t. Some people are more than happy to let the dishes pile up or leave a homework assignment undone or the job hunt not started. Others are filled with so much internal motivation or anxious energy that they couldn’t relax if they tried. Still others are split, with some part of themselves perpetually tormented with the desire to do things, while some other part continually stymies their motivation.

      Are these reflective of essential characteristics? Kind of. It’s not essential in that it is some immutable characteristic of their platonic form, but it is a personality trait that has object permanence. After a few interactions, we know (at least on a surface level) who people are well enough to make reasonable predictions about their behavior. More importantly, there’s really only one way to change that essence: to act. A person who is lazy because of poor habits and a lack of discipline is only going to change when they endeavor to change their habits and do the work necessary to develop better discipline. And that brings us back to the idea that existence precedes essence.

      I guess what I’m trying to do here is to offer some middle ground between the completely cool and unaffected rationalist perspective and the habit of so-called normal people to perpetually confuse descriptive speech with normative claims.

      • Adam Treat says:

        Is the laziness of a person contingent on anything? Does the fact of a person’s laziness rely upon causes and conditions? If so, then how can that laziness be said to have essence? Something that is essential cannot rely upon causes and conditions. If it relied upon causes and conditions, then it would only exist when the causes and conditions were present and would not exist when they were not present. In such a case, how could it be said to have essence?

        When you speak of the essence of laziness you are saying there is something *inherent* in that person that makes them lazy. Something inherent is permanent and essential and can utterly not be changed. What if that person undergoes a future gene therapy correcting for laziness? What if that person undergoes some transformative surgery in the future on the brain correcting for laziness? Is the laziness of that person still essential? Or was it merely contingent all along?

        • False says:

          Just to clarify the disagreement here, as you are arguing from a Buddhist perspective and jr from an existentialist one.

          Is the laziness of a person contingent on anything? Does the fact of a person’s laziness rely upon causes and conditions?

          Yes, as they said here:

          More importantly, there’s really only one way to change that essence: to act.

          The philosophical claim of existence preceeding essence is positioned as a disagreement with the idea that “something that is essential cannot rely upon causes and conditions”. Here, essence is defined as the opposite of nonbeing, as in, specific identifiable characteristics as described jr above. In existentialism, the bad faith position is two-fold in that “specific characterisitics people have are/seem imutable” in addition to ” there are fundamental archetypes that people/things fall into”. Existentialism instead posits that by our very nature as beings that have the power of choice, we also have the power of action based on those choices, and while the fact of our existence may not change, within that, what may be defined as “essential characteristics” are almost all universally changeable.

          The thing that I’m personally sceptical of is, by what mechanism does any of this happen. In the “lazy-ness” example, how much control does Larry actually have over his situation? Even if he says, “ah ha! There is no essential quality of laziness in me, or anywhere! In fact, I have the power to choose to act in ways that are not lazy! Huzzah!”, will he actually be able to change his behavior if there factors (known, unknown, understood, yet understood) working upon him? If there is actually something in his brain (I’m using this as a term of art, not a neurological diagnosis) that has made him exhibit these behaviors, while other people without having to choose don’t exhibit them, what do we call that if not essence, and what function do we obtain once we decide essence doesn’t exist/ is subservient to other structures?

          • cuke says:

            In this context, what do you make of people who have stopped smoking after 20 years of being a heavy smoker, or people who have decided to intentionally complain less and “be less negative” in ways that their friends and partners notice?

            It seems to me more that we have tendencies and vulnerabilities and that we have some power to work with them. Some people’s tendencies and vulnerabilities are very strong and others are more or less treatable by particular interventions (ie, medication). So our capacity to change may be limited in various not-totally-quantifiable ways, but it exists nonetheless.

          • False says:

            In this context, what do you make of people who have stopped smoking after 20 years of being a heavy smoker, or people who have decided to intentionally complain less and “be less negative” in ways that their friends and partners notice?

            Yes, I am incredibly interested in this. On one hand, it is obvious that people can change their behavior as well as seemingly alter their attitudes towards things.

            However, I’m extremely sceptical regarding how these changes manifest themselves. To take the example of depression, some people do seem to benefit from changes in perspective or light talk therapy. However, in my personal experience, depression hits me with the force of someone grabbing me and throwing me down a deep well. In this situation I can’t simply “choose not to drown”. Similarly, in the case of the smoker, why did they only quit after 20 years, and not 19? Was the force of their decision perhaps powered by something outside of their control (even something like hormone changes due to aging)?

            It seems that the original topic of discussion regarding Larry was, is there a way for him to change? If so, what is it? If not, why? We believe that people change, but we also seem to recognize that they may not. What we don’t seem to understand is the mechanism behind that choice/change.

          • cuke says:

            You and me both, I find this topic fascinating. For me, change is always a bit mysterious. It can happen suddenly after years of stuckness; it can happen very quickly; and it can not happen.

            I think external factors do play a big role sometimes. The two long-time smokers I know who quit — one quit after falling in love, the other after retiring from a long career. I have seen other people quit without any big precipitating event too though.

            I’ve seen people make significant changes just because they decided one day, to start exercising and lose weight, to intentionally start focusing on more positive things and stop complaining as a regular habit.

            And my experience of depression is the same as you describe. Some experiences are very powerful and take people off line for awhile and the best they can do is ride it out until something shifts. Getting help helps, but it’s not a guarantee of anything.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Sounds like “existentialism” as you describe it is just very, very, confused.

            How can existence precede essence? What is the status of a thing that comes into existence at time T without essence and somehow at time T^1 acquires essence? What can be said about the difference in function of the thing at time T vs T^1? How does the difference in the thing at the two times cash out?

          • False says:


            I absolutely agree with you as to the wide capability of change (or perhaps, impetus to change). However, I shudder to wonder if it is (and I mean this the strictest way possible) random. As in, the factors that compel us to change are somewhere totally outside of us and come to us on a timeline and in ways we can’t understand/control, like in the two examples you gave, or even something like, “one day I decided to change” and that why or how is somehow unknown to the person, and maybe actually unknowable because of its source in outside events. To what extent are we the active agents (and I can see how not robust this term may be) in our own change, and to what extent are we actually slaves to our environment, the events that happen to us, or even our knowable subconscious/internal landscape.

            I must admit that I turned away from existentialism based on these sorts of concerns. The big three (Kierk, Sarte, Camus) are remarkably silent on the mechanism of acting to change (Kierk less so, but I’m more compelled by his humanistic vision and less by his religiosity). In the case of something like as described in Hesse’s Steppenwolf where the main character basically becomes able to take all aspects of himself and turn them into “legos” with which to rearrange his “self” (like, the nonbeing aspect having a say and shaping the essence of the being), I have trouble with the metaphysical logic of the nonbeing somehow having authentic access to the mechanisms of being. Or rather, if we are no-thing, how can “something” arise from us first of all, and furthermore, how can the “nothingness” choose to arrange itself in a certain way. And also, why would it? For egotistical reasons? Survival reasons?

            I admit I have an unnatural nostalgia for existentialism in the sense that, more than all other all possible moral and ethical frameworks, I wish it were true/correct. However, considering my own life, and the weak empirical data I can glean from others, I remain skeptical.

          • False says:

            @ Mr. Adam Treat

            I think Buddhism has more in common with Existentialism than you may think. For some of my actual reservations with the moral praxis of existentialism (as per it being “confused”), see some of my other comments. I actually agree with your qualms in terms of the mechanics you outlined, more or less.

            There is a very strange coherence between the existential concept of no-thing (nonbeing) and Buddhist no-mind (anatta/nonbeing). If Buddhism would say that essence doesn’t exist, existentialism might actually agree! So what’s left? Existentialism says, existence. Buddhism says truth, which is understandable, but you might say that is slightly tautological when thinking of a concrete framework. Buddhism says, once you realize the noble truths, you become enlightened, and escape the cycle of rebirth, ending the cycle of suffering. Existentialism says, unfortunately, even when you understand such things, you still continue to exist, at least temporarily (as even the Buddha did). However, how can we utilize the knowledge of nonbeing? If everything we consider “essential”, man, animal, red, big, low, happy, meaningful, etc. doesnt actually exist, then what are these things? Buddhism says they are illusions, but existentialism posits that they may be useful tools, in the way a fiction might be useful in helping someone reach enlightenment.

            I might agree that existentialism places undue weight on these things (whereas Buddhism posits an afterlife and a cycle of rebirth, existentialism is mostly atheistic, minus Kierkegaard), but their concern is how to live one life. What allows you to be on a website commenting to me? What allows you to wake up and think, “ah! I should respond to that man on that website, slatestarcodex, because I have the power to change the way he thinks, probably for the better!” Existentialism would say nonbeing probably has nothing to do with that. It is certain essential characteristics you take on (English, internet, western and eastern philosophical frameworks) that allow you to interact with the world in this way.

            If you think about essence as “all the behaviors and characteristics we have” and existence as “the thing we are in-of-itself, the very fact of our being”, existentialism merely says that those essences are subservient to our existence. And through the ultimate action of choice, those “essences” are mutable.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Hi False,

            In my experience western philosophers usually have only the coarsest understanding of Buddhist philosophy and nothing even approaching an understanding of the subtlest issues as expounded by Prasangika-Madhyamaka in the lineage of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Buddhapalita, Chandrakirti, and Je Tsongkhapa. Comparing western philosophical systems with Buddhism can thus be very challenging and rife with opportunities for misunderstanding.

            “There is a very strange coherence between the existential concept of no-thing (nonbeing) and Buddhist no-mind (anatta/nonbeing).”

            Buddhism does not posit no-mind! No living tradition of Buddhism nor any historical tradition I’m aware of posits “no-mind.”

            Anatta is the doctrine of the selflessness of persons and is usually regarded as the most coarse understanding of emptiness/shunyata with regards to persons. All anatta means from the coarse level is: the lack of a permanent, unitary, and independent person. Most western atheists who don’t believe in a soul can see this. And yet I wouldn’t say western atheists are anywhere near enlightened. This is an extremely crude understanding that while indispensable as an outpost on the path barely hints at what I am talking about as a lack of essence ie., shunyata.

            “So what’s left? Existentialism says, existence. Buddhism says truth…”

            Buddhism does not say truth. Conventional existence is left. Things lack essence, but things exist. What’s important to understand is *how* they exist. And the answer is that they exist by mere convention. By merely being imputed on a valid basis of imputation.

            Existentialism says, unfortunately, even when you understand such things, you still continue to exist, at least temporarily (as even the Buddha did).

            The same is true of Buddhism. It is a fallacy to think that the dharma teaches that beings wink out of existence by becoming enlightened and then dying. This is just not true. It would violate the laws of conservation of energy and matter and presupposes that a substantially existent person existed before that which could even wink out! Nevertheless, beings do exist. Again, the operative question is how do they exist.

            “Buddhism says they are illusions…”

            No. The Buddha said they are like illusions. That is an important qualifier. All compounded things are like illusions and the Buddha said that we should regard them in this way.

            If you think about essence as “all the behaviors and characteristics we have” and existence as “the thing we are in-of-itself, the very fact of our being”, existentialism merely says that those essences are subservient to our existence.

            That’s not what people think when essence appears to them. Only at the coarsest level. 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."

            In that dream she is elated because she feels that child has essence. When she is devastated it is because she feels that child which had essence is now deceased. When she wakes up she will realize that the child never had essence at all… that the child was not real. This will cause the joy she felt at having the child to completely evaporate. This will cause the pain she felt at the death of the child to completely evaporate. In precisely this way people who discover that everything lacks essence will be pacified from the dhukka of desires and aversions. And yet the child did exist. How did it exist? It existed as a dream. It’s easy for us to see that dreams exist, yet lack essence. It’s hard for us to see that all things exist and lack essence in precisely the same way and yet are not necessarily dreams or illusions only like them. This is an extremely hard thing to understand or even catch a glimpse of.

            Consider another gedanken experiment:

            Three beings each perceive a cup filled with a liquid substance in front of them. The first, a god, looks and takes a sip and perceives, “ambrosia!” The second, a human being, looks and takes a sip and perceives, “water.” The third, a hungry ghost, looks and takes a sip and perceives, “blood and pus.”

            Each being has a completely different experience of one and the same thing, each according to their karma. What is the essence of that one and the same thing? Is it ambrosia? Is it water? Is it blood+pus? How can it be any of those if each being experiences it differently? And yet how can it be one and the same thing? The answer is it can be one and the same because it utterly lacks essence.

            I don’t know much about existentialism as you describe it, but I hope this helps to clear up some misunderstandings about Buddhism.

    • The Element of Surprise says:

      I think it’s really worth noting that people are by default essentialists — we believe that things have inherent essences. (And by inherent, I don’t mean “immutable” — though that often may come along for the ride — I mean, like, “metaphysical”.) “Little XML tags”, in Eliezer’s memorable phrasing. Essences don’t actually exist, of course, but that’s something that people have to learn.

      This (and the whole comment really) made some things explicit that I previously only understood implicitly, thank you.

      • Adam Treat says:

        “Essences don’t actually exist, of course, but that’s something that people have to learn.”

        Sniffoy – whether he knows it or not – is espousing something very closely akin to prasangika madhyamaka: the doctrine of emptiness or shunyata.

        “And by inherent, I don’t mean “immutable”

        Most people do mean immutable at least initially. However, when it is trivially pointed out that many things people regard as immutable are actually utterly contingent, they retreat very quickly to saying they never meant immutable, but something more sophisticated like “essential” or “inherent” or “metaphysical” or “platonic”. When given more easily rebutted examples they retreat further. And yet, the belief in essence continues. It is a fundamental ignorance.

  7. Harry Maurice Johnston says:

    Is there a missing response from Simplicio after “There’s a big difference between simple negative reinforcement and punishment.” ?

  8. Joyously says:

    We also tried to get him to go to therapy, but the therapist deferred because ADHD has a very low therapy response rate.

    So. Not actually on topic, but you guys seem like the type to consider giving some advice:

    I had crippling motivation problems a couple years ago. Went to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me ADHD and prescribed me Ritalin. I had high hopes for the Ritalin but ended up hating it–I didn’t even notice concentrating on my tasks more, just being unpleasantly jittery and hyped up. After moving I didn’t find a new psychiatrist.

    My motivation problems are somewhat better now but still obviously bad compared to my family and coworkers. Is it worth the pain to find a new psychiatrist and try meds again?

    • Scott Alexander says:


      Some people who do badly on Ritalin do well on Adderall.

      Some people who do badly on Ritalin and Adderall do better on one or another extended release versions of these medications.

      Some people who do badly on all of that do well on non-stimulant medications like Strattera.

    • Eric Rall says:

      Also, amphetamine-type stimulants come in mixes of isomers (e.g. L-amphetamine and D-amphetamine). In general, the D isomer acts mostly on dopamine, while the L isomer acts on both dopamine and norepinephrine. You can tune the mix of the effects by mixing the isomers in different ratios. “Unpleasantly jittery and hyped up” sounds like you’re getting too much of the L isomer.

      Ritalin is a 1:1 mix of D-methylphenidate and L-methlphenidate. Adderall is a 3:1 mix of D-amphetamine and L-amphetamine, and tends to have less of the “jittery” side effects than ritalin. There are also other options that are pure D-methylphenidate (Focalin) or D-amphetamine (Dexedrine). Vyvanse is the same as dexedrine, but with lysine molecule attached to it that needs to be metabolized off before the drug kicks in — this makes onset a bit smoother, and it also makes the drug somewhat less abusable (important because dexedrine is considered to have a particularly high abuse factor), but it’s newer and much more expensive.

  9. enye-word says:

    Heartstone [link to someone quoting the Consequentialism FAQ]

    Say, when are you going to repost the Consequentialism FAQ? I’d love to be able to link it to people, subtly flawed as it may be.

    [epistemic status: side-tracked by the example]
    Ironically, I do not think Larry’s moral flaw is laziness. His flaw is promising to do things he does not do. This makes him a liar. If he were merely a lazy man who played video games all the time and were content with that, I would call him an Epicurean pursuing his own personal best life. But to lie is a terrible thing.

    [epistemic status: probably repeating the OP in different words, but dammit I revised this comment twice and I’m going to post it!]
    I mean, I guess in our ivory tower of people who can think, we can use “lazy” to approximate “person who doesn’t do things”. But to the average man laziness means a magical quality that haunts your spirit and makes you a bad person, which you should excise through force of will. When I say I “don’t believe in laziness”, I’m saying I don’t believe this ghost exists, and I don’t want to use the word “lazy” because it points to this ghost, crouching in a web of moral sentiments I don’t agree with.

    Ironically, I say I do believe in laziness, by which I just mean I think people can have different propensities to do things, and act accordingly.

    • Ken says:

      His flaw is promising to do things he does not do. This makes him a liar.

      It’s logically impossible to tell a lie about a future event. He could be lying about his current intention, but he could also just be truthfully reporting his intention in that moment without accounting for his procrastination habits and likely future actions. The latter seems like a more common phenomenon than an actual lie — a casual “yes” without giving it a lot of thought or treating it as a 100% binding commitment.

      • keaswaran says:

        > It’s logically impossible to tell a lie about a future event.

        That assumes a particular metaphysics on which there are no facts about future events.

        But if you think a lie is just saying something that you believe is probably not true, then you don’t even need to worry about the metaphysics of the future, as long as Larry has the introspective knowledge to believe that he likely won’t do the thing he is promising.

        In any case, I think “liar” probably isn’t quite right here, but there is a related vice of being someone who promises things that they are pretty sure they won’t deliver on. You can still locate the fault in the original promise rather than the later failure to act.

        • sharper13 says:

          So, he’s prone to lazy behavior, but what really upsets the people around him off is that he’s unreliable in keeping his commitments, right?

  10. Deiseach says:

    Imagine a paperclip maximizer robot vs. a paperclip minimizer robot. These have a true value difference.

    Not necessarily? They both agree on the importance of paperclips, they both agree that there is some ideal number of paperclips which should exist, one simply wants that number to be as high as possible and the other as low as possible. If one of them were a paperclip abolisher, or one were a paperclip maximiser and one a peach tart maximiser, then there would be a value difference.

    And I think there is a difference, when it comes to punishment, between those who use it to mean “I wish you to pay for your offences, which therefore involves some degree of restriction or loss on your part, and to make the experience sufficiently unpleasant that you will not want to suffer it again, but not to the point of causing you extreme harm” and those who use it to mean “I wish to gratify my visceral urge for revenge and replenish the losses caused to me by my psychic suffering by causing you actual pain and/or harm equivalent, or greater to, the pain I feel”.

    That’s understandable, even if it isn’t good for a functional society – the whole point of legal codes that permit murderers to pay weregild or erc is to control and avoid the kind of Hatfield vs McCoy generational feuding vendettas – but the ones I most feel contempt for are the cheap headlines used by tabloid media to whip up public outrage and get easy publicity about “criminals living in lap of luxury in jail on taxpayers’ money!” This has nothing to do with punishment vs rehabilitation, it’s simply using a guaranteed technique to create a story and attract public attention (and sales). That’s poking the revenge bloodmonkey in the base of our brains to gibber and froth at the mouth for the sake of ad revenue, not any moral principle or value difference or even ‘we define words differently but refer to the same concept’ and I’d like to throw those who engage in it into one of the “make jail as horrible as possible” prisons they like the outraged public to call for.

    • Jiro says:

      They both agree on the importance of paperclips, they both agree that there is some ideal number of paperclips which should exist, one simply wants that number to be as high as possible and the other as low as possible. If one of them were a paperclip abolisher, or one were a paperclip maximiser and one a peach tart maximiser, then there would be a value difference.

      It’s not clear what the difference between a paperclip minimizer and a paperclip abolisher is here. But the same argument you make could be applied to any case. “The paperclip maximizer and the peach tart maximizer both agree that things should be maximized, they just disagree on which class of things”. It’s not very obvious that “we disagree on number” shouldn’t count as a value difference but “we disagree on target” should.

    • beleester says:

      I think he’s using “Value difference” to mean “Has different terminal values.” Simplicio and Sophisticus are in total agreement about everything to do with Larry – he won’t do his work, you shouldn’t hire him as a dog-sitter – they just disagree on what word to use to describe that. Which is why Simplicio can say “You know, there really should be a word for people like Larry” and Sophisticus can’t really dispute that it’s a useful concept, all he can do is grumble about connotations.

      But a paperclip maximizer and a paperclip minimizer disagree on more than the words. The maximizer wants to make more paperclips, the minimizer wants less. If the maximizer says “You know, there really should be a word for wanting more paperclips in the world,” the minimizer will say “Yes, it’s called ‘heresy.’ Why would you ever use a harmless-sounding word like ‘maximize’ for such a terrible thing?”

      Regarding punishment, we do have different words when we want to talk about those different aspects – rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution, revenge, etc. So I think you’re right that there’s a value difference there – instead of saying “Gosh, if only there was a word for hurting people who have done something wrong,” people are saying “Gosh, maybe we really do need different words depending on what the actual goal of the punishment is.”

  11. edanm says:

    Great post!

    I’ll mention again something that I always think about when thinking of the idea of punishment. I watch quite a bit of Law and Order: SVU (I’m currently halfway through). The way that most of the people there talk about perpetrators of crime is really, really foreign to me. Everything from their default assumption that having pedophile-type tendencies makes you a morally bad person (who is sure to commit some crime in the future, because c’mon, pedophiles), to often sincerely wanting people to suffer… assuming the show somewhat-accurately represents the views of “most people”, it’s just a wonderful case-study in how differently my take of morality is to other people’s.

    And it’s not just these morality issues either – it’s also often about the by-now-cliched-on-SVU question of “but they have a mental illness or some other defect, so does that mean they should be not-guilty of e.g. murder”? The entire conversation around this is so ridiculous- on all sides!

    • Carey Underwood says:

      The clue is in the name: I loved the original L&O, but found SVU to be little more than outrage porn.

  12. Unnamed says:

    Unfortunately, the psychology of reinforcement didn’t choose great terminology. They gave the term “negative reinforcement” a technical meaning which is different from the meaning that everyone wants to use it for, and they used “punishment” (or “positive punishment”) as the technical term that means the thing that everyone wants to use “negative reinforcement” to mean.

    In other words, “punishment” is both the connotationally-heavy ordinary term and the narrow technical term, and “negative reinforcement” technically means something completely different but folks reach for it when they want something that sounds like a narrow technical term for “punishment”.

    This is problematic for the portion of the dialogue on “punishment” vs. “negative reinforcement”.

    • Deiseach says:

      Same problem that Damore ran into when mentioning the Big Five personality trait of Neuroticism in his memo. Everyone immediately confused it with neurosis, and were outraged that “oh so you’re saying women are flighty bundles of nerves who are too hysterical to be able to work in STEM?” and there you go.

      However you try and pretty the term up (call it sensitivity or vulnerability or whatever), it is rather negative, but the old psychiatric usage that seeped into popular consciousness definitely overshadows the technical meaning for the personality traits.

  13. Oleg S. says:

    Is there any study where it was compared how sure people are about some X versus how sure people are about belief of others about X? And how easier it is to manipulate the latter vs the former?

    If there indeed is a difference, then I wonder how one should compensate for it when devising theories about generally accepted values and behavioural models.

  14. C.C. says:

    hi, my 2cts

    From a purely logical point of view:
    Different proofs can prove the same proposition. The same proposition can be represented by different formula, and different formula will suggest different proofs.

    From a linguistic point of view:
    Different causal explanations can explain the same set of observations/predictions (a pragmatic concept). The same set of observations can be represented by different words, and different words will suggest different causal explanations.

    Ofc, you can add fuzziness to the set of observations, social games (plausible deniability, tribe affiliation, etc.), the elephant in the brain and bounded-rationality to the mix.
    Or more generally the fact that we are neural networks and not rational agents with the right meta-prior.

  15. Jo says:

    For some reason, my comment doesn’t appear. Is there a filter? Because my comment involved something like “There is a difference of degrees. I fully understand the difference between N… and ‘black person’, but I don’t really understand the difference between ‘colored person’ and ‘person of color’.” (Sorry, no native speaker, and I am not fully aware of all American social language norms, but this is not a usage of an offensive word in my opinion, but a discussion about these words.)

    • Jo says:

      Additionally, I asked how long you need to write such a blog post (which I found very entertaining and also it made good points).

    • Rachael says:

      If there’s a software-based offensive-word filter, it’s not going to be clever enough to tell the difference between using the word and mentioning/discussing it.

      (unfortunately for the Papa John’s guy, many humans aren’t either)

      • Jo says:

        Of course, if there is a software filter, I understand that, but there is not even a warning message after clicking “Post Comment”. But anyways, after googling for Papa John, I think that case is really bad. What I also found really strange is the use of the word “N-word”. So it’s not even possible to talk about the word if you do not replace it with a code, which however requires that other people who read it know which word the code represents. This only makes sense if people are not able to understand the difference between using a word and speaking about a word. But THIS implies that “the N-word” can also trigger people and people can find it offensive. (And in this comment I feel it makes it very hard to even explain what I mean.)

    • JulieK says:

      I don’t really understand the difference between ‘colored person’ and ‘person of color’.”

      “Colored person” was the usual name for African-Americans in the early 20th century; it was even incorporated into the phrase “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (NAACP). Nowadays it is both outdated and offensive (though not as bad as the n-word).

      “Person of color” is a more recent term that basically means anyone who is not white. Someone who uses this term is probably on the left, politically.

      (Also, I think “colored” was used in South Africa for people who were neither black nor white.)

      • Jo says:

        And then what is the non-offensive term that people use who are in the political center, or something like that? And why is “Colored person” offensive, but “Person of Color” is not?

        • Joseph Greenwood says:

          The thing that always decides whether a word is offensive: connotations born of associations born of usage. I assume “colored person” was used by a lot of somewhat racist people in the 20th century, and their opinion of (colored) people (of color) bled through into how people saw the phrase.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Which means the euphemism treadmill will continue: in this world, sadly, just about any word popularly used for African-Americans will eventually acquire negative connotations, or at least connotations which will be perceived as negative.

          • JulieK says:

            I was thinking the opposite- “African-American has not totally replaced “black” in the way “black” replaced “negro” and “negro” replaced “colored,” which I attribute to there being less racism now than in the past.

      • Jonas says:

        (Also, I think “colored” was used in South Africa for people who were neither black nor white.)

        It still is.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Your comment probably doesn’t appear because it uses a banned word.

    • Richard Kennaway says:

      The words change every few years.

      Here is some history, a Feiffer cartoon, from 1968 already. A whole social history in just six frames. The cartoon is included in this New Yorker article.

  16. Rachael says:

    I’ve been having the argument over whether laziness exists on LiveJournal with a friend who posted and endorsed one of the links saying it doesn’t.
    The argument of the article he linked seems to be that, because some instances of what are thought to be laziness turn out to be perfectionist paralysis or whatever, no instances of laziness exist ever.
    I feel confident that laziness exists because I am lazy myself, and when I’m not bothering to get up and do a basic household chore it’s not because I’m paralyzed with anxiety about doing it imperfectly.

  17. Ilya Shpitser says:

    “He feels like Sophisticus is insisting on designing the structure such that the central node has some deep metaphysical meaning that he can’t explain but which is very bad, whereas he just wants it to be a perfectly ordinary predictor.”

    Sort of sounds like Sophisticus would love IQ, noted central node without deep metaphysical meaning.

  18. beleester says:

    Now I want to see Sophisticus and Simplicio talk about the word “racist.” Because that seems to be a word where you have the exact opposite intuition – you’ve objected to “racist” on the grounds that it carries really nasty connotations that shouldn’t be applied to most people, but here Simplicio makes a good case for applying a word (“lazy”) that has nasty connotations on the grounds that it does describe a useful concept and you can’t avoid that just by tabooing the word. One can imagine Simplicio saying “If only there was a word for people who make broad judgements about other people based on skin color!”

    (Actually, I don’t want to see them talk about it, that sounds like an awful CW minefield. But it parallels the discussion so neatly that for a while I thought that was where you were going with this.)

    • Randy M says:

      Speaking of minefield, Scott posted a similar dialog around “man/woman” a while back, on his tumblr.

    • Jiro says:

      The disagreement about laziness is phrased as a disagreement about “what laziness means”, but everyone is talking about pretty much the same category of behaviors; they’re just disagreeing about what to call the category and how to treat people in that category. The disagreement about racism actually involves what things to put in the category–some people include a lot, some people don’t, and some people include a lot or a little depending on what’s convenient for them.

      If laziness was a similar concept to racism, you’d have people called lazy because they once procrastinated on a single task once in their life, but they would still get fired on the grounds that lazy people are people who don’t do their jobs.

      • J Mann says:

        To bring it within Scott’s point in Against Murderism, you’d have to introduce the concept of structural laziness, for example when a society is not at full employment, and then try to combat structural laziness by tracking down lazy people, who you would identify when they said lazy things.

        (Which isn’t super relevant to the OP’s point or fair to anti-racists, but is funny.)

    • J Mann says:

      IIUC, Scott argued that the term “racism” is now so jumbled that it’s confusing, and we’d be better off identifying the specific things we’re responding to. I think he hopes that he doesn’t have a values difference with anti-racists, and that using more precise targeting will align their goals.

