What Curiosity Looks Like

post by lukeprog · 2012-01-06T21:28:00.179Z · score: 33 (65 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 286 comments

See also: Twelve Virtues of Rationality, The Meditation on Curiosity, Use Curiosity

What would it look like if someone was truly curious — if they actually wanted true beliefs? Not someone who wanted to feel like they sought the truth, or to feel their beliefs were justified. Not someone who wanted to signal a desire for true beliefs. No: someone who really wanted true beliefs. What would that look like?

A truly curious person would seek to understand the world as broadly and deeply as possible. They would study the humanities but especially math and the sciences. They would study logic, probability theory, argument, scientific method, and other core tools of truth-seeking. They would inquire into epistemology, the study of knowing. They would study artificial intelligence to learn the algorithms, the math, the laws of how an ideal agent would acquire true beliefs. They would study modern psychology and neuroscience to learn how their brain acquires beliefs, and how those processes depart from ideal truth-seeking processes. And they would study how to minimize their thinking errors.

They would practice truth-seeking skills as a musician practices playing her instrument. They would practice "debiasing" techniques for reducing common thinking errors. They would seek out contexts known to make truth-seeking more successful. They would ask others to help them on their journey. They would ask to be held accountable.

They would cultivate that burning itch to know. They would admit their ignorance but seek to destroy it.

They would be precise, not vague. They would be clear, not obscurantist.

They would not flinch away from experiences that might destroy their beliefs. They would train their emotions to fit the facts.

They would update their beliefs quickly. They would resist the human impulse to rationalize.

But even all this could merely be a signaling game to increase their status in a group that rewards the appearance of curiosity. Thus, the final test for genuine curiosity is behavioral change. You would find a genuinely curious person studying and learning. You would find them practicing the skills of truth-seeking. You wouldn't merely find them saying, "Okay, I'm updating my belief about that" — you would also find them making decisions consistent with their new belief and inconsistent with their former belief.

Every week I talk to people who say they are trying to figure out the truth about something. When I ask them a few questions about it, I often learn that they know almost nothing of logic, probability theory, argument, scientific method, epistemology, artificial intelligence, human cognitive science, or debiasing techniques. They do not regularly practice the skills of truth-seeking. They don't seem to say "oops" very often, and they change their behavior even less often. I conclude that they probably want to feel they are truth-seeking, or they want to signal a desire for truth-seeking, or they might even self-deceivingly "believe" that they place a high value on knowing the truth. But their actions show that they aren't trying very hard to have true beliefs.

Dare I say it? Few people look like they really want true beliefs.

286 comments

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comment by MinibearRex · 2012-01-07T05:55:23.030Z · score: 35 (37 votes) · LW · GW

They would study logic, probability theory, argument, scientific method, and other core tools of truth-seeking. They would inquire into epistemology, the study of knowing. They would study artificial intelligence to learn the algorithms, the math, the laws of how an ideal agent would acquire true beliefs. They would study modern psychology and neuroscience to learn how their brain acquires beliefs, and how those processes depart from ideal truth-seeking processes. And they would study how to minimize their thinking errors.

Not necessarily. Hindsight bias is likely at work here. You know that studying these fields helped you to acquire better beliefs, and so you conclude that this consequence should be obvious. But unless a curious but untrained reasoner somehow finds out that studying these fields will help them, we shouldn't expect them to study them. Why on earth would someone try to read The Logic of Science if they didn't already know that it would improve their reasoning skills?

There are a lot more genuinely curious people out there than there are rationalists. But unless those curious people happen to meet a LWer, or stumble across a link to this site, their chances of learning the benefits of studying these subjects are not great. There are a few books that might get them started (Robyn Dawes is coming to mind), but how likely is it that they're going to stumble across one of those books, especially if they aren't explicitly interested in the field of human thought already (like EY?).

I would bet that there are a lot of genuinely curious people out there who have realized that thinking is a skill. But if you were to ask them for the best way they knew of to improve that skill, would say something along the lines of "sudoku puzzles". And that's pretty sad.

comment by lukeprog · 2012-01-07T06:51:36.297Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I agree in part, though this excuse was stronger before Google. Now people can Google "how to think better" or "how to figure out what's true" and start looking around. One thing leads to another. Almost all the stuff I mention above is discussed in many of the textbooks on thinking and deciding — like, say, Thinking and Deciding.

comment by MinibearRex · 2012-01-08T06:44:55.884Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW · GW

I tried typing those queries (and related ones) into google, to see if someone could easily find some sort of starting point for rationality. "How to think better" yields many lists of tips that are mediocre at best (things like: exercise, become more curious, etc). About halfway down the page, interestingly, is a post on CSA, but it's not a great one. It seems to mostly say that to get better at thinking you first have to realize that you are not naturally a fantastic thinker. This is true, but it's not something that points the way forward towards bayesian rationality. (by the way, "how to figure out what's true" provides essentially nothing of value, at least on the first page).

In order for someone to go down the path you've identified on their own, as a curious individual, they would have to have a substantial amount of luck to get started. Either they would have to have somehow stumbled upon enough of an explanation of heuristics and biases that they realized the importance of them (which is a combination of two fairly unlikely events), or they would have to be studying those subjects for some reason other than their instrumental value. Someone who started off curiously studying AI would have a much better chance at finding this path, for this reason. AI researchers in this instance, have a tremendous advantage when it comes to rationality over researchers in the hard sciences, engineers, etc.

comment by occlude · 2012-01-08T07:30:22.527Z · score: 29 (29 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not an expert, but with this in mind it should be a rather simple matter to apply a few strategies so that LW shows up near the top of relevant search results. At the very least we could create wiki pages with titles like "How to Think Better" and "How to Figure Out What's True" with links to relevant articles or sequences. The fact that rationality has little obvious commercial value should work in our favor by keeping competing content rather sparse.

comment by CharlesR · 2012-01-09T03:19:35.831Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

When I search for keyword: rationality, I get HPMoR for #2, yudkowsky.net for #5, and What Do We Mean By "Rationality"? for #7. Not sure how much my search history is affecting this.

comment by Lleu · 2012-01-09T03:39:12.916Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Is rationality a common enough word that people would naturally jump to it when trying to figure out how to think better? I'm not sure how often I used it before Less Wrong, but I know that it is substantially more commonplace after reading the sequences.

comment by taryneast · 2012-03-26T09:52:15.274Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You probably get this result because google has figured out it's a better search-result for you.... because you've already gone to those pages before.

Not sure how many people outside of the web world realise this, but google does personalise search results based on your own personal search-habits.

People who have not yet been to any of these pages are much less likely to get the same set of search results as this.

Edit: lukeprog's response (about two below here) below is how to see google for what it actually is like for a newbie.

comment by occlude · 2012-01-09T03:28:40.315Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I get exactly the same result.

comment by lukeprog · 2012-01-10T03:21:27.710Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, sign out of Google or use a different browser where you're not signed in, and you'll see that Eliezer successfully took over the word 'rationality'. Let this be a lesson about what is possible.

comment by AspiringKnitter · 2012-01-08T08:07:05.202Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That's a really good idea. Upvoted.

comment by Louie · 2012-01-09T23:56:12.316Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks MinibearRex.

I've added ads on Google AdWords that will start coming up for this in a couple days when the new ads get approved so that anyone searching for something even vaguely like "How to think better" or "How to figure out what's true" will get pointed at Less Wrong. Not as good as owning the top 3 spots in the organic results, but some folks click on ads, especially when it's in the top spot. And we do need to make landing on the path towards rationality less of a stroke of luck and more a matter of certainty for those who are looking.

comment by dbaupp · 2012-01-21T12:31:35.385Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have any data from this campaign?

comment by taryneast · 2012-03-26T09:54:08.417Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's been almost three months. How's the data on this campaign going?

comment by MinibearRex · 2012-01-10T04:22:55.243Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That sounds great. Thanks for taking the time to do that.

comment by katydee · 2012-01-10T04:27:27.697Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Exercise" is really not a mediocre tip at all.

comment by MinibearRex · 2012-01-10T04:46:44.954Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

You're right; mediocre is not the best word for what I meant there. Humans generally function better when they exercise. But it doesn't fundamentally change the way people think. If we use a car metaphor, exercise is things like changing the oil and keeping it well tuned. It can make a big difference. But not as big of a difference as upgrading the engine.

comment by satt · 2012-01-08T22:14:02.976Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I tried typing those queries (and related ones) into google, to see if someone could easily find some sort of starting point for rationality.

Upvoted for actually trying it out.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-08T13:35:19.229Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

So, someone would google "how to think better", find a $38.90 book by an author they've never heard of before, and buy it without suspecting it to be self-help nonsense?

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-08T14:21:15.413Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If their default response to seeing a book they might want to read is 'I'm gonna buy it!!', they're doing something wrong.

(OK, maybe they don't know about that site, but searching mediafire or demonoid or something is still an option.)

Edit: (17.01.2012) Following this discussion, I conclude that 'they're very probably not optimising their reading habits for existential risk reduction' is a better choice of words here than 'they're doing something wrong.'

comment by gjm · 2012-01-10T20:44:41.827Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Is it supposed to be obvious that there's something wrong with preferring to obey the law even when doing so costs money?

Is it supposed to be obvious that there's something wrong with preferring to own physical books rather than electronic ones even when that costs money?

(It is not the purpose of this comment to make any claim about the merits of either idea beyond this: It seems to me that neither is, in fact, obvious. But, for the benefit of anyone who thinks it relevant, I happen to have both preferences; I buy a lot of books and fail to see that this indicates anything wrong with me. Of course I don't have either absolutely; I'm pretty sure that there are circumstances in which I would break the law for financial gain, and there are some books that I'm content to use in electronic form rather than paying extra for physical copies. But my default response to seeing a book I might want to read isn't exactly "I'm gonna buy it!"; if it were then my house would be physically filled with books and I would have no money left.)

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-11T07:26:37.420Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I do contend that the first claim is obvious, if not in general, at least when the expected loss of utility for breaking the law is effectively zero. (As it is in this case.)

The second one is not obvious, nor is it true in many cases.

The last sentence of your post sums up what I was trying to say.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-11T10:01:46.666Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know on what basis you say that the expected utility loss is "effectively zero". There's a utility gain to the person who takes an illegal copy of the book instead of buying it, because they have more money that way. There's a utility loss (which I'd have thought is obviously approximately equal in general) to the people who'd have profited directly from the sale of the book: author, publisher, distributor. And then there are second-order effects, less localized and therefore harder to see and harder to assess, from (e.g.) the slightly reduced incentives for others to write, publish and sell books, the increased social acceptability of getting books in this way, etc.

It looks to me as if what we have here is: first-order effects that cancel out exactly when expressed in terms of money, and therefore probably cancel out approximately when expressed in terms of utility, and second-order effects that are hard to get a handle on but look clearly negative to me.

Could you justify your position further on this point?

As for the second claim, note that this also needs to be true to make your "doing something wrong" assertion correct -- and ought to be obvious to justify your having made it so baldly. I'm glad you agree that it isn't.

No one was claiming or suggesting that anyone should go straight from "I'd find it interesting to read that" to buying the book, without any consideration or weighing of consequences in between. So if my last sentence is equivalent to your main point, it seems to me that you were attacking a straw man.

comment by Multiheaded · 2012-01-11T10:12:30.064Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It looks to me as if what we have here is: first-order effects that cancel out exactly when expressed in terms of money

You forget about the diminishing returns, though. An extra $20 would give much more utility to me than to a publishing house.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-13T00:34:12.874Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think that's simply wrong. It would be right if the only difference between you and a publishing house were that the publishing house has more money, but of course that's not so. To a rough approximation, a publishing house is made up of lots of individuals. Much of your $20 will be distributed amongst them, and if they're on average about as well off as you are then this is roughly utility-neutral. Some of the rest will go into whatever larger-scale projects the publishing house is engaged in, which make use of economies of scale to get increasing returns in utility per dollar. (That's why there are corporations.)

And, of course, some of it will go to line the pockets of already-wealthy investors and executives. I agree that that bit is likely to show diminishing returns. But I see no reason to think that a transfer of $20 from you to the publishing house is a net utility loss, and just saying "diminishing returns" certainly doesn't suffice.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-13T12:43:23.830Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

first-order effects that cancel out exactly when expressed in terms of money, and therefore probably cancel out approximately when expressed in terms of utility

Surely the externalities of cutting down trees to make paper/burning fuel to power the printer/etc. are first-order effects which aren't cancelled out by anything obvious. Or am I missing something?

comment by gjm · 2012-01-14T01:12:31.086Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd consider them second-order effects. (Note: by "second-order" here I mean something like "less direct, more diffuse, and harder to evaluate", not "smaller". I appreciate that this is a bit woolly; perhaps the distinction isn't a helpful one.)

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-11T13:29:17.253Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's a utility loss (which I'd have thought is obviously approximately equal in general) to the people who'd have profited directly from the sale of the book: author, publisher, distributor.

If I buy a car, I do not factor in the utility loss to the manufacturers of buggy whips.

And then there are second-order effects, less localized and therefore harder to see and harder to assess, from (e.g.) the slightly reduced incentives for others to write, publish and sell books, the increased social acceptability of getting books in this way, etc.

The latter effect is by far net positive, as a much larger number of people can now gain access to much greater amounts of knowledge.

Books were being written long before IPR, they will continue to be written long after IPR. Culture will not stop being produced if stripped of legal protection.

No one was claiming or suggesting that anyone should go straight from "I'd find it interesting to read that" to buying the book, without any consideration or weighing of consequences in between.

Note the comment I was replying to:

So, someone would google "how to think better", find a $38.90 book by an author they've never heard of before, and buy it without suspecting it to be self-help nonsense?

Note the entirety of my reply that you replied to:

If their default response to seeing a book they might want to read is 'I'm gonna buy it!!', they're doing something wrong.

Note the last sentence of your reply to that:

But my default response to seeing a book I might want to read isn't exactly "I'm gonna buy it!"; if it were then my house would be physically filled with books and I would have no money left.

There was absolutely no disagreement between us on that particular point; you seem to have generalised my statement far beyond what it actually said.

Also... we have wandered dangerously far into politics. (I am, ideologically at least, a supporter of the Pirate Parties.)

comment by gjm · 2012-01-11T23:01:06.215Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If I buy a car, I do not factor in the utility loss to the manufacturers of buggy whips.

So much the worse for you. (Though of course you should also factor in the utility gain to everyone who benefits from advancing technology, etc. And of course in practice one often ignores everything but the first-order effects.)

However, I was not talking about anything remotely resembling the loss to buggy whip manufacturers when you buy a car. I was referring to the elementary fact that when you pay for something, the money you lose by paying for it goes to other people; what you lose, they gain.

Books were written long before IPR

For sure, and of course I neither claimed nor implied otherwise. I claimed only that if writing and selling books becomes less profitable, that will tend to reduce the incentive to do it.

