Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Antinatalism and Comfort

Comfort is low-variance pleasure. It's pleasure and pain within narrow parameters. When someone is dying, their comfort is our priority, not their capacity for great pleasure; and the opiate medication we palliate them with serves this purpose.

The conservative ethos, broadly speaking, is generally one of preserving a state of comfort at the expense of the possibility for great pleasure or pain (since great pleasure, biologically speaking, tends to have a cost). Risk aversion in humans is a preference for comfort over possibility, and risk aversion is universal, at least among those not currently suffering a great deal.

Assuring the comfort of others is a very humane value.

Here is a problem, though: openness to experience is a highly attractive trait that correlates strongly with certain other highly attractive traits, such as intelligence and youth (and associated neotenic traits). If we are brave and open to experience, we wish to push out of our own comfort zones; think of people you know who choose comfort over adventure, and how you feel about them.

When making moral judgments, we of course wish to display our own highly attractive traits (or even front like we have attractive traits we do not really possess). What better way to signal our own adventurousness than to appear willing to impose it on others?

But is there an important difference between being willing to accept risk ourselves and being willing to impose it on others?

Defining comfort as I have as a state of low-variance pleasure, the ultimate comfort would be the never-born state - pleasure and pain tightly bounded at zero. Creating a person by definition means pulling him screaming out of a state of comfort (negative bliss, as Jim puts it) and pushing him into a state of great risk. Whatever the costs and benefits of this unasked-for adventure, I suspect our feelings about the morality of forcing risk on others function as a (costless, to us) way of signalling our own willingness to take risks.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rape, Humor, Liberals, and the Sacred

This is a response to a piece by blogger Bacchus of the awesome Eros Blog (NSFW) entitled On Not Speaking Up.

How Rape Humor Enriched My Life This Week

We have this friend, and everybody likes him. He's sweet beyond sweet, kind to everyone, and I think his main motivation in life is to meet, hug, and have long, intimate talks with everyone in the entire world. A few days ago my boyfriend and I were on our way to a party at this friend's house to play Magic: The Gathering,[1] and we were talking about Posnerian rape licenses[2] (like you do), and my boyfriend mentioned how sad it would be if our friend were a rape licensee - because he'd never find anyone who disliked him enough for sex to be non-consensual! He'd just wander the world sadly, "but he'd never go so far as to not be nice," my boyfriend added. Could this same information have been communicated as well by just saying "wow, isn't our friend super nice?"

So later that night, at our beloved friend's house, I was watching two guys play Magic, and it was a fairly even game until one of them played a "Grimoire of the Dead" card, which I am informed is a "mythic rare" card of unimaginable power. "Wow, I'm about to get reamed, aren't I?" his opponent said. Could this same social information, with all the good sportsmanship I think it conveys, be communicated as well by just saying "wow, I'm about to lose, huh?" In fact, when I was in the process of destroying[3] my boyfriend with a hastily-constructed deck and a shaky understanding of the rule set, I noticed myself saying "I think I'm going to fuck you with THIS card" - the obvious hyperbole takes the edge off of competition that would otherwise be uncomfortable, somehow. This is what I am reminded of when Bacchus (NSFW) talks about online gaming boys using the phrase "rape your face" to describe combat victory. It has nothing to do with women and everything to do with navigating complicated group-belonging and status dynamics.

Do you know someone in a relationship of habit, with no particular intimacy or frisson? Our term for this - to distinguish it from the kind of satisfying, kinky, intimate relationship that is greatly preferred - is a "rapeless marriage." As in, "she was trapped in a rapeless marriage for ten years." Could the social information and pleasure of this phrase be conveyed as well another way?

I Promise I Am Not A Misogynist Monster Here

Notice that, in the above examples, no one was actually raped.

I am a girl. I have never been raped, but my close female relative (within two degrees of separation) was raped under circumstances making it unclear if she would survive. She was raped by a stranger, and when he was done she managed to convince him to abandon her alone in the desert rather than murder her outright.

Another woman in my life was drugged and gang-raped by boys she knew.

Are those of us who joke about rape somehow adding to the suffering of the real-life victims of rape?

As I have mentioned before, I grew up in Northern Idaho among rednecks, and I was horrified when some of my little redneck friends' redneck parents would say things to them like "You do your chores right now or I'll beat you bloody!" My little redneck friends were not disturbed by this in the least; it took me a while to realize that nobody was actually beaten bloody at any point. My own parents used the more genteel (but still terrifying) "unknown punishment" - the details were left intentionally vague, and I was probably in high school before it dawned on me that the threat was empty and the "unknown punishment" didn't really exist. Does the specificity of "I'll beat you bloody" make it genuinely objectionable in a way the "unknown punishment" is not, even though both parties understand that there will be no blood?

Liberal Sacredness

Jonathan Haidt has identified five primordial moral foundations upon which humans base our conceptions of good. These range from Harm/Care (caring about others, protecting them from harm) and Fairness (treating people justly and fairly) to Loyalty (to your in-group), Authority (respecting the established social hierarchy), and Purity (avoiding the pollution of sacred things).

From the Wik:

Haidt found that Americans who identified as liberals tend to value care and fairness considerably higher than loyalty, respect, and purity. Self-identified conservative Americans value all five values more equally, though at a lower level across the five than the liberal concern for care and fairness. Both groups gave care the highest over-all weighting, but conservatives valued fairness the lowest, whereas liberals valued purity the lowest. Similar results were found across the political spectrum in other countries.

Haidt identifies liberals as more oriented toward what I think of as REAL morality - treating others fairly and not hurting them. Conservatives seem more interested in what I think of as bogus morality - respecting authority, being true to your school and loyal to the Packers and America, and not queefing in the holy water.

But I think that this misstates things a great deal. My beloved Internet friend Rob Sica says that, as a liberal, he tries to expose himself to those with more conservative moral foundations - loyalty, purity, authority. I think that's laudable, but we as liberals are still human, and experience all the foundations to some degree - we just need to know where to look.

In my own heart, I noticed a strong (physical) sacredness reaction to the beating of Robert Hass at Occupy Berkeley. Thinking of the jackboot bruising Hass' precious ribs made me understand how a Christian could get riled up thinking about the jackboots whipping Jesus. It's hard not to fantasize about violence under such circumstances. It's intense, physical, not subject to rational correction. Yes, Robert Hass is just a man, and lots of other real people's ribs suffered equal or worse abuse. But they don't make me want to punch a police officer in the face; without the sacredness induction, I feel almost as bad for the pathetic pigs as I do for the protesters.

PC is our way of doing sacredness. But we need to recognize this and stop doing it - because sacredness is bullshit.

Framing Sacredness as Harm/Care

Arguing in favor of calling out those who use rape humor, Bacchus refers to a feminist treatment of the rape humor issue that argues that rape humor is wrong because rapists think rape is normal, and rape humor enforces this belief.

The writer of that piece cites (unsourced) the fact that rapists think rape is normal. "In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again," she says. Let's accept this as true for now. What this doesn't prove is that thinking rape is normal is what causes them to rape. It doesn't prove - can't prove, because it's not true - that an increase in rape jokes leads to an increase in rape.

What we see happening here is a move from a genuine harm/care foundation - don't rape people, don't hurt people, don't put people in camps and kill them - to a sacredness foundation - the idea that somehow just talking about the taboo subject will make the tabooed subject occur. Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!

Blogger Bacchus[4] takes on "Jew humor" as his personal crusade in his online game, even though he candidly admits he doesn't currently have any Jewish friends. I personally hardly have any non-Jewish friends, but I can't say I agree that enforcing a taboo on antisemitism's "sacredness" will actually do anything good for individual Jewish folks, or even Jewish people in the aggregate. In fact (and I'm about to give you a real citation, coincidentally via aforementioned Rob Sica, and not just say "studies show over and over again"), making a token gesture may actually make us less likely to act when it's important. In her paper "Vicarious moral licensing: The influence of others' past moral actions on moral behavior," Maryam Kouchaki reports on five related studies that all demonstrate that being told you're not racist, or taking actions that convince you you're not racist, actually make you act more racist. For instance,

In Study 1b, when given information on group members' prior nondiscriminatory behavior (selecting a Hispanic applicant in a prior task), participants subsequently gave more discriminatory ratings to the Hispanic applicant for a position stereotypically suited for majority members (Whites). In Study 2, moral self-concept mediated the effect of others' prior nonprejudiced actions on a participant's subsequent prejudiced behavior such that others' past nonprejudiced actions enhanced the participant's moral self-concept, and this inflated moral self-concept subsequently drove the participant's prejudiced ratings of a Hispanic applicant.