      For example, @RacismDog was a twitter account that barked at racism, but ended up collapsing when it it barked at a woman who punched two white bus passengers in the face while announcing “I hate white people.”* Both RacismDog and their fans agreed that racism existed, they just disagreed about what fit in the category.

      * To be fair, this only got 3 barks, while Ben Shapiro stating that people should pull up their pants and bend their baseball hat brims got 28, so it’s possible that RacismDog thought that it was racist, but only a fraction as racist as complaining about hats.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that both “lazy” and “racist” are black boxes, that they obfuscate some causal explanation for the attitude, and that we should prefer the causal explanation when we have it.

      I think that in both cases, if you don’t have or need the causal situation, the underlying term can be useful. “Don’t hire Larry to dog-sit, he’s lazy and will forget” vs. “Don’t hire Larry as a salesman, he’s racist and will insult your black customers.” Both of these seem like totally reasonable things to say.

      I think in both cases that if you’re using the underlying word to stop further causal investigation, you’re doing it wrong. “Larry doesn’t need to go to a psychiatrist, he’s just lazy!” vs. “Larry isn’t actually concerned about terrorism, he’s just racist!”. Where here “lazy” is standing in for “has some of the kinds of problems psychiatrists might be able to help” and “racist” is standing in for “has some of the kinds of racial attitudes that might happen if you’re concerned about terrorism”.

      I also think in both cases you need to worry that the word is removing valuable structure. “Don’t hire Larry to dog-sit, he’s lazy” is wrong if the specific structure of his laziness is that he sleeps until 1 PM every day, but all your dogsitting tasks are in the evening. “Don’t hire Larry to be a salesman, he’s racist” is wrong if the specific structure of his racism is that he thinks some races have a 5% higher genetic propensity to commit crime but understands that 5% is meaningless on an individual level.

      That actually seems like an important point I didn’t bring up here – if “lazy” combines too many unlike things, then it might be dangerous – for example, a way to unfairly insult a very hard-working person who sleeps late. I haven’t heard this being anyone’s reason for saying laziness doesn’t exist, but it would be a good point.

  19. Baeraad says:


    You know, I think that my issue with people who throw around words like “lazy” is that I associate that with sloppy thinking. Declaring someone to be “lazy” instead of looking at all the different possible reasons for why he might not be prone to doing stuff indicates, to me, a kind of person who doesn’t want to spend much energy thinking about stuff but prefers to jump straight to a quick, easy judgment. In other words, it makes me think they’re, aha, intellectually lazy.

    This is, to be sure, not a difference of values. I don’t think people who don’t think a lot are aliens with an incomprehensible moral code. I just think (factual belief) that people who are quick to judge are bad at judging, and (factual belief) that I therefore can’t trust them to put up with any sign of imperfection from me.

    This, I freely admit, is something I’m open to being proven wrong about, both in individual cases and in general. If I hear you decry your brother as “lazy” one day, I might suspect you of being too quick to judge. But if I hear you mention your brother on several occasions over a period of time, sometimes complaining about his laziness, sometimes praising him for his friendly and easy-going attitude, sometimes worrying that he seems to be having a rough time at work… well, then I will drift back towards an impression that you are in fact perfectly capable of having a nuanced and well-considered view on people, that your use of the term “lazy” was just a false alarm, and that I can afford to let my guard down around you.

    To prove my belief wrong in general you’d have to somehow show that people who throw around morally loaded terms like “lazy” are not in fact meaningfully more likely to be shallow and hasty in their evaluation of other people than people who carefully avoid such terms. That’s a bit harder and would probably require a bunch of educated studies, but it could theoretically be done.

    … none of which is even remotely the point of the post, I do realise, but all the same. :p

    • Civilis says:

      The problem is that this generates an infinite regression, where someone looks at you passing a moral judgement on someone for using the word “lazy” instead of looking at all the possible reasons that person may have to use that word and suggests that your behavior indicates to him a kind of person that doesn’t want to spend much energy thinking about stuff but prefers to jump straight to a quick, easy judgment.

      At some point, human interactions have to rely on snap judgements to be practical. If I go into a store, and one employee is attentive and the other seems to be slacking off, it doesn’t matter to me why the employees seem to have a different attitude if my decision making process is concerned with which employee I can expect to be able to assist me in a timely fashion. I don’t have the time to do a thorough investigation for every one-off interaction I make.

      • Baeraad says:

        Point, but I have an excellent solution to that problem – I just don’t tell people that I’m judging them. Then, if it turns out I misjudged them, I can just quietly adjust my expectations and they’ll never need to know about my uncharitable first impression.

        • Civilis says:

          I have two major quirks. I spend a lot of time doing quality related tasks at work, so I’m used to the feedback cycle, and tend to interpret critical feedback offered in good faith as a metric to know that something isn’t right rather than as an insult, and I tend to be very long winded because I spell things out in very precise terms.

          I’m never going to go up to a manager in a store and tell him that his unhelpful employee looks lazy, but if I’m asked for feedback about my shopping experience I may very well say something like “one of your employees seemed distracted and unable to help me” which amounts to “lazy” in more words. And I’ll say this not because I want the employee punished but because I want to improve my shopping experience and providing feedback will benefit both me and the store. I know that there’s a risk to the ‘lazy’ employee’s job, and it might not be deserved, but I know how valuable the process is.

          I also know that most people don’t have the time and communication preferences I do, and that it might be less useful to spend minutes going over every detail of my experience than say succinctly ‘that employee seemed lazy’ and let the manager decide whether he needs more information or his time is more valuable elsewhere.

          We’re dealing with tradeoffs. I can try to read clues, but I can’t know for sure when indicating that I have a negative perception of the person I am dealing with is useful feedback because the person can change or is not useful because the person can’t change. What’s worse, the person I’m communicating with may not know either.

    • cuke says:

      “I just think (factual belief) that people who are quick to judge are bad at judging, and (factual belief) that I therefore can’t trust them to put up with any sign of imperfection from me.”

      I often operate on the same assumption, though I realize inconsistently, because I also see some people as able to make quick assessments about situations or people and still consider them to be reliable. The difference for me is whether their quick assessments seem to be based on emotion/reactivity/heat or on experience. A dispassionate judgment is going to come across as more trustworthy to me, though I can imagine this could be questioned on various grounds (please do).

      I find that “judgment” is a word that carries, in English anyway, a couple of different meanings. One meaning carries an emotional valence, as in highly critical, quick-to-criticize, “judge-y” and the other a more neutral connotation along the lines of “discerning” (and I mean discerning simply in the sense of distinguishing between things, not as in “having fussy tastes”).

      There are various folks, Buddhists included, who make a meaningful distinction between “judging” and “discerning” — so for me the important factor isn’t how quick or slow someone is to make an assessment, but how much their assessment carries a lot of emotional heat (some might say shaming; Buddhists would say aversion) which will undermine its validity in my mind.

      The other part I hear you describe is whether the judgment seems nuanced or not, and I second that part as well. The opposite of nuanced in my mind is black-and-white thinking. So if a person tends to use a lot of broad generalizations and all-or-nothing language along with their judgments, that also undermines their credibility to me. I don’t mean to make the case that my instincts around this are right or best, more just reflecting on what assumptions I seem to operate on.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I think you may be confusing judgement, judging and judgmental.

        Judgement doesn’t typically carry the same kind of negative valence that judgemental does. Judging is in the middle.

        IME, YMMV, etc.

      • mtl1882 says:

        I agree. My parents, in particular, label people with things like “lazy” with a tone of clear contempt and certainty, and they do it all the time, with little reflection and a tone of disbelief. For some reason I can never get their judgments out of my head, and it has made my life pretty screwed up. I know it is my responsibility to get over it, but that quick emotionally charged contemptuous judgment is hard to forget, and I feel ashamed over any little thing. Now, even when they are talking about other people, even politicians, in that tone, it still upsets me. Because it makes me feel like I can’t trust them at all – if they talk about others that way, I know how they think, and I know I’m next. I also think it shows poor critical thinking and empathy, which somewhat lowers my respect for the person, if it happens repeatedly. This applies to other people as well, though it doesn’t affect me as much. If I see someone talk in a way that implies another person is almost subhuman or dismisses them with a label, I definitely remember it and lose trust. If from later interactions I see that it was just shorthand and not meant in that manner, then I adjust. Normally, it’s just shorthand – I use it myself even when sometimes I know I shouldn’t. But sometimes you can hear that emotion in their voice. It’s unrealistic to expect people to be more precise and charitable, and I know my own attempts can be longwinded, but it’s not my natural thought process to be so judgemental. And that is different than discerning, as you pointed out. I’m all for calling things out as they are and addressing things – but there’s a difference between that and judging in a way that is designed to prop up your superiority or ensure their inferiority.

  20. Akhorahil says:

    Could we make an analysis like in “Against Murderism” here? It’s almost certainly the case that a lazy person isn’t motivated by laziness, but rather, has a set of motivations and preferences (and perhaps weak willpower) that result in lazy behaviour. But this “motivated by laziness” meaning is what Sophisticus seems to interpret the word as meaning (and why he objects against the use), and that doesn’t seem reasonable.

  21. j r says:

    Incidentally Scott, does this post imply that you have more sympathy for Bryan Caplan’s take on mental illness than you had let on earlier?

    • That is what I thought when he wrote against Caplan’s point. It seemed to me that there was no meaningful disagreement with what Caplan said.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      No, not at all. The whole point of Simplicio’s argument is that there are no two categories, “true laziness” and “laziness that can be broken down into other things”, just the latter, so we might as well assume laziness means “laziness that can be broken down into other things”.

      There are totally categories like “depressed person” vs. “non-depressed person”, so “depression” continues to convey useful information. I interpret Caplan as making a factual claim – “There is no biological/phenomenological/etc distinction between depression and ordinary sadness”, which I think is just wrong.

      I’m not even sure how schizophrenia is supposed to figure into this kind of model. “He’s not schizophrenic, he’s just…a guy who happens to hallucinate a lot for no reason”?

  22. Walter says:

    Simplicio is, of course, my spirit animal.

  23. alwhite says:

    I see in this argument a failure to distinguish shame from other concepts. Punishment or consequences aren’t shame. Shame is about a person’s identity. Shame is “You are bad”. Guilt is “What you did was bad”. If you don’t do your homework, you don’t get a good grade. That’s guilt. It is motivating and gets people to do stuff.

    Shame is failing a test and saying “I’m stupid”. If you really are stupid and can’t understand Calc 3, you quit. If you fail the test because you didn’t study enough, you study more. Shame prevents positive change from happening. Guilt encourages positive change.

    Calling some lazy is establishing their identity for them and is shaming. An inherently lazy person can’t change the same way an inherently stupid person can’t pass Calc 3. Now it becomes a question of what Simplicio really wants. Does he want his cousin to stay as he is and tolerate it by complaining about it? Or would he prefer his cousin to change behavior to make his own life better?

    If Simplicio wants the former, I’ve got nothing to say other than pointing out Simplicio is contributing to the situation. If the latter, then I would start teaching Simplicio about how to set boundaries and hold his cousin accountable for his behavior without using shame as a motivator.

    Accountability is hard work and requires a lot of vulnerability. Most people avoid doing that and fall on one of two sides. Simplicio’s side is the easy path of judgment. Sophisticus’ side is the easy path of no accountability. Both are missing the real problem.

    • Randy M says:

      Now it becomes a question of what Simplicio really wants. Does he want his cousin to stay as he is and tolerate it by complaining about it? Or would he prefer his cousin to change behavior to make his own life better?

      Well, based on the dialog he in fact wanted it, gave him time to change, tried everything he could think of to facilitate the change, ultimately ran out of time and patience and concluded no change would be forthcoming and made the determination based on that.
      I suspect he would listen if you had other ideas.

    • Shame, in your sense, is also both motivating and informative. If the reason you failed the calculus test really is that you are not smart enough to do calculus, that’s a reason not to enroll in courses that require that sort of intelligence–responding with “I’m not stupid, I just have to try harder” would be a mistake. If the reason your girlfriend broke up with you was that you were inconsiderate because you never thought about the effect of your actions on others, you should be ashamed of being that sort of person, should want to make an effort to change, and might succeed.

      Your distinction only makes sense if you assume that things you are ashamed of are always things you cannot change, which I do not believe is true.

      • alwhite says:

        I’ll be more specific and say that shame is belief, but it is also belief that is focused on judging the self as good or bad.

        Obviously a person with no legs can’t run a marathon. Shame is the belief that they are bad because of it. With calculus, the point is to look at the belief after failing a test. If someone believes “I am stupid” because they failed, they have sabotaged their ability to make any positive change.

        The distinction you brought out is actually backwards. This isn’t being ashamed about what can’t be changed. Shame is about believing things can’t be changed, that actually can be changed. The person who says to themselves “I am stupid” will not put forth effort to change their calc grade. The person who says “I didn’t study enough” will put forth that effort.

        This is the pattern of shame and guilt. Most people fail to make these distinctions. I would recommend listening to this for even more info on the subject.

  24. ItsGiusto says:

    Just a sort of devil’s advocate-ish question: Could Simplicio get a pass for not liking the connotation and use of the term of “value difference” and still be considered internally-consistent, since his is a meta-level argument instead object-level? Is it possible and excusable to have different standards pertaining to meta vs object-level arguments?

  25. The center node has just as much, and just as little, “deep metaphysical meaning” as all the side nodes. This is what was basically wrong with Eliezer’s “guide to words,” even though it had a lot right. He did not see that all words have meaning in that way, including the words on the edges.

  26. oppressedminority says:

    On the term “lazy”:
    It’s clearly a thing. Anybody trying to pretend otherwise is too clever by half. Even if you’re saying the behavior is caused by a hormonal imbalance or some other biological factor, we all know what it means, it refers to a behavior and people who are prone to that behavior. And something having a biological cause doesn’t mean it’s not real, quite the contrary. Most if not all of our characteristics have biological causes. It’s like saying “intelligence” is not a thing, it’s really just that your brain is efficiently wired to solve complex problems. Or that Lebron James doesn’t have “talent”, he’s just very tall, athletic, and well coordinated, and his nervous system is particularly well tuned to the game of basketball.

    All these concepts that are well understood necessarily spring from a biological foundation which is much more complicated than the concept appears to us. Saying “laziness is not real” really means “the biological foundations of laziness are x, y, and z”. It also means that the speaker is a mediocre mind trying to impress even lesser minds.

    The attempt to change the plain meaning of words is one of my major pet peeves. Which brings me to the whole “are trans women real women” debate. If this subject is verboten I apologize and will remove this post.

    If you accept that trans women are real women, you only changed the definition of the word “women”. You didn’t actually change anything about trans women. But most people will still follow the old definition of the word, and outside of woke twitter, or tumblr, the category of “women” will typically exclude trans women. Example: if you set up your (straight male) buddy on a blind date with a trans woman, would you tell him “By the way, she’s trans” or would you not tell him because “trans women are real women”.

    • muskwalker says:

      If you accept that trans women are real women, you only changed the definition of the word “women”. You didn’t actually change anything about trans women. But most people will still follow the old definition of the word, and outside of woke twitter, or tumblr, the category of “women” will typically exclude trans women. Example: if you set up your (straight male) buddy on a blind date with a trans woman, would you tell him “By the way, she’s trans” or would you not tell him because “trans women are real women”.

      One change to consider: we are not considering setting our straight male buddy up with a trans man—your straight male friend is not attracted to maleness and would have to think of him as a woman, and your trans male friend (if he’s even into guys at all) does not want someone who ignores his maleness and thinks of him as a woman. Meanwhile our straight male buddy may not be attracted to every kind of woman, but that was already the case even before considering the category to include both cis and trans women.

      If we’re doing blind dates, his okayness with trans partners probably should be determined in the screening questions we ask before choosing them as dates for each other rather than in ‘by the way’ disclaimers afterwards. (Whether one wants to say that it is wrong for him to reject her based on this factor or not, she’s also trusting us not to hook her up with someone who will reject her for it or worse.)

      • oppressedminority says:

        his okayness with trans partners probably should be determined in the screening questions we ask before choosing them as dates

        yes, that’s the point.

        Whether one wants to say that it is wrong for him to reject her based on this factor or not

        it’s absolutely not wrong. I’ve seen people on twitter argue the concept of a female penis, and well, based on my experience as a straight male with many straight male friends, I would say that it’s a niche market. I also see people on twitter arguing that if you care about your romantic partner’s genitals you’re just a shallow person, and well in that case, yes me and the overwhelming majority of straight males are shallow. As for post-op people, again that is a niche market.

        she’s also trusting us not to hook her up with someone who will reject her for it or worse

        That is an excellent point. Which is why if the word “woman” includes trans and cis, and I tell my buddy I’m going to set him up with a woman who is pretty and intelligent without further qualifiers, I would be doing everybody a huge disservice. In this case you need to specify that she’s a trans woman.

        • muskwalker says:

          Which is why if the word “woman” includes trans and cis, and I tell my buddy I’m going to set him up with a woman who is pretty and intelligent without further qualifiers, I would be doing everybody a huge disservice. In this case you need to specify that she’s a trans woman.

          Ah. I’d understood “blind date” to mean the game where you know your friends’ preferences, they trust you to find someone that meets them, but you do not tell them anything about that person before they meet. (Even telling him the date’s gender wouldn’t be necessary; whether the friend is bi or straight or gay, in this kind of blind date it’s my job not to offer a connection he’s incompatible with.)

    • cuke says:

      I’m sorry if it is tedious to make this side point, but many people (including scientists and doctors routinely) distinguish between gender expression and assigned sex at birth. You seem to be confusing the two. Many people use male/female/etc to refer to assigned sex at birth and woman/man/nonbinary etc to refer to gender expression. There are other formulations as well. It’s a social/relational question rather than a definitional question whether you would set up your heterosexual guy friend with a woman who is trans.

      This is not an effort to attempt to change the plain meaning of words, though I get it seems that way to you. It’s an effort to more accurately describe things being empirically observed.

      Similarly with the term “laziness.” One view may be that people having trouble with motivation or focus are “lazy” and another view may be that there are multiple causal factors that lead to people being described as “lazy” so that distinguishing between those causal factors may more accurately describe what’s going on (ie, trauma, ADHD, specific learning disorders, personality disorders, situational stressors, medical conditions and so on).

      Most of the words we use carry layers of connotations — stories really. By arguing to preserve the plain meaning of words, you are choosing a preferred set of stories or connotations. Language evolves and what people consider plain meanings along with it, so that reference to plain meaning isn’t really an appeal to any particular kind of authority I don’t think. The whole history of medicine and psychiatry is rife with these kinds of meaning, naming, and category changes.

      • oppressedminority says:

        Those all seem like valid points. But I’m specifically talking about people who make the claim that trans women are real women. (Do I need to provide links to show that many make that claim?)

        I dont intend to be disrespectful when I say that they are emphatically not “real women”.

        I also believe that the term “sex assigned at birth” is a ridiculous contortion of reality and will not use it in regular parlance. 99+% of us have a clear biological sex and it is not “assigned”, it is observed. if concepts like biological sex work with 99+% of humans, it’s probably a sound concept.

        Returning to the question of “real women”, in many settings where gender is relevant, trans women are not real women:
        -medical treatment

        That being said, they should be treated with respect and dignity, and that includes not lying to them about what they are and how people will perceive them. The idea behind saying they are “real women” seems to be to erase the distinction between cis women and trans women. I dont see that being in the interest of anybody, including trans women.

        • cuke says:

          There are probably more qualified people to weigh in on this than I am. The main distinction I was trying to point to was between sex and gender. Your response seems to still conflate the two when you talk about “real women.” I think maybe you mean “real females” — though I know some people would debate the merits of using that construction.

          The world “real” is obviously doing some story-telling work here in the same way that “plain meaning” does.

          Yes, the vast majority of people are identified as one of two sexes at birth. Then there is this fact that a small minority of people would like to live as a gender in society differently from their sex at birth. In other words, there are some people who experience a conflict between their sex-at-birth and their gender. There are a variety of possible solutions available to such a person today to resolve this conflict, and one of them is to present in society as the gender they experience themselves to be, regardless of what they do or don’t do about their physical body.

          (We could also talk in a different moment about our increasingly complex scientific understanding of genetic/physical sex in a biological sense — it is no longer limited to penises or the lack thereof. I believe the word “assigned” is partly about recognizing this changing scientific understanding.)

          When people in conversations about transgender experience show confusion about the distinction between sex and gender and use words like “real” to apply to gender while seeming to talk about biological sex parts, it suggests they haven’t bothered to learn about this transgender phenomenon before expressing annoyance and judgment about it. I may be entirely misunderstanding. This is my impression talking with people IRL in other contexts.

          The use of the word “real” in this context seems to be an effort to communicate something like “Just because you’re presenting yourself in the gender of a woman, I do not recognize you as a female.” I think this stance is increasingly untenable, given that many people will not know when they are speaking to someone who was identified male at birth. I think it is also complicated for people you might consider to be “real women” (like myself) in that some of us do not consider our genitalia to be a defining characteristic of our gender experience, and indeed find that idea uncomfortable, offensive, distress-inducing and so on.

          I guess mainly I’m asking you to consider that there’s a lot about this terrain that you don’t know yet and to ask if you’re willing to reserve judgment until we all learn some more about it.

          • cuke says:

            I could perhaps have been clearer in responding to your first point about other people’s claims around who qualifies as a “real woman” that I gather you feel are absurd, in the sense that you’re offering to show me that people actually exist who would make these claims. I’m offering my perspective up just because it’s really different from yours and maybe it’s interesting/helpful to see how very differently people can approach these tangly questions.

            If you perform your socially defined gender role as a “woman” adequately according to the social norms of the time and place you live in, it seems to me this makes you a “real” “woman.”

            If your response is, “okay, fine, but that doesn’t make you a ‘real female'” people might respond variously to that. One response I would have is “at what point does a ‘real female’ according to your definition, no longer qualify as being a ‘real female’? What if she’s had a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy? What if she’s had both those surgeries, is 65, is not sexually active, and prefers to dress more like a man (though still considers herself to be “her” pronouns)?

            Sometimes it seems to me that the distress/irritation expressed by people on this issue is really about “can I put my penis in her vagina or not?” just to be very blunt about it. Like the most defining characteristic of a “real woman” is can I have that kind of sexual intercourse with her. If that’s the case, I’d much rather have that very blunt conversation because it seems more honest than guessing what is meant by “real.”

            What if a “real female” has experienced sexual trauma such that she doesn’t want a man ever to put a penis inside of her? Or what if she only enjoys anal sex and doesn’t want her “girl” parts handled at all by anyone?

            I guess what I’m asking is what’s the criteria for “real” and when have we moved from “real” to “unreal” when it comes to women or females and how will we know when we get there? And further, who gets to decide what’s “real” based on whose priorities?

          • Randy M says:

            I think it is plausible that much of gender distinctions evolved as a way of making clear who is eligible for mating with whom–perhaps even as a way of indicating who the non-combatants were in ancient and prehistoric warfare. That would make sense of the fact that men are more shamed for appearing womanly than vice versa (is that cross-cultural? Seems to be).

          • oppressedminority says:

            I understand the distinction you’re trying to make between gender and sex. I can live with it because gender typically refers to cultural aspects of being male or female, and trans people typically adopt those cultural aspects. With respect to male and female and man and woman, I’m not so sure. Man and woman just mean human male and human female. I think using trans woman and trans man is clear, it’s respectful towards the individuals involved, and respectful of the language.

            I agree the word “real” is subject to interpretation, but to the extent that woman means “human female”, and that’s what it means to the overwhelming majority of people, “real woman” means biologically female.

            Again, i dont mean to be disrespectful, but if you dress up as a tiger, you’re not a real tiger. There’s no sense in going meta about the word tiger, the meaning of a word is what most people think it means. And a person dressed as a tiger is not a real tiger.

            The use of the word “real” in this context seems to be an effort to communicate something like “Just because you’re presenting yourself in the gender of a woman, I do not recognize you as a female.”

            If I were to meet a trans woman, I would call her “she”, and otherwise be respectful. I would recognize her as a trans woman, that is someone who is biologically male but suffers from gender dysphoria. I would not recognize her as female in the areas of dating, sports, medical treatments, and reproduction, because that would be harmful to everybody involved. If she wants to go shopping for clothes though, I understand that she may want to buy dresses and make-up.

        • Iain says:


          Define “real”.

          If your list shows that trans women are not “real woman”, then it should be equally clear that trans women are not “real men”. Dating as a trans woman is different from dating as a cis woman, but it’s more different from dating as a cis man.

          Whichever category you put them in, trans people are pretty clearly non-central examples. That’s fine: penguins are non-central birds, and they seem to be doing alright. The question that “trans women are real women” purports to answer is: of which category are they non-central examples?

          You might not set your straight male friend up on a blind date with a trans girl without warning. But you would probably not set him up on a date with a deaf girl unannounced, either, and that doesn’t mean that deaf girls are somehow fake.

          PS: Also, I’m pretty confident that trans women have no illusions about how people will perceive them, and don’t need your help pointing it out.

          • cuke says:

            Yes, I was thinking similarly about deafness or other physical differences people might have.

            I get that dating and sex is a big part of people’s lives so that to some people “do you have a vagina?” is the most salient thing about the reality of a person’s sex or gender. But there are so many variables and preferences people negotiate around. Is this person too fat, too thin, not attractive enough, too tall, too short? Does this person have to be drunk or high to have sex or the opposite? Does this person like it way softer than I do? Does this person have some kink I can’t handle? Everyone has their imagined deal-breakers (even if later they sometimes change their minds about things that were previously deal-breakers).

            I work with tons of young women who are sexual assault/abuse survivors and the whole terrain of sex is hugely complicated for them. Getting triggered in mid-stream, not being able to participate in a whole variety of sexual activities that other people can, needing specific rules and limits on various kinds of touch and/or tone, having no desire, shutting down emotionally and just going through the motions. And that’s just the tiniest sample. While this may not be the majority of women, it’s a pretty significant minority. My sense is like transgender people, that as women and men survivors come to terms with the various consequences of sexual trauma, they are going to ask for more room to have the kind of sex they want, rather than just shutting down and tolerating the kind of sex their partner wants. Will we come up with a new name for these men and women? Will some people say they aren’t “real women” or “real men” and these kinds of people are deal breakers and people who date them are entitled to some kind of informed consent before dating them? What differences rise to the level of “I absolutely deserve advanced notice about this before we take our clothes off?” and are they the same things that rise to the level of making someone not “real”? And who decides?

            I also work with huge numbers of women in relationships with men who ejaculate in less than five minutes and consider sex over once they ejaculate. And it’s remarkable how many of these men consider it odd when the women suggest that they might do various things to delay this from happening or that sex might not be over if it does. And yet I’ve never met a woman who’s said “yeah, real men last longer than five minutes and/or are available for things after that.” I imagine for some women it’s a deal breaker, but probably not to the point that they’d need an answer to that before agreeing to go on a date. And yet, it’s pretty central to whether a woman is likely to experience any pleasure having sex with that man. There are just so many ways to look at all this.

            Anyway, mainly I find all these questions interesting. And I find all the discomfort around the questions equally interesting.

      • many people (including scientists and doctors routinely) distinguish between gender expression and assigned sex at birth.

        To me, “assigned sex at birth” is a dishonest expression, since it pretends that biological sex is a matter of how someone classified an infant not of the biological characteristics of the infant.

        If someone who was unambiguously male got labeled female at birth because the person doing the labeling was drunk or mischievous or careless about which name went with baby, nobody who uses the term “assigned at birth” would conclude that he was now an ftm transsexual. “Assigned at birth” is not scientific terminology, however many scientists use it, it is doublespeak intended to evade the real issue of biological gender vs gender that the individual wishes to identify as.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          No. External sexual characteristics are the information available at birth. They aren’t the only properties that are expected to comprise “sex”. Other things like genetic makeup, hormone levels, other non-external organs, etc. aren’t actually readily apparent at birth.

          For the great majority of cases, external sexual characteristics come as a package with all of the other characteristics. But not always.

          And then you also have individuals who present at birth with external sexual characteristics that don’t actually comport with the expectations of male nor female. Those individuals are also assigned a sex at birth (usually literally, on their birth certificate) despite the fact that their external characteristics are ambiguous.

        • muskwalker says:

          To me, “assigned sex at birth” is a dishonest expression, since it pretends that biological sex is a matter of how someone classified an infant not of the biological characteristics of the infant.

          There are trans people who aren’t fond of the phrase either, for different and various reasons – some discussion.

    • Adam Treat says:

      “If you accept that trans women are real women, you only changed the definition of the word “women”. You didn’t actually change anything about trans women. But most people will still follow the old definition of the word, and outside of woke twitter, or tumblr, the category of “women” will typically exclude trans women.”

      You are fixated on the belief that “women” has a set in stone “real” definition. It does not. It is just a convention and conventions change over time. The word ‘women’ like ‘laziness’ and the words ‘real value difference’ utterly lack essence. There is no essential meaning in them.

      Take someone hermetically sealed in ice in 1980 and unfreeze them in 2018 and ask them if the screen devices that people keep staring at are properly labeled “phones” and you might find someone with exactly the same hang up. They might argue that:

      “If you accept that these iPhones are real phones, you only changed the definition of the word “phone”. You didn’t actually change anything about iPhones.”