Note the entirety of my reply that you replied to

But what you quoted here was not the entirety of your reply, in an important respect: "doing something wrong" was a hyperlink to library.nu. The existence and destination of a hyperlink are an important part of the content of the sentence that contains the link, no?

we have wandered dangerously far into politics.

The fact that an issue has been taken up by a single-issue political party doesn't mean that discussing it constitutes wandering into politics. In any case, let me elaborate something I already said: I am not arguing here (1) that existing laws about "intellectual property" are any good, or (2) that it is always (or even usually) a Bad Thing to copy things illegally. I am saying only that there are not-obviously-crazy reasons why someone might prefer to pay for a physical book rather than copying an illicit electronic copy. They aren't all legal reasons, either.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-12T07:46:18.652Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

However, I was not talking about anything remotely resembling the loss to buggy whip manufacturers when you buy a car. I was referring to the elementary fact that when you pay for something, the money you lose by paying for it goes to other people; what you lose, they gain.

Broken window fallacy. If they don't gain, someone else does.

But what you quoted here was not the entirety of your reply, in an important respect: "doing something wrong" was a hyperlink to library.nu.

Touche, I hadn't thought of that. So the entirety of my reply is:

If their default response to seeing a book they might want to read is 'I'm gonna buy it!!', they're doing something wrong. Here's how they can do it better: Pirate the book. Also, I know this awesome site where you can do exactly that...

But I still don't see how you can interpret that to mean: "There's something wrong with buying books, you should exclusively pirate them," which is what you seem to be arguing against.

The fact that an issue has been taken up by a single-issue political party doesn't mean that discussing it constitutes wandering into politics.

Semantical dispute. Whether you call it 'politics' or not, my mind recognises it as an exclusively political issue, and, as such, is already beginning to die. For instance, if I hadn't jumped directly (although without consciously intending to) to the 'put down this political opponent' mode, I might've said 'the benefits of free knowledge to millions far surpass the monetary losses to a few thousand; if you think otherwise, it's probably scope insensitivity.' Instead I said....

Do you support the damnable Buggy Whip Party, Comrade Gjm? Do you?

... I guess I need to work on that.

I am not arguing here ... that it is always (or even usually) a Bad Thing to copy things illegally. I am saying only that there are not-obviously-crazy reasons why someone might prefer to pay for a physical book rather than copying an illicit electronic copy. They aren't all legal reasons, either.

I don't know why you keep repeating that, since both of us agree perfectly about it.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-12T19:35:59.534Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Broken window fallacy.

Huh? What does the broken window fallacy have to do with the fact that if I pay you $10 for a book, then my loss of $10 (and gain of a book) is exactly balanced by your gain of $10 (and loss of a book)?

But I don't see how you can interpret that to mean [...]

I didn't. I took it to mean "A person's default way of getting a book they want to read should be piracy rather than purchase". And it seems to me that if you're going to make that claim then either you should be offering some sort of comparison of the two options, or else it should be obvious that piracy is the better option. Which I don't think it is, for (at least) the two reasons I gave: some people might value keeping the law in this respect, and some people might value having a physical book rather than an electronic copy.

my mind ... is already beginning to die.

OK, fair enough. I don't want to keep you arguing about something that impairs your reasoning.

(I'm sure "the benefits of free knowledge to millions far surpass the monetary losses to a few thousand" is a good argument for something but it's far from clear to me how it can be a good argument for, e.g., "when you see a book you're interested in you should generally make an electronic copy rather than buying it, even if that happens to be illegal". The latter isn't a matter of millions versus thousands, and it can only be made so by turning it into some claim about what everyone should do, and if really-truly-everyone follows that advice then it seems likely that the impact on people who write books will be large, at which point you can't negate the ensuing higher-order effects.)

I don't know why you keep repeating that

Because most of what you've said seems to presuppose that it's false. I suppose I must be misunderstanding somewhere since you say you agree and haven't retracted anything, but I'm not sure what I'm misunderstanding. So let me ask a more specific question. Suppose I am a person who likes physical books much much better than electronic ones, prefers to stay within the law when possible, and wants authors and publishers and booksellers to get paid. And suppose that when I see a book I'm interested in, what I contemplate doing is buying it rather than getting a copy from library.nu or wherever. Am I, in that case, necessarily doing something wrong? If so, what? If not, are you going to retract your original statement or have I grotesquely misunderstood what it was meant to mean?

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-13T02:58:10.277Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

j And suppose that when I see a book I'm interested in, what I contemplate doing is buying it rather than getting a copy from library.nu or wherever.

Every time you see a book that looks interesting? If that were true, then, as you said,

my house would be physically filled with books and I would have no money left.

If not, then it's not a default. I'm guessing the default is, 'meh, it's probably not worth the money,' and this default is overridden on rare occasions by the other alternatives of 'I'm gonna buy it' or 'I'm gonna pirate it, ARRR!'

....After this, it's tempting to believe that this whole discussion was just a semantic dispute over the meaning of 'default', but that doesn't explain the last part of you first comment on this thread:

But my default response to seeing a book I might want to read isn't exactly "I'm gonna buy it!"; if it were then my house would be physically filled with books and I would have no money left.

Which seems to indicate that you agree with my usage of 'default', so I'm still confused about where exactly the misunderstanding is.

I'm sure "the benefits of free knowledge to millions far surpass the monetary losses to a few thousand" is a good argument for something but...

Ugh, another irrelevant political argument from my side. Funny how I don't notice I'm replying to something other than the actual contents of the post until I have it pointed out to me. Hadn't realised quite how severe the mind-killing is.

I should probably just tap out of this discussion for a while now.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-13T20:34:26.943Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If that were true, then, [...] If not, then it's not a default.

As I said: what I contemplate doing. Of course I often don't then buy the book. (But I do have an Amazon wishlist with over a thousand books in it.)

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-14T07:53:32.567Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Looking over this conversation, we seem to have implicitly agreed that 'response' means thinking of something and DOING IT, instead of thinking of something and then rejecting it later. (I'm not sure I had that nuance in mind when I wrote it, but then the meaning kind of drifted in the ensuing conversation...)

And then I applied the exact same sense to 'contemplate'.

I'd still argue that your defaults are flawed. (If you don't buy most books you find interesting, why is that the first thing that your mind suggests when you encounter an interesting book?)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-14T12:10:23.395Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I expected the “DOING IT” link to go here instead.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T02:10:32.074Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hadn't heard of it before. A very useful find.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-14T11:19:18.192Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I certainly haven't agreed (implicitly or otherwise) that "your default response to X is to think of Y" means that when X happens you actually do Y. As I said before, I took you to be talking about what happens in those cases in which you decide to actually get hold of the book (because if instead your meaning were "you often shouldn't bother getting the book at all" then (1) you were stating the obvious and (2) your link to library.nu was kinda irrelevant). Everything I've said has been based on that premise.

If you're now saying that your point was that actually literally thinking "I'm going to get that book" as soon as you find it interesting is silly -- well, yeah, it is, and it never occurred to me that anyone would think otherwise. My apologies if I've contributed to confusion here...

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T02:47:25.863Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ah.... we seem to have different models of what people do when they find an interesting-looking book. You're model is:

  1. See interesting-looking book.
  2. Decide whether to get hold of it.
  3. If 2 returns 'Yea', decide whether to buy or pirate it.

whereas my model is

  1. See interesting-looking book
  2. Decide whether to buy or pirate it NOW
  3. If 2 returns 'ERROR: system overload', postpone the decision

So when I was talking about your response right after seeing the book, I was talking about the buy/pirate decision, which occurs later in the decision-making process for you.

Anyhow, I will restate my point as as 'If "buy it" is the first thing that your brain suggests to you once you've decided to get hold of a book, you're doing something wrong.'

But that one's just a nitpick. The more important takeaway is 'If you buy all or even a large fraction of the books you decide to get hold of, you're doing something wrong. (Unless the number of books you ever decide to get hold of is tiny.)'

comment by gjm · 2012-01-15T20:02:49.369Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I will restate my point as 'If "buy it" is the first thing that your brain suggests to you once you've decided to get hold of a book, you're doing something wrong.'

Which is exactly what I always took you to be saying, and what I was arguing against by pointing out that some people might have (strong) preferences (1) against illegal copying or (2) for having physical copies of one's books, and that unless there's something plainly wrong with having such premises then your claim is implausible or at least needs more support.

Anyway. Yes, my model is nearer the first than the second of the ones you describe. Actually my process is something like this: (1) See interesting-looking book. (2) Add it to my monstrously long Amazon wishlist. (3) Consider whether I actually want a copy enough to bother paying for it; if so, buy it. (4) Consider whether I want to borrow it from a library; if so, do so at a convenient opportunity. As a matter of policy I don't pirate books it they are legally available at a not-completely-insane price; I am not claiming that this policy is optimal for me, never mind for other people whose values and/or resources may differ substantially from mine. I don't find myself with any shortage of useful reading matter and reference works this way; in fact, I have a backlog of something like 350 books sitting on my shelves waiting to be read. If you think it's clear that I'm doing something wrong by not pirating books in preference to buying them, please feel free to convince me. (Possibly relevant facts: I am reasonably well off and think it likely that the transfer of money from me to the bookseller and thence to various people associated with the production and sale of the book is utility-positive overall; so far as I can tell by introspection, having more money as a result of pirating books rather than buying them would not make me give more to charitable causes; I very much prefer having physical copies of the books I read; it pleases me that the people whose books I enjoy reading get some benefit from my reading them; I don't think it's feasible to reward them by sending them money directly instead.)

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-16T05:38:06.722Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I realise that there were a lot of unnoticed background assumptions in my original post.

(3) Consider whether I actually want a copy enough to bother paying for it; if so, buy it.

Here is where my assumptions trip up; my reaction to a 'not sure' at this stage would be 'whatever, let's just download it and see if it's interesting/useful'. While your reaction seems to be 'borrow it from library', or, failing that, 'meh, screw it'.

I am not claiming that this policy is optimal for me

Come on, that's just equivalent to throwing in the towel. Why not look for ways to optimise it if it's not optimal?

I have a backlog of something like 350 books sitting on my shelves waiting to be read.

How many of those do you think you'll ever actually read? I see that as a phenomenal waste of money.

by introspection, having more money as a result of pirating books rather than buying them would not make me give more to charitable causes

I maintain that this is sub-optimal, and that which is sub-optimal should be optimised. I find it inconceivable that you can't find any good use for the money you save by not buying books... So why wouldn't you put it to those uses?

I very much prefer having physical copies of the books I read

This is one of the things that I really can't argue against without arguing that people shouldn't have exclusive rights to decide where they spend their money. I'm not willing to bite that bullet just yet.

I can point out that this preference might just be status quo bias. Of course, that's not necessarily the case.

I do have one (1) Fully General Counterargument though, read on....

it pleases me that the people whose books I enjoy reading get some benefit from my reading them

Ah, but does that really rank higher on your preference rankings than existential risk reduction?

But this does show me that my view was overly simplistic and that I've veered too far into other-optimisation. I should probably end this discussion now.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-16T21:50:19.493Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why not look for ways to optimise it if it's not optimal?

Because there are a million other things in my life that aren't optimal, and the way I deal with books leaves me reasonably well satisfied even though it may not be optimal. (Note also that I only said I don't claim it's optimal even for me; it may in fact be optimal for me, but I don't have any sort of proof and don't wish to spend the time and energy it would take to defend the claim if I made it.)

How many of those do you think you'll ever actually read?

Approximately all of them. My book-reading rate isn't much slower than my book-buying rate.

I see that as a phenomenal waste of money.

Aside from the fact that (as already noted) I expect to read the great majority of them eventually, I refer you to Umberto Eco's essay on "How to justify a private library" (part of his collection entitled "How to travel with a salmon", which also contains useful advice on "How to recognize a porn movie" and "How to go through customs"), which I shall not quote here; you may pirate the book at your leisure and read it yourself.

In any case, having (let's say) $5000 of wealth tied up in books I haven't read yet (providing me with goods such as an ample choice of the next thing to read when I finish one, reinforcement of my notion of myself as an erudite intellectual sort of chap, helping to support the portion of the economy concerned with books, having lots of interesting things sat around for my daughter to read as she grows old enough to appreciate them, etc.) seems to me no worse than having a similar sum tied up in having a slightly nicer car or house than one needs. Especially as the books were almost all purchased at good prices (used, or while nicely reduced on Amazon, or whatever) and probably retain a substantial fraction of the value I paid for them -- unlike, e.g., the car. None of which means it's a good thing -- it might or might not be -- but it's at any rate no worse than indulgences that I bet you don't bother to criticize when you find them in others. Or, who knows?, in yourself.

that which is sub-optimal should be optimised

I think that principle is sub-optimal. Things that are probably sub-optimal include (for me as for just about everyone else alive) my diet, my job, my sex life, my political beliefs, my choice of reading matter, my choice of other leisure activities, my selection of friends, the set of skills I've taken the trouble to acquire, my financial arrangements, my dress sense, my relationships with family and friends, ... and if I attempted to optimize everything sub-optimal I'd have no time or energy left for anything else.

I find it inconceivable that you can't find any good use for the money you save by not buying books

I didn't say that. I was just deflecting one more specific objection. I'm sure I could find other good uses for the money. I see no reason to think they'd be any better than buying books.

this preference might just be status quo bias.

Yup, it might be status quo bias. I am aware that I am slower-than-optimal to make major changes in my life, and I expect the two things are related.

Ah, but does that really rank higher on your preference rankings than existential risk reduction?

It ranks higher on my preference rankings than saving the cost of the book by pirating it. So, out of {do nothing, pirate, buy} I choose buy over pirate. The remaining question is whether it's wrong for the enjoyment of reading to rank above existential risk reduction (or saving the lives of poor people in Africa, or influencing national politics, or any of the other Big Things I could do with my money instead of indulging myself), and on that I'm the same pile of contradictions and hacks as everyone else, which I justify (in so far as I do) in what I take to be the usual ways: staying sane and happy probably lets me contribute more to those things in total, my self-centred preferences are what they are and I shouldn't pretend otherwise, etc., etc., etc.

I should probably end this discussion now.

In which case, I apologize if any of the foregoing seems to require a response. Please be assured that if none is forthcoming I shall neither say nor think that it means you're conceding any point you don't concede explicitly :-).

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-17T08:11:30.151Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Approximately all of them. My book-reading rate isn't much slower than my book-buying rate.

In that case, I wouldn't call it 'a phenomenal waste of money', which renders the next paragraph of your comment rather pointless.

I think that principle is sub-optimal.

Now that I think about it... The principle is not sub-optimal (unless you start optimising for the amount of suffering in the world or something) but, yes, the implied strategy (optimise ALL the things!! Optimise whatever seems sub-optimal! Optimise them NOW!) definitely is.

...which I justify (in so far as I do) in what I take to be the usual ways...