So not only does preserving a zone of sacredness around rape and Judaism NOT prevent harm to actual women and Jews, it may actually make us feel fine about harming or allowing harm to come to these groups. (See also Dorothy Thompson's brilliant essay "Who Goes Nazi?" from 1941.)

Snuggletown Has Boundaries

One of the liberal values I find most questionable is that every environment (or even most environments) should be welcoming and inclusive to everyone. (Related: Five Geek Social Fallacies.) Social belonging is something we all need, but I question whether social belonging can be achieved at all without exclusion.

In college, I got used to seeing, appended to event announcements, "please honor this as a woman-only space." That't pretty vomitrocious, but no one had a problem with it. Why not? Perhaps because we recognize that special, fragile women need to be "honored" (sacredized) as the special, fragile creatures we obviously are, without dirty boys contaminating our space with their cooties. No one has a problem with this kind of exclusion; women need a place to talk about mascara and tampons and stuff, without boys intruding.

But what about 14-year-old gamer boys? Don't they need to define for themselves their own space?

American children in the past had much more unsupervised time away from grown-ups. They created their own social orders and spoke their own language, with little interference from adults.

Now that adults are expected to supervise every moment of children's lives, we expect them to develop a kind of egalitarian, welcoming social order that we cannot even develop for ourselves. And in trying to prevent pretend harm, we may be doing real harm.

1. Not joking, as you will see.

2. A long time ago Richard Posner wrote a lot of things about "efficient rape," including a thought experiment in which some individuals who rape might not be merely avoiding a market in sex, but might actually prefer rape to consensual sex - so much so that their pleasure in raping people outweighs the suffering of the victim. Such individuals could be allowed to purchase rape licenses from the government to maximize everyone's utility. Many people, in hearing about this, feel the same kind of sacredness violation that they feel upon hearing rape humor.

3. Is "destroying" preferable to "ass-raping" here? Is there a good reason why murder humor is acceptable where rape humor is not?

4. Who for the record I would totally smoke a bowl with

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Practical Effect of an Epistemic Peer

Recently I was attempting to estimate the probability that we are living in a simulation. Watching my brain's natural attempt to estimate the probability of this eerie abstraction, I saw that it seemed to do two things: (a) poll my mental models of people I thought of as smart who had considered the question; and (b) discount that percentage by the high percentage of smart people I know who haven't considered the question (though this second is really about my confidence in my assignment of probability, rather than the probability itself - the hash I see my brian performing is to adjust the probability toward the status quo in response to a drop in confidence of a strange assertion).

I have no idea if my introspective experience is in any way univesal, but it does seem that polling one's epistemic peers is an excellent means for estimating probabilities. This is basically like looking things up on Wikipedia, which is also a highly rational action, but polling one's own personally vetted epistemic peers removes some of the uncertainty.

Noticing how I use my mental models of my epistemic peers in thinking about things caused me to notice how startling the effect of a single epistemic peer can be on my confidence in widely accepted beliefs. When I get to know someone and find that I have no choice but to grant that his brain works at least as well as mine, I have no choice but that any strange belief he holds alters my confidence in the commonly held belief.

One way that we protect important beliefs is to by definition exclude those holding opposing beliefs as epistemic peers. If we refuse to admit them into polite society, they can't harm the stable, practical ways of thinking that we have developed.

What this suggests to me is, to get your strange belief accepted by a wider audience, it's much more effective to establish yourself as an epistemic peer of a wide, influential group than it is to develop "convincing" arguments for your strange belief. The existence of an epistemic peer who holds a contrary belief is more devastating than any argument.

What this also suggests is that if we are really interested in the truth, we will surround ourselves with epistemic peers who hold beliefs as different from ours as possible, and try to figure out why similar brains have come to hold such different beliefs. We will counteract our social belief-protection systems.

I am anxious to test this - if anyone knows any 150+ IQ evolution deniers, please send them my way! (Basically I think this is how Chip Smith lives his life.)

As usual, I would like to thank marijuana for its important contributions to this post.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blind to the Downside

One theory of rational suicide (see The Mathematics of Misery and What Kind of Evidence for Effective Suicidality?") posits that a significant proportion of people - much greater than the proportion of people who actually commit suicide - act as if their lives are not valuable to them. They engage in "actuarially unfair" gambles in which the downside is not adequately compensated by the expected benefit.

One interpretation of those accepting actuarially unfair gambles with significant risks is that they ignore the downside because they secretly plan to commit suicide (limiting the harmful effects of the downside) if the gamble doesn't pay off. This would indicate that they assign low value to continuing to live, which contradicts the popular notion that everyone is very glad to be alive and wants to live as long as possible.

This model applies not only to serious gambles with significant downsides as well as significant, potentially permanent upsides (suicide gambles, like joining a street gang or going to law school), but also applies on a smaller scale to measures that temporarily reduce the pain experienced by the actor, though with potential future costs (palliation, like smoking cigarettes or playing World of Warcraft). Palliative remedies may have significant present and future costs, but at least they are generally effective at alleviating pain temporarily.

However, looking around at the transactions taking place in the world economy, one cannot help but notice the market share of bullshit. Huge numbers of consumers prove willing to spend money on products and services that measurably don't do what they promise to do. These products and services may or may not be particularly harmful, but they all have monetary cost, and they all have a very low likelihood of solving the problem they purport to solve. The market in expensive placebos is massive.

Here are exemplary lists of both Palliation phenomena and Expensive Placebo phenomena, so that the reader will have a better idea of what I'm talking about:

Palliation Expensive Placebo
Budweiser Chelada weight loss potion
heroin face de-wrinkling potion
World of Warcraft breast augmentation potion
cigarettes penis growth and erection potion
the McRib multi-level marketing wealth potion
7th Heaven psychic services
lactation porn Jesus
video poker nice Russian women looking for a good husband who need your credit card number

In both cases, consumers seem blind to the downside. In the Palliation case, there is a significant downside, but it's made up for by the reliable temporary relief from pain. In the Expensive Placebo case, the downside is limited to the cost of the product or service, but the upside is measurably nil.

The line between Palliation and Expensive Placebo may be fuzzy; for instance, a lonely person may get real social pleasure from interacting with a psychic consultant (and effective scammers, like all salesmen, tend to be pleasant people). And alcohol advertisement often includes implicit promises of social belonging, which if interpreted literally would make it more of an Expensive Placebo Belonging Serum than a genuine palliation tool. But the distinguishing characteristic is that in the case of what I call Expensive Placebo, the benefit that is bargained for is wholly imaginary, whereas with Palliation, the essence of the promised benefit is, in fact, provided.

Since the value of Expensive Placebos arises from pure fiction, ordinary measures of quality are not available; if acknowledged and utilized, real measures of quality would destroy the entire market. From this, we can distinguish Expensive Placebos from Palliation in terms of the effect of price.

The price of an Expensive Placebo is a measure of social proof it carries - a more expensive placebo gets you better fantasies. A $2 penis enlargement pill probably doesn't work, but one that costs $2000 is a much more effective fantasy projection device. Price has to take on more epistemic weight in the evaluation of Expensive Placebos, because no other indicia of reliability are relevant. This is so because every indication of reliability, except price, would show the value to be zero. In order to maintain the fantasy, we must look at price instead of real quality indicators. To the degree that an intervention is Palliation, consumers would seek out the most palliation for the cost - these are ordinary goods where price is negatively correlated with demand. But to the degree that an intervention is an Expensive Placebo, price should behave much more weirdly, perhaps even correlating positively with demand, as with Veblen goods. It's not just that the consumer of an Expensive Placebo makes himself blind to the downside of the purchase. The downside becomes the upside. (I describe a similar phenomenon here, in which parents report getting more meaning and joy from child-rearing activities, and plan to spend more time with their children over a coming weekend, when they are reminded of the downside, but not the upside, of having kids.)

There are some things that people will pay for even an imaginary chance at having. Youth, love, sex, wealth, and status are so deeply and painfully desired that people are willing to suspend their disbelief for the privilege of imagining that they might get them. The need for social belonging trumps all other needs, and even trumps our own rationality. Being old, fat, poor, or impotent means being in social pain. Just as the desperate, terminally ill cancer patient often turns to expensive placebos for an imaginary chance at more life, desperate, terminally alive sad people turn to expensive placebos for a chance to imagine a decent life.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Grouch Logic

Scene: Sesame Street. Oscar the Grouch and his girlfriend Grundgetta are watching Baby Bear try to teach his little sister, Curly Bear, to draw.