      Neither “women” nor “phone” has any inherent meaning. They are mere conventions and conventions change whether you like it or not.

      • oppressedminority says:

        You are fixated on the belief that “women” has a set in stone “real” definition. It does not. It is just a convention and conventions change over time.

        The current convention, still held by basically everyone, is that women means human female. I wish you luck in your endeavor to strip common words of their meaning in pursuit of your ideological goals.

        • Adam Treat says:

          You are factually wrong. The convention *is* changing. So much so that it is a causing you to notice and be irritated by it. Covering your ears and saying, “I can’t hear you!” won’t work I’m afraid.

          Again, words have no inherent meaning. They are made up sounds uttered by humans to convey information according to completely fluid and ever changing convention.

          You can no more give words inherent meaning than I am driven by ideological reasons to change the convention to irritate you.

          • Randy M says:

            Words have no inherent meaning, but there are concepts that practically need to be conveyed, and if we change the meaning of man and woman or whatever, but the old concept is still useful, a new shorthand will evolve. Perhaps even to the point that man and woman are not used much, if the old concept proves to be the one that is relevant more often.

          • @Randy M

            We already see the treadmill in motion in that trans women are considered real women, but then all that does is resituate women as a larger category to which trans women and cis women are sub categories. Trans women want to be real women but they still tend to refer to themselves in terms of being trans even after they have transitioned medically. This is because “trans” is a term used to convey their difference from standard women who are now resituated as “cis”.

            It is a social concept. It’s possible that the necessity of identifying as trans exists due to the need to avoid unwanted surprises in dating and the corresponding potential violent reaction, and so increasingly advanced medical technology could change that by making safe, cheap, and convincing post-op transition more widely available. If stem cells can allow for growing organs, could real functional female reproductive systems be grown, instead of trying to carve and invert penises into pseudo-vaginas that can grow internal hair and must be constantly dilated?

            So the current paradigm is only one in which trans women are women, but trans women are NOT cis women, somewhat defeating the purpose of trans women being considered women on a social level. However, if trans is considered in a material sense rather than a purely social one, advanced technology could dissolve the difference.

            We can (VERY ROUGHLY) analogize to Marxism, in the sense that capitalism is said to create conditional classes and create the necessity for the proletariat to assert itself politically and socially as an identifiable group, but the “the dictatorship of the proletariat” is merely transitional, and by enacting worker control and thereby achieving new material conditions, the proletariat abolishes its own existence (along with the bourgeoisie in the first stroke but that’s not the relevant part of the analogy). Trans people will only be considered socially equivalent to their cis counterparts when they abolish their own trans status by transforming the ideal into the material. TRUE transition in other words.

          • Randy M says:

            It is a social concept.

            I’m not sure what this means. I don’t think it is true any more than all concepts are social concepts existing in gray matter.
            It has a referent group defined by events that have physically transpired in the world. You are arguing about the decreasing relevance, and that may be true, as I allowed for.
            But, in honor of Kipling…

            If stem cells can allow for growing organs,… real functional female reproductive systems

            Then you’ll be a woman, my son.

          • I’m not sure what this means. I don’t think it is true any more than all concepts are social concepts existing in gray matter.

            I more so mean that it’s only a social concept, until it has some technical basis to it. I’m convinced the main reason people reject many trans social claims is because trans people are still as a group distinguishable from cis people in many social contexts. This is something that matters to the trans community, hence ideas like “passing privilege”.

            What I’m pointing out is that even the trans community itself has accepted a distinction from women as traditionally understood, in the very fact of self-identification as “trans”, and in the reclassifying of traditional women as being “cis”.

            When some people say “trans women aren’t real women”, the trans community baulks, but the trans community itself believes “trans women aren’t cis women”, which is largely what the “some people” are getting at in different words. The majority of problems that exist for trans people lie in their physical differences from the cis gender of their preference. There are trans people who have more passing privilege than others, but this is still a central issue, and those that externally pass may not yet have the corresponding genitalia, or have modern medical technology’s sometimes poor facsimile.

            So ultimately, the social claims cannot be fulfilled until there is some technical basis to them. When the average trans person matches their preferred cis gender in every socially relevant way, only then will it be possible for trans people to become “real”. Paradoxically dialectically, the fulfillment of gender conformant trans ideology requires the abolition of trans identity. There are, of course, gender non-binary activists at the fringes of the trans movement, but it’s an open (and probably cruel) question the degree to which these people hold a gender non-conformant ideology because they themselves pass for neither gender, and whether or not this offshoot would wither away as soon as medical technology advanced enough to make gender conformance trivial.

            But, in honor of Kipling…

            If stem cells can allow for growing organs,… real functional female reproductive systems

            Then you’ll be a woman, my son.

            Lol, very good.

  27. J Mann says:


  28. muskwalker says:

    These dialogues were so stressful to read!

    Sophisticus’ stronger argument would be sticking to destigmatization rather than also arguing that “lazy” is a baseless slur, but he sticks to it even when Simplicio points it out to him more than once.

    A response to Simplicio’s question “Is there anything that a moralist would do that [Sophisticus] wouldn’t?” is “A moralist might prefer to disqualify Larry from an unemployment-like basic income because of his akrasia, while I think the things we are calling laziness are the things that would most qualify him for it.”

    (Simplicio pre-objects to this: “Surely keeping him unemployed forever lowers his social status.” — There are employed people who make their money sitting at home playing videogames. Should it really matter socially whether society supports him because of him playing games or in spite of it?)

    Sophisticus: Let’s try this again. Please point me in the direction of the Tourist Office.

    Stranger: Perhaps you think the Tourist Office is some kind of mystical place that will answer all of your tourist-related questions and give you a perfect vacation, but that everywhere-not-the-Tourist-Office is some kind of hellscape with nothing of any value to visitors? In that case, I reject your Tourist-Office vs. Non-Tourist-Office distinction.

    (I’ve recently started noticing instances of this exact flavor of denying the antecedent and this is seriously pushing my buttons)

    • Jonas says:

      EDIT: I was tired when I wrote this. To the extend the words are Simplicio’s and not yours, my criticism is aimed at him and not you. Though I will note that the moral censorship inherent in “Should it really matter […]” is uncomfortable for some, notably me, even if attributed to someone else.

      There are employed people who make their money sitting at home playing videogames. Should it really matter socially whether society supports him because of him playing games or in spite of it?

      Your words map onto my conceptual model(s) very poorly.

      Society is not an entity that makes decisions; e.g. the decision to support or not support someone.

      When e.g. PewDiePie makes money from video games, what’s happening is that he’s creating an entertainment product that viewers enjoy watching, even with ads, and PewDiePie pockets some of the ad money. Money goes to PewDiePie because people freely give it in exchange for something they value. In the other situation the government institutes transfer payment programs, paid for with money extract by force or threat thereof (taxation), and the lazy cousin collects the welfare.

      A typical complaint about the lazy cousin playing video games and mooching off welfare is not about the video games, as far as I understand this mindset. The complaint is that he doesn’t have a (useful) job. He doesn’t contribute anything valuable to others; all take and no give, it’s a selfish and parasitic way to live. Replace the video games with reading comic books or reading SSC all day and the argument doesn’t change; the video games constitute a red herring.

      In the case of PewDiePie, the playing of video games is necessary for the particular flavor of entertainment he provides, but it’s not sufficient; it also takes recording equipment and time, work, spent editing the raw footage.

      To state that it’s all about the video games suggests either that you lack insight into what’s going on, which I find hard to believe, or that you’re being at least a little disingenuous, or something else.

      Should it really matter […]?

      Obviously this is a rhetorical question, and the answer you want to lead us to is ‘no’. It is a fact that there are people to whom it matters whether their fellow (wo)man contributes in proportion to what (s)he receives. Expressing your disapproval of their attitudes, in this way in particular, is incredibly patronizing and rude.

  29. Murphy says:

    This sort of reminds me of something I sometimes find odd.

    To me, you are what you are. You are pretty much by definition a result of events in the past.

    Lets talk about culpability.

    Bob eats babies, he eats babies because he loves the taste more than anything else, he really really wants to eat human babies more than anything else.

    So he ends up in court for eating babies and you’re on the jury.

    The doctors can’t figure out any way to suppress his baby-eating desires.

    Does it increase or decrease his culpability if it turns out that he has a SNP on some chromosome that caused his growing brain to grow in such a way that babies trigger all his food related instincts and suppress any instincts related to not-eating babies ?

    Does it increase or decrease his culpability if he had a crazy parent who regularly put him in a clockwork-orange conditioning machine linking the taste and smell of baby-meat to all positive emotions?

    Does it increase or decrease his culpability if he had a crazy parents who were just massively conventionally abusive to the point that it left him in a world of his own where baby-eating is required.

    Does it increase or decrease his culpability if he was in a traffic accident with a drunk driver that damaged his brain in such a way such a way that babies trigger all his food related instincts and suppress any instincts related to not-eating babies?

    The same traffic accident but where the cause was that he fell asleep at the wheel rather than someone else causing it?

    In the end you still have in front of you a person who ate babies and wants to eat more babies and who will eat more babies if not prevented from doing so.

    BTW: “Baby-eating” is just a stand in for lots of generic bad things.

    I hear about real court cases with things like people arguing that XYY men should get reduced sentences because their genetics may cause increased aggression and criminality. Not arguing that the aggression can be prevented, just going from XYY -> increases aggression hence reduced culpability.

    And I’m not entirely sure how to feel about such things.

    If I believed in magical souls unrelated to genetics or an individuals neural connectome I feel it might make more sense but I am my brain, I am my genes, I am my connectome, I am my experiences and joys and traumas and I am the person who they made me no matter what. There’s no special platonic realm version of me separate from but connected to the real-world me.

    The closest parallel I can think of is the weird trend of people declaring behaviors more real or unreal if you can stick someone in an MRI machine and spot their brain lighting up while they experience something.

    I’m grasping at something but it’s perhaps it’s that a lot of people seem to genuinely believe in the Heartstone-type stuff.

    • oppressedminority says:

      This mirrors Sam Harris’ argument that there is no such thing as free will, to which I am sympathetic on an intellectual level. But behaving as if there is free will is useful, and paradoxically changes the way people behave, because if anything could be excused by lack of free will, people would probably behave much worse.

      One of my favorite quotes on the topic is from Christopher Hitchens, when asked if he believed in free will, replied “I have no choice”.

    • NoRandomWalk says:

      So, I think I have a good sense of what’s going on.
      “Physical causes we can identity that cause the same behavior in lots of people are less likely to be significantly affected by altered incentive structures like shame or physical punishment.”

      I feel like I have something I call will-power. If you shame me into not eating as much food by calling me fat, I will be more able to diet. The same is not true for people with a pituitary gland condition. I don’t know this for a fact, but I claim that given two people who like and eat food the exact same amount, the first of which has a pituitary gland condition, and the second of which has unknown set of reasons S, it is reasonable to expect that social shaming will work on the 2nd person more often.

      I feel like we have a similar intuition when it comes to appropriate levels of punishment.

      The better understanding I have for why someone is ‘a monster’, the more likely I am to think punishing him won’t actually be a deterrent.

      We say ‘free will’ but what we really mean is ‘a decision process more or less malleable to modulation due to social influences’.

      • cuke says:

        Evidence from the world of disordered eating and weight loss would suggest that shaming people for being fat does not at all help people diet. Shaming has a negative effect on motivation.

        • JulieK says:

          That discounts the people out there who didn’t get into the study on weight loss because they’re already thin, thanks to the stigma against being fat.

          • Iain says:

            Which in turn ignores all the people with eating disorders because they’ve over-reacted to that stigma.

    • Adam Treat says:

      “Bob eats babies”

      Bob eats babies because a set of causes and conditions. Notwithstanding complications of QM and incomplete knowledge of physical laws… those causes and conditions can be traced back to the beginning of the universe. Bob’s eating of babies is an entirely contingent fact. Were it not for the causes and conditions being present that cause Bob to eat babies… Bob would not eat babies. Thus, Bob is not inherently evil.

      This is causing you distress, because upon hearing that Bob’s been eating babies you feel emotions of anger and outrage. These feelings are uncomfortable, but somehow more digestible if you can justify the anger with righteousness. That can only be done if you believe that Bob’s crimes are not a merely contingent fact about the universe, but somehow inherent to Bob. If Bob’s crimes are merely contingent upon factors that existed before Bob was even born, then you are not justified in your anger. That’s uncomfortable.

      What this calls for is compassion. Were you to replace that anger with compassion for Bob and for those babies, then it would not be so uncomfortable.

      • cuke says:


      • Murphy says:

        No, your response is kinda what I’m talking about.

        It’s just a generic call to abandon the idea of culpability entirely.

        It applies to bob the baby eater, it applies to that serial killer farmer who kept killing homeless people as part of a scheme where he made a few thousand dollars per murder involving passing bad cheques in their names, it applies to literal hitler and that guy who sets fire to cats because he finds it funny to watch them run round while on fire.

        You are part of a deterministic universe but equally if you are part of a deterministic universe and it has made someone into a garbage human being who the world would be better off without… the deterministic nature of the universe doesn’t negate the garbage human being bit. It remains who and what that person is.

        “replace that anger with compassion” is just an attempt at pretending to be wise.

        If someone sets fire to my cat for fun I’m not going to go “oh you poor victim of a deterministic universe, have some compassion” and it’s not wise or deep to pretend such.

        Regardless of how someone ended up being a garbage human being it’s still entirely possible for some people to end up being the kind of people better thrown into the volcano by anyone around them who would prefer the local communities babies to not get eaten.

        • March says:


          If Bob’s an obligatory baby carnivore and has no other source of sustenance, that sucks big time for Bob, but I’m still not going to feed him babies.

          • Murphy says:


            If Bob lives in a rich society with excessive resources they’re willing to devote to deal with him softly they may choose to spend the equivalent of the lifetime economic output of a few able bodied adults to guard, feed and cloth him… but a poorer society probably cannot and throwing him into the volcano is likely preferable to any more families waking up to find empty cribs.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Murphy says, “…but a poorer society probably cannot and throwing him into the volcano is likely preferable to any more families waking up to find empty cribs.”

            Could happen. And that poorer society could throw him into the volcano all the while motivated by compassion for him and the babies. Not an ounce of anger need be generated in order to conclude exactly as you have. Yet there is an important difference between throwing someone into a volcano motivated by anger/hatred/aversion and doing so without a shred of any of these. Indeed, it is all the difference in the world.

        • Adam Treat says:

          “It’s just a generic call to abandon the idea of culpability entirely.”

          Not at all. I am not saying that we should let Bob indulge his compulsion to eat babies. That would not be compassionate for Bob or for the babies. You are under the delusion that if we free ourselves of righteous anger we will be rendered incapable of action. Nothing could be further from the truth.

          ‘“replace that anger with compassion” is just an attempt at pretending to be wise.’

          Nah, I make no claims to wisdom. I’m quite sure that – like you – if someone set fire to my cat that I’d react with nothing but incredibly destructive righteous anger. In fact, righteous anger pops up in me for acts quite less than setting my cat on fire. If someone cuts me off on the highway for instance… No, I’m no great shakes.

          The difference between us seems to be that I recognize that righteous anger is a bad habit that should be abandoned. I don’t think it has even one iota of virtue in it. It causes nothing but suffering to myself and others. And I know that it can be abandoned. How? Because I’ve made some modest progress in abandoning and lessening my very bad habit of anger. Enough that I’m encouraged that one day I will abandon it altogether. That is what I aspire to.

          What’s more, I look at my spiritual heroes who *have* abandoned this anger and I am inspired to become more like them. People like Robby Parker who forgave Adam Lanza in the hours after discovering his precious daughter had been murdered by him. I don’t think that guy is pretending to be wise… he is wise.

          BTW, I accept that in very rare cases that compassion might compel killing others. But there is a very big difference between an act done motivated by compassion and an act done motivated by anger. All the difference in the world.

          • muskwalker says:

            Generally agreeing – I’m reminded of a thing Scott said about forgiveness:

            There are a lot of people who say “I forgive you” when they mean “No harm done”, and a lot of people who say “That was unforgiveable” when they mean “That was genuinely really bad”. Whether or not forgiveness is right is a complicated topic I do not want to get in here. But since forgiveness is generally considered a virtue, and one that many want credit for having, I think it’s fair to say you only earn the right to call yourself ‘forgiving’ if you forgive things that genuinely hurt you.

            “BTW, I accept that in very rare cases that compassion might compel killing others. But there is a very big difference between an act done motivated by compassion and an act done motivated by anger.”

            (A big one being that anger will try and throw them into the volcano first, while compassion is more likely to start by looking for more benign ways of solving the problem!)

          • Murphy says:

            I’m coming at it from the opposite angle, I don’t tend to get angry a lot, there are many times when it would have been sensible and productive to express controlled anger when I haven’t because I lean too far towards inaction.

            Anger isn’t some cancer to be cut out. No more than love is.

            It can be a problem if it utterly controls you too much like anything else but there are times to be angry. While I admire self control… I don’t particularly admire people who blindly turn the other cheek purely for the sake of turning the other cheek as if they’re looking for some kind of merit badge.

            Compassion isn’t the motivation to kill Hitler.

            Pragmatic action to make sure there’s a 0% chance of him pulling a napoleon is a reason to kill hitler.

            Nobody even needs to be angry in that context, though they might be .

            And re: forgiveness, sure, I can forgive things which make me angry, but I also don’t get to forgive on behalf of people who aren’t me.

            If someone kills my wife I may decide to forgive them for it’s impact on me but I don’t get to forgive on her behalf because I’m not her.

            And justice is about more than compassion, forgiveness and rehabilitation. Those are only one half of the coin. It’s also about restitution and retribution if there can be no restitution.

            Anger is a terrible thing if allowed to control you entirely but there’s no intrinsic merit to divorcing all decisions from anger entirely any more than there is to divorcing decisions from all emotion.

          • I feel like we should put Bob the Baby Eater in the volcano prison for the simple reason that Bob being in prison prevents him from eating any more babies. If anything, the more unwavering and innate that Bob’s desire to eat babies is, the more firm we should be about keeping him in there.

            If Bob doesn’t have a fair trial to determine whether he really did repeatedly eat babies then that’s no good. If some pre rule of law mob literally decides to hurl him into a volcano out of pure rage, then that’s also no good. It’s also a bad idea for a modern rule of law state to institute the death penalty for the risk of executing innocents; something we can’t take back. However, whether we forgive Bob or not, if we find him guilty of eating babies, repeatedly being the extenuating factor, then we should lock him securely away without compassion until such time that there is sufficient evidence to the contrary for a retrial to occur.

            Bob needs neither compassion or anger, what he needs is cold procedural justice out of compassion only for those he has harmed, and those he may harm in the future. The only reason it would be bad to kill Bob for what he has done is because the death penalty sets a bad legal precedent. Ideally, obvious and incontrovertible serial killers would be erased painlessly and efficiently from existence never to trouble anyone no more, but a legal system cannot work that way, otherwise it would risk devolving into tyranny. Retributive rage against Bob is bad, not necessarily because it affects Bob, but because of what it means systemically for less clear cut cases. Similarly, compassion for Bob may lead to ill advised early release without considering extenuating factors, and the particulars of Bob’s person and past, determined by an uncaring Big Bang or otherwise.

          • Randy M says:

            Ideally, obvious and incontrovertible serial killers would be erased painlessly and efficiently from existence never to trouble anyone no more, but a legal system cannot work that way, otherwise it would risk devolving into tyranny.

            I agree with you if you mean “without demonstrating the evidence of the guilt in a trial” but not if you mean “even after having their guilt shown”. I think capital punishment is possible when merited without turning into tyranny unless you define tyranny as a state ever taking a life or such.

            But I like the thrust of your post. Anger can be useful motivation sometimes, but it’s dangerous and a justice system should be coldly rational.

            Also, the points above about forgiveness are well made.

          • Adam Treat says:

            “Anger isn’t some cancer to be cut out. No more than love is.”

            We disagree. There is absolutely no virtue in anger. It is utterly destructive and does not contribute one ounce of happiness to anyone’s life.

            Anger comes from aversion. It comes from the deep seated belief that things shouldn’t be as they are. That it’s unfair. At the injustice of it all. But things are as they are. The world is as it is. Another way to say it is that we get attached to the idea that the world isn’t as it should be. And this attachment leads to aversion which leads to anger.

            There is this idea that without anger that we’d be left impotent. This just isn’t true. I don’t need anger to stop Bob from eating babies. I just need compassion for Bob and/or those babies. Of for the parents of the babies… Of for the parents of Bob… Compassion for just one person out of the huge multitude who would suffer from the act of Bob eating those babies.

            Forward Synthesis says, “Bob needs neither compassion or anger, what he needs is cold procedural justice out of compassion only for those he has harmed, and those he may harm in the future.”

            Bob is also suffering from eating those babies in a number of ways. For one, he has this compulsion he can’t control that causes suffering of others. That’s not ideal. There is suffering in that state.

            You are correct that we don’t need compassion for Bob to stop him from eating those babies. Compassion for just one of the people who will suffer from his act will do. However, what is wrong about having compassion for Bob? Again, there is this mistaken belief that having compassion for Bob will render us impotent from stopping him. That in order to stop him we must generate anger towards him. This is simply incorrect. All that anger will do is harm us and harm others and perpetuate the bad habit of anger that will continue to cause suffering in the future.

            “Similarly, compassion for Bob may lead to ill advised early release without considering extenuating factors”

            That’s not true. Compassion won’t lead to that. Ignorance will! Again, just because I have compassion for Bob does not mean I am in any way obligated to place his wish for freedom from prison above the very serious suffering that would result from doing so… ie., more babies get eaten.

            One thing that is going on here is probably the conflation of empathy with compassion. I’m not advising that we continually empathize with Bob to the detriment of others… only that we recognize he is suffering and refrain from generating anger towards him. Compassion can do that.

          • cuke says:

            Your perspective, Adam, captures for me a lot of what’s running behind this larger discussion and Scott’s post, but I’m not sure, so I’m testing it out.

            There seems to be a view that I should be entitled to call someone “lazy” or a “junkie”, or “not a real woman,” or whatever other word, and that in fact doing so is to the good because it might spur people to behave better by using “plain language” or “calling it like it is.” And generally that this kind of social shaming is a moral duty because it serves some kind of pro-social purpose.

            And there seems to be another view that this kind of social shaming is harmful, not effective in producing change, or is indulging in a kind of ego-serving anger, and is something to try hard not to do. And that the moral duty is to lean towards compassion as much as possible.

            Forgive me if my characterizations are unbalanced — I am very much of the second view and so my grasp now of the first view is not as complete as it might otherwise be.

            I definitely feel that “righteous anger is a bad habit that should be abandoned” even if I know my capacity to completely do that is limited and flawed. It’s the direction I am headed in. And that seems like morally/existentially/psychologically to be a pretty different place than feeling entitled to my righteous anger.

            So I wonder when I lay those two views out if they represent a common kind of values-based difference that will complicate the aspiration to have more fact-based conversations.

            I definitely don’t think it’s one of those “there are two kinds of people in the world” things though, because for a lot of my life, I very much had the first view, and now I very much have the second view and I feel pretty clear that it’s a better place for me to be personally.

          • Randy M says:

            I don’t read Scott as defending shame, nor as using plain speak to motivate the Larry types. His argument is more “this concept is a description of behavior which accrues negative connotations because there are negative consequences for the actor or others. We may need to talk about this set of behavior, which we all agree we can in fact observe and has effects.”

            Some commenters may feel they want to retain shame as a tool when it is effective, but I don’t think that’s the focus of the post. Whether shame is effective is a (complicated) factual question; whether it is worth the bad feelings in induces is a values question.

            I definitely feel that “righteous anger is a bad habit that should be abandoned” even if I know my capacity to completely do that is limited and flawed. It’s the direction I am headed in. And that seems like morally/existentially/psychologically to be a pretty different place than feeling entitled to my righteous anger.

            Maybe. But saying that anger has drawbacks that make it usually or always worth avoiding is different from saying anger is never justified.
            Well, maybe. Is justified a word that makes sense in a utilitarian perspective?

          • Adam Treat says:

            “Maybe. But saying that anger has drawbacks that make it usually or always worth avoiding is different from saying anger is never justified.
            Well, maybe. Is justified a word that makes sense in a utilitarian perspective?”

            Again, the “justified” kind of gives it away doesn’t it? Saying that something is justified implies a belief that the world ought to be a certain way. It is aversion to the world as it is. See here for a decent discussion. I’m sure one could come up with a definition of justified that makes sense from a utilitarian perspective, but changing the definition won’t change what underlies the habit of righteous anger. That habit is with us far before we study philosophy and adopt a utilitarian of buddhist perspective and whether we change the meaning or not won’t change that habit.

            We wish to say that our anger is right and just. That the world ought to conform to our expectations and when it doesn’t it’s. just. not. fair. and therefore we have an inherent right to get mad at it, damn it! We put off the question whether our anger is constructive or destructive because we. so. want. to. be. mad. at. this. obvious. injustice!

            FWIW, I think Randy M. is right. The dialogue really isn’t about getting hung up on words.

            Sophisticus is really imploring for empathy for the lazy and arguing that people who use the word “lazy” are insufficiently empathetic.

            Simplicio is saying, “you don’t know that those who use the word lazy are insufficiently empathetic and even if they are you should be empathetic to them in turn.”

            The way that Sophisticus does this is to argue that the lazy are not inherently lazy, but are only contingently lazy.

            The way that Simplicio does this is to argue that the less-than-sufficiently-empathetic-towards-the-lazy are not inherently so, but are only contingently so.

            Get it?

          • cuke says:

            Oh yeah, sorry, Randy M, I did not intend to refer to Scott’s post when I made the comment above about shame and anger. I didn’t read Scott as defending shame either. His post is “meta” about all these issues. I was more responding to many of the comments by people who do seem to be defending the idea of social shaming and righteous anger as pro-social goods, as a result of Scott’s dialogue about laziness.

            If Scott has an agenda here, I read it as being to persuade us that there is less territory taken up by values differences than we might think, and therefore our seemingly vast differences are not so different after all. My shortest response to that is that I perceive Scott as being somewhat invested in creating dichotomous frameworks and that they end up looking static to me — I observe in the world, in people’s lives, and in arguments, that “facts” and “values” are all woven together in a dynamic way such that his overall argument doesn’t make much sense to me (I think anyway; I’m still pondering).

        • This is a branch of the argument that for some implies equality of outcome. If the fact that I am or am not a productive individual, an individual who harms others, or any other characteristic I have, is not my fault because everything has external causes, then we all deserve the same outcome.

          One obvious problem with this is that not only, on that view, do we all deserve the same thing, none of us deserves anything, since none of us has any responsibility for anything we are. It’s not to my credit that I’m not a mouse or a stone, so I don’t deserve anything more than a mouse or a stone deserves. The implication is not a moral argument for income redistribution but an amoral argument against all moral arguments.

          The alternative, suggested above in the thread, is that “I” am not a disembodied soul dropped into a set of contingent circumstances, I am the existing person who came out of those circumstances. It is that person who deserves or does not deserve, and the question of why that person now exists as he is is irrelevant to moral judgement, although it might be relevant to decisions that affect how other people turn out.

          • Adam Treat says:

            “fault”, “deserve”, “deserve”, “none of us deserves anything”, etc., etc.,

            This betrays a worldview calling for cosmic justice. That the world ought to be just. But deserve has nothing to do with it. The world exists as it exists.

            We Buddhists believe in karma. But karma is not some kind of cosmic chit system for justice. That is a blinkered understanding of what karma means. Karma is just cause and effect. It is the simple empirical fact that certain actions cause suffering for oneself and others and other actions lead to happiness for oneself and others. Since we are beings that desire to be happy and to avoid suffering it behooves us to take note of this empirical fact and alter our actions accordingly. The problem comes because we are not always perceptive to these empirical facts. We get confused as to what causes happiness and what causes suffering. This leads to delusional beliefs like the above that some actions motivated by anger are good and just^TM when in fact they only lead to suffering for oneself and others.

            We do not exist as disembodied souls dropped into bodies. We are ever changing beings completely impermanent without an ounce of essence whatsoever. Our circumstances are contingent upon an infinite acyclic graph of causes and conditions which similarly are completely void of essence and utterly contingent. And deserve has nothing to do with it.

          • RobJ says:

            Is inequality of outcome a terminal good? It seems to me it’s just the tradeoffs that make it unwise.

            And denying that anyone “deserves” anything isn’t necessarily amoral. Theoretically, the concept of deserving something doesn’t have any moral weight without a “disembodied soul” that exists outside of nature. I don’t see how I can justify making Bob-the-baby-eater suffer if his baby eating is just the inevitable end result of a natural causal chain. Except, of course, for the fact that it acts as a deterrent and keeps Bob from eating more babies.

            “Deserve” may have some practical usefulness, but I’m uncomfortable with it’s judgmental nature. At least when used in the negative sense, it promotes a focus on increasing suffering over reducing it. “Make Bob suffer” instead of “make sure this never happens again.”