Ah, a Fully General Counter-Counterargument to counter a Fully General Counterargument. Fair enough, I guess.

I will now edit my original comment to reflect this discussion.

Edit: Done.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T04:53:34.252Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
  1. See interesting-looking book.
  2. Decide whether to get hold of it.
  3. If 2 returns 'Yea', decide whether to buy or pirate it.

4. Decide whether to tell people about my criminal tendencies on the internet.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:13:04.375Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

criminal

As a legal term, "criminal" does not apply here.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T04:57:59.791Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So it's fine to discuss the morality of infanticide and baby-eating, but IP infringement is taboo? :P

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:13:43.209Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, but you should Taboo most of the words usually used, because they are not useful.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T05:21:48.453Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Mm? What words are you talking about? I do contend that 'pirate' is a useful and concise verb for 'obtain a file for free over the internet'. (Although, now that I think about it, that's not what it technically means, and 'filesharing' is probably a better word for the act. Then again, 'fileshare' isn't commonly used as a verb.)

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:55:13.435Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I do contend that 'pirate' is a useful and concise verb for 'obtain a file for free over the internet'.

That's true, it is just perhaps not a useful verb in this context because there are moral connotations.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:25:07.246Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Theft" and "Piracy" are both Bad Words in this context. "Theft" because it doesn't actually apply, "Piracy" because it fails to carve reality at the joints (lumps high-seas theft and murder with copying).

The word you are looking for is "Copy". Nice and short, captures all the important aspects, doesn't have too much political or moral connotation.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T05:26:41.791Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Duly noted.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:53:14.217Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So it's fine to discuss the morality of infanticide and baby-eating, but IP infringement is taboo? :P

Taboo? No, there's no taboo. It's a question of honesty being (potentially) instrumentally detrimental to you!

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T06:06:42.266Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The probability of that is really astronomically small in this case, but point taken.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T06:43:43.255Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The probability of that is really astronomically small in this case, but point taken.

It does seem that way. But who knows what the future may bring? Words on the internet have a nasty habit of sticking around.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T07:16:13.988Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The possibility of the rise of a sinister figure in the future that visits vengeance upon everyone who has ever demonstrated sympathy for copyright infringement doesn't really push up my probability estimate, sorry.

(Really, by the most likely way I can think of this causing trouble is if any of a certain group of powerful organisations that I won't name here gets pissed off at me and decides to come after me with every single thing they can dig up. But that's still a really small possibility and this thread will be the least of my worries if it really comes to that.)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:46:00.862Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

it seems I've spoken carelessly and I'd like to restate my initial point. I appreciate the clarifications as to the legal details.

I'm suggesting that piracy is immoral, and in very large part because it is illegal. I don't think moral concerns always trump instrumental value or that breaking the law is always immoral. But these will be exceptional cases. Copying a book illegaly because one doesn't want to pay for it seems like an unexceptional case of wrongdoing, and one plausably comparable (morally if not legally) to theft. It seems comparable, I mean, to any given case of breaking the law because it makes life a little easier or more pleasent.

ETA: And I don't mean to suggest I have any knock out argument myself. I really would just like to hear the argument to the contrary if anyone would be willing to take the time.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:53:39.788Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So you think that the value of the rule of law is more important than immediate personal gains? Fair enough.

You seem to think it's wrong for other reasons, tho I can't quite decipher it.

Why specifically compare to theft? Why not trespassing or something? The only similarity I can see is that infringement and theft are both crimes of an economic nature, but so is vandalism.

To clarify the situation and the relationships between the terms, would you agree that theft is approximately the intersection of vandalism and infringement? (it removes the original, and the perp gains without paying)

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T06:03:34.379Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why specifically compare to theft? Why not trespassing or something?

Come to think of it on the pure abstract level it is more closely analogous to rape.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:06:22.789Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I thot of suggesting rape, but decided against it because it seemed too far off. Explain.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T06:42:17.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Takes the valuable resource from the victim without reducing the degree to which they have that resource or provide it to others for their own benefit.

I don't support advocating equivocation between these or any other moral or ethical issues. Because they are different and degree of abstract similarity is not important.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-01-16T06:05:34.621Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Takes the valuable resource from the victim without reducing the degree to which they have that resource or provide it to others for their own benefit.

Uh, rape often reduces the degree to which one can provide sex / fertility to others. I don't think that's the best analogy.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-16T06:16:33.502Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Uh, rape often reduces the degree to which one can provide sex / fertility to others.

I originally included caveats (like gentleness and maybe birth control) but decided that wasn't really necessary. After all when we call copying movies 'stealing' we don't bother to include disclaimers about things like "while breaking into your house to steal your TV they destroyed your door and broke your arm when you tried to stop them".

I don't think that's the best analogy.

It quite possibly isn't - I've hardly done an exhaustive search. I expressed only a comparison to stealing.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-16T04:48:42.044Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Takes the valuable resource from the victim without reducing the degree to which they have that resource or provide it to others for their own benefit.

What disturbs me about this model is that my mind is now telling me 'yeah, sure you can consider sex as a resource', while 100 seconds ago (right after I read the comment) it was telling me, with equal certainty, 'wtf? sex isn't a resource!!'

I ... really don't think this is a useful model.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-16T05:32:41.467Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What disturbs me about this model is that my mind is now telling me 'yeah, sure you can consider sex as a resource', while 100 seconds ago (right after I read the comment) it was telling me, with equal certainty, 'wtf? sex isn't a resource!!'

How could you not consider sex a resource? It isn't just a resource, or merely a resource but it is one of the most significant resources out there. There are entire industries out there for the buying and selling of sex. There is an industry for capturing and selling people from whom this resource can be harvested. The most rudimentary of marketing tactics is to find ways to make other resources associate with sex in the minds of the consumer.

I ... really don't think this is a useful model.

It is one of many models useful for understanding human behavior. It need not be one that is used for describing or selecting moralities.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-16T05:44:32.590Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How could you not consider sex a resource? It isn't just a resource, or merely a resource but it is one of the most significant resources out there.

Just a thought that had never occurred to me. However, I'm still wary of accepting this interpretation because my mind completely bought into it after just a few seconds of thinking about it. Ergo, either it's a blindingly obvious fact, as you suggest, or my mind is overfitting the data, and....

.... Who am I kidding? I've already accepted this interpretation.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:05:01.598Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I compare it to theft because of the comparable aims of the thief and the filesharer: in most cases, I expect, and in the kind of cases Anubhav raised, something is copied in violation of IP law because it is convenient for the filesharer or saves him or her some money. That's similar to theft in a way that it's no to vandalism or tresspassing.

As to your clarificatory question, I'm not sure. So assume I agree; what are the consequences of understanding things this way?

comment by ArisKatsaris · 2012-01-16T03:04:36.500Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

because it is convenient for the filesharer or saves him or her some money

Then you may just as well call it "insurance fraud", or "tax evasion", or "turnstile jumping".

In a universe where you didn't begin off with the assumption that copying things can be considered "theft", because the companies have a vested interested in presenting it as theft, I doubt it'd ever even cross your mind that copying something can be reasonably compared to stealing it.

E.g. did you ever ask whether JKR has the right to mention the name of "Merlin"? Or whether Disney has the right to use Hercules or Aladdin as characters? Did it occur to you to call such things theft -- merely because it was convenient and saved money for these people/companies to copy such names/stories?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T16:52:44.441Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I doubt it'd ever even cross your mind that copying something can be reasonably compared to stealing it.

It did, long before companies started trying to present it as such within my hearing.

Did it occur to you to call such things theft -- merely because it was convenient and saved money for these people/companies to copy such names/stories.

The theft comparison isn't really my point. My point is that it's wrong to break the law for personal gain. None of these are cases of that kind of activity. It may be that the law itself is wrong, but that doesn't itself make it okay to break that law, especially when your breaking of it is aimed purely at saving you some money and not in any way at undermining the law.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-16T17:00:59.876Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Just to be clear... would you say that speeding, or consensual sodomy in Texas prior to 2003, are wrong in essentially the same way?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T17:15:52.924Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a good question. I guess I would say the same thing about speeding, but not about consensual sodomy. In the latter case, I think it's still immoral to break the law so as to engage in sodomy, but that this is just outweighed by the importance of being able to freely engage in a sex life of one's choosing and with consenting adult partners. With speeding and with filesharing, the immorality of breaking the law is weighed against in the first case convenience (unless it's an emergency) and in the latter case saving one's money. Neither of these seem to me to overcome the moral problem of breaking the law.

ETA: The point about speeding is a good one. We generally understand people to be responsible for bad but unintended outcomes only so long as what they're doing is bad in the first place. So while we think speeding is commonplace and no great evil, we do get quite worked up when someone speeds and kills someone else as a result. The killing, wholly unintended, is their fault. I think this is a sign that we do consider speeding to be a bit immoral. If the same thing happened to someone who was driving in a perfectly legal way, we wouldn't ascribe to them any responsibility for the deaths.

I'm not sure I can come up with any similar accidental consequence of filesharing. Maybe the collapse of a publishing company? But this couldn't be the result of any one person's activity.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-16T17:25:37.249Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Mm. OK.

So, if someone were to say they endorsed some instances of illegal filesharing because, while they agreed that it was immoral to break the law, they believed that this immorality was outweighed by the importance of being able to freely distribute and obtain information of one's choosing, your conclusion would be that their reasoning was sound as far as it went, but that they were not correctly estimating the relative importance of those two things.

Yes?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T17:51:09.137Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I do think that would be a reasonable tack, and it wouldn't be hard to convince me that the relative importance of free access to information outweighs the legal violation. Two things give me pause though: first the information one wishes to access is, in the cases Anubhav is describing, simply those books about which one is curious. Nothing life and death there. I can see why one has a right to, say, some of the information Wikileaks might distribute, but I don't see why one has a right (or whatever) to any information one wants. Certainly not the intellectual products of other people.

Second, one already has access to that information. It just costs money. The point isn't that one is gaining access to information one otherwise couldn't get, but rather that one is saving money in doing so.

I know people over the internet who fileshare philosophy books because they live in poverty, or in countries without academic institutions or libraries, or because they live in countries with oppressive governments. Filesharing in these cases doesn't strike me as particularly immoral, or rather, its immorality seems to be outweighed.

But in the case of someone who fileshares a book when they could (even with some hardship) pay for it and has (politically) free access to it, this is immoral.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-16T18:14:08.839Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

OK.

So, if someone countered your defense of sodomy in Texas pre-2003 by arguing that, first, there is nothing life or death about the desire to have particular kinds of sex and they don't see why one has a right (or whatever) to any kind of sex one wants, and, second, that one already has access to sodomy, one merely has to move to a state where it's legal, and that therefore committing sodomy in Texas pre-2003 was in fact net immoral, what would be your response?

BTW, at about this point I feel somewhat obligated to state my own position on these sorts of issues, which is roughly speaking that violating the law is not in and of itself immoral, but neither is enforcing it. Which is to say, when I violate the law, I move myself into a position where it is potentially moral to imprison me, confiscate my property, reduce my future potential for valuable years, or even kill me. (There are other considerations that affect whether that potential is actualized.)

That said, I'm not trying to argue in favor of that position here, and you can feel free to ignore it if you wish. I just feel socially obligated to get my own cards out on the table.

I should perhaps also say that I was routinely violating U.S. anti-sodomy laws prior to 2003 and would continue to be doing so if those laws were still in place in my state of residence. Not that those things are actually relevant at all, but they seemed worth saying anyway.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T18:31:29.860Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, if someone countered your defense of sodomy in Texas pre-2003 by arguing that, first, there is nothing life or death about the desire to have particular kinds of sex and they don't see why one has a right (or whatever) to any kind of sex one wants, and, second, that one already has access to sodomy, one merely has to move to a state where it's legal, and that therefore committing sodomy in Texas pre-2003 was in fact net immoral, what would be your response?

I would say first that the freedom to have a sex life of one's choosing is a life and death matter (not literally of course). I mean that this freedom is of great moral significance, and its curtailment is justifiable only under extreme circumstances (what these could be, I cannot imagine). I'd be happy to defend that if pressed, though I doubt you disagree. I'm sure we would agree that this is not merely a case of breaking the law so as to take pleasure in something, and that a case like this (like consuming drugs illegally) is quite different from the case of sodomy.

Second, having to move to a different state doesn't constitute free access. If we understood free access that way, we would lose track of what it meant to say that a government is oppressive with respect to such access.

I think breaking the law is immoral as a rule. This can be offset if the law itself is unjust or impractical, or if extreme circumstances produce an exception. I think breaking the law is immoral because the polity and its stability and coherence isn't just a practical good but a moral one. Or rather, I think the polity is one of the major conditions that make moral goods possible. It seems uncontroversial to me to say that we have special moral relationships with our country as a whole and with our fellow citizens, relationships which we don't share with just anyone. As a US citizen, I bear some responsibility for the actions of my government. I rightly feel shame at our policies about torture. But I bear no responsibility for the actions of the Chinese government. I rightly feel angry that they torture people, but would not rightly feel ashamed.

ETA: on the morality of breaking/enforcing the law: I take it we would agree that these stand and fall together. If breaking is wrong, enforcing is at least morally significant, and if enforcing is morally significant, so is breaking the law. Executing someone for jaywalking or filesharing, even if it's consistant with the law, is deeply evil and unjust. If you accept this and the above premise, this implies that breaking the law is likewise morally significant.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-16T19:24:00.790Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

OK. Thanks for clarifying; this was helpful.

For my own part:

  • I agree that the stability and coherence of the polity is a practical good, and that it is a moral good. (I suspect that I don't agree with the line you're drawing between those goods, but it's irrelevant in this case.)
  • I agree that the aggregate cost of individuals complying with particular laws (or of being punished for their violation) can in certain cases exceed the collective benefit of enforcing that law. In those cases, I would not consider it a moral good to either enforce or comply with such a law.
  • I probably don't agree with your reasons for asserting the "special moral relationships" between, for example, me and my country, but I agree with you that in practice I probably have more ability to influence U.S. policy than that of other countries of similar power, and that ability weighs into my moral relationship to U.S. policy.
  • I don't endorse feeling ashamed about things I cannot influence.
  • I agree that if enforcing a law in a particular context is morally significant, breaking that law in that context is also morally significant. (It's not clear to me that equation holds across contexts.) Ditto for (breaking a law is wrong) -> (enforcing that law is morally significant)
  • I agree that executing someone for jaywalking or filesharing is wrong. (Also "deeply evil and unjust," if you like, though I'm not sure what those terms add beyond emphasis.)
  • I agree that jaywalking or filesharing in a context where those actions can lead to my execution is morally significant, and that I can infer that conclusion from the above claims (as well as from general principles).
comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T19:46:06.892Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that the aggregate cost of individuals complying with particular laws...