Oscar and Grundgetta, as grouches, are annoyed to see Baby Bear and Curly Bear playing peacefully. They attempt to sow discord, getting very excited when Curly Bear fails to grasp the basics of drawing and throws crayons and paper around. The Grouches hope that Baby Bear will flip out, but instead, to the grouches' extreme irritation, Baby Bear sings a fucking song about sharing.

By the end of the day, none of the grouches' trolling has been effective. Baby Bear and Curly Bear learned lessons about sharing, and nobody had a fight. The grouches announce that they feel rotten.

But wait! Grouches LOVE feeling rotten! So they're HAPPY!

I relate this important episode from literature not to demonstrate any point, but merely to illustrate a concept I use frequently: Grouch Logic. Grouch Logic refers to arguments that seem comically nonsensical, not because of flaws in reasoning as such, but because highly unusual preferences and values drive the logic - often preferences in direct opposition to the "common sense" preferences ostensibly shared by the entire reference group.

Philanthropic antinatalists like me are a special group of grouches who start from an eccentric assignment of value ("it's a great harm to be born"). This alone is enough to make most of our conclusions sound comical, no matter how sound our reasoning.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Obviousness Doesn't Solve the Problem

Science is the history of the mismatch between the obvious and the truth. The more we study science - and the more we study our meat brains, and the greater meat brain social network our meat brains comprise - the less epistemic weight we must attach to obviousness. For obviousness is a primary perceptive experience - not subject to methods of reason or even introspective analysis.

Warren Quinn (Morality and Action, p. 125 et seq.) has argued, in favor of moral realism, that in experience and even in the natural sciences, a great deal of the information we are most certain about arises from primary perception, impossible to ground in reason (or anything but more primary perceptive turtles). If we are warranted in believing that there is a chair beneath our butt based on nothing more than primary perception, then we are equally warranted in having initial moral beliefs grounded on nothing but the feeling of wrongness.

We can do nothing but proceed from our primary perceptions, trusting them until given reason to doubt them. But we must realize that the obvious is merely a starting point. What is obvious to humans has not been demonstrated to reliably correlate with facts about the universe. Obviousness may inform the problem and even set priors, but it does not solve it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Special Monkeys or Failed Monkeys?

The thing that disappoints me the most about my own nerdy subculture is a specific form of self-blindness (hypocrisy).

We "special monkeys" get a lot of our sense of status from our abstract cognitive capacities. These very capacities, of course, may also be seen as major social deficits. As David Foster Wallace famously put it:

...the other children's punishment of the SNOOTlet [Wallace's term for a "precocious" speaker of Standard Written English] is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They're learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there's serious learning going on ... for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it's these abilities that are really required for "peer rapport," which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid's life. [Bolded emphasis mine. References omitted.]

As nerds, we must realize that we are, at some level, failed human beings - according to the values and standards of the vast majority of humankind.

At our best, our special-monkey cognitive capacities let us see our own species from a more abstract, impersonal perspective than is generally possible for the regular monkeys. Even if this doesn't help us design better systems for monkey living, at least it helps us to have more compassion for the other monkeys (and ourselves).

At our worst, we attempt to flip it around and define our own freakish, mutant nonsocial cognitive capacity as REALLY AND TRULY HUMAN, making the rest of the monkeys out to be less than human. By so defining them, we create a comforting myth of struggle and can justify (and even happily take part in causing) the suffering of the regular monkeys. This is often true even for those of us who define ACTUAL monkeys (and chickens and cows and octopuses and salamanders) as worthy of moral consideration, in the sense that their suffering is bad.

If we special monkeys are to advance the values that our unusual cognitive capacities help us perceive - impersonal values, often opposed to regular human values as revealed by human behavior - then we must get better at seeing our own monkey nature. Specifically, we must learn that the struggle between the special monkeys and the regular monkeys is a dangerous (though evolutionarily beneficial) monkey illusion. And we must become aware that those in the regular monkey "out group," while they may not score as high as us on special monkey tests, are no less worthy of moral consideration than ourselves - in the sense that their suffering matters.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

To Say Status is Zero-Sum is Optimistic

I have previously argued that status, as a positional good, is by its nature a zero sum game; any gains in status by one participant are matched by losses on the part of other participants.

When we look at the real-world effects of status choices, though, it seems that the view of status as a zero-sum game (where losses of losers are balanced by gains of winners) is a very generous interpretation.

Losses of status, or having low status, seems to make people very miserable. Robin Hanson quotes the authors of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage on the harmful effects of status threats in maintaining poverty:

Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or education. Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

Clearly, a loss in status causes serious enough social pain that the affected person is willing to risk his job and family to avoid or repair it. But don't gains in status make the winners much happier, rendering status contests at least Kaldor-Hicks efficient?

Not so, suggests a study on the welfare effects of commuting (Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox). From the abstract:

People spend a lot of time commuting and often find it a burden. According to economics, the burden of commuting is chosen when compensated either on the labor or on the housing market so that individuals’ utility is equalized. However, in a direct test of this strong notion of equilibrium, we find that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being. Additional empirical analyses do not find institutional explanations of the empirical results that commuters systematically incur losses.

Unfortunately, the status gains a person may derive from commuting to work (high-status job, high-status suburban house, etc.) are not made up for by greater happiness; people with longer commutes are consistently less happy than people with shorter commutes. This is true even where people longer commute time is associated with higher income.

We are used to seeing sad low-status people, but what's missing is the ecstatic high-status people. It seems that the best we can achieve is somewhat stable mediocre life satisfaction, but the worst we can achieve is very bad indeed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Modeled Behavior on Population Ethics

Karl Smith and Adam Ozimek of Modeled Behavior bring to light some interesting questions and arguments on population ethics. Karl Smith, from The Morality of Creating People:

In the past we could be resigned to the fact that our biology was going to drive us to do this no matter what. However, we are facing an era where we may be able to create sentient life synthetically. Either through artificial intelligence or by growing individuals en masse outside the womb.

The excuse – my biological clock made me do it – will no longer cut it and we may be talking about trillions of lives here. If we get this wrong it will be the greatest moral crime ever committed.

Adam Ozimek, pulling a partial Bryan Caplan in Some non-answers on population ethics:

In this model of the world there is only resources, and they are directly consumed. Imagine, for instance, if your two people with two living children have a third child whose inventions increase the efficiency of solar power by 1%, or increases grain yields, or leads to a new low cost recycling technique. This person coming into existence has clearly increased the amount of output than can be created with the resources on earth. The way Population Matters has formulated the problem of scarcity only makes sense if… well, if you’re determined for some reason to try and argue that more population is a really bad thing.

My comment to Ozimek is a rehash of my questions for Bryan Caplan:

Both you and Bryan Caplan seem willing to trade off very uncertain, speculative, indirect effects (inventions, etc.) of population against the direct, quite certain physical effects. Why do speculative positive effects matter more than definite negative effects? Or do you think the negative effects are somehow themselves speculative? Is the reality of scarcity of important stuff really in question?

Also, your connection between having the third child and inventions seems to imply causation from population to nice inventions (which Caplan also assumes). What evidence supports the theory that population drives innovation in a significant, reliable way? It seems the global distribution of both innovation and population would call that relationship into doubt...Just looking at the distribution of patents or Nobel prizes, it seems there are dozens of variables that correlate better with these than population. Are you talking U.S. only, or is this also supposed to apply to Brazil and China and Kenya and India and Israel equally?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Further Thoughts on Pimps & Trolls

All human systems, like biological systems, are complex ecosystems, intricate webs of cooperation and competition - of predation, symbiosis, parasitism, and the like. In both cases, novelty - whether due to the admixture of individuals from separately evolving, isolated populations, or due to the mutative creation of new types - can have devastating effects on a stable ecosystem, though it also can have hugely beneficial effects for the innovator.

Liberals and conservatives differ in that the hubris of conservatives (in failing to value environmental protection over economic development) is in imagining we can safely manipulate the biological kind of ecosystem, while the hubris of liberals is in imagining we can safely manipulate the human kind of ecosystem.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Exposing Children to Risk: Why Do We Ignore Genetic Risk?