  30. Jiro says:

    I think that a lot of this sounds good in the abstract, but fails more obviously when applied to examples. There are no paperclip maximizers in real life, but there is ISIS. There are semantic tricks you can pull (ISIS wants to do the right thing, so do we, we just disagree with what’s right), but those are obviously dodges for the same reason they are dodges when applied to paperclip maximizers.

  31. Prussian says:


    This is a great post, for this specific disagreement. I think we can say that “is someone lazy or do they have X” or the kind of prisons we should have is something where the gap can be bridged and people are not, fundamentally, from different moral universes.

    But what would you say to people who think:

    – That democracy is evil heresy; that only hereditary kings are mandated by God.
    – That killing people for blasphemy is okay
    – That killing your own children for apostasy is meritorious
    – That war is a Good Thing
    – That slavery is divine
    – That race-war is normal and desirable

    Please bear in mind that all of those people have existed and, in fact, do exist. Scott‘s really good on the whole “red tribe / blue tribe” thing, and I applaud him – but I think he doesn’t quite get that beyond the shores of the US there are tribes of completely different colours. There are green tribes okay with slavery, and brown tribes fine with genocide, and orange tribes who like the use of nuclear weapons.

    That seems like a strong case for fundamentally different values.

    • Murphy says:

      The “lazy” example is just an example. Likely chosen to not massively trigger existing automatic political responses from too many people.

      Some of those tribes you can find in the USA (small tribes) fairly easily and some are among the groups that Scott argues with directly.

      To take your first example, how much do you consider democracy an intrinsic good? if someone showed you something factual and reasonably convincing that democracy was likely to lead to terrible outcomes and holocaust-level genocide and destruction for your country how attached would you be to it over an alternative that looked less likely to lead to such an outcome. Is your attachment to democracy intrinsic/fundamental or instrumental? If a perfect democratic vote was held tomorrow and the majority voted to kill all the members of [unpopular minority] how likely would you be to turn to a preference for a republic or other less democratic forms of government vs going “well, it is the will of the people”.

  32. Hussell says:

    Simplicio: Nobody has a coherent theory of when to abandon their evolutionary/biochemical processes, though. I have the urge to care about my children more than I care about some random people somewhere else. That’s clearly an evolutionary/biochemical process. I cannot justify it based on pure reason. But I choose, in reflective equilibrium, to keep that urge. What moral law can you tell me that allows me to ditch the irrational consequences of my excessive-punishment-urge, but keep the irrational consequences of my love-children-urge?

    I spend a lot of time around biologists, and their theory is that all evolutionary/biochemical processes are shaped towards the goal of long-term survival. From that point of view, emotions, urges, and so on, though somewhat flexible, are ultimately hard-coded in an individual’s genes, while the rational mind exists to take in information about changing local and global conditions and then override emotions and urges when the consequences of following them would lead to a reduction in long-term survival. Among other things, this makes it easy to justify caring more about your own children than someone else’s.

    Maybe I’ve spent too long among the biologists, but to me this seems really obvious, and I’m not sure why the rationalist community disagrees. Probably there’s some element of expecting short inferential distances on my part, or possibly this is just knowledge that hasn’t diffused out to the rationalist community yet.

    Even if this point of view is straight out wrong, it seems to me that coming up with a coherent theory of when to abandon one’s evolutionary/biochemical processes would be an excellent target for making an extraordinary effort. Shut up and do the impossible!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not talking about when things promote survival, I’m talking about values.

      For example, sex feels good because evolution wanted to encourage procreation. But people sometimes have sex with birth control, because they’ve decided they want pleasure rather than procreation. This isn’t the rational mind saying “I know how to survive and procreate better than evolution does”, this is the rational mind saying “Turns out I don’t really care about that evolutionarily implanted value”.

      But in contrast, perhaps we like Nature because evolution said lush green forests were a good food source. Even though I know that now there’s takeout available, I still like hanging out in Nature. The rational mind knows that evolutionary value is obsolete, but chooses to stick with it anyway.

      I don’t think these kinds of decisions can be reduced to a simple “biologists say we’re wired for long-term survival”

    • HowardHolmes says:

      People don’t choose to enjoy sex. They enjoy sex period and cannot do anything about that fact. Also, people do not value procreation. They value sex (like all other sexual creatures) and procreation comes from that. A rabbit has sex because it is fun and has no idea where the little rabbits come from. Evolution never anticipated that we would have a choice regarding procreation. All evolution needed to do was make us like sex…problem solved. Nowadays when people do have a choice regarding procreation, those who decide yes do so primarily as a matter of status signaling since status is the only upside to having children.

      • Adam Treat says:

        That’s profoundly silly.

        Some people choose to enjoy sex and other people choose to abstain from enjoying sex. What kind of sex, the partners we have it with, the time and place… all these are subject to choice for any common usage of the word “choice.” That our choices are at least partially contingent upon evolutionarily programmed urges is not in contention.

        People don’t primarily procreate to signal and it is not even the least bit the only upside. Lot’s of people love their kids and find tremendous upside and not the least bit need to signal.

        • HowardHolmes says:

          Scott rightly said “sex feels good because evolution wanted to encourage procreation.” Then his next statement begins with but which signals something in opposition to that. Maybe he wasn’t trying to say that choice is another reason people have sex, but it could be interpreted that way. My point is that he is 100% correct that it feels good because of procreation. It doesn’t feel good because we choose to make it feel good. If we had that power we could just choose to make eating dirt feel the same as having sex.

          As for having kids, people love their cars, but that does not mean the money spent on the car was not primarily for signalling. What other reason can you posit for having kids? Just saying they enjoy their kids tells me nothing. The important question is what it is about their kids they enjoy. It is very enjoyable to have a kid think you are great and to need you and like you. It is also enjoyable to get society’s kudoś for having kids. Certainly you would not suggest that playing with a kid is all that much fun. People don’t generally go down the block to find some random kid to enjoy. They need it to be THEIR kid to enjoy because it is all about status.

          • They need it to be THEIR kid to enjoy because it is all about status.

            As you recognize, what we enjoy has in part been shaped by evolution for reproductive success. Isn’t it obvious that a taste for interacting with your own children has benefits for reproductive success that a taste for playing with other people’s children doesn’t have?

            No need for a status explanation.

          • HowardHolmes says:


            I had three kids. They are not that much fun to play with. It seems a real stretch to suggest people have kids because they want someone to play Old Maid with. In my day the dads who played the most with their kids had dreams of their becoming famous ball players…being great or having great kids is all a status play.

          • @HowardHolmes:
            I also had three kids. The point isn’t that the game is fun, assuming the kids are young. It’s that the interaction is.

            A day or two back, at a highway rest stop, I noticed a woman with two young children. When she looked at them her face lit up.

            In my experience, interacting with your own children is rather like interacting with someone you are in love with—the feeling that this person is enormously important, has a glow around him or her. That’s a feeling that people enjoy.

          • HowardHolmes says:


            I’m sure I’m beating this in the ground. I certainly agree that people enjoy having children and enjoy making the children important. What we make important makes us important. That’s the same reason we are sports fans. Human’s live to make things important. My definition of love is “Imagining we are important to the other person.” That special feeling we get when we fall is love has nothing to do with caring for the other person and everything to do with being excited that someone likes us and finds us important. Evolution leaves no room for caring for others…other than how we care for our important car or our important house or work at our important job.

          • Evolution leaves no room for caring for others

            On the contrary. Evolution gives us a very strong reason to care for our children, a somewhat weaker reason to care for our siblings. The maximand is reproductive success, passing your genes down to future generations.

          • Adam Treat says:

            I have tons of fun playing with other peoples kids. In fact, I generally like interacting with kids more than I enjoy interacting with my fellow adults.

            And I’m not the only one. There are entire professions devoted to people whose predilection is to interact and have fun playing with other peoples kids. I don’t doubt that you and many other adults have a hard time envisioning how *anyone* would want to play with kids in general let alone other peoples kids, but I assure you that such people exist. I’m one of ’em.

  33. Nate Van Denend says:

    What about sloth? Isn’t that what is going on with Larry? He is directing his considerable energies toward the wrong end.

  34. J Mann says:

    It feels like an unjustified stretch to say that because Simplicio and Sophisticus happen to have most of the same underlying factual beliefs, that means values debates are frequently fake.

    Sophisticus: You’re right, Simplicio, we are both rationalists in the grip of Aumann’s whatsit, and it turns out that our object level beliefs about people who don’t have much grit are similar. Maybe values debates are fake.

    Commonsensius: I think laziness is immoral in and of itself and deserves shaming on its own behalf.

    Simplicio: Don’t you mean that you think that we benefit overall from societal values that valorize the work ethic, and that normalizing or medicalizing lack of grit will encourage more of it, leading to non-utilitarian outcomes.

    Commonsensius: I employ rational ignorance not to think about those things. Valorizing a work ethic and shaming sloth seem to have worked out well for the societies I admire, and I’m going to stick with it.

    Sophisticus: But if we trained you to be a rationalist, and you came to the conclusion that not shaming laziness was overall utilitarian, you might change your mind about whether it was immoral?

    Commonsensius: Yes, probably. I don’t think laziness is so immoral that shaming it is worth harming society overall.

    Simplicio: Aha, so you don’t have a values difference from us – you just have some deep seated priors that you update extremely slowly without extraordinary evidence!

    Commonsensius: Those are called “values.” What do you think values are?

    • Doctor Mist says:

      If possible I like this even more than Scott’s dialog. And I liked Scott’s dialog a lot.

    • phi says:

      Simplicio: Aha, so you don’t have a values difference from us – you just have some deep seated priors that you update extremely slowly without extraordinary evidence!

      Interestingly, Bayes’ theorem doesn’t really give you a choice about how much you update your priors once you know p(A|H) and p(A|~H). The prior odds of a hypothesis are always multiplied by the Bayes factor of your evidence. So if you want your priors about H to only be overturned by extraordinary evidence, the only way to do it is to have those priors be very very close to either 0 or 1. That evidence will update your priors as quickly as always, but there will be a much longer distance to cover.

      Definitions of Bayes factor here.

      • J Mann says:

        Thanks, I appreciate it! I’ll read up on Bayes and try to express myself more clearly next time.

  35. moridinamael says:

    The arc of the debate reminds me of the “cognitive decoupling” framework that people recently used to characterize the Harris-Klein debate.

    It seems to me that this might be the defining characteristic, perhaps the most fundamental characteristic, distinguishing the two participants in the dialogue.

    For Simplicio, nearly-complete decoupling is a natural way of thinking, and he projects this frame implicitly onto everybody else. He’s able to admit that the words invoke certain connotations, but for him it’s a minor side effect of lossy linguistic communication and not a problem so serious that it requires language policing.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Simplicio is the one who frames things in terms of the mind being godshatter. It’s natural and comfortable for him to view cognition as the broken, repurposed remnants of something different – a classic quality of high-decouplers, to be prone to thinking in the abstract, breaking things into parts, automatically espousing whatever the opposite of holism is. For Simplicio, to view the nature of the mind as competing evolved impulses is to have largely solved the entire problem.

    For Sophisticus, cognitive coupling is tight, and he also projects this frame implicitly (or even explicitly) onto everybody else. For him, the words we use are like magic spells, 1% conscious comprehension and 99% subconscious cognitive reprogramming. He wants us to avoid harmful words because of that subconscious impact. I’ll also note that despite myself siding with Simplicio mostly, I think Simplicio is probably truly not properly appreciating the magnitude of the subconscious impact of words. His decoupling is unrealistically complete and optimistic. Sophisticus is more of a total holist, able to verbally admit that humans are godshatter, but doubting that knowing this fact can really do any work – even if a clock learns that it’s made of gears, the clock still breaks if you remove or change a gear, and awareness of its own gears doesn’t change how gears work. Mere awareness of our nature is meaningless by itself.

    The cognitive decoupling distinction cuts right down to the explicit heart of the disagreement, over whether most/all value differences are fundamental or merely factual in some subtle way. If you think about a human holistically and you ask the kinds of questions you would ask if you thought of a human as One Agent, then value differences look pretty darn fundamental. If you think anti-holistically, then there’s no such thing as value differences because there’s no such thing as values at that level of resolution.

  36. maintain says:

    >They didn’t anything on the lab tests

    I think you accidentally a word.

  37. guardianpsych says:

    Surely its about choice?

    Simplicio believes that lazy people have the choice to not behave the way they do, and Sophisticus doesn’t.

    Therefore Sophisticus looks for causes why the lazy don’t have choice and Simplicio blames the lazy for making a bad one.

    Weirdly, Sophisticus looking for causes assumes that if the lazy could choose they would make a different choice and Simplicio assumes that by removing their ability to choose something else, he can make them not be lazy. Which he thinks is a choice.

    There is also an irony in that Simplicio assumes that people will be too lazy to do as Sophisticus suggests and use alternative terminology to lazy.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Simplicio believes that lazy people have the choice to not behave the way they do, and Sophisticus doesn’t.

      At least for part of the dialog, he appears to be making the point that it doesn’t matter. Whether Larry has a choice or not, we know with high confidence which actions he’ll take, and that’s enough to describe him as “lazy” and not rely on him or hire him in positions of responsibility.

  38. Nate the Albatross says:

    I disagree with calling Larry “lazy”… Lazy is when I would show up on time to help you move, and bring moving straps and a moving dolly and rent a truck and lift a lot of the stuff… but I’d much rather pay some guys from the Uhaul app $140 to do it for me.

    In other words, I’m lazy because I’m totally capable of helping you move your house. I’ve moved many, many people. They all loved my contribution to the effort. But I hate it. And if I care about you and there is any way I can possibly justify the expense I will pay for your movers and skip helping you. Because I am lazy.

    And I know other people who aren’t lazy – people who will help you and be glad they did instead of bitter you wouldn’t let me hire movers. But they never arrive anywhere on time. And they don’t do things they say they would do. And sometimes they don’t get out of bed when they are supposed to be somewhere. That isn’t laziness, they are sick. They have mental and physical aliments that prevent them from doing what they want to do. A guy in a wheelchair isn’t lazy. He is disabled. Very, very different.

    I’m lazy. I’m up at 5:30am on the day of your move, sipping coffee and reading. I’m going out for some exercise later. And I text you to make sure the movers helped you out and you are super pleased. It was 100% within my power and ability to help you move and I refused because I’m lazy. If you had asked me to dogsit, babysit or organize a huge event I would have done those things – because I LIKE doing those things. But I hate helping people move. It is hot, sweaty, my back hurts and there are never enough water breaks or bathroom breaks and I’m always first to arrive and last to leave. I’d rather pay people whose job it is to move you $140 to load and unload your stuff because I myself would charge at least $300 for that sort of thing and still feel I was giving you a discount.

    Lazy is a choice. Mental illness isn’t. If we give Larry some modafinil or some future drug and he starts working harder, then lazy was a poor choice of words. If you give me some modafinil all I’m going to do it line up some backup movers in case my first choice of hires don’t show.

    • cuke says:

      Oh, I really like this distinction! Though I wonder if by this definition we aren’t all more or less equally lazy and the person who opts to help move their friend rather than pay for it just enjoys the sweaty labor of it more than you do.

    • sharper13 says:

      Yeah, as noted earlier in the threads, “lazy” may not be as good a word to describe Larry as “unreliable”, as his primary issue he hurts others with is he makes commitments to be responsible for something, then doesn’t do it. You can be both lazy and unreliable, but you can also be only one or the other.

  39. srconstantin says:

    Ok, I want to respond to this one, because it’s pretty close to my heart.

    You ever read I Never Promised You A Rose Garden? It’s one of the classic memoirs of mental illness, up there with The Bell Jar, and I’m kind of embarrassed I like it so much, but whatever. The autobiographical main character, Hannah, is a schizophrenic teenage girl, and she has her own made-up language, and one of the words in it is nganon, which means essence. The kind of mystical inherent essence Sophisticus keeps denying the existence of. Hannah feels her nganon is evil and toxic.

    And this is a real thing.

    When I was depressed (a period which honestly lasted from age 11 to 29, when I got on adequate doses of antidepressants), I could feel my “essence” being evil; even after I knew intellectually that I hadn’t done anything, I had a direct sensation of evil in the same way that a normal person has a direct sensation of hunger.

    I don’t know how to emphasize enough, to someone who has lived that way, that this is a horrible experience. But, Scott, you’ve reported on your experience with seriously depressed patients talking about a similar sensation. Can we agree that this is not a good way to feel?

    When I was trying to recover but doing a bad job of it, I was very attracted to messages that told me that my nganon wasn’t evil after all. Things like “all men are created equal”, “your life belongs to you and the good is to live it,” messages about humanity and life being good in essence, messages that guilt was unnecessary, messages about blessing all beings with good will (like in metta meditation, or like in Walt Whitman.) These thoughts sometimes brought me reprieve.

    I realize that universal blessing isn’t meaningful in the way Simplicio wants things to be meaningful; it doesn’t distinguish between things, so how does it even function as a concept? Sometimes that would frustrate me too — when I saw self-improvement books that wanted to reassure me You Are Okay irrespective of anything I had or hadn’t done, it didn’t seem to make sense. What does “okay” even mean, if everything can be okay?

    I’m not that much wiser now than I was then; I’m just on SSRIs. But I can tell you for damn sure that everything can feel okay, even if some things are better than others. I can feel my nganon being good now, as surely as I felt it being evil before. I wish I could give everybody the message “Your nganon is good!” But I admit that sentence isn’t what we usually mean when we talk about a “true statement about the world.”

    Once I could feel that my nganon was good, I had much more ability to appreciate negative or judgmental ideas like “laziness”, though I still have some distaste for them. I can see that non-depressed people are often saying “you should work harder [but your inherent personhood and essence is positive and I bless you]” rather than “you should work harder [but of course you won’t, because your inherent essence is toxic and tainted and actually you deserve to be tortured for eternity]”. Even concepts of “sin” from different philosophers are very different in their subtext — Augustine is very clearly a person focused hard on humility and repentance but not perceiving his essence as evil, he’s a healthy but hyper-conscientious person, while Luther is visibly experiencing exactly the stuff I was. In your words, Luther’s the one I have a “fundamental values difference” with. The “life is bad, suffering is good, everyone’s nganon is evil” energy — that does exist, and I am fundamentally opposed to it. But it’s not predominant in every Christian or every altruist or every “judgmental” person. And it was tempting to me, when I was still susceptible to that “negative energy”, to ascribe it too freely to people I merely had shallower disagreements with.

    From the perspective of months of sanity and happiness, it seems superfluous for me to continue going around saying “actually it’s NOT the case that everything is evil and everyone is damned.” I haven’t even thought about that issue in a long time. So, I can imagine that “you are valid” and “you’re not really lazy” and suchlike comments seem odd and meaningless if you’ve always been sane. But they do mean a thing. Maybe not a thing that words or logic are designed to convey. Maybe they just “mean” the thing that a smile means.

    • srconstantin says:

      I think I’m ambivalent as to the proper role of “shoulds” and herding people or using moral suasion on people in general; they would be harmless if they didn’t also carry the implication of “your nganon is bad” or what you might call “essential negativity”, or “magical negativity”, or this mystery of emotional valence — but valence is really important and contagious as hell, and sometimes even a small touch of negativity can utterly destroy cooperation or the ability to think creatively. And that’s what makes me inclined to take the “attract your tribe, don’t try to convince anybody who’s on a different side” approach to values differences, with fewer attempts to reach across divides than you do; trying to push people to be different from the way they are threatens to taint me and them with too much negativity.

      • cuke says:

        Both your comments here are so well said and capture such a potent part of the depression experience, which is in a continuum with a lot of human experience to a less intense degree.

        The plain ol’ cognitive behavioral therapists labeled the “shoulds” as toxic long ago. And truly they are, though it’s hard to persuade a person that they won’t collapse into being a total failure if they don’t hound themselves with shoulds. Most of us were raised on a steady diet of shoulds and most of us still use them when talking to each other, without really investigating their impact on our mental states.

        It’s helpful to hear you say the things you found uplifting in those dark times — the universal messages of worthiness. There’s a brutal way that depression’s mind state acts to cut us from the herd. So many clients I work with who deal with depression a lot have an underlying “I deserve to be punished” story running in the background or versions of that. And there is such a powerful tendency to view oneself and others as essentially bad from that place, and then that belief in everything’s badness becomes self-reinforcing. And very hard to convince a person in that place that this world view is a product of the depression and not a true fact about the world. God what a tangled horror depression is. So helpful to hear what were the kinds of messages that you could hear, that could create a tiny crack of light even in the thick of it.

        And then so remarkable to see how once not in that place that this idea that we are bad at the core just kind of falls away, loses its power. I have seen that so many times it makes me question the value of the cognitive therapy, of course. And yet it does seem to help to tackle it at every level, even when it only seems like tiny glimpses of a non-depressive reality might sneak in. And too when trauma has really drilled these unworthiness messages in, it takes practice for a person to shake them off.

        There is an interesting dance that Buddhists do around this nganon idea, because on the one hand they say there is no unchanging essence or reality to anything, that the whole of human experience is us relating to our minds. But then they also say that the underlying reality is fundamentally good. And they promote an ethical system designed to support experiencing this goodness.

        Most days, I have decided to take this goodness on faith in a pragmatic way, because it leads to less suffering for me and everyone who has contact with me.

        • cuke says:

          “but valence is really important and contagious as hell, and sometimes even a small touch of negativity can utterly destroy cooperation or the ability to think creatively”

          I believe this is true also and as I read Scott’s dialogue felt that one of the value, rather than fact, differences in the conversation has to do with how much a person considers your statement here to be true. If you believe it to be true, it will matter a lot to you how the word “lazy” is getting used; if you don’t believe this to be true, then you are likely not to care too much about whether we call a collection of behaviors or people “lazy” or some other thing.

  40. bgulino99 says:

    The word or words you use is do not indicate your values, typically they indicate your social position. To restate your example. We can describe a same student in one of two ways:

    “Lazy” or “afflicted with task completion disorder”.

    An elementary school teacher learns very early on not to call students lazy when speaking to their parents on open school week. A manager of a fast food restaurant would perhaps use “lazy”.

    Single words are unreliable indicators of people’s values. You need to talk to them more.

  41. C_B says:

    Nitpick: I think you’re mixing up Negative Reinforcement with Negative Punishment.

    Negative reinforcement means encouraging an observed behavior by taking away an aversive stimulus; e.g., the torturer stops torturing you once you talk. This doesn’t seem like something Simplicio is likely to be advocating for in the case of lazy people.

    I think you meant negative punishment, which is discouraging an observed behavior by taking away a desired stimulus; e.g., “you’re grounded!” This seems more likely to be what Simplicio meant.

    (Every psych student who ever takes a class on behaviorism gets these mixed up ALL THE TIME.)

  42. yodelyak says:

    Typo: “could have presented” should be “could have prevented”

    This post is great fun.

  43. notpeerreviewed says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think the author of 3 (which is the version of the argument I saw people sharing) believes they have fundamental value differences with the people they disagree with – their argument seems aimed at changing the reader’s mind about factual claims.

  44. Paul Zrimsek says:

    “There seems no centre because it is all centre. Blessed be He!”

    • srconstantin says:

      YES, that is what positive valence or good essence is like! CS Lewis definitely had experience of the Good. Every time he describes it I’m like “yes, that is exactly the thing.”

  45. stubydoo says:

    Is there such a thing as “laziness”?

    Well, I have a story about” laziness”…

    When I was in middle school, the more talented math students were sent to special math sessions led by an experienced educator who was taking a bit of a break from his day job as Principal of the school.

    He told the story of a key insight he had learned decades before at some educational conference, where some venerable educational expert had explained the key to teaching mathematics. Which was: “teach your children to be lazy”.

    The “laziness” being referred to here is an instinct for simplification – e.g. wanting to get the general formula that’s applicable to all situations, instead of a series of case-by-case crap. Turning hard problems into easy problems so that you can actually solve them. Perhaps you could even say that this “laziness” of approach makes the difference between math being something useful versus math being a bunch of random scribblings you put on the page because your teacher tells you to.

    As it turned out, I was a bit of a star pupil when it came specifically to being “lazy” in this beneficial way. I received much praise from the Principal for being “lazy”.

    Now, as I can certainly attest, when applied to other academic subjects, such “laziness” can turn out to be either detrimental or just plain irrelevant (e.g. how do you apply a “lazy” approach to extracting textual evidence for thematic insights about a Shakespeare play?).

    And it can’t even carry you through every area of mathematics quite so well (e.g. if you tell me that you apply such a “lazy” approach to solving Partial Differential Equations, then, well you are cleverer than me).

    And now that I’m no longer in school and living in “real life”, still carrying with me that spark of “laziness”, it continues to be the case that it serves well in some contexts and not in others. So, contrary to the dialogue between Simplicio and Sophisticus, having a label of “lazy” affixed to a person can be an indicator that they are good for some roles but not for others.

    • Randy M says:

      having a label of “lazy” affixed to a person can be an indicator that they are good for some roles but not for others.

      Depends on their other qualities. I’m reminded of this aphorism:

      Napoleon was supposed to have once explained to an inquirer, “There are four types of soldiers. The first are the dumb and lazy. These I make my infantrymen. The second are the smart and energetic. These I make my field commanders. The third type are the smart and lazy. These I make my generals.”

      The inquirer, then replied, “That’s just three types. What of the dumb and energetic?”

      Napoleon, without skipping a beat replied, “I have them shot.”

      (Probably not actually said by Napoleon)

      • CatCube says:

        I’ve heard it attributed to von Moltke the Elder, but my favorite variation is: “The Energetic and Lazy officers will volunteer for a suicide mission. Find one for them.”

      • mtl1882 says:

        I read it was by a German general, who ended up trying to stop Hitler when he took over. I forget his name. It was a little different – he didn’t say he’d shoot them, but it was otherwise the same. I love the quote and it is so true. Being lazy can be ok if you have other qualities that allow you to succeed in certain positions. But some people who despise laziness and exhort their own industriousness are the most dangerous around, if they don’t know what they’re doing. Industriousness is only good if you are directing it in a good way.

    • cuke says:

      Along these lines, there’s a nice podcast on Freakonomics Radio interviewing Richard Thaler who won a Nobel prize in economics and is considered by himself and others to be “lazy” in some of the same ways you describe. He also characterized it as being easily bored, which I related to.

    • The Nybbler says:

      This is a case of a word having multiple related meanings, though. The laziness of a mathematician looking for a general approach, or a programmer trying to automate part of his job, is a different sort from Larry’s laziness. And so is the “lazy man’s load” referred to above — trading off increased difficulty (and safety) for less time doing the difficult work. Both are related to Larry’s laziness and to each other, but they’re not the same. Larry chooses not to solve the equation or do the job or move the load at all.

      I don’t think this semantic ambiguity has much bearing on the main argument, however.

  46. Garrett says:

    When we think of punishment, there are different types. For example, if you are trying to “fix” laziness, you might choose to use physical force much as you might do so as a part of bad dog training.

    In contrast, appealing to morality/virtue provides an *additional* method which might be used. It has the advantages of feeling less brutal and leaving yourself feeling superior. It’s also effective against people of any physical stature and not effective against animals, so it feels more “enlightened”. Shaming might typically get better results with less effort.

  47. ilkarnal says:

    This story had a pretty big impact on me and made me try to generate examples of things that could happen such that I would really want the perpetrators to suffer, even more than consequentialism demanded. I may have turned some very nasty and imaginative parts of my brain, the ones that wrote the Broadcast interlude in Unsong, to imagining crimes perfectly calculated to enrage me. And in the end I did it. I broke my brain to the point where I can very much imagine certain things that would happen and make me want the perpetrator to suffer – not infinitely, but not zero either. I am not going to claim that this is just some misfiring of evolutionary urges which I obviously denounce. I think I stick to them

    To the extent that we are a reflection of the problems and desires that we consider, we must consider which problems and desires are most practical to focus on. I think that the conservatives focus on more practical problems and desires. They focus on the things that lead to success, both for the individual and for the group. They focus on reproduction, group cohesion, beauty, and martial prowess, while their opponents scorn these things. Down the conservative path lies a rich and open-ended future – down the liberal path lies self-abnegation and oblivion. Realize this, and consider it long enough, and your political and aesthetic tastes will change radically.

  48. wanda_tinasky says:

    Fantastic post. But I don’t think Simplicio got checkmated at the end. I think he has a very obvious reply.

    Sophisticus: Okay. But there are no paperclip maximizers or minimizers in real life. So I still think you’re denying real-life use of a term in favor of some Platonic version that doesn’t exist.

    Simplicio: I don’t care about the Platonic version of anything. The only thing I care about is Instrumental Utility. ‘Lazy’ is Instrumentally Useful because it allows one to predict Larry’s future behavior.

    Sophisticus: Ok, so what’s the ‘Instrumental Utility’ of the term ‘value difference’ that you object to?

    Simplicio: That it shuts down all further discussion! It’s a shorthand for “you are fundamentally and incommensurately different from [and let’s be honest, by ‘different from’ you almost always mean ‘inferior to’] me, therefore I refuse to continue engaging rationally with you.” Which is an incredibly strong claim. Claims like ‘incommensurately different’ are really only provable for simple Platonic-ideal type concepts that you just got finished saying don’t exist in the real world.

    Sophisticus: I think I left the oven on.