I agree with a weaker version of your conclusion: if a law is impractical, disobeying it is permissible. But the cost in terms of respect for the law produced by widespread disobedience should be factored in. Laws lean on each other. Also, I didn't say (and wouldn't say) that it's of itself a moral good to comply with the law. Only that it's a moral bad to break it. Second, there's a question of how to respond to impractical laws: are they personally impractical? Then violating the law seems more permissible. If they are personally quite practical but only impractical in aggregate, I think the appropriate response is probably more like political activism.

CR laws may be impractical in aggregate, but the presence of CR laws along with their widespread violation is, I expect, very much more impractical. If the practical situation is 'no CR laws', then violating them is not an appropriate response.

I agree with you that in practice I probably have more ability to influence U.S. policy than that of other countries of similar power, and that ability weighs into my moral relationship to U.S. policy.

Well, suppose the president of the US had the power, by imposing sanctions, to limit or prevent some injustice in Iran, like the execution of political prisoners. I think we would agree that this act is of moral significance, but also that it would have to be weighed against the interests of the US, etc. On the other hand, if the president discovered that his or her own government were executing political prisoners, he would be in extreme moral dereliction for not putting a stop to this almost regardless of practical consequences. So a president might have the power to influence such a situation in both cases, but he or she bears much more acute moral responsibility for the actions of his or her own government.

So I don't think it's the case that moral responsibility comes down simply to an ability to affect some situation. Does that seem like a reasonable argument?

I don't endorse feeling ashamed about things I cannot influence.

Perhaps this will seem sophistical, but don't you only feel shame at things you cannot influence, namely things in the past? If I murder someone, I ought to feel ashamed. But I cannot change the fact of the murder. And before the fact, I cannot feel ashamed of it, since it hasn't happened.

I think we should agree that enforcing a law is always morally significant: enforcing it against an innocent person is always or for the most part immoral, and it is made permissible only by the breaking of a law. So the relationship between the breaking of a law and its enforcement is on some level a moral one, and for every question of enforcement, there is a morally significant question of guilt.

So if the law isn't personally as well as in aggregate impractical (CR law isn't in the cases we're discussing) and the breaking and enforcing of laws is always morally significant, then I think we're at least closer to the conclusion that breaking CR laws for personal gain is immoral.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-16T21:04:54.020Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that the cost in terms of respect for the law produced by widespread disobedience should be factored in when deciding whether to comply with a law.

I am confused by how you can say that the "stability of the polity" is a moral good, and that compliance with the law contributes to the stability of the polity, but that compliance with the law is not a moral good.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "personally impractical" as opposed to "impractical in aggregate," but in any case, I would say that if the law is a bad law in aggregate, then an individual response is appropriate to the degree that it has an expected value of removing that law and low expected costs. Political activism is sometimes an excellent example of this... and sometimes not. Widespread violation of the law is sometimes an excellent example of this... and sometimes not. (Indeed, sometimes they are one and the same. And sometimes not.)

I disagree that the president of the U.S. has more moral responsibility for policy A than policy B if her ability to influence the policies is the same, and the moral wrong of the policies and the influencing of them is the same, just because policy A is a U.S. policy. I think the intuitive rightness of that idea stems from the presumption that her ability to influence a policy for a given degree of moral wrong is higher for U.S. policies.

I'm not sure what "acute" moral responsibility is.

I do in fact often feel ashamed about things I cannot influence, including things in the past. I don't endorse it. But I also often feel shame about my present (and anticipated future) willingness to do certain things, and insofar as that shame reduces my likelihood of doing those things and I reject doing those things, I tentatively endorse that shame.

I agree that enforcing a law is morally significant. Enforcing a law against an innocent person is a confused idea (roughly corresponding to attacking someone in an unjustified way under the mistaken belief that I'm enforcing the law) but I agree that it's usually a moral wrong.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-17T15:26:22.526Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Widespread violation of the law is sometimes an excellent example of this... and sometimes not. (Indeed, sometimes they are one and the same. And sometimes not.)

Can you argue that CR violation, in the form of filesharing, is a good example of an appropriate response to an impractical or immoral law?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-17T15:37:49.419Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In the general case? Not convincingly.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-17T16:28:49.802Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I've asked Anubhav the same thing, and I suppose I should wait and hear his case, since it's his suggestion I'm arguing against. Thanks for the discussion.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T18:59:28.853Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think breaking the law is immoral as a rule.

That's nutty. It's like saying the dictionary authors are the ultimate authority on language. You've got the causality the wrong way round.

The only convincing argument for following the law for me is that the rule of law is important and we can only maintain it if people respect the law. But that is instrumental in creating the kind of society we want. You get close to suggesting this but undermine yourself by then claiming that the rule of law "isn't just a practical good but a moral one."

If following the law were moral, you should be proposing more laws like "everyone has to breathe" so that we can all be more moral. Or do you believe that we need to punish some people in order to be moral?

As a US citizen, I bear some responsibility for the actions of my government. I rightly feel shame at our policies about torture. But I bear no responsibility for the actions of the Chinese government. I rightly feel angry that they torture people, but would not rightly feel ashamed.

That's... very odd. You should remove US citizenship from your self-identity so that you can think more clearly about this. The US is torturing people, China is torturing people, both are very bad. You perhaps have more ability to affect US torture and should therefore pay more attention, but they are not a different kind of responsibility.

If you don't like torture, do what you can against it. Don't just excuse yourself because you don't count the entities involved as part of your personal identity.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T19:16:54.360Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's nutty. It's like saying the dictionary authors are the ultimate authority on language. You've got the causality the wrong way round.

That strikes me as an extremely inapt analogy. Dictionary authors have little no authority in language because they are not a condition on the possibility of language. I think it's reasonable to say that the polity is a significant (if not necessary or sufficient) condition on the possibility of morality.

If following the law were moral, you should be proposing more laws like "everyone has to breathe" so that we can all be more moral. Or do you believe that we need to punish some people in order to be moral?

You're reading me as saying "obeying the law, whatever it says, is a moral good". I didn't say or imply this. I said that violating the law is a moral bad. So the above doesn't follow.

Or do you believe that we need to punish some people in order to be moral?

Assuming not everyone is law-abiding, yes.

You should remove US citizenship from your self-identity so that you can think more clearly about this.

I can't. My self-identity isn't entirely up to me. If I murder someone, I can't just decide that this act is no longer a part of my self-identity and thereby become innocent of it. I did something evil and nothing can ever make that go away. It's mine forever. If I'm lazy, or stupid, or brave, I can't just decide to cease being these things (ETA: not just by fiat anyway, I'd have to make substantial changes to my life). The fact is that my life, both in practical and in moral terms, is the life of a US citizen. Most everything I do is conditioned on the existence and quality of the government and citizenry. My citizenship is also the condition for my enjoyment of very important moral goods, like the possibility of loyalty and a participation in justice.

So even if I could remove US citizenship from my identity (I can, in suppose, by officially renouncing my citizenship) I wouldn't. Being a citizen is a great, great good. Take it from someone who spent a fair amount of time without being a citizen of anywhere.

But all this is a little astray. My point is just that its immoral to ignore or violate the law for one's personal gain. If you disagree with that, then my much more specific claim about why probably won't convince you. I'm afraid if you don't think breaking the law has any moral significance, I have no immediate way to argue for the immorality of filesharing. Or theft.

If you don't like torture, do what you can against it. Don't just excuse yourself because you don't count the entities involved as part of your personal identity.

I don't want to ignore your point here, it's an important one, but it's not relevant to this particular discussion. If I'm mistaken in that, please let me know.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T20:31:35.233Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

EDIT: sorry for the length /EDIT

That strikes me as an extremely inapt analogy. Dictionary authors have little no authority in language because they are not a condition on the possibility of language. I think it's reasonable to say that the polity is a significant (if not necessary or sufficient) condition on the possibility of morality.

So you would cease to be a moral person if the law went away? I don't understand. Maybe you mean that the world would be morally much worse off without law? I agree with that, but that doesn't imply that the law is the source of morality or whatever. It's still instrumental and hopefully following from morality, not the other way.

You're reading me as saying "obeying the law, whatever it says, is a moral good". I didn't say or imply this. I said that violating the law is a moral bad. So the above doesn't follow.

Ok, so we should remove the laws that people tend to violate a lot, to reduce the moral badness in the world. I guess if you think that law is our morality, this would still be a bad idea because changing your morality is a bad idea (the gandhi kill pill argument).

I can't.

Yes you can. Sorry, I didn't mean like give up your citizenship, I meant keep it out of your self image, because people are irrational about things in their self-image.

For example: I live in canada, I have an american and canadian citizenship, I enjoy the benefits, I do not think of myself as canadian or american because then I would not be able to think clearly about the differences between me and the countries of which I am part. I also do not consider my gender, age, race, or name to be part of my identity.

Have you ever talked to chinese citizens about the actions of the chinese government? You may have noticed that many are unable to differentiate between criticism of the chinese government and criticism of the chinese people. This is because the propaganda conflates the two. Avoid that.

But all this is a little astray. My point is just that its immoral to ignore or violate the law for one's personal gain. If you disagree with that, then my much more specific claim about why probably won't convince you.

I agree that violating the law is bad, but not intrinsically immoral the way murder is. Violating the law is bad because of the consequences for the rule of law, and because the law is often parallel to morality.

I'm afraid if you don't think breaking the law has any moral significance, I have no immediate way to argue for the immorality of filesharing. Or theft.

Leave yourself a line of retreat. In the absence of law, would it be bad to steal? If not, why make the law in the first place?

Stealing is bad because it is bad for the person you stole from and creates the wrong kind of society. No law required.

Not all sharing is illegal or even of the controversial sort. I torrent my operating system images, and I have license to those. I share images on the internet that are public domain works.

Copyright Infringement I am unsure on. I've seen plenty of evidence, if you have more, please share it with me.

Whatever you think, don't try to justify a law by appealing to the fact that it is law. That is circular. If there is some other argument why in a counterfactual world without a law, it would be a good idea to create it, appeal to that instead of the circular part.

Do you understand why I don't think talking about the current laws is a good idea in a moral discussion?

not relevant to this particular discussion.

Maybe not. You were making mistakes in your reasoning because of your identity, so I brought it up.


Or do you believe that we need to punish some people in order to be moral?

Assuming not everyone is law-abiding, yes.

If I murder someone, I can't just decide that this act is no longer a part of my self-identity and thereby become innocent of it. I did something evil and nothing can ever make that go away. It's mine forever.

There is a difference of philosophy here. I will state my position on these matters:

Ideas like Punishment, Responsibility, etc are social protocols instrumental in maintaining a valuable society. They may even be built in at the hardware level, but they are not intrinsic moral values the way "don't hurt people" is. We are now smart enough to come up with better solutions to the problems that they solved.

Punishment is about getting people to follow rules that are a good for everyone when there is individual profit in defecting. Game theory, specifically iterated prisoners dilemma and so on, implies that punishment of defectors is a very good strategy for maintaining a beneficial relationship in many circumstances. It turns out that our ancestral environment was one such situation, so we have the idea of punishment built in at an instinctual level. There are situations where punishment is not the best solution, so taking it as a given is stupid.

For example, let's say we find out that some murders are not calculating defections, but failures of self control and lack of education. Let's further suppose that there is a two -week course that a murderer can take that has a 98% success rate in making them productive members of society, never to murder again. Let's say that Bob is such a murderer. What do we do with him? We can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping him in degrading prison, after which he will still be a murderer, or we can put him thru our two week course for a couple thousand dollars, after which he will be a productive member of society. What to do? Do we decide that punishment is the moral thing to do, or do we decide there are more important things than following obsolete tribal-politics hueristics?

Responsibility is another evolutionary and social hack to kick you into action when you have the ability to affect something morally important. It is not a moral primitive. We now have utilitarian decision theories and associated philosophy that does a much better job at improving the world.

You brought up responsibility in the context of murder and torture. Once you factor out punishment, as demystified above, and ability to affect things, the people starving to death all over the world are just as important as the person you save or kill right here. Once you factor out your ability to change things, the people being tortured by foreign powers are just as important as those being tortured by the government you live under.

This is what I mean when I say not to excuse yourself from tragedies outside your identity. Minimize your identity and feel responsible for all the tragedy in the world, not just that which "you" cause.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-17T15:17:54.522Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you and I have a problem of miscommunication. These claims are not my claims, and do not follow from anything I've said: -The law is morality. -You would cease to be moral if the law went away. -It is morally good to obey the law.

I do agree that we should reconsider laws that people tend to violate a lot: widespread violation is good evidence for the impracticability of a law. But it would be senseless to remove violated laws to decrease the moral badness in the world, because the laws exist in the first place for the good of the polity and its citizens.

Yes you can. Sorry, I didn't mean like give up your citizenship, I meant keep it out of your self image, because people are irrational about things in their self-image.

I think it would be profoundly irrational to think of my self-identity this way. It would be similar to thinking I could change the territory by redrawing the map. I am a person with a definite identity. I can work to change, but I can't change by fiat.

Do you understand why I don't think talking about the current laws is a good idea in a moral discussion?

Not really. I take it you would say that nothing vouchsafes the morality of current law, so we cannot look to law for moral principles. In a certain way I agree with this, but I think this view underestimates the relationship between the law and our moral lives. It is in virtue of living in a polity that we can be moral beings. If there were no polity, we might still be capable of morality (especially if we were raised in a polity) but in a very limited way. Very, very important things like courage and loyalty and honesty and justice would be curtailed or closed off to us.

Punishment is about getting people to follow rules that are a good for everyone when there is individual profit in defecting.

This is, I think, not a good view of justice, specifically in that it involves a contempt for the criminal. It is not okay to lock people away in a little box, or cause them pain, or take their freedom, or anything like this for the sake of changing their behavior. Manipulating people by causing them to suffer is torture, and that's not what (I hope) our justice system is up to. We punish people because they did something wrong (assuming we get it right and they are guilty). Punishment isn't aimed at some further end, like torture or coercion.

Thanks for taking the time to present your views on the subject, I found them as interesting as they were different from my own. What makes 'don't hurt people' an intrinsic moral value?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-17T23:35:37.502Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I do agree that we should reconsider laws that people tend to violate a lot: widespread violation is good evidence for the impracticability of a law. But it would be senseless to remove violated laws to decrease the moral badness in the world, because the laws exist in the first place for the good of the polity and its citizens.

My statement about removing laws that people violate was intended to be obviously absurd. I don't think it is a good idea to do it (at least not for that reason).

I think it would be profoundly irrational to think of my self-identity this way. It would be similar to thinking I could change the territory by redrawing the map. I am a person with a definite identity. I can work to change, but I can't change by fiat.

Disagree. Identity is a matter of where you carve the world, which you should do in whatever way works best. It happens that people are not capable of reasoning as rationally about things that they identify with. It seems perfectly reasonable to say "am I not capable of thinking rationally about this category (things I identify with), and it does not provide enough value to make up for that, so I ought to simply delete it." It's a mind hack, for sure, but I think it is fully possible and the right thing to do.