Reader Chuck G. proposes a thought experiment to examine our thinking on exposing children to different kinds of risk:
I was thinking about the moral problem of breeding couples with heritable diseases, specifically bipolar disorder (since I have it), and I came upon a nice little analogy that is pretty damning to those who think it's ever OK for two genetically-impaired parents to have a kid:

First of all (this isn't very well-researched, just Wiki, but it's a start), bipolar disorder has a 0.4% lifetime suicide rate among all patients, and a full third of them attempt suicide at some point. Those numbers compare well with the mortality rate and general seriousness of West Nile Virus. For those who don't know, West Nile Virus has to be handled in level 3 biosafety labs, right along with a bunch of shit the Pentagon tried to turn into biological weapons. You Do Not Want West Nile Virus.

So let's think of a couple where there is a decent chance of passing on bipolar disorder to their child. They have it, everyone comes to the baby shower, and they wish them well and give them lots of nice presents. It's a joyous occasion, and the parents may even be praised for their decision to reproduce. People might know about the parents' heritable genetic problem, but surely they would smile and nod anyway.

Now think of a genetic supercouple with no possibility of passing on a hereditary illness to their offspring. They go to the hospital, the child is delivered, and just as it comes out of the mother, the father sprays it in the face with a spray bottle full of West Nile Virus. Wanna know what happens?

Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Oh, and also, you're going to be on the news for months, you will never live down your infamy, and you are never going to see your kid again, ever, regardless of whether or not it manifests symptoms.

I just don't see how willingly conceiving a child with a known risk of severe lifetime disease differs from willingly conceiving a child with no risk of severe disease, then willingly exposing it to such a risk later. You're deliberately gambling with someone's life in a way that goes far above and beyond the usual case for philanthropic antinatalism. I think this shows just how far toxic cheeriness infects our society. It warps all our perceptions and allows us to get away with assault/manslaughter/criminal negligence, as long as *our* genes do the hurting and not genes from some mosquito virus.

Intuitively, it does seem that we treat the risks inherent in the creation of a child differently from the risks we expose a child to after he has been created. This is true even though different prospective parents expose their children to different levels of genetic and early developmental risk.

The explanations I find most compelling for the double standard here are, first, an ill-thought-out, pluralistic/liberal distrust of eugenics, and, second, the very abstractness of the harm, compared to, say, kicking a baby like a ball or microwaving her.

And, of course, there's the idea that any existence is better than none, so that any risk necessarily engendered by bringing someone into existence is acceptable, whereas creating new risk after the fact is morally questionable.

What other reasons might there be for treating genetic and early developmental harm/risk differently from the harm/risk created later in a child's life? Is it so obvious that any existence is better than none? This seems like a dubious proposition upon which to base such a a serious action as childbearing.


On the Nazi/eugenics issue, I think it is highly relevant that many observant Ashkenazim participate in voluntary screening for Tay-Sachs disease. This, despite speculation that heterozygosity confers greater intelligence. As a culture, observant Ashkenazim have decided that the suffering of children born with Tay-Sachs is more important than concerns about "eugenics," and certainly more important than a speculated slight increase in intelligence for carriers.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Suicide Prevention Industry Advocates Search Engine Manipulation to Hide Information About Suicide

Why is it so hard to find information about suicide?

A study entitled "Hyperlinked Suicide : Assessing the Prominence and Accessibility of Suicide Websites" (led by a professor hilariously named Sunny Collings) found that, shockingly, search engines get people what they're looking for. When suicidal people search for methods, they find information (albeit poor) about methods - they don't find bullshit. The authors think this is a problem. They say "significant improvements need to be made," which they use as a euphemistic call for creepy search engine censorship:

“One of the big problems with the internet is that pro-suicide sites are often the first thing people see when they search about methods,” says Professor Collings. “In contrast support sites were only 9.3% of total hits, but never featured as the number one search result.”

The study suggests more effort should be made to make support sites more accessible through search engine optimization. Professor Collings says it is totally unsatisfactory to have pro-suicide sites occupying the first 10 search results, rather than information and advice to help prevent suicidal behavior in New Zealand. [Emphasis mine.]

I am pretty scandalized by the fact that they openly call for search engine manipulation - perhaps for companies like Google to get rid of the crowd-sourced model with regard to suicide searches and make anti-suicide sites more "accessible" - you know, the way the Nazis made anti-Jewish propaganda more accessible. It's hard to imagine. But then, traditional media have often gone along with calls to censor suicide stories.

Suicide is sad. But there are things worse than suicide. One of them is miserable, suicidal people being trapped in their bodies with no exit available.

But since "everybody knows" that suicide is bad and needs to be forcibly prevented, study authors can still get away with Orwellian bullshit like this.

Thanks to Rob Sica for pointing me to this!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Access to Information about Childbearing

What messages do women get about the positives and negatives of childbearing? How do these differ from reality? How do these differ from the messages people get about other activities?

From ChildfreeFeminist:

...women need to be aware of why the media is pressuring women so strongly to give birth. They want your money, and you will gladly spend it because they make you feel your progeny is worth an $800 stroller and all the other items that come with it. And maybe he is, but motherhood will never be like the happy family in the Pampers commercials or like Katie Holmes and Suri.

There is the nasty green ca-ca , the snot, the no sleepign–and that’s just Day One. . Pregnancy is not all “amazing and life changing and awesome” like they all confess from Jessica Alba to Gisele Bundchen. Have you seen a pregnant woman’s feet? They look like air balloons shaped like…feet. And the GAS! And-and…oh, all the horror. I mean maybe if you can afford a personal masseuse and organic wildberry smoothies. Then possibly this baby stuff is for you. The rest of us have to go back to reality.

For a regular dose of pregnancy reality, I am very grateful to Shape of a Mother, a blog that posts real pictures of postpartum women's bodies, together with (often poignant) stories about their lives. While the tone of that website is breeding-positive and the audience is the Oprah crowd, information is information and this is information that women considering getting pregnant need to be aware of. The physical toll of pregnancy is often much worse than that of methamphetamine abuse, but we never see billboard-sized images of postpartum bellies on the freeway!

In the name of awareness, I must suppress my aesthetic reaction and agree with the advice of Shape of a Mother readers who encourage postpartum women to wear bikinis.

Marginalized Social Roles

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Idiocracy Effect is Okay

Ever since the time of Darwin, science has been gradually revealing (to those with their eyes open) that we were created as part of a giant game of passing information into the future.

Ever since thousands of years before Darwin, the most creative human beings have been engaged in information games other than the biological one, including the game of passing information into the future. They have done this through creating and participating in institutions, writing literature, and inventing maths. (They have also done this through writing radio jingles, copying and sending chain letters, and breeding pigeons.)

When the game of making human babies did not have a good opt-out (i.e., prior to around 1970 C.E.), participation in the wider information games was largely instrumental for better playing the breeding game. But with good ways to opt out of breeding new humans, the original game - the game of breeding to pass some of one's genetic information into the future - is coming to be recognized as a small, rather pathetic subset of the total space of information games.

Only the least creative and least intelligent will continue to play the original game, with its massive costs and limited returns. Those who can't think of any more interesting information game to play will be the parents of future biological humans.

But lamenting this is like lamenting brain drain from print newspapers to electronic media: missing the point, because that's no longer where the interesting information is being created and passed around.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Problem of Pimps

The prostitutes worked for a pimp now. He was splendid and cruel. He was a god to them. He took their free will away from them, which was perfectly all right. They didn't want it anyway. It was as though they had surrendered themselves to Jesus, for instance, so they could live unselfishly and trustingly - except that they had surrendered to a pimp instead.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
...in 2005 Dallas Police officials realized that arrests of teen prostitutes is ineffective [sic].... Because girls will not testify against pimps, arrests stopped teen prostitution temporarily and did not lead to the prosecution of pimps. After their first, second, third and even the fourth arrests and releases from jail, teen prostitutes headed straight back to their pimps.
--Letot Girls Center, "The Problem"
There's so much desensitization that has happened, so much normalization of exploitation that has happened, so much internalization of trauma that has happened. Some of them would any day go back to their pimps or procurer than rather be with us.
--Sunita Krishnan, founder of NGO that rescues girls from the sex trade

 The problem of pimps is a problem of people. The problem is not merely that a few sociopaths exploit others for their own gain; the problem is that human beings come with built-in exploits, honed by evolution and primed by life experiences, that allow them to be exploited by sociopaths (who constitute at least 3% of the general population).