    • Adam Treat says:

      Sophisticus didn’t leave the oven on… rather:

      Sophisticus: It does not shut down further discussion anymore than labeling someone lazy! The ‘Instrumentally Utility’ of the term ‘laziness’ often includes justification for future withholding of empathy/compassion for the so-labeled. Often is the implicit judgement that a lazy person is “fundamentally lazy” or “essentially lazy” in just such a way as to justify future dissociation from such a person.

      Implicit in all of this is our societies bonkers view of justice. That the world should be or ought to be just. When we render a negative moral judgement about someone that is lazy (or any of a host of other non-virtues) we often use this as justification to feel anger or righteousness about this person. Our society is absolutely addicted to righteous anger or outrage culture: the *justified* withdrawing of compassion.

      The whole dialogue is really just an argument about who does/does not deserve to have our compassion for them withdrawn. Sophisticus is arguing that we shouldn’t withdraw compassion from those who are lazy. Simplicio is arguing that we shouldn’t withdraw compassion from those who withdraw compassion from those who are lazy. All this withdrawing of compassion is done based upon the mistaken identification of the essence of non-virtue in those we withdraw compassion from.

      Shorter dialogue:

      Sophisticus: Don’t deny compassion for those people we call lazy because laziness lacks essence! Those people are lazy based upon contingent factors.

      Simplicio: Don’t deny compassion for those people who deny compassion to those they label lazy! Those people don’t really have different values from you they are just operating according to heuristics that are contingent upon evolution!

      The real fact of the matter is that there is no worthy justification for the withdrawal of compassion. People are not essentially non-virtuous anymore than they are essentially virtuous. All is contingent and we should develop our compassion to the max and get rid of our addiction to righteous anger.

      • wanda_tinasky says:

        Sophisticus: It does not shut down further discussion anymore than labeling someone lazy! The ‘Instrumentally Utility’ of the term ‘laziness’ often includes justification for future withholding of empathy/compassion for the so-labeled. Often is the implicit judgement that a lazy person is “fundamentally lazy” or “essentially lazy” in just such a way as to justify future dissociation from such a person.

        Simplicio: What you just described in no way shuts down discussion. It just leads to conclusions with which you disagree. Conclusions which you are perfectly free to debate, and use to try to indict the label ‘lazy’ and convince your opponent that he should reevaluate his use of the term. How does it shut down discussion?

        Sophisticus: Err, I guess it doesn’t. But neither does the term ‘value difference’, necessarily.

        Simplicio: No, not necessarily. But remember the context! (warning: breaking the 4th wall). In yesterday’s post, Scott motivated this whole discussion with a hypothetical disagreement in which “you and I have fundamentally different values … In this case there’s nothing to be done.” Which, in turn was motivated by a comment in the subreddit where someone justified his refusal to even engage with the other side with “Being a rightist in this sense is totally indefensible, and a sign that yes, you should give up on attempting to ascertain any sort of moral truth, because you can’t do it.” In this context, ‘value difference’ is being used specifically as a shorthand for “difference that it’s pointless to try rationally resolving”‘

        Sophisticus: But I think that’s actually true. I think everyone’s equal. You don’t. Where do we go from there?

        Simplicio: Lots of places! Moral values aren’t some set of precise mathematical axioms that you either accept or you don’t. They’re fuzzy and incompletely specified and are the emergent result of complex subconscious (or evolutionary!) forces that we’re frequently not ever even aware of until someone comes along and tells you about the Trolley Problem.

        Sophisticus: There are definitely irreducible, objective Moral Principles.

        Simplicio: I don’t think there are, and even if there are they’re probably not what you think they are. Maybe you think they exist (like ‘everyone’s equal’), but I would counter that’s only because you haven’t thought very deeply about it. I guarantee that I could come up with a scenario in which you’d have to grudgingly admit that Person A’s interests should probably take precedence over Person B’s.

        Sophisticus: Oh come on. What about “don’t ruthlessly murder babies”? Are you going to tell me that’s not an objective moral principle?

        Simplicio: When Europeans first discovered the island of Tahiti in the 16th century, they were amazed by the relative wealth and prosperity of the islanders. Do you know why they were so wealthy?

        Sophisticus: Don’t tell me it’s because they murdered babies.

        Simplicio: It’s because they murdered babies! Three-fourths of newborns were systematically killed. This let the islanders stay out of the Malthusian Poverty trap and lead relatively prosperous lives. They had one of the highest standards of living in the pre-Industrial world! Are you still going to tell me that there’s no way murdering babies could be considered moral?

        Sophisticus: I’d never heard about the Tahitians. I feel like I’ve been manipulated into giving you an excuse to mention that weird bit of historical trivia.

        Simplicio: Exactly! And just think how many other things are out there that you never would have imagined! Again, Morality isn’t mathematics. There aren’t objective, unambiguous, context-free truths. So get off your high horse and have some epistemic humility about the Value Differences that you’re so loath to try overcoming.

        • Adam Treat says:

          You admit that concluding “value difference” doesn’t necessarily shut down discussion. Do you deny that concluding “lazy” and using that to justify disassociation can *sometimes* lead to shutting down discussion. If not, then Simplicio’s rebuttal doesn’t really work.

        • Deiseach says:

          The Tahitians killing babies is every bit as wrong as me killing rich Uncle Moneybags. The Tahitians had a lovely standard of living by killing three out of four babies; I’d have a lovely standard of living if I killed Uncle Moneybags and got my hands on his dough. The law thinks differently, however.

        • Adam Treat says:

          Also, I’d disagree strenuously with Sophisticus claim of anything like “irreducible, objective Moral Principles.” Those don’t exist, because if they did they’d have an essence. Nothing has essence. All things are contingent including moral principles.

      • Mark Atwood says:

        The real fact of the matter is that there is no worthy justification for the withdrawal of compassion.

        Yes, there is. Compassion is expensive.

        • Adam Treat says:

          You are mistaking compassion for empathy. The former is not expensive at all while the latter definitely is.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            We may have different meanings for the same word, then. Because, in my experience of the world, the thing I call compassion is expensive, and I have absolutely zero idea what you are talking about when you say it’s not.

          • Adam Treat says:

            It is a common mistake in our culture to conflate compassion and empathy. They are not the same at all. Compassion is nothing more than the wish for others to be free of suffering. A necessary condition for compassion is then the recognition that others are suffering. But this is usually not hard to see and does not cost that much. It might require some empathy and insight, but not all that much in most cases. What’s more, after the recognition is accomplished, then empathy is no longer necessary for compassion to continue.

            So what is empathy? Well, generally speaking it is an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. To imagine what they are feeling. This can be very costly especially if they are feeling something negative. This is where the term ‘compassion fatigue’ comes from, but again that term is conflating compassion and empathy which are very different. If you are a doctor in the ER in Chicago you might find yourself having a hard time generating sustained empathy for those you treat. This is how burnout happens. Or take the Thai kids recently freed. Much of the world was captivated by imagining what it must feel like to be those kids or their parents. That’s empathy. And like you said, it is costly and one can become exhausted from employing too much empathy.

            Employing too much empathy can be very damaging and is a bad habit to be abandoned. It can even lead to a withdrawal of compassion. How? If we see someone continually hurting themselves and become frustrated, then often we’ve employed too much empathy towards them and this can lead to generating anger. With the arising of anger comes the cessation of compassion.

            See here for a pretty good discussion about the differences between compassion and empathy and why the latter can be so burdensome.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            How very nice.

            I will step up a level. Maintaining a desire that the world be different than it is is not a free action. It has a cost.

            I can maintain only so many “I care abouts” and “I wishes”, and I budget that resource carefully.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Non-caring and non-compassion can be modeled as a fixed commodity too. Maintaining a desire that others not be happy can be seen as non-free action as well. Same with a neutral attitude toward others.

            The reality is your mental budget is not fixed. It can grow. Capacities for compassion can increase with sustained effort to do so. Compassion can become the default mode. Same with neutrality and anger/hatred.

          • Viliam says:

            Seems to me like:

            “I want person X to be happy” is one action;

            “I want people X, Y, and Z to be happy” is three actions; and

            “I want all humans to be happy” is one action; and it is quite different from the previous ones.

            The difference is, I guess, than when I imagine seven billion people to be happy, I am actually not imagining seven billion specific ways of happiness. But for people X, Y, and Z whom I know, I have three different mental images — even if it would be the same action, just with a different face displayed.

            (Also, there is the possible failure where people love “humans” in abstract, but hate every specific human they meet.)

          • carvenvisage says:

            (Also, there is the possible failure where people love “humans” in abstract, but hate every specific human they meet.)

            problem with this framing is that some people really are surrounded by bad people, e.g. those growing up in a cult or gang, or abusive family, and we hope that they can seperate between the people they happen to be in contact with and people or reality at large.

            There’s nothing inherently contradictory about “aloof from the locality, benevolent to the world at large”. It’s an empirical matter whether the locality really is bad, and also whether they are sincere (even if mistaken) or petty and feckless about the stance.

            (Liking people can of course be instrumentally valuable, but that’s a positive and amoral good, a trick of human nature and interaction.)

          • Deiseach says:

            Empathy is just a gussied-up word that became pop-psych popular for what compassion means; compassion does literally derive from the meaning “to suffer with”, which means that it does involve “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. Early 20th century psychologists needing to make their models stand out from the crowd, so taking German philosophical terms and using them as jargon, pah! Indeed, if I take the meaning aright, it seems to have originated as something the opposite of what you define it: whereas one element in sociology did involve “putting yourself in the shoes of others”, the German original “empathy” meant “putting those emotions in yourself”, that is, making the focus all about your feelings under those conditions (hypothetical or imagined). More of that German Romantic philosophising, where it’s all about the nebulous mass of feelings!

            You are the one confusing pity (the wish for others to be free of suffering) with compassion, and I would sink that bloody term empathy in the sea with a millstone around its neck (Star Trek the Next Generation made Troi an empath, which was no earthly use at all – her “I can sense and share the emotions of others” was changed into something more like telepathy to make it any use for plot purposes – and only illustrated that 80s psychobabble notion).

            If I sound harsh, it’s because I am: this looking down the nose finger-wagging over “you’re not empathetic” and somehow compassion isn’t enough is the kind of self-indulgent upper middle-class tripe that serves to make the educated feel good about how sensitive and refined they are in their appreciation of delicate shades of differentiated sensibility. I’ve never seen it make a damn shade of difference when it came to cleaning up vomit, and indeed the people who get lumbered with the cleaning up shit, piss and vomit are not the same ones as those who sit around chirping about their empathy, and are the ones considered to be of, well, you know – coarser material emotionally and with regard to feelings, not like us higher, finer types.

          • cuke says:

            Deiseach, I’m a little afraid to engage with your comment here because of the anger I read in it, but I am also interested in understanding more.

            I think I get what you’re saying about the way people can use the word compassion or empathy to look down on other people.

            Some of the confusion is that there’s a lot of language in Buddhism around compassion, and the concept they point to is obviously not originally rendered in English, but has been translated that way to capture a sense of “wishing well” — the original concept sometimes refers to “metta” (Pali) or “maitri” (Sanskrit) which Wikipedia describes as “benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others.” Needless to say there are many more thousands of words devoted to this concept in the history of Buddhism. My guess is that’s what Adam is referring to, though I get that the concept acquires new baggage when it’s translated into “compassion” in English.

            I once heard a long talk about the etymology of the word “dukkha” which generally is translated as “suffering” in English. One apparent origin is from the off-centeredness of the hole at the center of a wagon wheel, if I remember correctly. And how when you put an axle through an off-center hub, the ride is going to be rough. There were a number of nuances beyond that, but it captures the sense that when we import an idea from one realm of practice into another, messes can ensue quite apart from the egotisitical intentions of how some people might use a word to shame other people.

            Is it possible to talk about these qualities productively, do you think, choosing whatever words above you find least offensive, without using the concept as a weapon to make other people feel inferior?

            My interest relevant to Scott’s post here has been to see how a word like “lazy” evokes different moral responses from people. Some here seem to view this word as useful and potentially serving pro-social needs of spurring people to get off their asses and take responsibility. And others here seem to be saying that this kind of social shaming isn’t helpful, but that compassion is more helpful.

            And now you raise the interesting point (I think?) that the word “compassion” may be to you like the word “lazy” is to others — ie, something used to socially shame people.

            What do you think about all this?

          • Adam Treat says:

            Hi Deiseach,

            I’m not too interested in debating the One True Meaning of “Compassion” vs “Empathy” as these are just words ie., mere conventions and so I do not believe there is any such thing as One True Meaning of anything.

            On the other hand, what I’m trying to point out is that there *are* two different concepts that I think are often conflated in our society and that there is utility in sorting out these concepts. Why? Because I think conflating these concepts is a source of many misunderstandings and problems.

            The etymology of the word “compassion” in English might very well be what you say it is. However, the translation of the term from Buddhist concept leaves something missing. Compassion definitely does not mean, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” according to Buddhists. And compassion is one of the singular things that Buddhists occupy themselves with so it is kinda important to get it right if you are at all interested in what they say about it.

            Compassion in Buddhism means nothing more than the wish for others to be free from suffering. That’s it. It is distinguished from empathy which is a word Buddhists used to convey what you were saying about compassion ie., something like, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Buddhists do not consider the latter to be a virtue. Not at all. In fact, it is considered to sometimes be actively harmful.

            Western Psychology is catching up to this fact that Buddhists have known for a very long time. Please read the science and see if it doesn’t make a pretty compelling case.

      • HowardHolmes says:

        All is contingent and we should develop our compassion to the max and get rid of our addiction to righteous anger.

        Where does that should come from?

        • Adam Treat says:

          The should comes from the mere wish not to suffer which is a core aim of all sentient beings. The other universal aim of all beings is to be happy. Compassion is an empirically validated technique we need to perfect in order to achieve both of these aims.

          • Righteous anger can be useful. If people know that if they wrong you you will move heaven and earth to get back at them, that is a reason not to wrong you.

            There is obviously a potential downside if you are too willing to be righteously angry, but it isn’t an unambiguously undesirable trait.

            For an expansion of the argument, see the chapter on feud law in my current writing project.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Imagine a monkey extolling the virtue of ripping their own arm off when caught by a monkey trap. It never occurs to the poor monkey that they could escape the trap by just releasing their grip. No need to rip your arm off!

            You are basically saying that righteous anger can be useful because it can motivate a tit-for-tat strategy. However, righteous anger is not necessary. One can employ tit-for-tat without any anger whatsoever. We don’t become impotent from employing winning game theory just because we abandon righteous anger.

          • HowardHolmes says:


            The should comes from the mere wish not to suffer which is a core aim of all sentient beings.

            From other things you have written such as something to the effect that “things are the way they are” one would gather that to hold that the world should be different is a mistake. For instance, there are a lot of people who suffer, but I see no reason for having compassion on them. I do not feel sorry for them or think they are worse off than me. If someone finds himself wanting to suffer less that is his wish and his business. Why, if the world has nothing to live up to, do we need to try to change it?

            The other universal aim of all beings is to be happy.

            Again I seem to be missing something. Happiness is the opposite of suffering. One cannot have one without the other. Both come into town on the same stage. I do not suffer, but, also, I am not happy. I do not see where you are coming from on this one.

            Compassion is an empirically validated technique we need to perfect in order to achieve both of these aims.

            I hold that all is the same and one is not better (or different than) another. It seems to me to be impossible to hold that view and also be compassionate. Please sell me on compassion.

          • However, righteous anger is not necessary. One can employ tit-for-tat without any anger whatsoever.

            You are missing the problem of commitment strategies.

            I announce that if you wrong me I will beat you up. You wrong me and then point out that trying to beat you up is quite likely to get me hurt. It may well be in my interest at that point to back down.

            But it would be in my interest, before you wrong me, to make myself unable to back down ex post, since then you probably won’t wrong me–my trying to beat you up is likely to hurt you too. Being observed to have a vengeful personality is one way–in some contexts the only practical way–of doing so.

            I already pointed you at the chapter where I discuss the form of legal system based on this logic.

            Does your study of game theory include sub-game perfect equilibrium? Commitment strategies are the reason it does not adequately predict behavior.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Hi HowardHolmes,

            You say, “one would gather that to hold that the world should be different is a mistake.”

            Indeed. Excellent job spotting the apparent contradiction!

            I said that the sense of cosmic justice arises out of a belief that the world ought to be this way or that way. That people ought to be this way or that way. That it just isn’t fair if the world doesn’t conform to how I view the world ought to be. The correct and manifestly right way that I think the world should be. This is a necessarily incomplete description, but I hope you can grok what I’m on about.

            What I’m describing is the mental language that often follows aversion to a perceived fixed essence. A fixed essence that stands in apparent opposition to what I perceive as my own fixed essence. It is the world that needs to change, not I. So I try to change it and grow angry when it does not work or doesn’t work as well as it should.

            Notice the emphasis on I in the above. It is centered around the belief that I’m a fixed static thing that the world should conform to. I wish to be happy and not to suffer and how can I do that when the world is so manifestly unjust? How can happiness be found in such a world? That is why I must change it. That is my motivation. But no matter how hard I try it doesn’t work. Thus anger.

            Now, you asked about my should. Where does that come from? Simply the wish that others not suffer. This is the aim of all sentient beings. What is the motivation of this should? Well, ideally it’s purely altruistic without the slightest bit of “I” arising. Being purely altruistic without even the slightest bit of “I” arising, there is zero attachment. Without this attachment there is zero chance of anger arising. Now, let’s be clear my should is in most cases definitely not ideal. I’m still a work in progress.

            You say, “For instance, there are a lot of people who suffer, but I see no reason for having compassion on them.”

            The only way for you to be completely happy and free of suffering is to develop your compassion for others. You wish to be happy and free of suffering and on that basis you should develop your compassion for others.

            Hope this helps!

          • Adam Treat says:


            “You are missing the problem of commitment strategies.”

            I am not familiar with this from game theory, but it still sounds an awful lot like tit for tat. I’ll take your word that it is somehow different and been proven a sometimes good strategy from a game theoretic perspective.

            Nevertheless, there is no need to invoke righteous anger in any of your strategies. You don’t need passion to deliver on the strategy. There is no need to rip off your own arm to escape the monkey trap. Just release your grip.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            Adam Treat,

            Let’s try to nail down suffering, happiness and compassion. First, please clarify your view of what happiness is. You seem to say that freedom from suffering and happiness are two different things. I have suggested they are the same thing. If happiness is freedom from suffering, let me know. If not, what is it?

          • HowardHolmes says:

            Adam Treat

            Well, ideally it’s purely altruistic without the slightest bit of “I” arising.

            I know I am being picky about words, but words betray us. Note the meaning of “ideal” above. There is no “ideal”.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Sure. Let’s try and provide some agreed upon working definitions.

            Compassion – the wish for another to be free of suffering.
            Love – the wish for another to have happiness.
            Happiness – what remains when suffering is eliminated.
            Suffering – Pain. Mundane happiness. All pervading unsatisfactoriness.

            As for ideal, I do believe pure altruism can be arrived at.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            Adam Treat,
            Well there you go; we are totally stuck. I do not believe altruism is possible, nor do I think it is possible to wish well or ill for another. It is not possible to have any emotion other than for ourselves (or for our young children).

          • Adam Treat says:

            HowardHolmes, I assume you mean you don’t believe *real* altruism is possible or *real* wishing of well / ill-will is possible? That only fake versions of these are possible because all actions are ultimately rooted in self? If I’m wrong can you explain what you mean?

          • HowardHolmes says:

            Adam Treat,
            It appears you are trying to get around to distinguishing the actions of an enlightened person with no self. I do not think that is where I was headed. An insect is incapable of an altruistic acts or feeling. The same is true of all sentient beings. However, due to having a self, humans are the only ones who fake caring, loving, hating, altruism, etc. These fakes admittedly flow from the self. However, even if one were free of self and realized he was not a self, he would still be incapable of feeling for others. We are products of evolution which leaves no room for and has no use for such feelings. Before we were “self” conscious we minded our own business and had no need to spend 90% of our resources on self promotion. With self consciousness came the need to play a new game of deceit. The reason the big brain evolved was for the purpose of deceit…primarily self deceit. But I digress. Human nature without the self is like all other living things. Love, friendship, caring, importance, success are all fake with no possibility of being otherwise. Even relationship exists solely for the purpose of self promotion…well, let me say “mostly.΅

          • HowardHolmes says:

            Adam Treat

            Let me add that there is no need for altruism, because we cannot help anyone. No one needs help…and no one needs our compassion either.

          • I am not familiar with this from game theory, but it still sounds an awful lot like tit for tat.

            The standard literary example is Ulysses tying himself to the mast. He knows that when he hears the Sirens he will want to leap into the sea and swim towards them and wants to take actions now that will prevent him doing so then.

            The biological version is territorial behavior. The central fact is that a fight to the death between two members of the same species is usually a loss for both. So if I mark my territory and somehow turn a switch in my brain that makes me fight to the death against a trespasser it is not in your interest to trespass even if you think you can probably win the fight, unless you are so much more formidable that you are confident you can win the fight without being injured.

            Without my turning the switch in my brain, you trespass and I back down, because although your being injured is bad for you, my being killed is very bad for me. The switch in the brain is the biological version of a commitment strategy.

            For the obvious geopolitical example, consider Mutual Assured Destruction. Once the USSR has launched, it is not in the interest of the U.S. to retaliate. But if the USSR knows the U.S. will retaliate the USSR won’t launch. So the U.S. arranges things to make sure it will retaliate and that the USSR knows it.

            A doomsday machine is Hermann Kahn’s metaphor for that commitment strategy.

            In all of these cases, the ability to make a decision now that will restrict your ability to choose at some point in the future is useful. This is standard game theory. Sub-game perfect equilibrium is a particular game theory approach, in fashion a while back, which depends on the assumption of no commitment strategies.

            The personality characteristic of vengefulness is a hardwired commitment strategy.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            The personality characteristic of vengefulness is a hardwired commitment strategy.

            I probably shouldn’t speak for Adam, but I think his point was that, in principle at least, one could implement this strategy dispassionately, punishing defectors “more in sorry than in anger”, perhaps.

            If so, while technically correct, he’s missing or ignoring the fact that humans lie best when they believe their own lies (which I suppose arguably turns them into not-lies). One could feign righteous anger or the promise thereof, but it’s more convincing, and more likely to be followed through on, if it’s not feigned. That’s evolution’s actual implementation of “turning the switch in my brain”.

  49. Tatterdemalion says:

    I think you’re using a prescriptivist definition of “lazy” that only gives us the bare bones of the meaning, not the connotations.

    I agree that it would be really useful to have a word that just meant “someone like Larry”, but lazy is not that word. As it is used, “lazy” means something closer to ” someone like Larry, which I think is morally wrong”.

    The people who argue against using the word “lazy” are doing so because they object to that the descriptivist meaning and the value judgement value judgement implicit in it – they recognise the existence of Larry-like behaviour, but are denying that “behaviour which is morally culpable because it is Larry-like” is a thing.

    I think that they’re wrong, but I think that this is a legitimate difference of values about whether or not there is a moral obligation to be unLarrylike, not just people misusing language.

    • cuke says:

      “I think that they’re wrong, but I think that this is a legitimate difference of values about whether or not there is a moral obligation to be unLarrylike, not just people misusing language.”

      The part where this veers from values back into “facts” happens for me when I wonder “if we understand better what percentage of Larrylike behavior is due to factors that do not respond to moral obligation (trauma, ADHD, learning disorders, etc) how would this change our view of culpability?”

      • benjdenny says:

        My big question for all of this is “does psychology, as a science, ever publish any papers that would support a view like “laziness is a choice” at all? I ask because I legitimately haven’t seen any, and there seem to be a number of subjects(like obesity) where there seems to be an almost desperate effort to get “it’s not the person’s fault, in fact fault isn’t a concept that really exists”-centric papers on the ground.

        I’ve recently been questioning whether science, in it’s current form, has the ability to come to certain consensuses. We already know what happens with bell-curve type stuff; the authors get kicked out and shunned as racists. I’d imagine some version at some intensity is true for anything that would, say, put personal responsiblity on the obese or suggest that biology isn’t the driving force behind being transexual. I’m getting farther and farther from being able to imagine a hypothetical world where that evidence existed and people who talked about it weren’t academically burned at the stake.

        Basically I’m saying I’m a step back from you – I would be interested to know what they’d do if information showing laziness was at least partially a moral failing was available, but I also doubt it’s structurally possible for those studies to exist in significant numbers, regardless of the evidence.

        • cuke says:

          Great question, I don’t know. Maybe a google scholar search would turn up some studies on laziness like that. It’s another question about whether the science is any good, as with so much science.

          I can offer this, I don’t know if it’s relevant:

          When someone goes to meet with a therapist type about something they want to be different in their life (whether it’s depression, substance use, or a career problem, for example), the therapist type is going to be looking for how motivated is this person to make change? How quick do they seem able take in new information and ideas? How willing are they to try new things between appointments? This could apply equally to medication compliance or trying a new behavior and coming back with some more data about their experience.

          When you do this with a lot of people over some years, you come to associate some factors with “more likely to make change quickly” and “less likely to make change quickly.” Though change is a bit mysterious and we never know for sure. When I think about the presence or absence of these change factors, I don’t find “lazy” to be a useful factor. But “degree of motivation around this issue they’re concerned with” is useful. So are a lot of other factors — their confidence, hopefulness, level of organization, extent of functional impairment, existence of other problems in their life, family/friend supports, financial resources, degree of resistance/anxiety about change, forms of psychological defendedness, history of stable relationships, other personality traits like degree of impulsiveness, and so on.

          So I’m interested in people being able to make changes they want (whether in therapy or through other means). And in that process, judging people for “moral failings” seems less helpful to me than understanding the whole landscape of their strengths and vulnerabilities, and what they might need to help harness their strengths in service of change they want.

          It’s not clear to me how we would structure a study to prove whether laziness is a moral failing. I’m not sure that’s the purview of science?

          • cuke says:

            I’m sorry, I meant to say something about the issue of choice that you raise, and it’s been raised in other areas of this discussion.

            I choose, maybe naively, to believe that we do have some choice over how we live our lives. It’s what I feel like I witness, that we do have choices. I also observe that we seem to act like people with better mental health when we feel that we have choices.

            So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that whatever you mean by “being lazy” would be a choice for lots of people. People choose to be heavy drinkers, train for marathons, shout at their children, stop eating gluten, roll their eyes contemptuously at their spouses, change jobs, play video games for that fifth hour instead of exercising, and so on.

            In general, I think we learn more when we ask people about the choices they make, where they experience having and not having choice, and what they think about their choices — rather than labeling them from the outside based on what we think we see. So I think there’s a really big difference between my calling myself “lazy” and my calling someone else lazy.

          • benjdenny says:

            First: I really appreciate you, to the extent an internet person can appreciate another internet person. Thanks for the patience.

            Second: I basically agree with most of what you are saying – I certainly don’t think psychologists should scream at their patients to stop being worthless, I think what you are doing is good. I think where my conflict on a lot of this comes from is more in the “public psychologist” sphere, so to speak, where people are proclaiming that the very concept of somebody just not liking to work much and ignoring reasonable duties is a clear lie.

            I don’t think I’ve ever called a single person lazy outside of jokes between relatively close friends, and judging/hurting more people isn’t what I’m going for. I’m just bothered very much by the concept of “the facts are secondary to the preferred social belief” science. I don’t think it helps the lazy so much because I don’t think it reaches people hard enough to actually make them believe lazy people don’t exist, but I do think that incidental contact with it is enough to make a lot of people go “well, that sounds like some bullshit. Time to tune out social sciences for another decade.”

          • cuke says:

            Thanks Benjdenny, likewise I’ve enjoyed talking with you.

            There is an incredible, enormous amount of bullshit out there in the land of psychology and self-help. I’m not familiar with the narrative you’re talking about that sounds like is asserting that laziness doesn’t exist or that people aren’t responsible for anything. But I am familiar with lots of other writing that I consider to be shades of bullshit.

            The bigger button for me is when people offer up bullshit and then cleave to it very dogmatically and assert that it’s really the best and only right way. There’s a fair amount of that in psychology as well. I’m fine with people tentatively trying out ideas, but there’s a lot of “expertise” that doesn’t really justify itself, given how little we know or understand about the workings of the mind.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      What I tried to have Simplicio ask in the dialogue was: what do we mean when we say “a moral judgment”?

      To me, from an external perspective it means things like “punish/shame this person” and “deny them social status”, and from an internal perspective it means things like “expend a lot of willpower not to be this way, and feel bad if you fail”.

      And Simplicio’s position was that even the weak descriptive version of lazy sometimes suggests these things, and exactly how much to do them seems like a factual disagreement.

      • Adam Treat says:

        When we morally judge people and find they come up short we use this to justify denying them compassion or empathy. That is what Sophisticus is urging we not do to those we deem lazy. And Simplicio is making the case that we should in turn not deny compassion or empathy to those of us who are merely following evolutionary heuristics in denying compassion or empathy to those they deem lazy.

        • wanda_tinasky says:

          When we morally judge people and find they come up short we use this to justify denying them compassion or empathy.