Not really. I take it you would say that nothing vouchsafes the morality of current law, so we cannot look to law for moral principles. In a certain way I agree with this, but I think this view underestimates the relationship between the law and our moral lives. It is in virtue of living in a polity that we can be moral beings. If there were no polity, we might still be capable of morality (especially if we were raised in a polity) but in a very limited way. Very, very important things like courage and loyalty and honesty and justice would be curtailed or closed off to us.

You seem to at least understand what I meant. I'm afraid I don't yet understand your position. Could you explain in more detail why some form of law is necessary for morality (if I even have that right)?

This is, I think, not a good view of justice, specifically in that it involves a contempt for the criminal. It is not okay to lock people away in a little box, or cause them pain, or take their freedom, or anything like this for the sake of changing their behavior. Manipulating people by causing them to suffer is torture, and that's not what (I hope) our justice system is up to. We punish people because they did something wrong (assuming we get it right and they are guilty). Punishment isn't aimed at some further end, like torture or coercion.

There is no contempt for the defector. Punishment is simply a sad duty that we must credibly pre-commit to to maintain social order. Torture is unnecessary and morally expensive. People often overestimate the amount of punishment needed to deter defectors (as opposed to other types of crime that must be handled with other methods).

We punish people because they did something wrong (assuming we get it right and they are guilty).

That is exactly what I disagree with. Why should we punish them? What benefit is there from spending our resources to hurt them, if it's not the game-theoretic determent?

What makes 'don't hurt people' an intrinsic moral value?

I'll retract that. 'Don't hurt people' may not be morally intrinsic, but it's much, much closer than punishment, which we (or at least I) now know is derived (but only in some cases) from other principles. I can't think of anything much more universal than 'don't hurt people', but I'm sure it reduces somewhere. The point I was trying to make was that punishment is not as fundamental as some other principles, and should be abandoned in favor of them when that is the dilemma.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T16:36:36.138Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Identity is a matter of where you carve the world, which you should do in whatever way works best.

Isn't this a prescription for the happy psychotic, who carves the world up in such a way that he is always maximally happy? I take it we should carve the world at the joints, whether this is good for us or not, and whether we like it or not. If you ask me, there's no such thing as a 'mind hack'. You cannot by any force of will decide to believe something you believe to be false and you must believe everything you believe to be true. You have no control whatsoever over what to believe. I cannot adjust my self-identity without coming to the (I think false) belief that I am not really a US citizen. You might convince me that this actually isn't a part of my self-identity, but only by convincing me that it never was.

Could you explain in more detail why some form of law is necessary for morality (if I even have that right)?

Well, I called it a 'significant condition on morality' and I suggested that it may well be (I don't know) a necessary or sufficient or necessary and sufficient condition. I doubt I can be persuasive here, since we disagree on the subject so broadly. Being good is hard. Being good means being generous with people, and this requires some modest wealth. It also means being courageous. Being just requires an association with people, and in any significant number, this requires leadership and law. Being civil, kind, etc. requires friendship, and this likewise requires associations and mutual interests, and all these practically depend upon the law. Courage is the belief that your life is worth something, such that it would be better to die than live a life of terribly low moral quality. Courage therefore means a willingness to die for the sake of the above moral goods. And perhaps most generally, being good means doing great good things with your life, and this requires powers and wealth vastly beyond the capacity of a single human to provide. Being good requires leisure, because it requires reflection and deliberation, and leisure can only be provided under the conditions of a polity, among friends, in safety, etc.

What benefit is there from spending our resources to hurt them, if it's not the game-theoretic determent?

My point is that punishment is not for the sake of any benefit at all. It's a manifestation of anger, which is the rational response to wrongdoing. If we are not angry with the wrongdoer, we are treating them like an animal or a small child. Anger, and so its manifestation, is a form of respect for the capacity in the criminal to do good. The last thing justice is about is using suffering and imprisonment to manipulate people.

I'll retract that. 'Don't hurt people' may not be morally intrinsic, but it's much, much closer than punishment, which we (or at least I) now know is derived (but only in some cases) from other principles.

In virtue of what is it closer?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:03:33.481Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you ask me, there's no such thing as a 'mind hack'. You cannot by any force of will decide to believe something you believe to be false and you must believe everything you believe to be true. You have no control whatsoever over what to believe. I cannot adjust my self-identity without coming to the (I think false) belief that I am not really a US citizen.

You are misunderstanding the nature of self-identity. It is not a fact about the world that you have to get right, it is a cognitive category that causes you to go insane about anything that is in it. The fact that you have a US citezenship does not mean you should put "Actions of the US" in the "I should be insane about these" category. If you truly believe that mind-hacks don't exist, I don't know how you intend to deal with biased cognitive machinery.

The reason we don't talk about politics around here is precisely because people have politics as part of their identity, and are therefore incapable of reasoning about it. The more general form of "don't think about politics" is "don't identify with stuff".

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:06:10.572Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The fact that you have a US citezenship does not mean you should put "Actions of the US" in the "I should be insane about these" category.

I promise never to do this.

The reason we don't talk about politics around here is precisely because people have politics as part of their identity, and are therefore incapable of reasoning about it.

From what does the 'therefore' follow? Is this an empirical claim?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:31:33.568Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

From what does the 'therefore' follow? Is this an empirical claim?

Yes. The hidden empirical premise is that people can't think straight about things they identify with. They get defensive and go into politics-mode.

See paul graham's take.

I've observed this phenomenon a lot, and it explains quite a bit. If you can show me some evidence you have about this that I don't, that would be cool.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:10:21.189Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My point is that punishment is not for the sake of any benefit at all. It's a manifestation of anger, which is the rational response to wrongdoing. If we are not angry with the wrongdoer, we are treating them like an animal or a small child. Anger, and so its manifestation, is a form of respect for the capacity in the criminal to do good. The last thing justice is about is using suffering and imprisonment to manipulate people.

This is all wrong. The rational thing to do is whatever is best by your values, which does not necessarily mean getting mad at people and hurting them.

This is so wrong I don't know how to tackle it.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:14:31.531Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is so wrong I don't know how to tackle it.

This was my impression of your presentation of your view too. We should both be extremely suspicious of our ability to evaluate the correctness of a view to which we object so deeply that we cannot find enough common ground to have an argument. I think I'll tap out but I'm happy to discuss these things and so if you want to discuss these topics further, start a discussion topic or send me a message. Thanks for the discussion.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:35:14.298Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There is obviously some huge inferential distance here. I'll try to come up with lower-level build up for my position. You should to. Agreeing to disagree is unacceptable.

Anyways, it will be a while.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-18T22:37:56.128Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Are you asserting that it's unacceptable to agree to disagree in situations where the estimated time and effort for coming to agreement is higher than the estimated value of coming to agreement? If so, can you expand on why?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:43:58.111Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Just in general it shouldn't happen. I think some cases aren't worth it if it is sufficiently difficult, as you suggest. This may be one of those cases.

On the other hand, I think formulating a coherent explanation of punishment is a useful thing to do, because there are so many people who make the mistake of assuming that it's fundamental.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-19T07:37:50.713Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I suppose. Mostly I think those people should read a good book on animal training.

Then again, I think everyone should read a good book on animal training.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T22:05:14.976Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Could you explain in more detail why some form of law is necessary for morality (if I even have that right)?

...

Everything you said here points to law being instrumental, so I'll assume that you agree.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-17T15:29:39.415Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think it would be profoundly irrational to think of my self-identity this way. It would be similar to thinking I could change the territory by redrawing the map. I am a person with a definite identity

I would say, rather, that changing my identity the way nyan_sandwich suggested would be similar to changing how I navigate through the territory by changing the map I use... which seems like a pretty good idea to me, if the map I'm currently using doesn't get me where I want to go.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:10:52.134Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

intent

Good point.

As to your clarificatory question, I'm not sure. So assume I agree; what are the consequences of understanding things this way?

Haha. So cautious. I know that feel.

I don't know the consequences. It just seemed reasonable, and clarifying things like that usually clears things up a bit.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T06:05:51.429Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It seems comparable, I mean, to any given case of breaking the law because it makes life a little easier or more pleasent.

And what of it? You're pointing to a general category with the implicit assumption that everything it contains is wrong. Which, as you know, isn't true. Perhaps most of the members of this set can be classified as wrong, but as long as wrongness isn't a general feature of this set, membership of this set isn't a sufficient condition to classify anything as wrong. Ergo, the members of this set that are wrong, aren't wrong because they belong to this set, but are wrong because they meet some other criteria of wrongness. You should think about what those criteria are, and then we can debate whether this particular issue meets those criteria.

Copying a book illegaly ... seems ... plausably comparable (morally if not legally) to theft.

As I and other people have pointed out, it's not even morally comparable to theft. You haven't addressed any of those comments as far as I can tell. I'll go with the charitable interpretation and assume what you mean by 'comparable' is what you're saying in the next sentence (the part I responded to in the first part of this comment).

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:17:41.627Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

And what of it? You're pointing to a general category with the implicit assumption that everything it contains is wrong. Which, as you know, isn't true. Perhaps most of the members of this set can be classified as wrong, but as long as wrongness isn't a general feature of this set, membership of this set isn't a sufficient condition to classify anything as wrong. Ergo, the members of this set that are wrong, aren't wrong because they belong to this set, but are wrong because they meet some other criteria of wrongness. You should think about what those criteria are, and then we can debate whether this particular issue meets those criteria.

This stinks of classical (non-bayesian) rationality. Membership in a set that is mostly wrong does not "prove" anything, but it sure is evidence. (more evidence is obviously required, in this case). Keep your bayes hat on.

EDIT: What happened to my edit! Your point still stands: we have reason to believe copying does not quite fit in that set, so we should be looking closer at the mechanisms of wrongness. /EDIT

As I and other people have pointed out, it's not even morally comparable to theft. You haven't addressed any of those comments as far as I can tell. I'll go with the charitable interpretation and assume what you mean by 'comparable' is what you're saying in the next sentence (the part I responded to in the first part of this comment).

Actually, ve just brought up that the intent and thought process is very similar. Seems like a good enough reason to compare them.

That said, I think the comparison is way overused, and even if it contains a grain of truth, it's a good idea to avoid it because it is such a politicized comparison.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T06:26:49.261Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This stinks of classical (non-bayesian) rationality. Membership in a set that is mostly wrong does not "prove" anything, but it sure is evidence.

Agreed, but it's noisy evidence. Which is why I recommended looking for better evidence. I used the set theory terminology instead of the Bayesian one because ABrooks seems to have a philosophy background; I thought this'd make more sense for him/her.

...... And yes, I got carried away by the force of my own rhetoric. Must work on avoiding that.

Actually, ve just brought up that the intent and thought process is very similar.

That wasn't at all clear to me.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:30:24.858Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed, but it's noisy evidence. Which is why I recommended looking for better evidence. I used the set theory terminology instead of the Bayesian one because ABrooks seems to have a philosophy background; I thought this'd make more sense for him/her.

See my edit, I agree with what you said, but the non-bayesian thing was an itch that had to be scratched.

That wasn't at all clear to me.

That's because it was in a different post. By "just" I meant "seconds ago, after this post". I could have made that clearer.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:34:38.424Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And what of it? You're pointing to a general category with the implicit assumption that everything it contains is wrong. Which, as you know, isn't true.

Well, I agree that not every case of breaking the law is immoral, but I think I'd be happy to defend the claim that moral wrongness is a characteristic of the subset of legal violations undertaken for the sake of one's personal convenience. And your point about set membership doesn't seem right: it is in virtue of membership in 'elephants' that an animal has a trunk, even if its true of some elephants that they do not have trunks (wounded elephants say).

If I've failed to respond to any questions regarding my comparison of filesharing to theft, then this is purely because of my lack of understanding. Could you clarify for me the challange to this comparison, if you have the time and inclination? Or would you prefer that I made my own case more pointed first?

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-16T05:12:37.086Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Could you clarify for me the challange to this comparison, if you have the time and inclination?

I thought I'd already done that. In this thread, for instance.

And your point about set membership doesn't seem right: it is in virtue of membership in 'elephants' that an animal has a trunk, even if its true of some elephants that they do not have trunks (wounded elephants say).

We seem to be using the word 'characteristic' in different senses.

Anyway, from a Bayesian perspective, as the proportion of elephants without trunks is small, I can be reasonably sure that any given elephant will have a trunk. However, if someone tells me, 'hey, that elephant there doesn't have a trunk', I reason that it's unlikely (but not impossible) that someone would tell me that if the elephant did, in fact, have a trunk. If I want more information about whether the elephant has a trunk, I'd go look at the elephant myself.

More or less the same reasoning applies in this case, except that instead of one person, you've got a large proportion of the people on the internet telling you that copyright is immoral and its infringement is not comparable to theft. Therefore, you should debate these issues on their merits, instead of relying on what group they belong to with regard to legality.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-16T16:09:05.940Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I remember when I was in college and Napster first came out. In a dorm hall, we didn't really have TV's, nor did we read a lot of news, and at least I wasn't researching the subject of file sharing. No publishing company would have had an opportunity to talk to me about it, and I don't remember ever being told that filesharing was stealing.

Except that I immediately recognized it as such. It was something you did when you wanted something that cost money, but you didn't want to pay for it. So you just went and did something illegal so as to get it for free. That struck me as stealing (though I did it anyway, of course). It also struck everyone else as stealing. No one was confused by anyone else's calling it that, and no one, so far as I remember, brought up any objections to the idea. And there's a reason why the companies that now do try to villify the act choose to call it stealing instead of trespassing, or infringement, or whatever. Stealing seems to intuitively capture the nature of it, and the (mild) immorality of it. I think plagerism is called stealing for very similar reasons, even though like CR infringement, it doesn't result in anyone losing what's stolen.

You're right, a large number of people ('large proportion' seems adventurous) are telling me that it's not at all like stealing. They also tell me that copyright law is immoral. They also tend to have substantial economic interests in believing these things. This at least makes me suspicious. But ultimately, nothing really hangs on the comparison to theft. It just seems apt. To me, and in my experience to most everyone who isn't defending their own practice of it.

Breaking the law isn't always immoral. In cases where the law itself is immoral and breaking it can serve to undermine the law, it's even a good thing. But is this one of those cases? An act of filesharing doesn't accomplish anything by way of undermining the law. An act of filesharing accomplishes only this: there's something you want which by law costs money. But you don't want to pay for it, so you find a way to get it for free by infringing upon that law. That's all we're talking about here: a practice of infringing upon a law for your personal gain. Even if copyright is immoral, breaking the law for your personal gain isn't thereby perfectly permissible.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-17T07:59:20.180Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That struck me as stealing (though I did it anyway, of course). It also struck everyone else as stealing.

That argument is about as valid as Aristotle's argument that heavier objects must fall faster. Your intuitions are not magic, when challenged you can't just point to your intuitions and say "Objections? What objections? Can't hear any." You still haven't addressed any of the arguments for why it's a bad comparison.