Pimping and domestic violence are strange sorts of crime - strange, in that the victims of the crimes frequently identify with, support, and eventually return to relationships with the perpetrators of the crimes. Part of each crime - the essential features that enables the crime to occur - is that the perpetrator manages to satisfy a huge part of the social belonging need of the victim.

Advocates for girls exploited by pimps often focus on drugs as a need both created by and filled by pimps, neglecting the extremely important social belonging aspect. Trafficked girls are disproportionately girls with shitty family lives - neglected and abused by their parents. They are, in a real sense, starving - for affection, structure, attention, belonging, even status. Pimps are able to exploit these needs, making themselves into superstimuli of a sort - appearing to fill these needs even better than more appropriate figures that might better fulfill trafficked girls' needs.

I have been meaning to write on this issue for a while, and fully intended to start the essay with this sentence: "The problem of pimps is a problem of women." However, while sex trafficking vastly disproportionately affects girls and women, the phenomenon of sociopaths making themselves into superstimuli and exploiting inbuilt belonging and status needs of others affects men as victims as well. A beautiful example of this process is presented in Episode 447 of the radio show This American Life, entitled "The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms." (Spoilers below, but the show is fascinating either way. See also "The Setup," the journalist's account of the story that led to the drama and inspired the show.)

The alleged sociopath in question is Chris Butler, who ran a private investigation firm that was supposed to be the subject of a reality television show on Lifetime. It appears that Butler faked several of the cases that his P.I. moms investigated, but as those frauds unraveled, he was also busted for selling drugs. But not just any drugs - drugs seized by the Contra Costa Police Department. He had an inside man in the department, Norm Wielsch, who, along with many other people involved with Butler, points to the charisma of Butler as a major contributing factor to the illegal schemes:

Norm Wielsch: Whoever has talked to Chris knows that he has the gift of gab. He could talk you into buying anything. I mean, I'm not blaming him, but he had his way of you know, kind of coercing a little bit more, you know, where if I would say, 'Hey, that's a stupid idea,' all of a sudden the golden tongue would come out, and then all of a sudden I'd be driving home thinking, that's not a bad idea, you know? ...

He always insisted on buying lunch, and pull out his credit card; he would bring some of the girls there [presumably girls from the illegal brothels he ran], and he would make sure they were dressed all pretty and stuff...there was a little theater to it. And then he would come in his black Mercedes, which, you know, and you're impressed, you're sitting there going 'wow,' you know?

Joshuah Bearman: Even now, in his lawyer's conference room, you can hear in Norm's voice that he still feels it a little bit, that Chris had some kind of hold on him, as he did on so many other people. It's obvious when you see Chris in action.

Whether we believe Wielsch and the other adult participants in this particular case or not, the charismatic, "superstimulus"-type person is an inherently believable archetype. In the excerpt above, Butler even uses the same flashy methods on his male accomplice that pimps use to attract and retain women to exploit.

The most important aspect that makes people slaves is not bad, mean slave owners. It is our inherent, inborn needs that makes us slaves - that make us willing to go back to an abusive boyfriend or a pimp even when we have other options. The problem of stuperstimulus is not the superstimulus. It is the need that the superstimulus exploits.

See also the Overcoming Bias thread "Moneyball Slavery" and comments, relating to the phenomenon of slavery in different contexts (such as baseball players).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

If You Love Life So Much Why Don't You Marry It?

The central claim of antinatalists like me is that being born is not a good thing - specifically, that it's better not to be born than to be born.

Lots of folks have the same immediate reaction to first encountering this: "so why dontcha just kill yourself?"

I wish to illustrate here how this response is a non sequitur - specifically, almost identical to a response of "so why don't you marry it?" in response to me telling my friend how much I love Christopher Brosius perfume.

In the "Why don't you marry it?" case, the respondent is implying that the assertion of the speaker is not genuine unless the speaker is willing to give the most extreme possible evidence of his conviction.

Note first that this is a personal attack (ad hominem, as the kids call it these days) rather than a response to the argument.The respondent is not analyzing anything to do with the argument, but rather is questioning the sincerity of this speaker's protestation.

Second, he demands the most extreme evidence imaginable - marriage as evidence of love.

Similarly, when someone hears I think it was a bad thing for me to have been born, and then asks me why I don't kill myself, he's (a) failing to respond to any argument I have made, instead choosing to challenge my sincerity, and (b) demanding the most extreme imaginable sort of evidence for the claim.

This is a non sequitur because it is possible that it is a bad thing to be born, but that once born, it is worse to commit suicide than to remain alive for one's lifespan (worse for others one cares about, or even for oneself). I have heard at least one antinatalist assert that it's wrong to create new people precisely because death is so awful and scary to think about; we would not have this fear, would not experience this irrational negative affect, if we had not been born.

Also, similarly to the "Why don't you marry it?" example, it is not legally possible (to my consternation) for me to marry a bottle of perfume. Indeed, there are many barriers, legal, practical, and even moral, to committing suicide. It's like asking a starving person in Somalia, "if you're so hungry, why don't you drive to Wendy's and get a cheeseburger?"

One last note: lots of people get married for immigration purposes. Lots of people kill themselves who nonetheless think it was a good thing that they were born and got to see all those puppies and sunsets. The evidence demanded is not even necessarily evidence of the proposition asserted!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Trolling Relationship

Trolling is not morally good or bad; it is a relationship between a person and an institution.

On Meatspace Trolling

Upon being summoned for federal jury duty, my immediate reaction was not irritation, but amusement. Jury duty is an opportunity to play a game: the Peremptory Challenge Challenge! When one reports for jury duty, it is of course with the goal of having a "peremptory challenge" used to exclude one from the jury - that is, inducing an attorney to use one of his "get rid of this juror free" cards, as my friend Thi achieved in part by dropping an e-bomb[1] when asked to explain what he did for a living. Getting knocked off "for cause" is easy, and will result from being too heavy-handed in one's approach, so obviously the result of a challenge for cause is ignominy. Being placed on a jury is a form of losing, but then one faces the Jury Nullification Challenge (particularly on a drug jury). The path of glory is clearly to be excused on a peremptory challenge if at all.

"So basically, you're trolling the District Court," is how my husband puts it.

Yes! Yes, I am! But this is only one facet, one instance, of a greater social phenomenon that relates individuals to institutions (broadly defined): the relationship of trolling.

As this example illustrates, the phenomenon of trolling is not limited to participating in a conversation in a manner inimical to the purposes of the other conversation participants. The troll is not trolling the conversation: he is trolling the institution of the conversation, made up of implicit rules and purposes.

Andy Kaufman

The public life of Andy Kaufman is illustrative as a bridge between the concept of meatspace trolling and of internet trolling. Kaufman performed in such a manner that he satirized and questioned (rather than naively participating in) certain social institutions defined by implicit rules (and by doing so, helped bring some of those rules to visibility - the project of phenomenology). Frequently, his performances had the effect of causing strong negative affect in some audiences, but that was not the ultimate purpose of his art.

The troll engages participants in a pre-existing institution, but does not observe the rules of that institution. A troll is not a person, and trolling is not an absolute; "troll" is a social role a person may play from time to time toward certain institutions, and "trolling" is a manner of relating to an institution.

Highly effective meatspace trolls include the scatological buffoonery of Mozart, the Sokal hoax, the trial of the Chicago Seven, Issa's famous haiku composed for a poetry contest, the funeral protests by the Westboro Baptist Church, and the Yes Men's impersonation of a Dow Chemical spokesperson taking responsibility for the Bhopal Disaster of 1984 (but see below for a discussion of why the latter two are poor specimens of trolling). Social roles such as "class clown" and "court jester" can be seen as trolling positions. Nasrudin, Bugs Bunny, Jesus, Gandhi, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Richard Feynman are all associated with the phenomenon I call meatspace trolling. As should be clear from my examples, trolling is a morally ambiguous phenomenon.

Evo Bio and Game Theory: Trolling and Fairness

One of the most consistent results from watching actual humans play the "ultimatum game" - in which one experimental subject is asked to divide a sum of money between himself and a second subject, and the second subject can then take it (both subjects get to keep their share) or leave it (neither subject gets his share) - is that people reject "unfair" offers (offers of less than, especially considerably less than, 50% of the pot), even though this is costly to themselves. This may not be rational in the sense of maximizing payoff in the moment, but ecologically speaking, such "spite" may be a very good strategy for a social organism.