          I disagree with that. Sure, people frequently do that – and we can argue about whether that’s bad – but it’s not inherent to the concept of judging itself. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is tell someone “Hey, you’re being immoral and hurting yourself and others. Knock it off!”

          Shaming (or ‘criticizing’ or ‘applying social pressure’) definitely has positive utility. The point isn’t just to make people feel bad. It’s to get them to change their behavior.

          • Adam Treat says:

            It is not inherent because nothing is inherent.

            Nevertheless, people do justify denying compassion or empathy to people they find morally lacking. People do this all the time constantly in our society. Countless examples exist.

            But I gather you don’t really disagree. Rather you just wish to say, “not always!” Which is fine.

            Not always.

      • Tatterdemalion says:

        I’m dubious of trying to break “moral” down into underlying concepts rather than treating it as a primitive.

        We inherited some moral instincts from our ape ancestors about “how things ought to be”, probably because apes with those instincts cooperated more and defected less, and hence outevolved others.

        I suspect moral philosophy of essentially being an after-the-fact exercise in finding rational justifications for those instincts – trying to find rules that fit those intuitions, and then apply those rules to situations we don’t have strong intuitions about.

        So I think it’s probably better to treat “moral” as a primitive category – “in tune with our moral instincts” – rather than to try to define it in terms of behaviours in the way you’re doing here.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I agree that it would be really useful to have a word that just meant “someone like Larry”, but lazy is not that word.

      We can’t have such a word without the moral connotation, however. That’s the point of the “work-rarely-doer” section referring to the euphemism treadmill. It’s not the word which carries the baggage (in many people’s minds), it’s the concept itself.

      • Tatterdemalion says:

        I think the “in many people’s minds” is key there. I agree that most people view Larrylike as being either immoral or at least contemptible.

        But if you’re one of the people who doesn’t think that there’s anything wrong with being Larrylike, and you want to convince other people to agree with you, then getting people to stop using a word that means “Larrylike, with connotations of contemptibility” in favour of a new word or construction that just means “Larrylike”, and then fighting to prevent the new word acquiring negative connotations, may well be a less uphill struggle than trying to remove the negative connotations from the existing word.

        • uau says:

          May be less of an uphill struggle, or may just contribute to an endless euphemism treadmill. Imbecile, retard, cretin, “special” children on the short bus, …
          IIRC there are many such terms that started as attempted “neutral” descriptions, but naturally acquired connotations with time. Now we have ugly obvious doublespeak like using “special” to refer to children that are significantly inferior in some way, to avoid saying anything more concrete.

          • Anon256 says:

            It takes some time (a generation or so) for the new word to acquire negative connotations as strong as the old one had. When it does, switch words again. It’s not like there’s a real danger of running out of words.

          • Harry Maurice Johnston says:

            I don’t know about that. I have yet to find an adequate replacement for “thug” now that it has become unacceptable in the US.

  50. RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

    Another terrific post. Marginally related: There is a recorded debate (available on YouTube) between David Friedman and, I believe, George Smith over whether defenders of libertarianism can most effectively proselytize by making values arguments or fact arguments (they may have denominated the distinction as between philosophical arguments and economic arguments but seemed to mean more or less the same thing.) It’s a very interesting discussion and warrants review, particularly in the context of this set of issues. One of Friedman’s primary arguments, if I recall correctly, was that true disagreements over terminal values end up being extremely rare. Now I’m not sure this debate was recorded in the past month or two, so it’s possible that his views on these issues have changed in the interim.

    • Quite a lot longer ago than the last few months, as you can see by, among other things, the color of my hair. 1981.

      My view is:

      1. I have better arguments for my positive than for my normative claims.

      2. Normative beliefs among people are similar enough so that the correct positive arguments imply about the same political conclusions for most people.

      Note that 2 is a claim both about the distribution of normative beliefs and about the range of positive outcomes produced by different political institutions.

      If the only difference between the outcome of socialism and the outcome of laissez-faire was that the former produced a more nearly equal income distribution, then differences in normative beliefs might well lead to some people preferring one, some the other. If the difference is that almost everyone is worse off under socialism, then only people with rather odd normative beliefs would favor socialism and there are not very many of them. Since I believe that, at least in the long run, the institutions I favor make almost everyone better off than any plausible alternative institutions, I don’t have to base my argument on my normative beliefs.

      One part of this is pointing out that arguments are about institutions, not outcomes. It does no good for you to tell me that you favor a society with the same output as mine but a different distribution of income if you can’t describe a plausible set of stable institutions that provides that outcome.

  51. John Schilling says:

    If it weren’t for the negative connotations most people apply to it, only the most foolish of sophisticates would have any problem with “lazy” as a term for a cluster of symptoms that we have to deal with. It’s just too useful a concept to not have a label.

    And the negative connotations apply to the concept, not the name. If you try to change the name to avoid that, welcome to the euphemism treadmill. If you try not to name the concept at all, you’ve hindered thought and communication, and people will still apply “that person should be punished” negative connotations to everyone they notice can’t be trusted to walk a dog.

    I don’t think there’s any plausible good option beyond living with that while you work on improving your ability to diagnose and treat specific subtypes of laziness (or whatever).

  52. liskantope says:

    In the course of formulating a response to one of the “laziness does not exist” articles, I came up with the following definition of laziness: it is a state of mind in which the cost-benefit analysis of doing some effort-spending task is skewed by bias against effort-spending. (This is in contrast with the condition of requiring an unusual amount of effort for certain tasks, which is often mistaken for true laziness.)

    Now if we accept that the universe is sufficiently deterministic, we could say that this characteristic isn’t a valid criterion for social judgment and certainly doesn’t make someone a bad person. It pretty much does, however, justify yelling at that person that they should have a better attitude rather than trying to provide accommodations for them or getting them professional help, as would be the case in the “takes an unusual amount of effort to do certain tasks” scenario. And since that’s what we might call the “traditional” approach to dealing with a lazy person, as far as I’m concerned, it makes sense to keep on referring to that characteristic as “laziness”. In other words, we should assign meaning to words referring to personal characteristics from a purely practical standpoint in accordance with how best to react to them, not according to the moral judgment that typically accompanies our reactions (as those are useless anyway according to determinism).

    My strong impression is that true laziness, according to my definition, is much more rare than people typically assume, and that articles like the ones linked to at the top of this post are right to point out how frequently apparent laziness is attributable to “hidden barriers” making certain tasks cost much more effort. But that doesn’t mean that true laziness by my definition doesn’t exist.

    • Adam Treat says:

      You’re just “No True Scotsman”ing the term laziness. There is no such thing as “True Laziness^TM” as opposed to just ordinary “laziness.” Laziness is just a word that different people use for different purposes. Some people share the definition, some have minor quibbles, some have altogether different definitions. No definition has any essence whatsoever.

      • liskantope says:

        But most people have roughly the same reaction to that thing they call “laziness”: believing that it’s up to the lazy person to improve their attitude.

        • Adam Treat says:

          True. And people do change and go through periods of less laziness and more laziness. If you plot the curve of laziness vs time for just about anyone you’d be hard pressed to find anything even remotely linear. I don’t think the way out of this paper bag is to find the one true and correct definition of laziness since none exist. It is merely a convention that we impute upon someone or something we consider a valid basis for the imputation.

          • liskantope says:

            I think we’re talking past each other here. I don’t disagree with your concrete claims about changes of apparent laziness over time, but I don’t see how that’s directly relevant to what I’m arguing.

            My argument is that the reaction of “this person needs to improve their attitude” is privileged in the space of reactions to behaviors that lie in the general realm of laziness (because it’s essentially the only universal reaction to things that are perceived as lazy). Therefore, “inactivity coming from a bad attitude” is privileged among candidate definitions for the term “laziness”.

            Now you could argue against my position by saying that “bad attitude” refers to a concept that isn’t well-defined or doesn’t exist, and therefore my suggestion doesn’t get us anywhere. I would disagree, since I think the concept of “bad attitude” is well-defined (even if in purely deterministic terms that don’t leave room for moral judgment) and does exist.

  53. blacktrance says:

    What moral law can you tell me that allows me to ditch the irrational consequences of my excessive-punishment-urge, but keep the irrational consequences of my love-children-urge?

    The evolutionary process has given us two qualitatively different kinds of urges: tastes/likes/preferences, which give us hedons, and moral intuitions, which make us feel that certain things are right or wrong. The former, which includes liking ice cream, loving children, and maximizing paperclips, is often arational; the latter, which includes intuitions about punishment, is in a domain where urges aren’t the final word. (“I have an urge for excessive punishment, but I know that it’s wrong” is coherent in a way that “I love my children, but I know that it’s wrong” isn’t.) Indeed, given the source of our moral intuitions, one of them being right is little more than coincidence, so we shouldn’t admit them to the equilibrating process in the first place. So you keep loving your children because that’s not truth-apt, but you might revise your views on punishment if they’re not well-grounded.

    Confusions like this is one reason why “values” is a bad category.

  54. wonderer says:

    But the person just following their evolutionary urges would get both of those right – more or less.

    Is that true, though? We evolved to deal with the social, technological, and economic circumstances of the Paleolithic African savanna, not those of 21st century New York. There’s no guarantee that the “right answer” for the former case would be the right answer for the latter case. In fact, since the risk of violent death has gone down dramatically since pre-historic times and crime-solving technology has vastly improved, I’d expect evolutionary instincts to be too harsh for the modern day.

    It may not make me agree with them, but it makes me more willing to think of them as an odd but sympathetic potential-negotiating-partner rather than some sort of hostile villain.

    That’s the other thing about evolutionary instincts–it’s very hard to negotiate with them. How do you negotiate with an instinct? With a principled consequentialist defense, you can question the premises, question the validity of the arguments, introduce new facts, etc. If someone is angry due to an instinct, I’m not sure where to begin negotiating. It certainly seems like a more dangerous thing to rely on than reason.

    • and crime-solving technology has vastly improved

      The technology has improved but the problem has also gotten a lot harder. If someone steals my stuff today, there are several million possible thieves, most of whom are not living where I can see what stuff they have. Not true of a hunter-gatherer band on the savannah.

  55. herculesorion says:

    “Sophisticus: I think that for them it’s a moral judgment, and for me it isn’t.”

    See, I think this is an important bit, here: That we often take moral stances not because of our own feelings, but because of what we thing that stance signals to other people, bad people, about what is acceptable behavior. Maybe I firmly believe that Larry is lazy and I’d certainly describe him as lazy…if I didn’t think that you would hear me say “Larry is lazy” and then reply “ah ha, that means he’s morally inferior and it’s acceptable for me to mock and mistreat him!” I don’t think that Larry should be mocked and mistreated, so I’ll go to the mattresses to avoid saying that he’s lazy, because if I say that even once then you, the bad jerk, will forever after use that against me. “Why do you care that he’s being mistreated? Didn’t you say he was lazy?

    So it’s not about me, and it’s not really about Larry, it’s about the phantom version of you that lives in my brain and when given the slightest chance does the worst perfectly-evil things for the worst perfectly-evil reasons.

  56. carvenvisage says:

    I imagine Sophisticus believing he has a fundamental value difference with people who use the term “lazy”

    fundamental how? The obvious assumption would be that sophisticus has a contingent value judgement that calling people lazy is generally unhelpful and thus a bad (or if you wish, lazy) habit. You’ve given little reason to suppose it’s hardwired in him like a desire for happiness.

    I can imagine someone signaling hard-headedness and strictness by insisting that they were against laziness, and someone else signaling compassion by insisting that they don’t believe in laziness, but it’s pretty hazy exactly where their maps of the world diverge.

    Umm, no it isn’t. If we assume that neither is working from malice, their map of the world clearly diverges in that one thinks the hardass approach is better and the other thinks the compassionate approach is better.


    Assuming again that neither is working from malice, these people probably don’t have any “fundamental” value difference, but they might neveretheless have a fairly intractable just-value-difference if one guy thinks shouting at people and calling them lazy makes them buck up and the other think’s it demotivates them. Especially if either of them has committed to this value as a practical measure for increasing (their shared values of) promoting good in the world.

  57. John Richards says:

    Speaking as someone who is lazy, there is literally nothing that you can do that would make me not lazy. Had I been born under communism I would have been labled a shirker and sent to a psych ward for it.

    • there is literally nothing that you can do that would make me not lazy.

      What if the laziness had immediately bad consequences for you?

      Larry likes playing video games. Imagine a situation where he isn’t permitted to play video games unless he has first carried a certain number of logs in from the woodpile to the fireplace. Or, to leave other people out of it, if he doesn’t do a certain amount of work each day he will be cold and hungry–no food or fuel gathered.

      Is he still lazy in the observed sense of not doing the work or only in the sense that he wouldn’t do the work if he didn’t have to in order to achieve other very important things?

    • Adam Treat says:

      Really? You ruling out all future surgical interventions? All drugs? I’d bet if you were put on a PCP drip you wouldn’t be lazy 🙂

  58. eqdw says:

    Over time I’m becoming more and more perplexed at the kind of people who spend all their time on anxiety trips about what other people think the connotations of words are.

  59. carvenvisage says:

    >When the jury went with life imprisonment anyway, she yelled at them that she hoped someone killed their loved ones so they knew how it felt. This story had a pretty big impact on me and made me try to generate examples of things that could happen such that I would really want the perpetrators to suffer, even more than consequentialism demanded.

    How come? It’s not like she asked for them to be kept alive by medical science so they could be tortured the best. What’s unconsequentialist about literally proportional punishments?

    • wonderer says:

      Consequentialism doesn’t necessarily mean proportional punishments. It means maximizing the average happiness of the entire population, including the killer. If that’s best done by punishments that are more lenient than a proportional one, then that’s the most moral approach.

      • Jiro says:

        Why should you maximize happiness of all things, rather than maximizing some function? (Said function possibly not weighing the happiness of killers highly)

      • carvenvisage says:

        Consequentialism doesn’t necessarily..

        You’ve inverted my question.

        I asked what is (inherently) unconsequentialist about it, not how anything else can possibly be consequentialist. The opposite of what Scott said is something like (exagerated for clarity)”…so I decided to take some LSD to see what could possibly be causing these treasonous hippy jurors to abandon the obvious consequentialism of proportionality, rational incentives, fairness, order, and public safety.”

        If Scott has such strong priors against proportional redress (-actually, I exagerated, it’s not even close to proportional- being killed out of the blue and for no good reason is far worse than being killed for the excellent reason of your being an indiscriminate murderer.)

        -possibly being good or neutral for society that he has to step outside of a consequentialist frame to empathise (or whatever the objective was), that’s a rather extraordinary fact about his priors or psychology, not remotely comparable to just thinking it isn’t the best approach as an empirical matter .

        • wonderer says:

          What’s unconsequentialist about it is that proportional punishment has nothing to do with consequences. It isn’t justified using consequences, and isn’t guaranteed to maximize consequences in any situation. I’m not saying that every single result you get from applying proportional punishments is wrong from a consequentialist point of view, just that whether it’s right or wrong is a matter of chance.

          (Also, you seem to be confusing proportionality with equality. Executing killers is not proportional if the punishments for all other crimes are much less severe than the crime itself.)

  60. carvenvisage says:

    I think “lazy” is a particularly bad example because it’s one of the few words that do embody values in themselves, the (not obviously unjustifiable) value that it’s good to spur one another on by spurious accusations, like two soldiers calling each other cowards before a battle.

    “Unreliable” means basically all of those other things you subtracted out as objective technical information, “unmotivated” closely matches the milder usual idea, and in practice I rarely see the word used in a neutral way except as a deliberate subversion e.g. when someone describes themselves.

    You can have a legitimate debate whether and when this is productive, but very few people will clinically describe a close friend as lazy or a coward, as a pure statement of fact, because these are fundamentally “spur them to action by insulting” words.

    Cor a clearer case, -not to prove mine, to illustrate it in case it still isn’t clear, consider the word “bitch”. -You can identify some objective correlates, like a non escalatory social habits, low fitness-height-and-weight, not standing in one’s rights, low proclivities to violence, low social status, -but this doesn’t means the word’s purpose is something other than to provoke people.

    • cuke says:

      I’m not sure what you mean when you say “one of the few words that do embody values” — do you mean of all the words or of words that are central to disagreements? It seems to me that Scott was looking for a non-culture-war example of a contentious concept — “lazy” — to explore the boundaries between disagreements over facts and values.

      It’s my sense that most significant disagreements we have involve words or concepts that have values-based assumptions woven through them. Are anti-abortionists really “pro life”? Are pro-choice people “baby killers”? Are transwomen “real” women (see upthread)? When does it make sense to call a behavior racist (or sexist or whatever)? Democrats want “open” borders; Republicans want a “police state.” Single payer advocates are “communists.”

      I feel about this discussion much as I felt about the earlier mistake/conflict theory discussion. It seems to me Scott is trying to create a couple of tidy categories — in this case, he’s arguing that this thing that looks like a values-based disagreement is really mostly a facts-based disagreement. And my opinion is that the two are essentially never separated and are always both being talked about simultaneously and that there’s no achieving a pure state of one or the other in any moment.

      • carvenvisage says:

        I wasn’t thinking very hard on the exact phrasing but I definitely meant “of all the words” rather than those central to value disagreements.

        Perhaps it helps clarify if I say “emphasis on ’embodies'”. -much more words touch on values than centre around them.

        e.g. “stupid” is a word that is generally used to (mildly) denigrate people rather than to objectively describe, and as such it’s somewhat value-laden but certainly doesn’t centre on them. And the average, word, (like “bus” or “couch” or “place ” or “plays” or “lopes” or “indirectly” or flourish in the noun sense but not the verb) has much less to do with values in turn than that, often nothing at all.


        Or maybe I can get at something by focusing on the specific value that I perceive as being embodied, that of spurring others on by questionable means, like a “tiger mom”, the two soldiers, or like Scott’s example of driving someone to a “freak out” as a means to an end:

        It seems like this would be correlated with people who see nothing wrong with spanking or grounding kids for long periods, and other “I’m taking this seemingly hostile action for your own good” things, because they all rest on the premise that it’s good/ok/obligatory to spur others on with what might be seen as attacks.

        No doubt some people have a different intuition on this question in different contexts: e.g. it’s ok at the boxing gym but not the yoga class, it’s okay between friends but not strangers, ok for family but not friends, -unless close, ok down a level in a hierarchy but not across (and certainly not up ), etc etc

        -but it is more a question of values whether you’re in favour of calling someone lazy (or e.g stupid to a lesser extent) to their face, than of empirical fact, and it’s the roughly the same underlying question as how okay it is to reprimand people in public, raise your voice to bludgeon home a lesson to your kid, etc- again whether you approve of doing seemingly hostile things for other people’s own good.

        So TL:DR the word lazy embodies the value “Spurring others on is good”, bearing in mind that a spur is a sharp thing that we stick in a horse’s side, and I suppose in the interests of fairness also that if said horse wins races it gets better treatment and might have a better life.


        In one sense this is just an empirical question. -In which situations is one approach better and in which the other?

        But a lot of people choose a side, and even if they see that there are exceptions, that is exactly what they see them as, -special exceptions to the natural order of “treating others with respect, you plate-eating trogdolyte”/or “not wrapping people in cotton wool, you selfish bloodless ninny”.


        As a practical aside, I really doubt “there’s no such thing as laziness” is intended as a blanket literal universal statement that’s equally as strong everywhere, -like boxing coaches shouldn’t say “come on, hit me!!” (the glove) because that’s implying a non-commendable lack of effort up in the run up. “If Scott’s reading these, they’re probably for people like him”, and he’s a psychia-something, so probably it’s a practical guideline for certain kinds of interactions more than a metaphysical statement on some kind of slate star-codex. The ‘value difference’ the post takes and runs with seems more like a practical guideline, I wonder if that’s deliberate.

      • carvenvisage says:

        It’s my sense that most significant disagreements we have involve words or concepts that have values-based assumptions woven through them. Are anti-abortionists really “pro life”? Are pro-choice people “baby killers”? Are transwomen “real” women (see upthread)? When does it make sense to call a behavior racist (or sexist or whatever)? Democrats want “open” borders; Republicans want a “police state.” Single payer advocates are “communists.”

        I think people definitely do try to bake their values (or their values via a particular framing) into the words they use to characterise disagreements. Terms like pro life and pro choice are clearly “cooked up”.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if “lazy” was baked up at the same way at some point in the past. It’s basically the same idea as “sloth”, and most of the seven deadly sins have a clear self-interested use (if not an explicit original purpose) in keeping peasants in their place, with the exception of lust: Pride, don’t stand on your dignity. Wrath- don’t get angry with things seems wrong. envy greed and gluttony are all “do not want more” and Sloth is like “welcome to the divinely ordained worker class”.

        • cuke says:

          I like the idea of words being cooked up, maybe we would say ideologically. And very interesting about the idea of proximity to the seven deadly sins and their self-interested use.

          That made me think about the idea of “normal” and its origins, because often “normal” is the sacred reference point in modern times relative to these morally less-good states. It seems the notion of normal to refer to people got cooked up in the late 1800s: “Sense of ‘normal person or thing’ is from 1894” says etymology online.

          The idea of “normal” seems to stick very closely to “should” in terms of its rhetorical use in spurring people, as you say. And it shows up with similar frequency in my consulting room. People who come to talk to therapists (and maybe most of us at one point or another) are often preoccupied by the question of “am I normal?” and “is this thing I’m experiencing normal?” or if not, then “am I, you know…. sick/bad/mentally ill/broken, etc?”

          And people often ask this about loved ones — “why can’t my son just be normal?” There seems to be an idea that if we could find that beloved territory of “normal” we wouldn’t suffer anymore.

          I don’t know, but I have this suspicion that this idea of normal as a kind of moral spur also rose to prominence to serve the needs of new economic arrangements.

        • @cuke:

          I find the idea of “normal” as a uniformly positive judgement odd–one can deviate from the normal in more than one direction. If you describe someone as exceptional you are saying that he is not normal–and it’s usually a positive label. Anyone who scores 99th percentile on a test is obviously not normal, but on most tests it’s considered good news, not bad.

        • carvenvisage says:


          I don’t know, but I have this suspicion that this idea of normal as a kind of moral spur

          Not that anyone is obligated to carry on my metaphor to the nth degree, but I’d say that it’s specifically “not normal” as a failing and in particular an almost necessarily moral failing, which is a “spur”, rather than “normal” as a positive ideal.

          “Industrious”, -an opposite of lazy, might have been an idea emerged from/attuned to new economic/social conditions, but it’s far from obvious that a lack of industrious is a failing rather than merely a lack.

          -One person is industrious, another is clever, a third is graceful, and a fourth, hey, hasn’t yet developed any stand out skills, (but so what, surely they will, and if they don’t that won’t be from malice but misfortune). We can all get along with this way of looking at things. I see no problem with this framing, and hence far far less with the idea of “normal” than not-normal as a prepackaged denouncement. One person is industrious and the other two are, fuck-them-not-industrious (aka lazy), and the fourth is a “good for nothing”, that’s a rather different way to look at things.

          If we say someone is normal, that does imply some objectively-ish complimentary things, e.g that they are somewhat positive and good humoured, pretty good conversationalists, and probably they show up to work on time too.

          -I don’t have any issue with normal as an ideal. Something to admire an aspire to, a positive badge.

          Nor if we promote a particular ideal at a society wide level, for some positive reason, like alignment with economic conditions, in this case a “service economy”. “normal” really is aligned with today’s world, that’s why it gets treated like a virtue despite the implied lack of greatness. The problem to me is when these ideals are blindly imposed on others without exception for 1. especially those who are presently too weak to meet them, -as if the ideal were A. an absolute requirement (which is nonsense in most cases) B. further one which is impossible to fail, miss or reject except from a sort of vague treasonous malice (which is nonsense in practically all cases) and 2. all the people who are round pegs for the (carpenter’s) square hole, -who aren’t suited or aren’t interested or don’t benefit from the idea, (whether or not that they have some special diagnosis like ADHD or autism, but I suppose such would be the obvious cases to prove the basic validity of the rule.) 3. people who are too great to limit themselves to the ideal, but that’s not such great copy so lets not dwell on it

          Anyway TL:DR It’s very different saying “normal” is a wonderful thing to treating “not normal” like hostile malice.

          pithy TL:DR: “normal” is not normal, it’s special, -a (very particular) positive good.


          -Same as humbleness (pride), gentleness (wrath), industriousness (laziness), temperance (gluttony).

          The lack of so so-many-or-other karate-dans in one particular path does not mean a person is without other abilities (sometimes contradictory ones). Nor is initial trouble grasping or identifying a particular ideal, -societally promoted or not (nor past disinterest in), a sure sign someone will not acquire its benefits in future, or find some alternative way to cover its bases.

          Nor does an outright lack of positive capabilities reflect on a person morally. -Who would selfishly choose to have neither “normal” nor some compensating alternative or opposite? It’s an absurd idea. It sucks to be weak.

          The only possibly justification (as distinct from reason, I’m a partisan on this issue- it does seem to me like it’s often just the selfsame malice being accused) -is the “spuriously insulting people to spur them” on value I identified earlier, which I’ll say again isn’t bad in itself, but is clearly inapplicable in some cases, like when someone already has every incentive to do something, no incentive not to, and is possibly too unstable or depressed to endure further harranguing, the spectre of which is actively causing them problems, and probably, -based on previous fact, was part of how they ended up in such a low state in the first place.

          So there’s no societal reason why such people should feel guilty or hopeless about having the wrong capabilities or having too few. -Fast rather than strong is not a moral question, fast rather than slow is not a moral question, and slow or weak now does not mean slow or weak in the future.

  61. Dagon says:

    I think, whether you label it or not, whether you think it’s a value divergence or “just” a belief difference that’s impossible to measure and resolve, differences are going to exist. And it’s human nature to treat people who you expect to act in ways unaligned with your interests, whatever the root cause, as enemies.

    Almost all civilization progress has come from getting better at the question “how can I cooperate with monsters?”. You don’t need to agree or even respect someone in order to trade with them. You do need to trust them enough to stay within a transaction framework that you can live with, but that’s FAR from agreeing with or supporting almost any of their beliefs or values.

    I’m certain that I’m a monster to some of you. I still think we can both profit from this conversation in this context.

    • herculesorion says:

      Almost all civilization progress has come from getting better at the question “how can I cooperate with monsters?”.

      Yep–and, pace my comment above, it can be suggested that there’s a true moral duty to not act in a way that you know monsters will interpret as enabling.

  62. sclmlw says:

    It’s not like people either form heuristics from first principles, or are always reformulating their hypotheses based on new data. That’s not how heuristics function. In the real world, you have a problem and you prefer a heuristic that has served you well in the past. If you encounter a new problem, you will tend to formulate heuristics that help you deal with that new problem. The heuristic is “right” in the sense that it worked multiple times; and maybe eventually you’ll abandon it if it stops working for you.

    For example, say your friend’s doctor told her she will likely die if she doesn’t terminate the pregnancy. She’s a strict Catholic and believes all abortions are wrong. She dies in childbirth, leaving behind two young children, whom you adopt, and as you try to answer their questions that night about when will mommy come home, you formulate an opinion, “Opposition to this abortion was wrong.” You gravitate away from people who think abortion should be discouraged, since this was what killed your friend and left her children without a mother. You gravitate toward people who are like-minded, and increasingly you identify “pro-choice” as your ingroup and “pro-life” as your outgroup. You see this as a moral issue, and you become less and less sensitive to abstract rational arguments from your opponents.

    Meanwhile, someone else walks into an abortion clinic, during a rough period in her life, but it turns out it’s one of those clinics that advocates against abortion. She’s about to leave to find a clinic that will give her an abortion, but they offer a few free health screenings, so she sticks around for the mammogram and the ultrasound. During the ultrasound, they show her the fetus and she decides not to abort. Years later, having raised her daughter, she forms an opinion, “Abortion of my child would have been wrong.” She becomes a crusader against abortion, and thinks of her daughter whenever she thinks of any abortion happening, anywhere. She hangs out with her pro-life ingroup and opposes pro-choice in strong terms.

    The point isn’t that these two women have some factual disagreement, or that they have a fundamental difference of principles. It’s that their experiences, risk profiles, and the ingroups they associate with all serve to reinforce their viewpoint. They extrapolate from experience, upbringing, etc., to generate a broader heuristic that they later defend in abstract terms.

    This is one reason many arguments like these devolve into discussion of fringe cases. It’s not just an attempt to reductio ad absurdum someone’s argument (though that happens). It’s also an attempt to shoehorn an entire philosophy into the specific concerns arising from individual risk profiles.

    “I was a child whose mother considered aborting me. How would your policy impact me?”
    “My mother died in childbirth because she was shamed away from having an abortion. How would your policy impact me?”

    “My brother went to prison for ‘possession’ of pot the cops planted in the car; he only got pulled over for DWB. How would your policy impact my family?”
    “My mom got shot while working at a store in our neighborhood. The guy who shot her had just been set free because they invoked some obscure rule that threw out the clear evidence against this guy. How would your policy impact my family?”

    Viewed from 10,000 feet, it all looks like society trying to collectively determine a universal set of heuristics, with inputs from groups formed of individuals who have different risk profiles; these all vie for dominance of their preferred risk-avoidance strategy. But everyone has a different risk profile, so it’s not a matter of fact/principle. It’s just that the world is a complex place that is resistant to being solved with simple heuristics.