They also tend to have substantial economic interests in believing these things. This at least makes me suspicious.

And the fact that those who push the "infringement is theft!!" agenda most forcefully have substantial economic interests in blocking the distribution of works through non-traditional channels is not suspicious at all. Neither does the fact that, historically, a technological advance comparable to the internet (the printing press) was fought tooth and nail by an entity comparable to today's Big Media (the Catholic Church) on the pretext of blocking the distribution of unauthorised works (non-Latin versions of the Bible), ring any alarm bells, even though non-Latin Bibles are seen as perfectly ordinary things now. No sir, nothing suspicious here, just a bunch of filthy Pirates making a ruckus.

In cases where the law itself is immoral and breaking it can serve to undermine the law, it's even a good thing. ... An act of filesharing doesn't accomplish anything by way of undermining the law.

Ergo, setting up the Pirate Bay is a moral act, but downloading something off it is not?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-17T16:02:16.264Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That argument is about as valid as Aristotle's argument that heavier objects must fall faster.

Hmm, have you read Aristotle? So far as I can tell, his most extended argument on the matter is Physics IV.8, where he argues that in an atmosphere, heavier things fall faster because they are better able to divide the medium owing to greater downward force. He then argues that in a void, heavier and lighter things would fall with the same speed. Since this is not what we observe (we do in fact often observe heavier things falling faster for the reason Aristotle cites) there cannot be any void.

Aristotle is complicated and surprising, and rarely does any common knowledge capture his views well.

My intuitions aren't magic. Though my having an ethical opinion is some evidence that this opinion is true or in the region of the truth. As I said my argument doesn't hang on the comparison with theft. If the activity strikes me as theft, and most people as theft, then this is pretty good evidence that it's like theft. It's not conclusive or anything, but still good evidence.

I couldn't follow your printing press argument, I think largely because it involved some complicated sarcasm. If you like, ignore my point about economic interest. It's not very important.

Ergo, setting up the Pirate Bay is a moral act, but downloading something off it is not?

Did I say setting up the Pirate Bay is a moral act? I take it you wish to argue that CR law is immoral or impracticable? And how your filesharing a book helps to undermine that law? Could you explain this?

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-18T08:03:34.038Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If the activity strikes me as theft, and most people as theft, then this is pretty good evidence that it's like theft. It's not conclusive or anything, but still good evidence.

If slavery strikes a slave-owner as right to property, and most people in the slave-owner's society as right to property, is that also pretty good evidence that slavery is right to property?

If homosexuality strikes a person as unnatural, and most of the people in his society as unnatural, is that pretty good evidence that homosexuality is unnatural?

The beliefs of a particular society at a particular time provide pretty weak evidence, at best.

As I said my argument doesn't hang on the comparison with theft. ... If you like, ignore my point about economic interest. It's not very important.

In that case, we shall leave that aside for now.

Though my having an ethical opinion is some evidence that this opinion is true or in the region of the truth.

Behold the wrath of Lob's theorem. (Short version: I believe yo momma is fat. Since I'm a rational agent, my belief is evidence for it. Thus I can assert with high certainty that yo momma is fat.)

I couldn't follow your printing press argument, I think largely because it involved some complicated sarcasm

I note that the sentence was 4 lines long. Not exactly optimal for comprehension, I guess... I'll come back to the Catholic Church later. For now...

I take it you wish to argue that CR law is immoral or impracticable? And how your filesharing a book helps to undermine that law?

I take it that this is you major point?

Fine, but before we discuss the morality of copyright... I'd ask if you still maintain (1) the following

In cases where the law itself is immoral and breaking it can serve to undermine the law, it's even a good thing.

And also if you maintain that (2) the Pirate Bay serves to undermine copyright.

Given (1) and (2), I take it you also maintain that (3) if copyright were immoral, setting up the Pirate Bay would be moral?

In addition, do you also maintain that (4) even if copyright were immoral, downloading something from the Pirate Bay would still be an immoral act?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-18T15:56:05.653Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If slavery strikes a slave-owner as right to property, and most people in the slave-owner's society as right to property, is that also pretty good evidence that slavery is right to property? If homosexuality strikes a person as unnatural, and most of the people in his society as unnatural, is that pretty good evidence that homosexuality is unnatural?

Sure.

It just turns out to be overwhelmed by other evidence that points to these assertions being either false or meaningless. Lots of things are evidence -- sometimes even strong evidence -- for all kinds of claims, including false claims.

Once we're talking about probabilistic arguments that affect confidence levels, it's entirely possible to have legitimate arguments that favor a false conclusion. That's why cherry-picking evidence is such an effective rhetorical technique, and why continuing to look for and evaluate new evidence is important.

Just sayin'.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-19T04:42:15.983Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. It just turns out to be overwhelmed by other evidence that points to these assertions being either false or meaningless.

The argument I had in mind was that the beliefs of a particular society are inherently weak evidence for whether something is ethical, and reasonably strong evidence of this can only be gained by looking at the trends of such beliefs in different societies over time.

Of course, I didn't actually make a case for any of that, but instead went with "This 'evidence' gave us absurd results on these few occasions, therefore it must be invalid!!" which is obviously not a valid argument.

It's clear I'm getting carried away by my own rhetoric here. I'll try to cut down on the rhetoric and focus on what I actually want to say.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T17:42:40.279Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If slavery strikes a slave-owner as right to property, and most people in the slave-owner's society as right to property, is that also pretty good evidence that slavery is right to property?

Taboo right to property.

If homosexuality strikes a person as unnatural, and most of the people in his society as unnatural, is that pretty good evidence that homosexuality is unnatural?

Taboo unnatural.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-19T04:54:31.722Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Taboo right to property. Taboo unnatural.

I don't see what the point of that would be. What I was saying was 'a behaviour was/is classified by most people as X', where X generally has the connotation of perfectly OK/utterly wrong. I doubt unpacking X would offer any insight. (Except for the obvious one that X is a group of things that do not belong together; but isn't that obvious just from what I said?)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T13:48:46.388Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For a start, you have to make clear if they are two-place or one-place words. If a sentence strikes a person as ungrammatical, and most of the people in his society as ungrammatical, is that pretty good evidence that that sentence is ungrammatical? Of course it is; indeed, that's about as strong evidence for that as I can imagined. If a technology strikes a person as impossible, and most of the people in his society as physically impossible, is that pretty good evidence that that technology is impossible? Not very: even Kelvin thought Heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible. Now, is unnatural more like ungrammatical or more like impossible? That depends on what unnatural means.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-18T16:18:28.544Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If slavery strikes a slave-owner as right to property, and most people in the slave-owner's society as right to property, is that also pretty good evidence that slavery is right to property?

That follows from what I said, and I think it true. But Dave said what I would say, so I'll leave it at that. I think that in general people's ethical opinions are substantial, though certainly not conclusive, evidence for the truth of those opinions. Just as the opinions of a doctor are strong evidence for the truth of a medical opinion, so to with this. Only, in the case of ethics, we are all experts if anyone is.

Behold the wrath of Lob's theorem.

None of this seems to have anything to do with Lob's theorem, which is about formal proofs and self reference within logical systems. If I'm mistaken, please correct me. As it stands, reference to it seems like a very abstract and pretty unhelpful metaphor.

And also if you maintain that (2) the Pirate Bay serves to undermine copyright.

I'd like some help with (2), as I'm not very familiar with how PB does this. Does PB make it less likely that CR law to exist in the future? If CR law is immoral (which isn't implausible to me) and PB does this, then the conclusion that setting up and supporting PB would itself be plausible.

In addition, do you also maintain that (4) even if copyright were immoral, downloading something from the Pirate Bay would still be an immoral act?

I would maintain this in the face of (3) if filesharing in infringement of CR law was done with the aim of self-interest and if it had no plausible connection to making CR laws less likely in the future.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-19T05:21:27.056Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think that in general people's ethical opinions are substantial, though certainly not conclusive, evidence for the truth of those opinions.

I disagree with that, but arguing it in the general case would take us on a long-winded tangent. As long as we agree that the majority ethical opinion is found to be wrong rather frequently (with sufficient frequency to suspect that we might have discovered another flaw recently), the exact degree to which different kinds of evidence are reliable are irrelevant.

None of this seems to have anything to do with Lob's theorem, which is about formal proofs and self reference within logical systems.

The relevant explanation is in the post that the word 'before' links to. Basically, if you consider your own belief as evidence for something, you can believe anything and have evidence for it. (The evidence being your own belief in it.)

Does PB make it less likely that CR law to exist in the future?

Is that what you mean by 'undermine'? It may or may not affect the probability of CR laws existing in the future, but what it does is enable large-scale violations of CR law and thus make it very difficult to enforce. That is what I mean by 'undermine'.

I would maintain this in the face of (3) if filesharing in infringement of CR law was done with the aim of self-interest and if it had no plausible connection to making CR laws less likely in the future.

I really don't get what you're getting at here. Violations of the law are only moral if they help in the repeal of the law, but not in and of themselves? But... why say the law is immoral, unless it prevents moral acts or rewards immoral acts?

Ah, I guess the answer to that is in the question itself. A law can be immoral, yet some parts of it can be perfectly moral.

So let me add to my original conditions: (2.5) That if free sharing of copyrighted materials were moral, copyright law would be immoral?

And (4.5) Even if free sharing of copyrighted materials were moral, downloading something off the Pirate Bay would still be immoral, as it must, by your definition of 'personal gain', lead to personal gain for the downloader?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T16:47:40.274Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Basically, if you consider your own belief as evidence for something, you can believe anything and have evidence for it. (The evidence being your own belief in it.)

I think it's pretty reasonable to consider my belief for something as evidence for it, but I agree that this can't be the end of the story. For instance, I consider my belief that my car is green as evidence for the greenness of my car, but because I also have reason to believe that I'm familiar with the color of my car, I have reliable eyesight, there's no reason that it might have been repainted recently, etc. The point is, the opinion of an expert (in a loose sense of the word) is evidence for the truth of that opinion, and I am an expert on the color of my car.

I'm also a competent ethical agent, or at any rate no less (though probably no more) competent than most people. If something once struck me as stealing, that's a good reason to believe that it was. It's not conclusive, but it's significant evidence. If I didn't think this, I don't think I could practically operate in the world.

Violations of the law are only moral if they help in the repeal of the law, but not in and of themselves? But... why say the law is immoral, unless it prevents moral acts or rewards immoral acts?

Right. The reason you violate the law matters to the morality of the violation. In other words, the morality of an act is directly informed by the fact that it is a violation of the law and by the attitude of the agent with respect to the law. If you have good reason to think CR law is immoral, and you violate it with the aim of removing the law and have good reason to think your violation will accomplish that task, then I think this would be hard to question morally. One is taking a stand.

If one is violating CR law because it saves you $25 on a book, and maybe it will remove the law but there's no clear path there, and really one doesn't bother over that because saving money was the goal, then I think this is pretty straightforwardly immoral.

(2.5) That if free sharing of copyrighted materials were moral, copyright law would be immoral?

Agreed, though the antecedent seems obviously false (in absence of the legal problem, this activity is pretty much morally neutral). If by 'moral' you mean 'morally permissible' (in the way brushing your teeth is) then I don't agree, since laws forbidding morally permissible things (like distributing your own currency) are absolutely necessary.

And (4.5) Even if free sharing of copyrighted materials were moral, downloading something off the Pirate Bay would still be immoral, as it must, by your definition of 'personal gain', lead to personal gain for the downloader?

If by 'moral' you mean 'permissible', then yes: if it is permissible morally but illegal, than violating that law just because it's convenient to you or saves you some money is immoral. If by 'moral' you mean 'morally good' then I'd need more information on the nature of the good act.

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-19T16:59:32.927Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Basically, if you consider your own belief as evidence for something, you can believe anything and have evidence for it. (The evidence being your own belief in it.)

I think it's pretty reasonable to consider my belief for something as evidence for it

The trick to remember is not to double-count your belief. You shouldn't take your belief as both a prior and evidence, nor should you count your belief along with the evidence that generated that belief. Evidence screens off belief in much the same way argument screens off authority.

Normally, one would include beliefs in one's priors, and thus would not count them as evidence.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T17:46:34.472Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The trick to remember is not to double-count your belief. You shouldn't take your belief as both a prior and evidence, nor should you count your belief along with the evidence that generated that belief. Evidence screens off belief in much the same way argument screens off authority.

That's a good point. I may be committing this error in this case, but I'm not sure. My position was basically that my impression that filesharing was ethically similar to stealing counts as good reason to think that filesharing is ethically similar to stealing, because I'm a competent moral evaluator. The thing that makes this claim suspect, to me at least, is that the reasons for my having the impression that filesharing is ethically similar to theft are rather opaque, and what reasons I can give don't determine the point.

In light of these suspicions, I don't want to put any weight on the theft comparison. I brought it up initially in haste, and it's been made clear to me that it's not a helpful way of talking about the subject.

comment by dlthomas · 2012-01-19T17:56:19.853Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why is filesharing (and I assume we mean of works not meant for free digital distribution) more similar to stealing than it is to borrowing a book from a friend or borrowing a book from the library?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T19:28:50.800Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In cases where it breaks the law, because it breaks the law. In other words, I'm taking the violation of the law to be an important part of the action description.

comment by dlthomas · 2012-01-19T22:48:51.993Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So if stealing were legal, it wouldn't be objectionable? If it still would be, then I contend there is still a significant difference between stealing and filesharing.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T15:23:45.112Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is a question of whether or not property is a legal institution or something more. I'm inclined to think the former. What do you say?

comment by TimS · 2012-01-20T15:57:50.641Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In legal positivism, there is a sharp conceptual divide between what the law is and what the law should be. The law is simply the price society has set for certain acts (Serial killer - death penalty, jaywalking - $100, etc). Why did the law set those particular prices? One can't figure it out by only looking at the enacted law.

I hope that law is enacted by reference to our moral beliefs. But one cannot consistently assert that law is the table of prices and that one can define our moral beliefs based on what is enacted into law.


One can avoid the whole issue by asserting that property is more than simply the legal institution. That's called natural law.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T16:13:08.644Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But one cannot consistently assert that law is the table of prices and that one can define our moral beliefs based on what is enacted into law.

But that's not what I've claimed. I've said that the current law is good evidence for what law should be, just as current medical practice is good evidence for what a doctor should do in a given case. This is nothing other than the claim that in our attempt to do something well, we should look in part to our previous attempts. I can't understand how this would be controversial unless you were taking me to say "current law determines the optimal legal system", but this is far, far stronger than anything I've said, especially under a Bayesian understanding of 'evidence'.

One can avoid the whole issue by asserting that property is more than simply the legal institution. That's called natural law.

One can't, and shouldn't, avoid the issue at all, certainly not by simply asserting anything. We should address the issue and perhaps argue that property is more than simply a legal institution. It's a view I'm quite open to, if you wish to make the case for it.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-01-21T14:56:29.458Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've said that the current law is good evidence for what law should be, just as current medical practice is good evidence for what a doctor should do in a given case.