Just as the second subject rejects an "unfair" offer out of spite, the troll rejects the "offer" of naive participation in the target institution. It is possible that trolling is the broader phenomenon of which ultimatum-game-type "spite" is one aspect. However, what the ultimatum game ignores, and what is important to understand in order to grasp the wide importance of the phenomenon of trolling, is that (a) trolling is generally conducted with an audience; and (b) this audience may provide benefits to the troll (attention, a social context in which to belong, etc.) that may more than make up for the benefits foregone by refusing to participate in a naive manner out of "spite." That is, "spite" in meatspace may not be as damaging to self-interest as laboratory ultimatum games make it seem - after all, social capital may be the most important kind of capital, both in the EEA and in our world.

In other words, what we often conceive of as "spite" - punishing others at one's own expense - might actually be part of a larger phenomenon of meta-competition, of undermining institutions and the implicit rules that make up institutions not necessarily at personal expense, but often with the effect of increasing one's status in the view of one's audience.

Countersignalling and Meta-Competition

Trolling is a special form of countersignalling - refusing to "play the game" and naively signal within the implicit rules of the institution, and instead joyfully rejecting the signalling conventions of the institution. Those of very high ability or status

sometimes avoid the signals that should separate them from lower types, while intermediate types often appear the most anxious to send the “right” signals. The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays. Minor officials prove their status with petty displays of authority, while the truly powerful show their strength through gestures of magnanimity. People of average education show off the studied regularity of their script, but the well educated often scribble illegibly. Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. Acquaintances show their good intentions by politely ignoring one’s flaws, while close friends show intimacy by teasingly highlighting them. People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against his character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response. [Feltovich et al., "Too cool for school? Signalling and countersignalling". Internal hyperlink mine; thanks Rob Sica for the source.]

Trolling is a subset of countersignalling. Not only outside characteristics such as wealth and social status, but also the acts of trolling themselves, may be perceived by one's audience as evidence of high value - of, for example, the capability to perceive institutions abstractly, or the courage to reject and play with the conventions of powerful institutions.

To be successful, trolls must be high-status folks in some sense - possessing high-status characteristics (though these need not be visible to the majority of his audience - only to his relevant audience, which may be a small subset of his total audience). But we could speak of a narrow "status window" to define trolls: why would a high-status individual undermine an institution that accords him high status? Perhaps the troll mind is a different kind of mind, one that is bored by naively playing status games within an institution. Somehow, the rewards the institution accords to the individual must not be "worth" the effort and boredom of playing by the rules to get those rewards. In addition to being a means to get attention and social status, trolling is the infinite fun.

Trolling is more than just a competitive tactic.

Troll = Trickster?

The phenomenon of trolling, broadly conceived, has several salient characteristics:

  1. An orientation toward fun (lulz) rather than making a point; absurdity over sincerity[2]
  2. Distrust of cherished institutions
  3. Engaging with participants of institutions, but not on the institution's terms
  4. Cognitive capacity to conceive of value distribution outside of pre-existing value-distributing institutions (see 6.)
  5. Game orientation (everything is a game)
  6. Display of emotion by target is a form of "winning" (on the flip side, target "loses" by displaying emotion) (see 3.)[3]
  7. Outcome is unpredictable; the troll orientation is chaotic neutral
  8. Trolling is a social phenomenon, distinct from the hermit - the troll seeks out institutions to interact with
  9. Social fearlessness
  10. Trolling is conducted for amusement, not for explicit, material personal gain[4]

At this point, one must connect the phenomenon of meatspace trolling to the widespread "trickster hero" theme in literature and art. Nasrudin and Bugs Bunny, for example, are trickster heroes; they are also trolls. Why should a society value trolling? Why should trolling have such amusement and status value? Why should we preserve the pattern of trolling in our literature, and take so much joy in it, even though most of us do not engage in trolling behavior?

Chuang-tzu is a troll; he says:

Making a point to show that a point is not a point is not as good as making a nonpoint to show that a point is not a point.

Indeed, the winning move is often not to play, as with the Giant's Drink; but perhaps more importantly, the best explanation is often not a naive explanation within the existing framework, but a view of the situation from a more abstract level.

The fact that trolling can be an effective strategy for individuals allows societies a mechanism for questioning its institutions and seeing them from a more abstract point of view. Institutions can outlive (or outgrow) their usefulness and effectiveness as value distributors; but in the face of entrenched, self-perpetuating institutions that do more harm than good, what is society's defense?

It is the troll.

Easier to Criticize than to Build Anew

An important criticism of trolling behavior, as I have outlined it, is that it is directed toward delegitimizing institutions, "tearing them down" in a way, without concern for substituting new institutions in their stead. If we accept this, we may adopt a more negative view of trolling than the one I have proposed above. There are a few responses to this criticism.

First, there are plenty of institution-building processes operating in human groups - what Vernon L. Smith refers to as "constructivist" processes, creating new institutions that will be tested in the real world to see if actual humans can use and sustain them. Trolling, from this perspective, must be viewed as part of the natural "ecological" testing of such institutions - perhaps a crucial function.

Second, there is the Ultimate Troll - the null hypothesis on human institutions (and, indeed, human flourishing). We come into the world with institutions already in existence - many of them created not solely by conscious human agency, but through the natural processes of our social brains. Such institutions are not justified a priori - we have not consented to them, certainly, and they may be terrible institutions that we would not consent to, given the opportunity to choose. The biggest excuse these institutions have is that they have been shown (in Smith's "ecological" sense) to work, at least in the sense of sustaining themselves through human generations. Is that enough? If an institution "works," does that justify its existence? That is the central question of the Ultimate Troll. The question is sharpened by the fact that our lives have become so much more complex than our environments of evolutionary adaptedness that they may in fact be too complex for ecological or constructivist processes to accommodate satisfactorily.

1. Epistemology

2. This is why the Westboro Baptist Church and the Yes Men are poor sorts of trolls; they wish to show the absurdity of a particular institution in order to support the meaning and sense of other institutions. Pure trolling is purely absurd, clean of all sincerity. This is why Andy Kaufman is the troll hero of our time. (Contra Camus, absurdity is the absence of sense and meaning.)

3. Items 1, 4, and 6 relate to the idea of play - the ability to conceive of events as not having their usual meaning. This is similar to when dogs "bow" on their elbows as an invitation to play, allowing the usual dog status rules are not applicable, and that what happens in the play session does not have the meaning it would have in the mundane world.

4. Patent trolls engage with the patent system in a manner that is directly inimical to its ostensible purposes (promoting innovation, etc.) and so they must be considered trolls. They are bad and dirty, but they do bring to visibility the problems with our intellectual property system.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Depressed Person's Special Duty Not To Breed

The heritable component of depression is large. Depending on the nature of the study, the heritability of depression is estimated at anywhere from 29% (for men, in a Swedish twin study) to 75% (in a British twin study). Heritability of bipolar affective disorder is even greater (85% in another British twin study). All told, a child with a parent who has depression has double or triple the risk of an average child of developing major depressive disorder.

Imagine the suffering that could be prevented if all of us with severe depression - especially of the endogenous type particularly likely to be heritable - avoided reproducing. It is not the case that every person who has suffered depression wishes she hadn't been born. But it need not be a 1:1 correlation to imply a duty to avoid reproducing.

A woman in her 40s who conceives a child with her own egg is rightly considered to be irresponsible, because of the risk of mental retardation to her child. But that risk (one in a hundred at maternal age 40) is nothing compared to the risk of severe depression in the child of a severely depressed person.

Many of us who are explicitly not glad to be here have parents who suffered from depression, diagnosed or not. Thirty-three years ago, when my own mother made the awful decision to have a child, the heritability of depression was not well understood.

But now it is undeniable.

If you have been depressed, the chances that your child will experience depression are high, especially if your depression is severe. Reproduction by a depressed person is at best irresponsible, at worst cruel. (This is true even though depressed and bipolar people make all the art.)

Please don't make more of us! Thanks!

Science says new parents have a higher risk of developing depression; perky blonde disagrees.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Revealed Belief

Prior to Judith Jarvis Thomson, the big philosophical issue regarding abortion was the issue of when a zygote/blastocyst/fetus/baby achieves personhood - the moment at which a being acquires recognizable interests - as opposed to the related, perhaps more important issues of how strong those interests might be compared to other interests, or whether those interests include a right to continued existence. (For a concise treatment of the major philosophical arguments on abortion since 1973 or so, see Chapter 5 of Benatar's Better Never To Have Been, entitled "Abortion: The 'Pro-Death' View.")