    • cuke says:

      I think this is brilliant, thank you for writing it.

      It seems to me “ideology” was once used to describe this frame of values/priors that facts are filtered through. Ideology has come to have a negative connotation, but I thought used to mean something close to “heuristic arrived at through prior learning.” And it was meant to capture a dynamic process where facts and values constantly influence each other, rather than inhabiting separate boxes.

    • benjdenny says:

      This is pedantic, but I would point out that both children of both mothers would have the same effect from the policy – they’d be dead(or never-alive, depending on your vantage point).

      • March says:

        I think it’s implied that the kid whose mother died in childbirth is an older child, not the one whose birth killed the mother.

        (I recall statistics that most abortions are done in families that are already ‘complete’.)

  63. textor says:

    Simplicio’s disappearance made for a great comical relief, but he could have easily countered Sophisticus’ point by claiming that “value difference” is a special idea, much unlike lazyness, in that it’s a call to end communication, essentially, and we should be extra careful in asserting it. You can’t persuade a principled moral mutant to reconsider his attitudes the same way you can with a person who holds different factual beliefs; even a heuristic-user can be convinced, but “different fundamental values” is a dead end.

  64. deciusbrutus says:

    When I say “Bleggs do not exist”, I don’t mean to say that there are not objects which are both bluer and egg-shapeder than average.

    When I say “Bleggs do not exist”, I mean that the current policy of ostracizing people who have handled blue, egg-shaped objects is being applied inconsistently. Low-status people who handle purple cubes are being exiled and their possessions seized, while high status people are in practice allowed to handle “azure ovoids”.

    If people would stop overloading “Blegg-handler” with additional meaning, it would end up being just a descriptive term. But we treat them almost like lazy people. We deny low-status people who handle anything unlike a rube basic human rights that really should be available to anyone who isn’t lazy, and in our hypocrisy will use any excuse to grant basic human rights to high-status people who handle objects that differ only slightly from the platonic ideal of a Blegg held (but not handled) by the National Academy of Standards.

    • benjdenny says:

      I’m actually fine with rich, high-resource people being lazy. The problems being lazy causes people are almost entire mitigated by having money; without the problems, why would I care? And with the problems, why would I cut slack?

      • deciusbrutus says:

        Oh yeah. I wasn’t complaining that we let high-status people be lazy or commit felonies. They, or the people they inherited their status from, have earned it.

        But that doesn’t change the moral weight of handling bleggs. We need a clear and robust definition of what a blegg even is, rather than a vague predictor, precisely because handling bleggs is so morally indefensible.

        • benjdenny says:

          Your sarcasm aside, you didn’t address the point; Your premise is that rich people are allowed to be lazy, and that this isn’t fair, and we need to fix it. But why do we hate laziness, biologically or otherwise? It’s because it threatens survival – James the caveman won’t hunt mammoth, and we need him to contribute rather than just sitting around and eating our limited mammoth supplies and watching cave paintings, or in a lot of cases we die.

          But what if James was a magician who could summon mammoth meat from mere thought? Then he’s not threatening our lives; he’s improving them. We could still get mad that he doesn’t hunt mammoth, but we could no longer justify it with anything – he’s a net positive, at least as far as things relating to his sloth go.

          So if you have James the lazy modern man and he’s in a poor family who needs him to contribute and doesn’t, that’s a big problem, because the car doesn’t fix itself and food doesn’t buy itself; his ‘scrutiating idleness in addition to his consumption actively hurt them, especially if you consider that he should be helping them. He’s a leech, whether or not it’s voluntary, and his very existence is harmful.

          James the modern rich man has none of these problems; he feeds himself, and in fact he probably feeds other people. His laziness doesn’t hurt anybody and arguably could even help by leaving work open for other people to do.

          I’m aware that “I’m hostile towards the rich and think all standards should be applied evenly, even where the impacts are so different that they are different situations entirely on a practical level” isn’t without merit, but those merits are purely moralistic judgement, which is ostensibly what you are saying you want to get away from.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            NO! My premise is that handling bleggs should be equally morally bad whether you are rich or poor, and it is not considered to be so.

            The key feature of blegg-handling that matters is that there is literally zero of the object-level effect that you are implying makes laziness is differently moral across social strata. But it remains differently moral across social strata for exactly the same reasons.

          • benjdenny says:

            Right, I get your premise, you are saying “This is equally morally bad for the rich and the poor”. I’m saying that’s silly in a lot of ways.

            Again, in simpler language: A lazy poor person hurts the people around him, because he or she is in a limited-resource environment where their consumption of resources, uncounterbalanced by production, puts the people around them in jeopardy and hardship. A lazy rich person does not hurt the people around them in this way, because they do not exist in a resource-poor environment, and often they are the source of the resources that make this so.

            You might be saying “well, I’m not talking about laziness now; I’m talking about the abstract concept of bleggs! Surely you acknowledge that with an abstract concept, it should be applied evenly!”. I mean, sure, but you’ve set up a situation that almost never applies in real life. Almost every potential trouble of almost any behavior is significantly mitigated by money. Taking an example, lets look at drug abuse – still terrible, but money buys you clean needles, keeps you fed/housed, keeps your kids educated, generally keeps you away from the kind of associated crime needed to fund the habit in the poor, ect. They aren’t equivalent behaviors anymore.

            When we find things that ARE equivalent behaviors where money doesn’t have a significant effect, we generally find the social punishments for the perpetrators are WORSE. Partner abuse? Society will destroy you, these days. Chris Hardwick just had his career torched in less than a week for evidence-less claims that he was kind of a bad boyfriend. Bigotry? I know several functioning, job holding racists/misogynists who aren’t famous so nobody cares, but be a Brendan Eich or a Roseanne Barr and see very quickly that the main difference in how society treats blegg-handlers in this sense is that they come down on them harder, faster, and much more universally. See also: Sexual harrassment, not keeping up with the euphemistic treadmill, having political opinions outside of the moderate-to-extreme-left spectrum.

            You might then move the goalpost and say “well, many of them get away with it, because they have money!” but that’s not the same thing at all – you are saying society applies a different moral standard to these people, but what’s happening there is that the people have enough money to dodge a system society implicitly built to prevent that behavior and is trying to apply to the rich. The fact that some guy beats me in a bar fight while I’m trying to protect my wife doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying to protect my wife, it just means he’s better at haymakers.

            You might also say that there’s some pocket behaviors that don’t A. Have their costs significantly mitigated by money and B. Aren’t disproportionately applied to the rich, and fine, whatever. I can’t think of any, but I’m sure there’s some. But going “We simply let the rich get away with everything because we don’t consider what they do to be morally wrong, by virtue of their richness!” is clearly untrue; the fact that they have to use their money to insulate themselves from our rules in the first place makes it categorically and provably false.

  65. benjdenny says:

    I think there needs to be a third person in the discussion with the name “Fundamentally doubtful of psychology’s general habit of deciding that there’s no such thing as personality flaws or responsibility-icus” or, hopefully, something shorter. If your starting premise is Soph’s “the only reason people think there’s such a thing as “lazy” is because they are hateful bigots”, then, yeah, you are going to come up with research questions to prove that and then let your paper be part of the 50% of papers that go unpublished mostly because they have “uninteresting findings” if you don’t find strong support of your presuppositions; also, you are a psychologist so your results don’t duplicate anyway.

    I say this as a lazy person – I don’t have serious hurdles in the way of me doing things, I understand first steps, and I don’t have anything resembling significant anxiety. I just don’t want to take out the trash or do my business science project nearly as much as I want to play shitty games on steam. This is absolutely a moral failing. Somebody telling me it’s not my fault and I just need to eat more beans and listen to soothing tunes isn’t helping – they are just doing the same thing they do when it’s not your fault if you are fat, or not your fault if you can’t stop doing crimes, or not your fault if you are physically abusive, or lie, or whatever. It’s an attempt at mercy that denies the idea that ANY moral failing besides using the wrong words on twitter exists, and it only helps the percentage of people who have anxiety issues/depression and not the portion of folks who need to get off their asses.

    In support of that, check out several of those articles artfully saying things that amount to “decide you want to do something and then go do it” as a solution to the non-existent problem of deciding you don’t want to do things.

    The problem above is that if you have someone on a soccer field who wants to score goals playing against someone who just wants to keep everything in the mid-field at all times, the best cases scenario for middle-field guy is a 0-0 game. You can’t have the discussion above honestly if you don’t have anyone willing to go “well, you guys aren’t the most credible lately, and it’s clear that cutting lazy people all the slack in the world is exactly in the center of your cultural and political bias wheelhouse. As a starting point for discussion, is there anyone you’d be willing to hold to account for anything?”.

    • cuke says:

      I read your comment as saying that psychologists are justifying not holding people accountable and are making lame excuses for bad behavior. My perspective is that psychologists are interested in getting more precise about whether some people being told to “just get off their lazy asses” may have treatable issues preventing them from doing so.

      As a psychologist, I’m very interested in helping people take responsibility for their actions and choices. I just don’t see chiding or shaming them as an effective way to do that. And I for sure want to understand what might be preventing them from doing the things they want to do, presuming that that’s the reason they are coming to me is because they haven’t been able to figure that out on their own.

      If someone is happy thinking of themselves as lazy and it’s not causing them distress or impairing their basic functioning in ways that causes them distress, I’m happy if it makes them happy.

      Otherwise, it’s very common for someone who treats mental health issues to encounter folks who have been told by caregivers and authorities that their “problem” is that they are “lazy.” I work with people with trauma, depression, and ADHD who have been told for years that their problem is that they’re “just not trying hard enough” — which can be a crushing message for someone who is drowning rather than lounging, so to speak.

      So from my perspective, the title “lazy” used by some people to describe some other people can be a very damaging thing that prevents people from getting help they need. I have watched this close up in my family with some relatives — the consequences of being told they were lazy rather than potentially needing help have been devastating across decades, and has affected their children’s lives as well.

      • cuke says:

        I think it was Kay Redfield Jamison, the psychologist who also has bipolar disorder, who described necessary treatment as including a combination of medication, therapy, and what I think she called “will.”

        Most psychologists would agree with her that overcoming most any condition/disability/impairment requires an element of personal commitment, diligence, motivation. It’s just that it’s really hard to judge whether someone is “working hard enough” from the outside, without a lot of listening to the fine-grained details of their experience.

        From what my patients tell me about what their friends and relations tell them, I have the sense that our default settings are still way too far in the direction of shaming people for “not trying hard enough” and “being lazy” even when they have very legitimately diagnosed mental illness. Humans still have a lot of trouble empathizing with people who are struggling with things different than the things they are struggling with.

        • benjdenny says:

          You read my comment mostly right, with one distinction – I’m not talking about psychologists, I’m talking about psychologists who write papers. I have no doubt that a psychologist who is on the ground with actual people would quickly come to the conclusion that a vital component of correcting bad behavior was correcting it.

          In the same way I don’t doubt that there’s a good amount of people who have real, treatable psychological issues that make them appear lazy(or be lazy, if we strip the moral aspect from the word). Like I get that a depressed person has trouble doing things, or that a person with anxiety might have trouble starting a new project.

          What I’m saying is that I’d be utterly shocked(Read: I’m interested to know if I’m wrong but couldn’t find anything like this) if there was a paper anywhere that framed their hypothesis as “What percentage of these people are just, you know, lazy?”. The framings I’ve seen are all “well, some percentage of these people have other issues, so laziness isn’t a real thing, and it’s nobody’s fault.”. That’s a particular bias; it’s coming from a field that at the academic level is almost entirely composed of people with that bias, and who test as hostile to papers that support the opposite bias.

          There’s a very clear mechanism by which this could create an environment where only one possible opinion could possibly gain a scientific consensus; Half of scientific papers go unpublished, and over half of those published in psychology are unreliable, and something like 80-95% bias towards liberal social views. Or, if I’m a psychologist: I can throw away any results that don’t support my hypothesis, any that do will be looked at much less critically by my peers than if it questioned anything they already believed, and we’ve got more than enough firepower to stifle the career of anybody who makes a stink about it. Also, at least 80% of the papers written in the first place were written by people who wanted to find evidence supporting a particular worldview(and this if you don’t believe there’s a chilling effect). And all this could easily happen without any intentional malice or foul play – the entire system is set up in a way that minimizes the effect of the controls.

          On the professional level, I’d expect a huge experience bias towards “it isn’t their fault” – as you said, these are people who are coming to you for help. By definition they aren’t at all likely at-fault-version-of-larry, who would react to a suggestion that he take a trip to a shrink like he’d react to a suggestion that he mow 100 lawns. Your people were so driven to fix the problem they found you; that’s a massive self selection in and of itself, and I’d fully expect nearly all of them to actually be ill in some way. Meanwhile, nobody wants Asshole Lazy James to see a psych; they want him to stop being an asshole and pay rent. And he himself knows he isn’t sick, and wouldn’t go by himself.

          Meanwhile, on many occasions I haven’t gone to work because I just didn’t feel like it despite not being rich and needing the money; I’m overweight because I don’t feel like exercising as much as I should, and I want to do other things more. I have dozens of unfinished writing projects that I’m not finishing for literally no reason. I’m not depressed, and I’m not filled with anxiety I might fail, and I know all the steps I need to take to finish things. I’m just lazy. It’s a thing. To the extent someone wanted to shame me for those things they’d be exactly as right to shame me for them as they are to shame anybody for anything, as long as their shaming was proportional to the sin.

          I’m pretty rummy tonight so I’m sure I’m rambling, but the super short version of what I’m trying to say is this:

          A. I don’t really believe that the field of psychology is actually capable, in it’s current form, of creating a scientific consensus that laziness is significantly a fault of the lazy no matter what the evidence might be

          B. I would expect every working psychologist to report that it’s mostly because of mental illness and not choice because of self-selection, in the same way ENT’s by and large probably think ears are on average waxier than they in reality are.

          C. Even if shaming or nagging the lazy is absolutely counterproductive, to the extent a person says “well, let’s say laziness isn’t a thing, because of the wrongness of shaming people who are lazy” it just indicates to me that person shouldn’t be listened to anymore, since they are dishonest and fully admitting they aren’t concerned with science so much as pushing an alternate moral framework(Note: I do not believe you to be doing this)

          • LesHapablap says:

            God has a plan :: the universe can be explained by science
            This man’s soul is lazy :: science can find physical explanations for laziness

            You won’t find a lot of science papers using freewill as an explanation for the same reason you don’t find lots saying “god made it that way.” Free-will can explaine anything and is therefore useless as an explanation.

          • benjdenny says:

            This is going to sound sarcastic, but it’s not meant that way: I am having trouble telling if this comment is actually in reply to me. I didn’t bring up religion in the slightest.

            If your argument is “choice doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion all around” then just saying “laziness doesn’t exist” seems needlessly narrow. You could just as easily say “all negative behaviors of any kind aren’t the fault of the mindless automatons that perform them”, and it seems sort of like the lazy people are then being for unclear reasons selected for special protections that wife-beaters also deserve under that premise.

          • LesHapablap says:

            Sorry I wasn’t very clear with what I was getting at.

            I don’t mean that choice is an illusion at all. What I mean is that the existence of free will is something that is hard to make a testable hypothesis for, whereas saying behavior Y is related to hormone X is easy to test. It’s just easier to do science in one direction than the other.

            The analogy to religious faith is a bit strained, I haven’t worked it out in my head completely. But basically free-will could be used to explain all behavior, and it is also useless as a predictive model because of that. Example: what causes ex-convicts to reoffend? Possibly correct, but useless answer: free-will.

            In the same way, God can be used to explain any physical phenomenon, and because of that fact it is useless to predict anything. Example: why did our crops all die this year? Possibly correct, but useless answer: God did it because he has a plan.

            That sort of universal, useless answer is a dead end to any more knowledge creation about the world, because once you know God did it for his own reasons then there’s no need to wonder about soil quality or irrigation.

            This idea is mostly cribbed from Deutch’s Beginning of Infinity

          • Deiseach says:

            Example: what causes ex-convicts to reoffend? Possibly correct, but useless answer: free-will.

            Equally correct but useless answer: inbuilt biological compulsions laid down in the fabric of the universe since the Big Bang, so there is no possible way they can avoid being criminals.

            In which case all you can do is punish them, since there is no hope of reformation. Severe punishment may set up such negative conditioning that the fear of further punishment over-rides the biological imperatives to be criminal, but it would need to be very severe since biological imperatives are so strong. So the compassionate “they can’t help themselves, it’s not a matter of willpower” turns into “we need to torture them while they’re in prison so they will so hate and fear the experience, the conditioned association of punishment with wrongdoing will stop them committing crime”.

            Or lock them up for life/hang them/transport them to Australia for stealing a handkerchief so they can’t get out and be criminals, that would work too.

          • LesHapablap says:


            Knowing the biological underpinnings would be a very useful answer. Useful in the sense that it would allow you to act in a way that changes the world, even if that change is for the worse

  66. Mary says:

    But the word “lazy” doesn’t just mean “can be motivated by external reinforcement”. It’s an attempt to judge somebody, to say they’re lesser, to lower their social status.

    And what’s wrong with that?

    Is this not an attempt to say that people who judge somebody are lesser, to lower their social status?

    Should he not be trying to help them instead?

  67. HeelBearCub says:

    I have a pretty strong feeling that this whole post is deeply skewed for one simple reason.

    At no point in time is Larry’s internal mental state brought into the conversation. Or at the very least it’s not in any way central to it.

    And the word lazy, with it’s moral connotations, are very much about mental state. When Larry said he would take of the task at the DMV, what was his internal mental thought process at the time? Did he mean that he would actually take care of it? Or did he actually lie, having no intent to perform the task? When he did not do the task, did he not care that his relative could there car? Did he place little value in there well-being? Or was it something else?

    If you try and have this dialogue, but Honest Larry is required to speak at each juncture, the conversation changes drastically. If we were to write stories from Larry’s perspective, one where Larry did have ADHD or depression, and another where they were actually being “lazy” in the morally unfit way, the stories are completely different.

    And this is the really big issue with the word “lazy”. It attempts to map a one to one correspondence between external, observable affects and a single, immoral cause.

    This, of course, is very different than the kind of “lazy” that is “I wanted to work out today, but I wasn’t in the mood.”

    In other words, the word lazy is, itself, lazy. It doesn’t do the work it claims to want to do.

    ETA: Of course it’s possible to use the word “lazy” without moral valence, but it’s no good claiming this is the only way it is used, or that the meaning of the word when it is used with negative moral valence is the same as without it.

  68. Wrong Species says:

    I think conflating both the “laziness as a moral wrong” and “laziness as just something that we don’t prefer but doesn’t make the person bad” types and saying it comes down to defintion debates is wrong. You’re right that, functionally, wanting someone to suffer is very similar to wanting them to suffer for purely consequential reasons. That’s why we evolved those ethical beliefs. But the moralizers don’t condemn laziness for those consequential reasons. We have this whole mental narrative to justify our beliefs, regardless of why we evolved those beliefs. It’s like saying there is no difference between the person who wants to have sex for pleasure and the person who wants to have sex for babies. Yes, evolutionary, we are designed to want to have sex because it has the functional role of increasing our progeny. But framing it like that is completely misleading.

    Side note: anyone who condemns moralizing about laziness is so completely outside my own thinking that I can’t even understand it. It’s like saying we should stop moralizing about fraud because people have some biological reason for doing so. Yes, if we go back far enough we can find a cause for some action inside your brain. What does that accomplish?

    • cuke says:

      I don’t condemn moralizing about laziness necessarily but it strikes me as a wholly useless thing to do, as useless as condemning laziness itself. Condemning seems like a pure heat kind of an action to me. What does it accomplish?

      If laziness is a problem for a particular person, I find curiosity to be a useful approach. What’s really going on here? How can we learn more about this person’s experience of laziness so we can see what choices this person might have to solve their problem? Finding causes seems very helpful to me because it sometimes leads to effective solutions.

      Beyond that, condemning type actions fall under the heading of general complaining to me. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you?

      • John Schilling says:

        Condemning seems like a pure heat kind of an action to me. What does it accomplish?

        It sometimes causes people to be less lazy (or racist, or whatever else it is we are condemning today). Most people actually do care what other people think about them, and sometimes do modify their actions accordingly.

        • Eponymous says:

          Yup. Using concise, culturally loaded words like “fat” or “lazy” to refer to someone can be a wakeup call. I’ve seen it make a positive difference.

          Moral language is powerful because that’s how humans are wired to think about themselves and others.

          And that’s exactly why people get upset about its use too. In general, if people are criticizing the use of a word for being offensive, it’s not because it doesn’t communicate anything; it’s because it communicates all too well.

          • Deiseach says:

            Using concise, culturally loaded words like “fat” or “lazy” to refer to someone can be a wakeup call. I’ve seen it make a positive difference.

            And sometimes not. I’ve been lectured, shamed, yelled at, and denigrated for being fat as long as I can remember, and it hasn’t worked.

            The one time I was steadily losing weight and tried mentioning it to someone to prove that I was making the diet and exercise effort, I got slapped down with the “oh that’s not losing weight, the first stone is only water” with the very strong and obvious implication that I was only being lazy else I would have lost three stone in that time, it so discouraged me I went “feck it” and dropped my attempts at self-improvement.

            Yeah, sometimes shaming works. And sometimes it’s one more pebble on the pile and it just buries you completely.

      • The Nybbler says:

        If you don’t condemn the lazy (in essence if not in those words), you end up punishing the conscientious. Lazyness has consequences; if you fail to allow those consequences to fall on the lazy person, you are requiring that the conscientious mitigate them on behalf of the lazy.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Do you have a problem with all moralizing or is it just with the term laziness? If it’s the latter, then what makes it special?

        • cuke says:

          I think I have a problem with all the moralizing. We all have so many flaws and sources of suffering, it seems to me we would do better to focus on improving our own ethical conduct. I have deep doubts about the overall effects of social shaming on people’s well-being and longer-term outcomes and impacts on society.

          • cuke says:

            I should say I also really like precision. So big lumpy categories that smuggle in unclear emotional baggage make me nervous as a scientist and as a person.

  69. frenris says:

    Loved the analysis of “laziness” as a term. I think though that while the distinction between factual beliefs and moral beliefs is philosophically important it tends to sort of breakdown in practice.

    As observed generally people’s moral beliefs and factual beliefs tend to cohere in a way that suggests the factual beliefs were not found rationally. I think that it makes more sense to think of moral inclinations in terms of temperament or moral palate (e.g. haidt’s moral foundations) than in terms of actual propositions.

    One way people differ temperamentally is in compassion (subtrait of big 5 agreeableness) and disgust sensitivity (orderliness subtrait of big 5 conscientiousness). The person who is high compassion and low disgust sensitivity will feel empathy for Larry. They will not want to call him lazy. The person who is high in disgust sensitivity will likely be conscientious, more conservative, and be disgusted by Larry and want to call him lazy.

    Both people will then hypothesize that what they’re doing is really the best thing to do for Larry’s interest. They think that however because they felt that way based on their temperament, not because it was a reasoned position. Perhaps if reasoned a bit they might then agree.

    So when we note that

    If we understand the degree to which other people’s differences from us are based on factual rather than fundamental value differences, we can be humbler and more understanding when we have to interact with them.

    I think we can go a step further and note that differences in factual beliefs are often a consequence of different moral intuitions – and that different moral intuitions are heuristics tuned by evolution which will be correct or mistaken in different scenarios.

    Maybe Fred just needs to be told to get off his ass and get his life together and Bill really needs some sort of medication. Maybe your “fundamental moral differences” have a bigger effect on what facts you first believe, than what you’d believe should be done if you believed the same facts. Perhaps neither of you reasoned your way into your position originally, but if you put in the work to find what the truth is then you’d agree.

  70. melling says:

    Negative Reinforcement has a technical meaning different from what seems to be implied in the dialogues. The implication, as I understand the dialogues using it, being that the term “Negative Reinforcement” means Punishment (either Positive or Negative), specifically a subset of Punishment that I don’t have a formal characterization for, but would gesture at the amorphous semantic area of Punishment that is generally considerate, principled, and proportionate to the offense at hand.

    Formally, both Positive and Negative Reinforcement are ways of reinforcing a behavior, differing only in the mechanisms that the behavior is reinforced by:

    – Positive Reinforcement can be thought of reinforcing a behavior, by adding good stimulus – eating breakfast makes a pleasant sensation of satiation, so the behavior of eating breakfast is given positive reinforcement.

    – Negative Reinforcement reinforces a behavior, by removing bad stimulus – eating breakfast makes the hunger go away, so the behavior of eating breakfast is given negative reinforcement.

    Formally, when a behavior is discouraged, this is termed Punishment, which may include but does not necessarily involve the aggravated punishment that the dialogues, as I understand it, seem to use “punishment” to mean. Like reinforcement, this can come in positive and negative varieties, based on whether something undesirable or desirable is being added or taken away, respectively:

    – Positive Punishment discourages a behavior, by adding bad stimulus – telling off a troublemaker in front of their peers adds a negative experience of social shame, so the behavior of troublemaking is given positive punishment.

    – Negative Punishment discourages a behavior, by removing positive stimulus – a troublemaking child is sent to their room without dessert, removing the expected positive stimulus of ice cream, so the behavior of troublemaking is given negative punishment.

    I hope that someone finds this helpful – it did take me a moment to realize what was being implied, and re-read the sections once I understood what “Negative Reinforcement”, as used in the dialogues, was intended to refer to.

  71. Eponymous says:

    @Scott: Brilliant work!

    In general I think dialogues and stories are underrated ways to convey ideas. And you’re good at them, too.

  72. Eponymous says:

    Random thought stimulated by this post:

    It seems to me that a lot of what we call “moral progress” consists of extending our circle of concern and abstracting/universalizing our moral feelings to apply to more people/things more equally and symmetrically.

    Now one reaction to this observation is to say “Of course!” and then immediately infer that maximal morality must be to completely universalize every moral feeling. So then you end up with some sort of extreme universalist utilitarianism, and/or its emotional equivalent, and start feeling guilty for not spending every waking second trying to feed starving africans, or saving animals, or worrying about suffering future hypothetical simulated sentients, and so forth.

    Then other people take this conclusion as a reductio of the whole concept, since they have a strong moral intuition that it’s somehow a gross dereliction of duty to abandon your own child so you can improve the lives of two children on the other side of the world you’ve never met. (But obviously this is just what evolution told them to feel, but *really* all children should be exactly equal in their moral calculus!)

    In other words, this maps exactly onto Scott Aaronson’s bullet-dodger/bullet-swallower concept. Needless to say, the rationalist/EA people-cluster contains a *lot* of bullet-swallowers.

    So my conjecture is that a lot of differences in moral thinking along this dimension are actually more about cognitive style and personality (and possibly intelligence) rather than differences in moral intuitions.

    But do people with roughly similar moral intuitions but different cognitive styles have a fundamental value conflict? Do such people differ in their fundamental “moral values”? Or do they just have disagreement about whether logical deductions that violate common sense intuitions are likely to be correct in general, or to be flawed in a subtle way?


  73. Picador says:

    In re “lazy”, I have a real world example.

    A couple of junkies tried to steal my kid’s stroller off my porch one night a few months ago. My wife and I chased them down, retrieved the stroller, and yelled at them. It was great.

    We posted a note to the neighbourhood Facebook group the next day warning people (there had already been a string of burglaries clearly carried out by the same perps) and were immediately chastised for using the word “junkies” to refer to these poor souls who were so clearly in need of help and compassion. We withdrew from the discussion because fuck it.

    If we had not withdrawn, I would have had to pose the question: is there a different word to refer to someone with an opioid addiction that has so hijacked their basic human decency and dignity to the point where they do things like steal children’s strollers off of peoples porches in the hopes of selling them for enough money for another hit? It was really bizarre to think that we were supposed to use some kind of non-judgmental term to refer to these people who, human though they are and there but for the grace of god go I etc etc, had sunk low enough that a general purpose term of condemnation and contempt is pretty much necessary. If we can’t condemn that kind of pathetic pathological behaviour, what behaviour can we condemn? All human actions have psychological causes: serial murderers, torturers, and bloody tyrants have reasons for what they do too. That in no way mitigates the condemnation they’ve invoted upon themselves.

    • Eponymous says:

      I think part of what’s going on here is that “personal responsibility!” is a red team cheer, opposing the “systemic injustice!” cheer on the blue team side. And “junkie” is a term that happens to be associated with the red team cheer, so criticizing its use is a way of signaling your affiliation with the blue team.

      I don’t think it’s about objecting to moral judgment per se. I doubt the same people would object to an expression of moral judgment towards drug companies for pushing opiates on vulnerable people.

      This is also why social media is terrible. Seizing an opportunity to signal team affiliation in a discussion of someone’s criminal victimization indicates no feeling or connection with the victim. I doubt this person would have made this point if you were their friend or family member. Ironically, their “compassionate” comment was rooted in their restricted circle of concern.

    • cuke says:

      The question I have is what does condemnation get you?

      I work with the parents of kids with heroin addiction. In my head I label these kids as “people with heroin addiction” because it seems the most accurate. It’s pretty common for people with heroin addiction to steal from their own friends and families, valuable irreplaceable heirlooms, much less baby strollers.