It does not seem to me that the process through which laws are made in my country is an optimizing process for finding "what law should be". It appears to me more like an optimizing process for finding "what laws would benefit politicians, their families, and their friends." The feedback loop through which it's supposed to be the case that politicians get benefited by passing good laws is currently not working very well, at least in part thanks to ideology and anti-epistemologies.

Copyright extension is actually a really great example of this. It strikes me as extremely unlikely that the optimal copyright term would be monotonically increasing, now to effectively two human lifetimes. This doesn't look like the result of a "quality of law" optimization; it looks like the result of a "money extraction for my buddies" optimization.

comment by TimS · 2012-01-20T16:27:43.523Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It appears that I'm misunderstanding this comment you made. When asked what the difference was between filesharing and lending a book, you said that one was legal and one wasn't. That's true, but why should it be true?

If you think the law is evidence of the optimal social order, then you should be able to articulate why this is the optimal social ordering. I could try to articulate the basis using historical practice and different technological capacity. But argument screens off authority, so there's no value to invoking law in making that explanation.

(As for natural law - no thanks).

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T16:43:10.762Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

t appears that I'm misunderstanding this comment you made. When asked what the difference was between filesharing and lending a book, you said that one was legal and one wasn't. That's true, but why should it be true?

My claim to Anubhav has been that violating a law for one's profit is immoral, and this is regardless of the quality of the law violated. So the question 'why should this law be a law at all' doesn't directly bear on the issue. That said, I've also agreed that violating a law, where the law is unjust and where the violation makes the removal of the law more likely, may even be a good thing. So none of this hangs on any claim about how laws ought to be made.

If you think the law is evidence of the optimal social order, then you should be able to articulate why this is the optimal social ordering.

I take law to be straightforward evidence for the optimal social order: in any case where we are living in a society stable enough to consider the adjustment of the laws, the optimal and short-term practically achievable social order will look something very much like the current social order. I have some serious objections to the article you link to, but that seems like a digression.

comment by TimS · 2012-01-19T19:51:07.754Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why? If one thinks that the law serves to enforce desired social arrangements, then the law is not evidence of the optimal social arrangement.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T19:59:26.861Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, I suppose it seems to me that if the law serves to enforce desired social arrangements, then the law absolutely is evidence of the optimal social arrangement, so long as we have reason to expect that the citizens of a polity in general desire an optimal social arrangement. Which seems defensible to me. And it need not be defensible in this particular instance (perhaps CR laws serve the interests only of a minority against the public good) for my case to go through. Namely, that the violation of a law belongs in the description of an action under ethical evaluation.

comment by TimS · 2012-01-19T20:37:58.277Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And it need not be defensible in this particular instance (perhaps CR laws serve the interests only of a minority against the public good) for my case to go through. Namely, that the violation of a law belongs in the description of an action under ethical evaluation.

This doesn't follow from my premise. When the law provided that hiding fugitive slaves was illegal, that did not make hiding fugitive slaves immoral.

The claim that there is an independent "respect for the law" variable necessary for predicting human behavior is a contested thesis. For example, empirical evidence seems to support the assertion that crackdowns on minor vandalism reduce the frequency of more significant crime like car theft. But it's less clear whether that extends to reducing major crime (like rape and murder).

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T20:54:09.258Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When the law provided that hiding fugitive slaves was illegal, that did not make hiding fugitive slaves immoral.

Right, but as I said, counterexamples aren't a big deal here: for my argument to go though I need to be able to claim that the law is a good evidence concerning perscriptions to the public good, etc. It need not be the case that any given law be such. The possibility that they are all directed against the public good is too absurd to consider.

comment by TimS · 2012-01-19T21:10:16.176Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For public choice reasons, there's no basis for believing that a law is directed at the public good simply because it has been enacted and carries legal force. Especially when narrow interests have reason to have much stronger opinions than the public as a whole.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-20T03:12:50.347Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Especially when narrow interests have reason to have much stronger opinions than the public as a whole.

For instance.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-20T03:12:12.422Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The possibility that they are all directed against the public good is too absurd to consider.

That's not a big deal here; for your argument to fail to go through, we need to be able to claim that the law isn't good evidence concerning prescriptions for the public good, because a significant proportion of it was written by short-sighted men with no idea of the long-term consequences of their decisions, and an even more significant proportion of it was written to favour special interests.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T14:23:58.768Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

because a significant proportion of it was written by short-sighted men with no idea of the long-term consequences of their decisions, and an even more significant proportion of it was written to favour special interests.

This is an empirical claim for which I would want some empirical evidence. I'm very wary of anything which looks like political cynicism.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-20T14:53:59.437Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is an empirical claim for which I would want some empirical evidence.

Same for your assertion that most laws are written for the public good. Yours seems to be the more indefensible prior, since I'm sure you'll agree that every single ancient/medieval government turned out laws that overwhelmingly favoured entrenched elites over common people. Given that, if modern governments have truly stopped doing that, that would be something extraordinary which merits an explanation.

Also, there's the fact that short-sighted men are more numerous than far-sighted ones (or would you dispute that as well?), and that the public interest is a small target in the wide space of possible laws, (or do you dispute this, claiming that a large proportion of all possible laws are in the public interest?) you'd expect more bad laws (defined as laws which hinder the public interest, whether intentionally or as a side effect) to get passed than good ones. Then there's the fact that representatives of special interests can contact those in power more easily than their constituents can. (Dispute that if you will, I have no interest in defending it. It's easy enough to test: Just try contacting Joe Biden and see how that goes.)

If you don't dispute any of this, you probably have some over-riding factors in mind that would make it less surprising that despite all this, a large fraction of laws somehow still turn out to be in the public interest.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T15:20:39.302Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Same for your assertion that most laws are written for the public good.

True, though I think Tim's formulation alone lends it some credence: the law is (on his premises) an expression of the publicly desired social arrangements, and the public can be taken to desire the optimal social arrangements, then the law is evidence (not conclusive evidence, but evidence) for what the optimal social arrangements are.

This obviously doesn't follow for all laws, but it should follow generally. Some laws may serve private interests or incompetently written, but on the whole that can't be true. No such polity would last a year.

I'm sure you'll agree that every single ancient/medieval government turned out laws that overwhelmingly favoured entrenched elites over common people.

I'm familiar with only a few ancient legal systems. (ETA: and there's a strong survivorship bias for the best ones, since the really bad ones tended not to have written law codes). They're a mixed bag. But I think favoring entrenched elites over common people probably does serve the common good pretty effectively (though so does doing the opposite, and both can be bad too). Legal systems which clearly worked against the public good on the whole, like the various oligarchies set up in Athens following the Peloponnesian war, didn't last long. I think the only time you really get laws that work on the whole against the public good are in cases where those laws are imposed by a conquerer.

Almost all legal systems on the whole are good on the whole. Some (like ours, and I say this almost regardless of where you live) are vastly better than others. Places that are lawless are really, really horrible. I haven't spent any time in these places (South Africa is the closest I've come) but I've spent a lot of time reading about them, especially ancient ones. We're very lucky to have our bad legal systems.

claiming that a large proportion of all possible laws are in the public interest?

Right, exactly. There are good questions to be raised about any given law, but legal systems on the whole are good for people. Very, very rarely do they do more harm than good. That's one of the reasons why I think breaking the law is morally significant in every case, though not in every case morally wrong.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-20T15:41:38.003Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Legal systems which clearly worked against the public good on the whole, like the various oligarchies set up in Athens following the Peloponnesian war, didn't last long.

Of course, if you restrict your search entirely to metal-wielding literate societies seen through the eyes of their own historians (whose expectations of normalcy were completely different from ours) you might get a skewed image of things.

But I think favoring entrenched elites over common people probably does serve the common good pretty effectively (though so does doing the opposite).

We seem to be operating on different definitions of 'common good'. My definition is along the lines of 'something that raises the average (standard of living/utilon count/something like that) of a population'. There's no way that favouring a few people at the expense of a population greater than theirs by two orders of magnitude would do that. (Given the law of diminishing returns, at least.)

The next paragraph is a non-sequitur. I never argued for lawlessness. If I didn't like my phone, I wouldn't throw it away and and resolve never to use a phone again. I'd look for a better phone.

Right, exactly. There are good questions to be raised about any given law, but legal systems on the whole are good for people.

Another non-sequitur. I asked about every possible law, not every law that is passed.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T15:47:26.572Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, if you restrict your search entirely to metal-wielding literate societies seen through the eyes of their own historians (whose expectations of normalcy were completely different from ours) you might get a skewed image of things.

You brought up ancient societies, and it's impossible that you have alternative sources. Are you now saying that this isn't a good place to look for evidence?

My definition is along the lines of 'something that raises the average (standard of living/utilon count/something like that) of a population'.

That's far more minimal than my understanding of the term, but that works for me. And remember that I'm just trying to argue that the law on the whole serves the public good on the whole. Not that every given law serves the public good.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-20T03:23:38.778Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you have good reason to think CR law is immoral, and you violate it with the aim of removing the law and have good reason to think your violation will accomplish that task, then I think this would be hard to question morally

Or I might incidentally violate it in the course of doing whatever morally good act it supposedly prevents.

If by 'moral' you mean 'morally good' then I'd need more information on the nature of the good act.

Do you contend that (6) capitalism is morally good? By and large, it improves the quality of people's lives over time. However, most people engage in capitalism motivated by personal gain.

Therefore... If you agree with [6], do you still maintain that (7) entering into capitalism with the aim of personal gain is immoral, even though a large number of people doing it results in the morally good outcome described in [6]?

And if you say 'no' to [7], do you maintain (8) that [7] would be immoral if capitalism were illegal?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T14:27:28.054Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

None of these questions make a lot of sense to me unless we first sort out what you mean by 'morally good': positively morally good or merely permissible? And I don't think I would want to say anything like 'capitalism' could have a moral valance. Moral predicates attach, it seems to me, to people and their actions first and foremost. I suppose that's up for debate.

That said and so far as I understand your terms, my answer to (6) is 'no', and (7) is 'no', and (8) is 'no'

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-20T14:57:34.147Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

my answer to (6) is 'no', and (7) is 'no', and (8) is 'no'

wait what? So you're saying that capitalism isn't morally good, but engaging in it with the aim of personal profit is? That seems to contradict everything you've been saying so far.

Unless of course you maintain that...

Moral predicates attach, it seems to me, to people and their actions first and foremost.

(and presumably not to abstract philosophies like capitalism)

How can you say that with a straight face after spending several days debating the morality of a law?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T15:07:18.211Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

wait what? So you're saying that capitalism isn't morally good, but engaging in it with the aim of personal profit is? That seems to contradict everything you've been saying so far.

So far as I understand the terms (I've asked you to clarify them for me) 'morally good' and 'morally bad' are contraries, not contradictories. So it's perfectly possible for something to be neither. I think capitalism, pursuing capitalism for personal gain, and outlawing capitalism are all morally neutral. In part, because these things are too far from the proper objects of moral predicates to earn them one way or the other.

How can you say that with a straight face after spending several days debating the morality of a law?

Well, I think if you review my posts, you'll find that I've never called CR law moral. I've called the violation of it under certain aims immoral. The violation is an action undertaken by an individual.

I've said that the polity and its laws have moral value, but I don't think the predicate 'morally good' really applies to them. The difference being that the polity and its laws are a significant condition on the moral worth of our own actions and lives. I'm reluctant to call a polity morally good because it could only earn this predicate quite indirectly.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-20T15:46:41.193Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think capitalism, pursuing capitalism for personal gain, and outlawing capitalism are all morally neutral.

That's just what I said: That the claim was absurd unless you maintain that the morality of abstract concepts is undefined.

Well, I think if you review my posts, you'll find that I've never called CR law moral. I've called the violation of it under certain aims immoral. The violation is an action undertaken by an individual.

You have, however, said that it is possible for a law to be immoral, in which case violating it with the aim of hastening its removal from the books is moral.

So... you're saying that it's possible for a law to be immoral, but not for a law to be moral? Or that a law may be moral, but the morality of things like capitalism is necessarily undefined?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T16:04:04.798Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So... you're saying that it's possible for a law to be immoral, but not for a law to be moral? Or that a law may be moral, but the morality of things like capitalism is necessarily undefined?

I think, in an indirect sense, laws may be moral or immoral. I should think it unsurprising that I should be reluctant to say something so underdefined and general as 'capitalism is immoral'. My claim is that a certain kind of action, namely one in which a law is knowingly violated for the sake of one's own profit, is often immoral. The moral quality of the law violated may sometimes produce exceptions to this, but it does not simply follow that an immoral law may be violated with moral impunity.

That said, the case you were originally recommending falls well shy of this gray borderline. You were originally saying that it would be a failure of some kind not to violate the law for the sake of one's convenience and profit in the case of acquiring books. Since you were explicit that the intention here was the pursuit of one's self-interest and not the undermining of an immoral law (even if you took this to be a side effect), these finer points seem a little off the track.

If you think CR law is unjust then prescribe to people a plan to have it removed. The widespread violation of the law seems unlikely to do this: note that this tends to make laws more draconian, not less. The large scale public protest of internet communities and companies seems on the other hand to be extraordinarily effective and in the mean time is no kind of legal violation. If I were to audit someone's time and computer memory, and find that they spent little or no time organizing such protests but had many thousands of dollars worth of illegally acquired CR protected content on their hard drive, I think I would fairly come to the conclusion that their behavior is motivated by nothing other than self-interest. And I don't think it would be surprising or controversial to say that such a person is behaving immorally insofar as they are breaking the law in that pursuit.

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-18T16:03:20.456Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To add to TheOtherDave's reply, note policy debates should not appear one-sided.

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-17T16:29:50.164Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, have you read Aristotle? So far as I can tell, his most extended argument on the matter is Physics VI.8, where he argues that in an atmosphere, heavier things fall faster because they are better able to divide the medium owing to greater downward force. He then argues that in a void, heavier and lighter things would fall with the same speed. Since this is not what we observe (we do in fact often observe heavier things falling faster for the reason Aristotle cites) there cannot be any void.

Do you mean Physics IV.8 ? There he asserts that velocity = (weight / density). The argument that there cannot be any void is that you cannot divide by zero - in modern terms, the velocity of the falling objects would approach infinity as density approaches zero.

Galileo established that this equation greatly overestimates the density of water when compared to experimental results. Also, Aristotle's equation would suggest that a brick would fall twice as fast as half of a brick, which would have been easy to test; sadly, while Aristotle was one of the best empiricists of his time, he still didn't think of actually looking.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-17T16:50:57.633Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I did, I edited it but not in time. Thanks for the catch.

Your description of Aristotle's argument proceeding the one I cited seems accurate to me, though it doesn't seem to me that Aristotle took the correctness of his ratio to be important: he doesn't bring it up again, and a different ratio would have produced the same result so far as his argument went. So...