Modern Catholics and evangelical protestants have largely taken the position that personhood accrues to a zygote as soon as fertilization occurs. However, it is clear from their other positions and behaviors that this belief is only for the purpose of making the anti-abortion argument, and does not reflect a true belief in the personhood of a zygote/blastocyst in the relevant sense.

For example, reviewing the policies supported by anti-abortion religious groups, one is struck with how little they accord with the stated position that a zygote/blastocyst is a person, and the destruction of a zygote a murder; what the supported policies all appear consistent with is a desire to punish women who have sex. In the "moral foundations" thinking of Jonathan Haidt, we might say that concerns for authority and for purity are masquerading as concern for fairness or for harm/care.

In addition to punishing women who have sex, anti-abortion religious people also want to force everyone to submit to the will of their God - concern for authority and in-group loyalty again masquerading as concern for fairness and harm/care.

Imagine for a second that a zygote really is a person, whatever that means to you.

Now realize that up to a quarter of all recognized pregnancies, and HALF of all fertilized zygotes (some sources say up to 70%), are spontaneously miscarried.

That's a lot of death. If you take a zygote to be a person, half of all children are dying before they ever take a breath.

But "No pro-life group has called for the foundation of a National Institute for the Prevention of Miscarriage," notes a commenter in the above-linked thread.

Of course, intentional harm is both more deserving of blame than unintentional harm and more preventable than unintentional harm. But the assignment of, apparently, ZERO value to the accidental deaths of billions of zygotes (after all, God willed it) while claiming that the intentional killing of these zygotes is MURDER is hardly consistent.

In sum:

  1. Religious people do not believe that zygotes or blastocysts are persons.

  2. Religious people want to punish women for having sex.

  3. Religious people want to force everyone to submit to their God.

See also: Five Reasons to Have an Abortion

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Double Violation of the Unacceptable Life

While there is disagreement as to what constitutes an unacceptable life - a life not worth getting - there can be no doubt that many people with unacceptable lives currently exist. And, Utopian post-human fantasies aside, at least some unacceptable lives are a guaranteed result of the continuation of our species.

Forms of utilitarianism such as prioritarianism push us to be most concerned with the welfare of the least well off within the relevant population. But I argue that it is the very special group at the bottom, those with unacceptable lives, who are especially entitled to our highest consideration.

Those with unacceptable lives suffer a double violation. First, they are violated by being brought into existence. Their lives are worse than having no life at all, so being born makes them worse off.

Second, they suffer a new and continuing violation by being prevented from improving their circumstances in particular ways. Just as their birth is required to enable those with unacceptable lives to exist (because each birth risks the creation of unacceptable lives), their exploitation is also required for those very acceptable lives to remain acceptable.

For instance, if those with unacceptable lives were not coerced into acting in the interests of those with acceptable lives, the most miserable could either end their lives or increase their welfare toward acceptability. However, by doing so, they would likely depress the welfare of those around them with acceptable lives.

The (philanthropic) antinatalist objection to breeding is not limited, in practical application, to the decision to create a being. It also implies that those who are born with unacceptable lives, having been once violated, are entitled to special consideration once they come into existence - the "social contract" justifications for coercive policies are not applicable to them.

So these people with unacceptable lives have a strong moral claim to be allowed to commit suicide, to use mind-altering chemicals or technology, to "shirk" the "responsibilities" that the majority would benefit from imposing upon them, perhaps even to join a criminal gang. There is much less justification for coercing them into acting in accord with the best interests of the majority, because there can be no reciprocation.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What Changes People's Minds?

Most of my friends and lovers are pronatalists, so I know that kind, smart people often hold beliefs that contradict mine. I still have hopes of converting them and others (as they have hopes of converting me, no doubt).

How do we go about changing people's minds? How do real human minds get changed?

Information doesn't seem to do it - being exposed to information contradicting your point of view, if anything, seems to cement your original position, rather than change it. This is a well-documented social phenomenon; you know those cults that predict the end of the world? What happens when the end doesn't come? A few members leave the cult, but generally, those who remain are even more committed to the cult!

So how do we change minds? Is it inextricably connected to status? Self-interest? Social belonging? Are there any methods that reliably work to change core beliefs?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Kind of Evidence for Effective Suicidality?

I recently wrote a post called "The Mathematics of Misery," which explored Becker and Posner's idea of effective suicidality. In brief, it may be that miserable people value their lives so little that they rationally accept gambles that happy people would never accept, because they plan to commit suicide if the gamble does not pay off. The authors connect their model to many stories we are familiar with, and find greater explanatory power in their model than in others. The model is particularly appealing to me, because it accords well with my introspective experience as a bona fide, not-breathing-for-a-while-there suicide attempter.

But there are alternative explanations for such Hail-Mary, seemingly irrational choices (not the least of which is actual irrationality). How might we begin to test such a theory?

One obvious choice would be to study the connection between "losing" at a prospective suicide-gamble activity and actual suicides. If unsuccessful participants in the activity do commit suicide at a high rate, the theory is supported - so long as we assume that some higher-than-baseline percentage of the effectively suicidal "follow through" on their suicide plans. (A plan need not be followed for it to be a cognitive reality upon which decisions are based.)

How about investigating whether the strong correlates of suicide are also strong correlates of the candidate "gamble" behaviors?

"Effectively suicidal" behavior may have a different etiology than actual suicide attempts, but there are many reasons to believe that if effective suicidality exists, it is another aspect of the suicide drive, and that they share a common cause. In addition to failed social belonging and burdensomeness, the strongest predictor of suicide in Thomas Joiner's model is competence: the ability to carry out the act of suicide. Competence, as Joiner outlines in his book, is learned; "provocative" preparatory behaviors systematically precede suicides, as if one must train oneself to do it, bit by bit. (This is one function of intentionally cutting one's skin.)

Given that people must achieve competence over time in order to successfully commit suicide, we would expect a continuum of provocative, suicide-preparatory behaviors - and both from introspection and from examples in the Becker-Posner paper, many dangerous gambles are also suicide-preparing.

Let's say we could agree on some strong correlates of suicide, specifically things that seem to cause suicide that also would be expected to cause people to become effectively suicidal (that would make circumstances unacceptable to them, as JasonSL puts it), hence to take a bad gamble/engage in provocative/preparatory behaviors. Let's say I have five or ten candidate behaviors for effective suicidality, and some of them really strongly correlated with the things that suicide really strongly correlates with. Would that be evidence of anything?

Any other suggestions for (a) how to support or knock down effective suicidality (revealed unacceptability) and (b) candidate behaviors?

Lives of Creatures

On that planet, the dominant intelligent species initially took three forms. Females were of one type, males of two: a massive, ape-like type almost twice the size of a female, and a smaller type comparable in mass to a female.

The large males attempted to maintain harems of females, both for sex and to provide them the food they required to maintain their large body masses. (The large males' ability to feed themselves without female assistance was constrained by the need to engage in violent competition over resources with other large males.) A successful large male could often be heard boasting and strategizing with his lieutenants at the campfire late into the night.

The small males were similar in appearance to females, so much so that they could not be distinguished from females at a moderate distance, save for the almost comically oversized male sex organs they possessed. They did not attempt to monopolize harems, but seemed motivated only to maintain proximity to females at all times, and to have sex with them whenever possible. Their smaller size of course facilitated eye contact during face-to-face intercourse, while their sex organs exhibited several adaptations that facilitated female sexual pleasure. The large males regarded the smaller males as a parasitic nuisance.

Upon the rapid democratization of the tribes following first contact, a faction of the large males was able to establish female suffrage, in hopes of besting a rival faction of large males with the females' help. To the great surprise of both factions, the large males soon found themselves legally classified as a parasitic offshoot of the species, and sentenced to technological incapacitation.

But this is not a cruel story. All the large males left alive were given virtual reality worlds with harems of NPCs, and they all lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Disciplease and Funish

Smilansky concludes, not that hard determinism is an inaccurate description of the world, but that it is impossible to live justly within a hard deterministic world. Which is the same kind of "null hypothesis" on human welfare as that of antinatalism.

Saul Smilansky, in his paper "Hard Determinism and Punishment: A Practical Reductio," argues that hard determinism fails as a practical moral philosophy, in that it is inherently self-defeating. His core example is the punishment of criminals. Since the hard determinist rejects the notion of morally relevant free will, he rejects the notion that a person can deserve to suffer for his actions (which he could not, in terms of physics, control). While incarceration may be necessary for the purpose of incapacitation (that is, keeping criminals away from the rest of society where they will do harm), it is not justified on grounds of retribution - because, in a hard deterministic world, no one freely chooses anything, so prisoners do not deserve their suffering.