      If you sat in my office and referred to them as junkies instead of people with heroin addiction, I wouldn’t try to change the word you use. But the question I would have is “now what?” Now what on a personal level and now what on a societal level? Condemning people with heroin addiction either to their faces or to other people is not going to help the problem. So to me, shaming language is kind of like a Snickers bar we indulge in because we get some kind of self-satisfaction out of it. Okay, that’s fine. But now what?

      One worry I have is when this general feeling of “I should be allowed to condemn these people” gets carried to a broader scale, we wind up with very expensive residential treatment programs where sometimes not-very-skilled staff are paid to shame addicted people as part of treatment, while insisting they come off their anti-depressants and that abstinence, baby, is the only way to go. Contrary to all the evidence we have about what works. Or we get governors who just want to put more money into law enforcement because “junkies” are “criminals.” So anyway, that’s what I see in the corner of the opiate crisis that I’m living and working in.

      • Eponymous says:

        Compare “junkie” and “person with heroin addiction”.

        Clearly junkie is rougher, shorter, more direct. It’s informal. It’s a word that evolved out in the linguistic wild. It’s the path across the grassy field formed by the feet of thousands of passersby looking for the shortest and most direct route to say what they mean.

        By contrast, “Person with heroin addiction” is an awkward verbal circumlocution. It’s what you get when someone taboos “junkie” and gets “heroin addict”, and then decided that “addict” has become offensive too, and so taboos that to get “person with heroin addiction”. It’s the twisty, indirect, elevated pathway over and around the grassy field that well-dressed people walk over so as not to get mud on their shoes from the beaten path.

        There’s no denying the mud. Any well-worn useful word is going to come with a whole truckload of assumptions and implications. It’s been used in a lot of fights, and is associated with certain positions. It’s been used by humans in the way humans use words (to moralize, to express emotions), and thus is irretrievably *human* in its meaning. Just plain messy, earthy, informal; not sufficiently dry, clinical, academic. You wouldn’t “give needles to junkies” in a research study; you would “administer sterile hypodermic needles to people suffering from heroin addiction.”

        But isn’t it worth avoiding the short, common word to avoid the common implications that might lead to misunderstanding or offense? Sure; sometimes. I do it myself. There are certain words that you use with a lot of care if you don’t want to engender misunderstanding or provoke a certain emotional reaction.

        But I think there’s also a sort of Chesterton’s Fence here. There’s a reason common linguistic usage has beaten a particular path through meaning-space, with a certain set of associated implications. Yes, some of those implications reflect biases, common misconceptions, and outdated assumptions about human psychology. But I think you want to be very careful about throwing out a nice useful word with a whole host of evolved implications because you don’t like the taste of a few of them.

        It’s okay to get a little mud on your shoes to get where you’re going quickly and end up where you mean.

        • Garrett says:

          Slight disagreement. I would argue that all junkies are people with drug abuse problems, but not all people with drug abuse problems are junkies.

          There are people who have significant drug abuse problems yet while doing so don’t end up causing direct negative externalities for others. My go-to example is Rush Limbaugh, who while dealing with a severe opioid addiction still managed to run his radio show which brought in millions of dollars.

          In contrast, the term junkie assumes not only a substance-use disorder, but to such degree that they are engaging in activities with substantial direct negative side effects. In this case, petty theft, but also while behaving in a way which is … unaesthetically pleasing.

        • cuke says:

          My sense is we all have mud on our shoes all the time in our use of language and most other acts of living.

          My sense is “junkie” is part and parcel of the world view that brought us the war on drugs which I think has been a total failure.

          I have no problem with you or anyone else using that word. I don’t choose to use it.

          I think I do have a larger philosophical/moral problem with the idea that people feel entitled to use certain derogatory words because they think the person those words pertain to “deserves” it. My world-view doesn’t match with that view.

      • The Nybbler says:

        The question I have is what does condemnation get you?

        It means I can de-prioritize their needs when looking for a solution. I don’t need to much consider the plight of the thieving junkie; I just need to consider how to mitigate their effects on their victims. I can even vote for the gubernatorial candidate who wants to put them in jail rather than somehow “treat” them. As Mark Atwood points out, compassion has a cost; by condemning them, I can withhold compassion and avoid that cost.

        Of course, this makes me a terrible person, in the judgement of those who refuse to condemn the heroin addict.

        • Randy M says:

          It means I can de-prioritize their needs when looking for a solution.

          This is profoundly anti-utilitarian (or at least makes the math much harder. ) and yet obviously vital. seems just to my intuitions. (edit: didn’t like that previous formulation)

          I suppose the counter argument is that it is unjust to prioritize someone’s needs lower just because they happen to be born with a greater susceptibility to addiction (or propensity to violence). Then we’re either debating whether free will means anything or talking about the consequences of being lenient on the marginal addict/thief.

          But anyways, I like the point here and elsewhere raised that considering these obligations needs to be done in the world of scarcity that we inhabit.

          • uau says:

            I think it’s “anti-utilitarian” only if you restrict yourself to considering short-term pleasure. If you think about the overall progress of society, it’s quite plausible that you won’t find a treatment that makes junkies have an overall positive contribution to human progress. I believe that killing the junkies and dumping the bodies in a landfill could quite plausibly be an overall utilitarian win in the longer term – the main risk there being that such actions increase the risk of turning society in a direction where lots of people are at risk of getting killed at a whim.

            Related question about utilitarianism – suppose you’re a utilitarian living in the past. Should you expend any resources on things like caring for the elderly, or spend everything on progressing toward the point where you can have modern health care? The latter will have much greater overall benefits, but mainly for future generations.

  74. All I’m trying to do is say that those people may have differing factual beliefs on how to balance the information-bearing-content of words versus their potential connotations. If we understand the degree to which other people’s differences from us are based on factual rather than fundamental value differences, we can be humbler and more understanding when we have to interact with them.

    Agreed that this is how we should approach other positions. It’s just good epistemic humbleness. Still, isn’t one of the purposes of dialogue then to probe all of the factual disagreements and hopefully solve them in good faith together only to be left with whatever value differences remain at the end of that process? Are we co-operating in order to discover the grounds on which we should compete? Perhaps it would ultimately only be a 1% difference and something we could live with, but perhaps not; we simply don’t know.

    If it was a huge difference, that would be a tremendous existential problem, since if it was discovered after all fact based argument had been exhausted, there would be no recourse left save for at worse violence, and at best, separation.

    Here’s a little horror story for rationalists: what if the reason regular people seem so resistant to acting rationally and arguing in good faith to co-operatively solve problems is exactly because the end game of that process is the unveiling of whatever insolvable differences are left? That is, people are not mindkilled by politics into building up fortresses of alternative facts, but are on some intuitive level using alternative facts to the opposition in order to avoid that repugnant conclusion.

    If conservatives and progressives had fundamental value differences when weighing present lives against future lives, or the lives of kin against the lives of foreigners, then they might just coat themselves in an armor of “facts” precisely to shield their vulnerable insides. Alternative facts are in this light a form of MAD doctrine. We can lessen mutual accusations of insufferable evil by coating value differences with factual differences, and then make sure that the factual differences are made as intractable as possible. We would be competing on facts so as to avoid competing on values, because if we co-operated on facts, values would eventually be exposed. The rationalists trying to overcome mindkilling and approach issues from a co-operative perspective would be hastening disaster if value differences did so happen to be huge.

    But that’s just a horror story.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I’ve thought that some measure of hypocrisy might be necessary to have a dialogue and change people’s morality over time. My go to example being the Founding Fathers talking about All Men Created Equal while owning slaves and that idea later used to free them. But the idea that people do it on purpose, on a subconscious level, to promote general social welfare is an interesting dea. It would definitely explain why we’re so bad at rationality.

      Just as an application, imagine definite evidence came to light that showed higher gun ownership causes higher homicide rates. That wouldn’t end the debate. It could make it more vicious, with one side trying to repeal the second amendment with the other side still refusing to cede an inch.

      • Adam Treat says:

        It’s possible to have ideals and aspire to them while not living up to them in any given moment. Hypocrisy only comes into play when not acknowledging or denying those moments when one fails to live up to them.

        • Wrong Species says:

          But that is what I’m talking about. If you say “all men are created equal” and deny that it applies to black people, then you are being a hypocrite.

          • Adam Treat says:

            Sure and I’d say failing to acknowledge that “all men are created equal” applies to black people is compatible with, “Hypocrisy only comes into play when not acknowledging or denying those moments when one fails to live up to them.”

            Let me give you a counter example. Let’s say I hold “all men are created equal” as one of my highest ideals. And then I go take an unconscious bias test and my results show me not living up to this highest ideal. If I acknowledge that and work on improving am I hypocritical for holding that ideal? I’d say not at all.

            There is a reason it is called “ideal” and there is a reason we fall short of the ideal.

  75. Theresa Klein says:

    I think there’s value in teasing apart the different sources of “laziness” into different buckets.
    It’s quite plausible that some people respond to shaming, and others will respond to having their financial supports pulled, and that if you do those things, those people will overcome the various psychological (or maybe even physiological) issues that are keeping them from working. I think we all know someone like this or have experienced this ourselves. You get stuck in a rut, and someone has to kick you in the ass once in a while to get out of it. Other people those won’t work for or will be counter-productive, because their problems aren’t caused by depression (say) but are caused by low self-esteem. So breaking up “laziness” into different physical or mental health problems or personality dispositions will be useful in order to develop different words and different strategies for each category. You handle someone who is depressed by making them get up and get out of the house, and you handle someone who has low self esteem by giving them lots of small tasks and praising them. (Just a hypothetical, I’m not a psychologist).

    On a follow up note, I do kind of think that sometimes forcing people to go do some useful work h as positive effects, even on physiological problems like hypothyroidism. There’s a pretty highly integrated brain-gut-thyroid nexus in the human body, with a possible depression->gut biome->thyroid->depression feedback loop. You can possibly kick someone out of it with thyroid medication, but it’s also possible that improved mental health and happiness could improve thyroid function on it’s own. And of course exercise can be great for mental health. So a manual labor job like landscaping could actually really help a lot of people.

  76. Irein says:

    The last part of this reminded me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; a city in which the whole thing is the center is exactly what would show up there.

  77. LesHapablap says:

    If it is wrong to get satisfaction from a wrong-doer being punished, is it also wrong to get satisfaction when a do-gooder gets rewarded?

    I think both satisfactions are from a sense that the level of fairness in the world has increased. Certainly it is dis-pleasurable to see life be unfair to people.

  78. markpneyer says:

    I have the urge to care about my children more than I care about some random people somewhere else. That’s clearly an evolutionary/biochemical process. I cannot justify it based on pure reason.

    I can easily justify this with pure reason.

    I care more about my kids because I have far more capacity to effect them than I do other people’s kids.

    I care more about my kids not because other people’s kids aren’t worth caring about, but because that caring cannot effectively be translated into action that predictably and reliably lines up with the goals i value. I want to see all human beings flourish and do well, but I don’t have the ability to influence all human beings.

    I DO have the ability to influence myself and the people immediately around me. Caring too much about remote, distant people that I can’t help all that much would inhibit my ability to effectively care for my children, and so on the whole, for the whole of humanity, it’s best if I care more about my own kids than I do about distant children.

    This is true, even if i say I value all human lives. Even though I can value them all, I can’t equally effect them all.

    • March says:

      The problem here is that ‘caring’ too much about your own children can actually negatively affect other children. For instance, the desire of many white people with disposable income to give their children access to the best schools causes the only schools that poorer people, often of color, to have access to to be less good. And there are more cases where what’s good for other people’s children is to moderate your efforts toward your own.

      • Adam Treat says:

        You are pointing out an example that I believe is covered in Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

        I’d love to see Scott give a review of this book and to see what the rational community thinks. There is a distinction to be made between two different things that we often conflate which confuses the hell out of people: empathy and compassion. Here is an excellent example of how to distinguish between them. And this is an article covering both the above.

      • Jiro says:

        And likewise, the decision to buy your child a book rather than donate the money to the third world to save some child from malaria helps your own child while negatively affecting other children (at least by utilitarian standards).

        Your argument pretty much implies the usual utilitarian reductio ad absurdum of having to give away everything you own in order to buy malaria nets for Africans, except instead of giving away everything you own, it’s giving away everything that would otherwise go to your children.

        • March says:


          Yup, that’s the reductio already.

          Call me less-than-rationalist if you wish, but there’s more to the world than either ‘grab all you can for your natural offspring’ or ‘give away all you can so your natural offspring dies a useless, horrible death like so many other kids’.

          My baby does NOT need a gazillion new books if we haven’t even finished the ones we have. My evolutionary tendency definitely urges me to get her all the books I can possibly get, and all the toys, and all the everything, but there’s a whole lot of diminishing returns going on after you reach the threshold of survive and even thrive. (And I daresay that giving baby too much won’t get you to their developmental optimum either.) Am I living a ridiculously wealthy and lavish life compared to so many others on this world? Sure. Is it as ridiculously wealthy and lavish as I could possibly make it? Hell no.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        You may, if you really want to, argue that our innate tendency to put our children’s welfare ahead of any other consideration whatsoever is merely an artifact of evolution, and that a sufficiently objective and dispassionate analysis of the situation demonstrates that, in reality, this is an incorrect way to behave.

        I’ll wait over here.

  79. wysinwygymmv says:

    1. The urge to punish is bad in part because it encourages people to punish people other than the guilty party — someone has to pay for this!

    2. It’s also bad because it encourages or is a manifestation (or both) of self-righteousness. I know one of the themes of this blog is how obnoxious and potentially destructive self-righteousness is for left-politics-aligned people, but I think if you’re going to be fair about this you have to admit that right-politics-aligned people are also vulnerable to bouts of self-righteousness (though of course they’re going to argue it’s less obnoxious and potentially destructive when they do it).

    3. Even though Simplicio insisted that calling someone lazy and yelling at them is effective, it seems unlikely that it is actually effective except for in isolated cases and probably only in the short term. From introspection, I think being accused of being lazy by someone I was close with would cause me to push away from that person emotionally, to feel resentful that they’re not being more understanding, and ultimately to stop valuing their judgments about me. Social isolation promoted depression which isn’t known for its motivation boosting effects, so I think in the long term Simplicio’s approach to laziness hurts more than helps and Sophisticus actually has a great point.

    It seems to me the dialog misunderstands the “there’s no such thing as laziness” sentiment. It’s not necessarily that words are bad (which seems to be the primary preoccupation of the OP) or that people making moral judgments are bad (the secondary preoccupation of the OP). Maybe consider that the difference is actually that calling someone a lazy, worthless slob is mean and will tend to make them feel bad rather than good. You can’t keep someone motivated by making them feel bad about themselves in the long term — it will inevitably grind them down and make them lazy and depressed instead of just lazy (or more depressed than they already were). And probably contribute to social isolation, making it even more difficult to find a source of positive motivation to overcome the laziness.

    And this can all be true even if both sides agree that the person in question would make a terrible dog sitter. They’d just explain why they’re not asking Larry in different terms.

    4. Related to (2), we can ask what is motivating the person who wants to make accusations of someone being “lazy” or, similarly, someone who wants to punish a criminal for the sake of punishment. Probably these sorts of things are motivated by frustration, anger, and similar negative emotions that are not necessarily good for people to stew in. Even if you get some kind of satisfaction from calling someone lazy or punishing a wrong-doer, it’s probably not good to reinforce the feeling of moral righteousness in judging or punishing others.

    • Adam Treat says:

      Self-righteousness is an addiction and probably one of the foremost things we should abandon as a society. Outrage culture is everywhere on all of the tribal sides. And we feel *justified* in being self-righteously angry at everything. We’re positively *hooked* on this to the extent that we get *mad* at others who are *not* sufficiently self-righteously angry. You can see this most clearly in the response to Robbie Parker who gave a press conference where he displayed an insufficient amount of righteous anger towards the perpetrator of his daughter’s murderer. He even had the audacity to display compassion and empathy for the family of his daughter’s murderer. This served to generate a huge wave of self-righteous anger directed at Robbie Parker himself. People were *pissed* that he was insufficiently angry.

      I know the theory of signaling is propounded in these quarters, but think how messed up we are as a society that the *way* we signal our moral bonafides is to display righteous anger. We think it is good and just to be righteously angry rather than completely destructive. We’re messed up.

  80. jebbyderinger says:

    Completely relevant for me today because I feel like this Larry guy who might be considered lazy but really I just have self-defeating beliefs, ADHD, and anxiety. I side with Sophisticus. Lazy has a negative connotation because it’s typically framed as a choice. Many of the people I know who probably consider me to be lazy are very productive but lack attention to detail, and creativity. They produce a lot but what they produce could have been done by any other very productive person on the planet. My lazy self needs the dopamine provided by discovery though I honestly wish I were a bit less like Larry. Unless you “Make it” being lazy isn’t as easy as it sounds.

  81. blacktrance says:

    Instead of fleeing, Simplicio should’ve said (1) that actual value differences are rare (to the point that most apparent instances actually aren’t) but do exist in real life, the one about punishment being an example; and (2) that the paperclip-conflict is the denotation of “value difference” – it’s not a value difference if it doesn’t actually involve a difference in values. In contrast, “laziness” has a lot more nodes in its cluster, so using it as Simplicio does still sounds normal.

  82. benjdenny says:

    Scott, actual question I’m interested in: Do treatments for laziness actually work? Not just treatments for depression or acute anxiety, which I get might have big effects(but suspect aren’t what most people are talking about when they blanket refer to a person as lazy), but for more subtle “maybe he has minor ADD or some biological component” types of lazy.

    The reason I ask is because it seems like a really good argument against UBI if it isn’t all that treatable – if there’s tons of people who are biologically hardwired to be lazy and we can’t correct it with drugs/couch time, then there’s necessarily tons of people who will only work under harsh stimulus, I.E. if they starve if they don’t. If that’s the case, UBI instantly turns them into permanent net losses for society, right? Is there any way around that?

  83. Completely off the point: I’m glumly not surprised that the fictional unreliable cousin is named “Larry”.

    In movies, television, literature, my name has come to be seen as an emblem of low-class ineptitude: Larry the Cable Guy, a bumbling hick; Leisure Suit Larry (in the Land of the Lounge Lizards); Larry the recurring sinister recluse in Garrison Keillor’s dark cellar; goofy Larry of the Three Stooges; Larry and his brothers Daryl; the incompetent Larry Burns of the Simpsons; the bumbling Larry Appleton of Perfect Strangers; the closeted-gay bully Larry Blaisdell, killed by a demon in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the craven Larry Tate on Bewitched; the hapless Larry Bud Melman on the David Letterman show; the neurotic Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Every one of these guys is a target for ridicule.

    Another Larry asks: “Did you ever notice that the goofy guy or loser in all movies or shows is named Larry?”

    One study of people’s reactions to given names (reported here in the New Scientist) classified each name by its perceived “warmth” and “competence”. The name Larry was rated as not-warm and not-competent.

    I’m guessing that if Scott’s essay had used a “warm/competent” name like Jonathan or Matthew, it would have conflicted with the disdain we were supposed to feel (or imagine the speaking characters feeling) toward the cousin. It would be like the studies where the test subject hesitates, because the word “GREEN” is written in orange letters, or positive traits are linked with disfavored racial groups. Giving the cousin a positive name would distract from the point of the story.

    So to consistently portray a man who plays video games all day and doesn’t keep promises, it was necessary to call him by a severely disfavored name, such as mine.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Hmmmm. At least your parents didn’t name you Adolph.

      But, is your given name actually Larry? Or is Lawrence? Why do you go by Larry then? Although I assume that the relationship wasn’t actually established when you were a kid.

      I think Freakonomics has a chapter on naming children and specifically looks at how, over time, names start as popular in the top economic class, then fall to the middle class, then the poor, then cease being popular at all. My guess is that you are seeing some fallout from this.

      Your name has become associated with a stock “character” name, but I’d guess that it only can get that association because it’s generally not very popular.

      • But, is your given name actually Larry? Or is Lawrence? Why do you go by Larry then? Although I assume that the relationship wasn’t actually established when you were a kid.

        My given name is Lawrence, but that strikes most Americans as overly formal. Since kindergarten (back during the Eisenhower Administration), almost everyone has known me as Larry.

        I have enjoyed success as a political candidate nonetheless. On the actual ballot, however, I am “Lawrence”.

        At least your parents didn’t name you Adolph.

        My father was a Jew who fought in World War II. Adolph would have been a very unlikely choice.

        (Of course there was that OTHER moral-objections-to-providing-a-cake case, which involved a birthday cake for the deeply unfortunate 3-year-old son of white supremacists, Adolf Hitler Campbell.)

        I think Freakonomics has a chapter on naming children…

        As I recall, Freakonomics (as a rebuttal to nominative determinism) brought up the case of two brothers, one named “Winner”, the other named “Loser”. Winner wound up in prison, while Loser, who goes by “Lou”, is a police officer.

        Your name has become associated with a stock “character” name, but I’d guess that it only can get that association because it’s generally not very popular.

        Lots of formerly common names are not very popular today. Hiram. Adelbert. Mordecai. Egbert. Sigmund. Isidore. Darius. Chauncey.

        Had Scott asked for suggestions of what to name the cousin, I’d have advised him to use “Hiram”.

    • Jaskologist says:

      At least Larry the Cucumber has a good heart.

      • At least Larry the Cucumber has a good heart.

        I was going to mention that, but I thought my whine was too long already.

        I suppose Larry the Cucumber is a small counter-example to all the negative portrayals I listed.

    • Deiseach says:

      You share a name with the famous St Laurence/Lawrence, who said “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” during his martyrdom, though I don’t know if that makes you feel better? There is also St Laurence O’Toole, the 12th century Irish archbishop.

      • …who said “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” during his martyrdom

        I did know that. Quite possibly, my name comes indirectly from him.

        I don’t know if my parents were kidding or serious when they told me (as a pre-teen) that I was named for the St. Lawrence Seaway.

        That project was just getting underway when I was born, far upstream, in Chicago.

  84. Tristan Morris says:

    Great post!

  85. Michael Crone says:

    Even Siplicio is using “lazy” different from common usage, or at least giving a very specialized example. I think lazy is used more often to mean people that won’t work for the common good (even if they have plenty of energy to meet their selfish needs) or, in its worst usage, means won’t work for the goals of whoever is calling them lazy.

  86. hnau says:

    TL;DR: Sufficiently powerful heuristics are indistinguishable from values.

    • hnau says:

      …but I’m getting tired of people assuming that “utility” or “fitness” or what-have-you are the actual underlying values. A large number of plausible value structures, including paperclip maximization, converge on “increase the expected size and capabilities of human society” as a good meta-level heuristic for the average human. When you strip that away, you tend to find gaping holes in the actual values behind it.

  87. ARabbiAndAFrog says:

    Overall, I had came to conclusion that there’s no distinction between choice and non-choice, or in this particular things, between objective factors or laziness. Our choices are predicated on our genes and conditioning we received, both beyond our control.

    I think that in the end, people sort things into choice and non-choice group not by actual properties of those traits but by whenever they want people (themselves and others) judged by those traits or not (I am poor because I had bad luck, you are poor for having poor work ethic; I am fit and handsome because I worked hard for this body, you are fit and handsome because you won genetic lottery). Because for whatever reason, it’s only OK to hate people who choose to be low-quality and not just born genetically inferior subhumans, and in the same vein it’s only OK to praise others for, or take pride in being some kind of everyman who did the right choices everyone else could easily make, and not being part of genetically superior master race.

  88. hypnopath2 says:

    Saw this on my twitter feed this morning, thought I’d share: — links to efficacy research,

    Obviously the Dyslexie font website has an incentive only to link to positive research, but yeah.

    “Related to yesterday’s post on people being too quick to assume value differences: some of the simplest fake value differences are where people make a big deal about routing around a certain word. And some of the most complicated real value differences are where some people follow a strategy explicitly and other people follow heuristics that approximate that strategy.”

    If you imagine a world where Simplicio always gets his away, and his snap judgments reign supreme, then you never see the Dyslexie font, because people with dyslexia are “just bad at reading” or “just aren’t trying hard enough” and that’s the end of the story. You also don’t get to see antidepressants because people need to “just get over it” and you don’t see any number of actual investigations because we were quick to assume the lowest-resolution explanation possible. The judgmental factor is also a great way to give people low self-esteem where they start thinking they are inherent failures at life, when *any other person* would suck in that situation and it’s actually a very fixable problem. I think for your more analytically rigorous individual, that’s the crux of the issue. For your more easily offended types, then it’s about “no that’s mean!” with no extra effort to solve anything. Just a more fancily dressed up “how DARE you.”

    I agree with Scott, that you *will* end up with similar end behaviors sometimes; you don’t have somebody who is “just lazy” take care of your dog because they’ll do a bad job, and you don’t get “Larry who would totally do it but he has chronic fatigue and low intrinsic motivation to live” to take care of your dog, for roughly the same reason–the dog won’t get taken care of. But again, the second person is more likely to get to the bottom of Larry’s issues. The first person would never bother.

    Also, it’s funny that in this dialogue, Simplicio is happier to call somebody “just lazy” but is willing to do the extra legwork to explain the deepseated reasoning behind the mental shorthand. Mostly because the dialogue is written by Scott, who was willing to write multiple blog posts because he didn’t want to describe certain types of conflicts as “just value differences” without parsing all the implications.

  89. crc128 says:

    I loved this, but isn’t it just a distillation/summary/special case of Wittgenstein’s work concerning the problem of meaning?

    It seems like the argument between denotation and connotation.

  90. Eponymous says:

    Consider arguments of the form, “But X is a useful element in a cognitive algorithm!” vs. “But X is a harmful moral judgment!”

    In other words, we agree on the cognitive graph associated with a cognitive concept, and that the central node X is extraneous if all the outside nodes are pinned down. But we have a different interpretation of the mental function being performed by the central node (computational efficiency vs. assignment of moral judgment).

    Now one interpretation is that the cognitive algorithm position is correct if you’re sufficiently sophisticated, but you have to be careful so that you don’t offend or confuse the majority of people who take the naive essentialist view that includes a concept like “moral judgment”.

    I think this interpretation is wrong. What’s really going on is that the two positions correspond to two different kinds of reasoning one can do from the central node. The first is using the central node to make inferences about other lower-level nodes attached to the same concept. The second is about using the central node to activate a higher-level concept (i.e. “make a moral judgment”).

    In other words, the original diagram is incomplete. The central node actually *is* connected to other nodes, forming a higher-level network of central concept nodes. And this network *in turn* has its own central node. The outer nodes might be concepts like “lazy”, “responsible”, “untrustworthy”, “kind”, “stupid”, “evil”, etc. These are themselves central nodes for sub-networks, corresponding to these concepts. The central node of this higher-level network might be labeled something like “overall evaluation of a person”.

    Activating the central node of this higher level network is just what we mean by “moral judgment”.

    Under this theory, this is how moral judgment works: First we observe some particular behavior of a person (like failing to do something they said they would do, or napping when we think they should be working). This fires the central node corresponding to the “lazy” concept, which is a useful computational shortcut for updating conditional probabilities for other lower-level predictions like “this person will reliably pick me up from the airport” or something.

    But that’s not all that happens. When the “lazy” node fires, it then activates the central node in the higher level network. We lower our moral opinion of this person, and thus predict that they are likely to have other character flaws. Maybe they’re less trustworthy, so we don’t believe things they say as easily. Maybe we expect them to be less kind.

    Thus when we say, “Don’t use the word ‘lazy’ because that’s an unwarranted moral judgment”, what we’re saying is, “Don’t fire the central node of the ‘lazy’ network, because that will fire the central node of the ‘overall moral judgment’ network”.

    And I’m not sure that they’re wrong. You really have to be careful before you activate any concept.

    Really, when you come down to it, thinking with a human brain should only be done by professionals under highly controlled conditions.

    • Adam Treat says:

      This is awesome and that last sentence is quoted… but

      “Don’t fire the central node of the ‘lazy’ network, because that will fire the central node of the ‘overall moral judgment’ network” should be more like, “I’m trying to inform you of the negative consequences of firing the central node of the ‘lazy’ network in order to increase the likelihood that this will cause you – via neural plasticity – to organize and create a new sub-network that fires just before the firing of that ‘lazy’ node reminding you of the detriment of its doing so.”

      And then Simplicio would respond with, “Well, that’s all well and good, but perhaps you should grow your own new sub-network of “no real value difference” that attaches whenever you fire your own higher level network that goes off when you see people firing the central node of their “lazy” network without your prescribed sub-network.”

      • Eponymous says:

        Thanks! And your addendum is well-taken: strictly speaking we can’t choose not to fire certain parts of our mental reasoning networks; they just fire. So the debate is about how to rewire the existing circuitry.

        As an aside: isn’t it just incredible that we can, by discussing these topics, rewire the neural nets in our heads?

  91. Richard Kennaway says:

    “Lazy” is a name for a certain pattern of behaviour, such as Larry’s. Some people are lazy, but there is no such thing as laziness. Lazy behaviour is no more caused by “laziness” than opium produces sleep because of its dormitive principle. Finding a genuine cause for Larry being lazy does not mean that he is not being lazy. It means that he is being lazy, and that this causal factor is why.