Smilansky proposes that a hard determinist is committed to what he calls "funishment" - resort hotel prisons that accomplish the dual purpose of incapacitating criminals (protecting society) and keeping them entertained (compensating criminals for the injustice necessarily imposed upon them by society, for society's benefit).

The problem with funishment is that it's fun. It ceases to have any effect by way of deterrence. (Here we see three theories of criminal justice interacting in a fascinating way.) Lots of people would want to go to the resort hotel funishment prisons ("fun-zone," Smilansky calls them) and may even commit crimes to get there - removing most of the negative incentive for committing crimes, and in fact creating a positive incentive. The end result of the funishment program is, says Smilansky, "Many people who would otherwise not have become involved in crime, nor even suffer detention, would be caught up in that very life. In the meantime, the rest of us would be living in the worst possible world: suffering unprecedented crime waves while paying unimaginable sums for the upkeep of offenders in opulent institutions of funishment."

Smilansky gives this argument as a reductio of hard determinism as a practical moral philosophy. I think the context of antinatalism makes this an overstatement on Smilansky's part. The upshot of Smilansky's argument is not that hard determinism is not true in the metaphysical sense, but that committing ourselves to its reality ends in moral horror, the "worst possible world." My view is that Smilansky's argument is not a reductio of hard determinism, but of the idea that there could ever be a decently just human society. There is, in essence, a right of each person to be free from unjust suffering - but in fact, unjust suffering is guaranteed simply by being born. See a problem here?

One who recognizes determinism cannot insist on desert. But could a person who accepts hard determinism morally choose to reproduce? By doing so, he imposes suffering on a person who does not deserve it, and will not deserve any of the suffering he receives. Creating a being that will necessarily suffer unjustly seems to me indistinguishable from making a being suffer unjustly. Isn't it immoral to bring beings into an unjust world?

What of fun and pleasure, then? To what extent do we "deserve" those? Can we morally give benefits to people who do not suffer any deprivation without them when other, suffering people need those benefits?

I think that desert is incoherent (and birth wrong) primarily because the most important thing ever to happen to a person, that which determines that he will suffer gravely, is without question outside his free will: his birth. The undeserved suffering imposed on a person simply by being born is likely to overwhelm any suffering justly imposed on him for his actions, even if we were to buy into a morally relevant free will.

But without free will, of course, desert goes out the window. All suffering, none guilty, as Dostoevsky put it. Hard determinism helps us realize the horror show we are in, so that we may end it. THAT, and only that, is the practical consequence. There is no reductio; there is only support for the null hypothesis.

Most self-described compatibilists that I know ground their beliefs in the experience of choices: we feel ourselves to have free choices, and it seems impossible to live as if we didn't. But even granting this, the suffering of the "guilty" is nowhere near justified. A demon could build a machine that we might find ourselves in that would give us the experience of free choice within a virtual reality world. But our suffering as a result of our fake-but-perceived choices would be justified not at all.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Inequality in Slums

We live in the Repugnant Conclusion. We just don't know it yet.

From Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis (2006):

As a rule of thumb, both the popular and scholarly literatures on informal housing tend to romanticize squatters while ignoring renters. As World Bank researchers recently acknowledged, "remarkably little research has been done on low-income rental markets." Landlordism is in fact a fundamental and divisive social relation in slum life worldwide. It is the principal way in which urban poor people can monetize their equity (formal or informal), but often in an exploitative relationship to even poorer people.... To be sure, most of the urban poor in West Africa have always rented from landlords, as have a majority of residents in Dhaka and some other Asian cities (in Bangkok two-thirds of "squatters" actually rent the land they build their shacks upon). Renting has also become far more common than usually recognized in the peripheries of Latin America, Middle Eastern, and South African cities. In Cairo, for example, the more advantaged poor buy pirated land from farmers, while the less advantaged squat on municipal land; the poorest of the poor, however, rent from the squatters. Likewise, as urban geographer Alan Gilbert observed of Latin America in 1993, the "vast majority of new rental housing is located in the consolidated self-help periphery rather than in the centre of the city."

Mexico City is an important case in point. Despite a Model Law of the colonias proletarias which sought to ban absentee ownership, "poaching," and speculation in low-income housing, the Lopez Portillo government (1976-82) allowed slum-dwellers to sell their property at market rates. One result of this reform has been the middle-class gentrification of some formerly poor colonias in good locations; another has been the proliferation of petty landlordism. As sociologist Susan Eckstein discovered in her 1987 return to the colonia that she had first studied fifteen years earlier, some 25 to 50 percent of the original squatters had built small, 2-to-15-family vecindades which they then rented to poorer newcomers. "There is, in essence," she wrote, "a two-tiered housing market, reflecting socioeconomic differences among colonos." She also found "a 'downward' socioeconomic leveling of the population since I was last there.... The poor tenant stratum has increased in size." Although some older residents had thrived as landlords, the newer renters had far less hope of socioeconomic mobility than the earlier generation, and the colonia as a whole was no longer a "slum of hope."

Renters, indeed, are usually the most invisible and powerless of slum-dwellers. In the face of redevelopment and eviction, they are typically ineligible for compensation or resettlement. Unlike tenement-dwellers in early-twentieth-century Berlin or New York, moreover, who shared a closeknit solidarity vis-à-vis their slumlords, today's slum renters typically lack the power to organize tenants' organizations or mount rent strikes. As two leading housing researchers explain: "Tenants are scattered throughout irregular settlements with a wide range of informal rental arrangements, and they are often unable to organize as a pressure group to protect themselves."

Large peripheral slums, especially in Africa, are usually complex quiltworks of kin networks, tenure systems, and tenant relationships. Diana Lee-Smith, one of the founders of Nairobi's Mazingira Institute, has closely studied Korogocho, a huge slum on the eastern edge of the city. Korogocho includes seven villages offering a menu of different housing and rental types. The most wretched village, Grogan, consists of one-room cardboard shacks and is largely populated by female-headed households evicted from an older shantytown near the city center. Barracks-like Githaa, on the other hand, "is an entirely speculative village, built by entrepreneurs for rent," despite the fact that the land is publicly owned. Nearby Dandora is a sites-and-services scheme where half the owners are now absentee landlords. Lee-Smith emphasizes that petty landlordship and subletting are major wealth strategies of the poor, and that homeowners quickly become exploiters of even more impoverished people. Despite the persistent heroic image of the squatter as self-builder and owner-occupier, the reality in Korogocho and other Nairobi slums is the irresistible increase in tenancy and petty exploitation. [Citations omitted. All bolded emphasis mine.]

This excerpt illustrates a little-recognized phenomenon of the slums: wretchedly poor people making tiny, incremental moves away from the most severe poverty by exploiting even more wretchedly poor people as renters. (One fact that this passage does not emphasize is that politicians and thugs are as likely to exploit the extremely poor as are other poor people - people who sleep on the sidewalks have to pay neighborhood gangs for the privilege.)

The inequality that gets magnified is, to some degree, one of time - those who arrived earlier exploit those who arrive later. But other forms of natural or preexisting inequality are also magnified, such as differences in social connections, business savvy, and willingness to exploit others.

A slum is a pattern, a physical instantiation of a phenomenon that occurs at different levels of development. In rich countries and poor countries, slums are what happens when people are so poor that they fall out of the legally available housing system and must resort to "illegal" housing. The immense tent city slums of Los Angeles' Skid Row are similar in form to the cardboard shantytowns of Nairobi, despite vast differences in wealth between the two cities.

Most of the population growth in the Global South is happening in slums - in some cases up to 90% of population growth.

The slums are an emergency. Their scale is almost unimaginable, and they have exploded in the past few decades.

Plenty of people are born into slums. Plenty of them are smart. But this application of population magic does not seem to be having the effect Bryan Caplan hopes for when he assures us that "when population goes up, everyone gets extra choices."

As of 2006, only about 6% of the urban population of the United States lived in slums. But over a third of China's urban population, over half of India's, and a shocking 99.4% of Ethiopia's, are slum dwellers.

Both the absolute population of the slums and the percentage of the world population that lives in slums are growing. Fast.

"If such a trend continues unabated," warns planning expert Gautam Chatterjee, "we will have only slums and no cities."

I guess it's a good thing that poor people still smile.

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