Also, Aristotle's equation would suggest that a brick would fall twice as fast as half of a brick, which would have been easy to test; sadly, while Aristotle was one of the best empiricists of his time, he still didn't think of actually looking.

Why look? His point is that the difference in fall-rates of heaver and lighter objects is due to a ratio of downward force against atmospheric resistance. That's roughly right. The ratio itself doesn't matter, if the point is just to argue against motion in a void. As a matter of understanding Aristotle's physics, it's important to understand that he didn't really care about mechanics. His physics is about a different subject matter.

The argument I described to Anubhav follows the one you cite. I'll quote it here:

"These are the consequences that result from a difference in the media; the following depend upon an excess of one moving body over another. We see that bodies which have a greater impulse either of weight or of lightness, if they are alike in other respects, move faster over an equal space, and in the ratio which their magnitudes bear to each other. Therefore they will also move through the void with this ratio of speed. But that is impossible; for why should one move faster? (In moving through plena it must be so; for the greater divides them faster by its force. For a moving thing cleaves the medium either by its shape, or by the impulse which the body that is carried along or is projected possesses.) Therefore all will possess equal velocity. But this is impossible."

The point here isn't that Aristotle was right. We can just point to any aspect of astrophysics to see that he wasn't. The point is just that we tend to attribute to Aristotle a lot of views that he didn't hold, and about matters that weren't important to his overall project.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T13:50:55.777Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, have you read Aristotle? So far as I can tell, his most extended argument on the matter is Physics IV.8, where he argues that in an atmosphere, heavier things fall faster because they are better able to divide the medium owing to greater downward force. He then argues that in a void, heavier and lighter things would fall with the same speed. Since this is not what we observe (we do in fact often observe heavier things falling faster for the reason Aristotle cites) there cannot be any void.

Aristotle is complicated and surprising, and rarely does any common knowledge capture his views well.

Meh. I don't think many people would expect an open umbrella to fall through air faster than a pen cap does, even though everybody knows the former is heavier.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-19T14:40:03.215Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm reminded of a mechanics exam in college that involved calculating the trajectory and location/velocity at impact of a parachutist jumping from an airplane. ("... Ignore air resistance.")

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-20T13:03:46.312Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I had a similar one, too. (After noticing people laughing, the professor did say something like “that only applies to the time before the parachute is opened”, IIRC.)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-19T16:21:38.100Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"The shape of bodies will not account for their moving upward or downward in general, though it will account for their moving faster or slower. The reasons for this are not difficult to see. For the problem thus raised is why a flat piece of iron or lead floats upon water, while smaller and less heavy things, so long as they are round or long-a needle, for instance-sink down; and sometimes a thing floats because it is small, as with gold dust and the various earthy and dusty materials which throng the air....Thus the reason why broad things keep their place is because they cover so wide a surface and the greater quantity is less easily disrupted. Bodies of the opposite shape sink down because they occupy so little of the surface, which is therefore easily parted. And these considerations apply with far greater force to air, since it is so much more easily divided than water. But since there are two factors, the force responsible for the downward motion of the heavy body and the disruption-resisting force of the continuous surface, there must be some ratio between the two."

-Aristotle, On the Heavens, IV.6

No one is arguing that Aristotle is right about science, mind you. He was obviously not. I'm just saying his views aren't often well represented by common opinion. This isn't terribly important, since Aristotle isn't terribly important, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T02:55:42.936Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But isn't stealing wrong?

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T03:40:53.163Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Stealing: I break into your house and take a book without your consent. You no longer have the book.

Copying: I use ctrl-c ctrl-v on your book. Now both of us have the book.

Pretty fundamental distinction, isn't it?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T04:20:46.597Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you think these are the important features of stealing? Isn't the point just that you're taking someone's legal property, and illegally helping yourself to it? The fact that you can do this with a machine that has a neat interface doesn't seem important. ETA: And I agree its not really the book you've stolen in this case, but the money you avoided paying. Thats the thing I have a legal right to, but have been illegally deprived of.

I take it, rather, that you have an argument for why this is not stealing, or why if it is, it is nevertheless justifiable.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T04:51:24.086Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you think these are the important features of stealing?

Because that's what the word means. And you not having the thing that you previously had is kind of a big deal.

Copying a some work you have done is Copyright Infringement. It is also illegal. It's just a slightly different one.

Mind you 'stealing' is somewhat more appropriate than 'piracy'. After all if it was a pirate it would take your stuff and quite probably kill you. Possibly also raid your village and rape all your womenfolk.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:14:38.282Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Copying is not a crime, it is a civil offense. Just FYI.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:18:08.547Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Copying is not a crime, it is a civil offense. Just FYI.

I swear I've also made this point myself in a sibling comment. But to neaten the casual wording up here I'll replace 'a crime' with 'illegal'.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:21:49.393Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I see that you have, but I saw this first.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T05:05:02.165Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Reminded me of this enlightening and well-researched article. (Or collection of highly questionable claims and idiotic hysterics that in aggregate make the whole thing quite amusing; take your pick.)

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T04:49:31.700Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You never had the money. I have not deprived you of anything. If you were intending to buy a lottery ticket but I went and bought every lottery ticket in town (for whatever bizarre reason) would you say that I'd stolen something from you?

Your question was 'Isn't it wrong?', now you're going with 'But it's illegal!'

comment by Caspian · 2012-01-15T06:03:20.027Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't care much about my opportunity to by lottery tickets. If you want to be a nuisance, buy up a couple of my favourites packaged foods. If you want to be a menace buy up all available food, or all sources of a couple of vital nutrients.

I guess I wouldn't call it stealing, but the fatal one I would say should be illegal, if it was likely to happen otherwise. The nuisance one, I would call monopolising, and maybe anticompetitive. That's a good analogy, but with a few differences. Copyright infringement can be lots of people individually satisfying their requirements, leaving a publisher with no market for the product, and anticompetitive behaviour can be one company satisfying all of a competitor's market, possibly deliberately to get rid of them, leaving that competitor with no market for their product.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T06:13:21.149Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And yet, as you say, none of that is stealing.

We can discuss whether or not they're evil (and in two of the cases above they very obviously are), but the discussion is bound to be pretty pointless if we group them together with theft (which is a different issue).

comment by Caspian · 2012-01-15T09:36:06.953Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And I've seen a lot of pointless copyright arguments. The discussion here I expect to be better than most. I haven't really made up my mind on what the law should say about copyright, and since I'm not deciding the law I'm not going to try too hard.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T03:31:53.664Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Who said anything about stealing? This is about buying or copying a book, not theft.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T04:22:29.149Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I take it that Anubhav is talking about piriteing a book as a justifiable responce to wanting it. Legally, anyway, that's intellectual property theft.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:09:28.222Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I take it that Anubhav is talking about piriteing a book as a justifiable responce to wanting it. Legally, anyway, that's intellectual property theft.

If you are appealing to legal considerations in order to support your preferred semantics you had best consider that 'theft' and copyright infringement are covered by entirely different laws. In fact, they aren't even covered by the same kind of law. For most part copyright infringement is a civil issue not a criminal one. This doesn't say anything about whether it is moral but it makes "the law says it is stealing" rather questionable.

For years whenever I went to see a movie I had to put up with this nonsense. This sort of equivocation just sickens me. It brought to mind the observation that one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. I'm never going to look at "copying movies is stealing" with anything but contempt.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:20:14.936Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm never going to look at "copying movies is stealing" with anything but contempt.

Also, as a general heuristic, when the best argument that can be made for a position is to confuse the language involved, that position is likely wrong. (not to say that any particular other is right, tho; that would be reversed stupidity).

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:33:20.650Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, as a general heuristic, when the best argument that can be made for a position is to confuse the language involved, that position is likely wrong. (not to say that any particular other is right, tho; that would be reversed stupidity).

Totally agree (including with the caveat.)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:07:52.098Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

legally, "intellectual property" doesn't exist. There are a number of legal institutions collectively called IP, but the term IP is not a legal one.

Furthermore, copying, use without license, counterfeiting and such are legally "infringement", not "theft". Theft is legally a criminal offense, infringement is civil (lawsuits).

Using the term "theft" in the context of copyright infringement is political rhetoric designed to confuse the issue. Copying looks very different from the rest of category "theft".

"Piracy" is also a stupid term {copy, theft and murder on the high seas} looks about as useless as {hitler, stalin, john smith}. Carve reality at the joints. "Copy" is very clear in what it means and has no political connotations.

If you would like to make a moral case about book copying versus book buying, do so without reference to useless categories.

comment by Caspian · 2012-01-15T08:08:05.302Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Agree about the word theft. It is not helpful except as a dishonest ploy to conflate two actions that have not been agreed to be the same and have some significant differences.

Mostly disagree about the word 'piracy'. Murder on the high seas is so different people should only confuse the two meanings as a joke. Maybe it was a bad idea to reuse the word initially but not now it is a common meaning. The only thing is it is pretty bad taste if someone you know has been kidnapped by pirates, but that is quite rare.

'Copy' is not quite right - that would include downloading Cory Doctorow's stories from his own website, for example. These are deliberately made available by the author. We are really talking about copying that is neither authorised by law nor by the owner/creator. And probably not including forging bank notes, only copyright infringement.

ETA - I may have missed your point here, whether piracy in the sense of copying carves reality at the joints is also arguable. But it is a category I have in my head.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:30:31.951Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Piracy" is also a stupid term {copy, theft and murder on the high seas} looks about as useless as {hitler, stalin, john smith}. Carve reality at the joints. "Copy" is very clear in what it means and has no political connotations.

Insisting on 'copy' is move similar in kind to insisting on 'property'. It has the political connotation of moral acceptability. In some cases using a word that sounds like an acceptable thing isn't much different to insisting on a word that sounds terrible.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T05:40:31.970Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Good point, and I just thot of that myself.

I don't think insisting on using non-moral primitives to describe moral situations is on the same level as confusing things with rhetorical terms, but I'll think about it.

If you can't make a moral case without using words that already have moral connotation, there probably isn't one to be made. For example, it would be easy to make a moral case against breaking windows by appealing to economics, utility, opportunity costs, and so on. You would not have to mention "vandalism".

Likewise in this case. If a moral argument can't be made for or against copying without appealing to rhetorically tainted words, I don't think we should be discussing the issue.

If I was really interested in making copying sound good, I would be using words like "wealth", "produce", "wealth replication", "cultural commons" and so on.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:49:43.188Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think insisting on using non-moral primitives to describe moral situations is on the same level as confusing things with rhetorical terms, but I'll think about it.

I agree, particularly in as much as the morally loaded terms can only be used in the moralizing rhetoric while the neutral terms can be used either as opposing rhetoric in the same vein or they can be used to discuss the issue and consequences at a low level.

Likewise in this case. If a moral argument can't be made for or against copying without appealing to rhetorically tainted words, I don't think we should be discussing the issue.

Which, of course, it can.

If I was really interested in making copying sound good, I would be using words like "wealth", "produce", "wealth replication", "cultural commons" and so on.

This is one of the words I'd have been using to explain the intended benefit of laws preventing copying. "Property rights and enforceable legal restrictions" is the standard rudimentary solution to tragedies of the commons for good reason!

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:03:10.208Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If I was really interested in making copying sound good, I would be using words like "wealth", "produce", "wealth replication", "cultural commons" and so on.

This is one of the words I'd have been using to explain the intended benefit of laws preventing copying. "Property rights and enforceable legal restrictions" is the standard rudimentary solution to tragedies of the commons for good reason!

I thot that list up quickly. I'm not surprised some of the terms were wrong. (rhetoric is always wrong!)

Anyways, I was thinking of "cultural commons" in terms of people being free to mix and mash culture without getting legally harassed or having to pay lots of fees. It seems that "cultural commons" is at the core of the issue.

I'm going to go ahead and state this in case it is not clear: I may or may not have an opinion on this subject, and I do not intend to bring it into this discussion. My interest is in keeping the language and discussion rational as opposed to political.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T05:38:18.329Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

'Copy' sounds neutral to me. It has negative connotations in some scenarios ('got caught copying in an exam', 'All that the Chinese idiots do is copy American innovations').

In fact, off the top of my head I can't think of a single instance where 'copy' has a positive connotation.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T04:53:56.927Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Legally, slaves may be property, but that doesn't mean there's no difference between my burning down my house and burning down my slave.

And copyright infringement and theft aren't even the same legally. You have to file a civil suit for the former but a criminal suit for the latter. 'Intellectual property theft' is just empty rhetoric.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-15T05:32:13.689Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Legally, slaves may be property, but that doesn't mean there's no difference between my burning down my house and burning down my slave.

One of them is insurance fraud and the other is 'discipline'? (At least, if there happens to have been a culture where insurance fraud was an issue that also had slavery.)

comment by nshepperd · 2012-01-15T06:02:22.996Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe to a deontologist. As far as I'm concerned, all that matters is whether it makes the world a better or worse place. It doesn't even matter whether copyright infringement is 'stealing' or not (though, as others have pointed out, it basically is not). And it seems to me that in certain situations infringing copyright has lots of benefits with almost no downsides, so I could not accept calling it wrong.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T06:20:05.432Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm no moral theorist, but a consequentalist approach seems reasonable to me. That said, a given act of filesharing in violation of IP laws will generally have no significant consequences. Though, I suppose I think habitually violating the law because it is convenient to do so will have negative consequences for one's charachter, but that's going to vary case by case even if it is a real problem.

comment by DanielLC · 2012-01-15T03:53:11.500Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Intrinsically or instrumentally?

I don't find stealing intrinsically wrong. Property is just made up anyways.

Property is used for a reason, though. It makes our economy function. As such, I'd find stealing instrumentally wrong. When dealing with something like information, it's only instrumentally wrong if you would have bought it if piracy wasn't an option, and you aren't planning on doing something better with the money, such as donating it to a good charity.

Also, I seem to be in a minority with intellectual property, at least when it comes to books. Governments have gone to great lengths to set up libraries to allow the citizens to pirate books.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-15T04:17:41.921Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why does property's being made up make a difference? I mean, I think I see what you're getting at, but I think it would be be helpful to spell the reasoning out. What exactly are the premises that lead to the conclusion that stealing isn't intrinsicly wrong?

And your argument about instrumental value seems insufficient. The theft of a book vs. Its purchace has no significant impact on the economy, and I have no reason to calculate the utilities involved in this choice as if it would. And finally? Why should I care about the condition of the economy as opposed to my personal wealth? Can't I generally justify the instrumental value of actions which damage the economy so long as they enrich me personally?

comment by DanielLC · 2012-01-15T06:42:56.346Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why does property's being made up make a difference?

I favor simpler values. Something that's made up tends not to be simple. Also, I don't think anything that can't be experienced can matter. The differences ownership makes in experience are miniscule.

The theft of a book vs. Its purchace has no significant impact on the economy

It's not noticeable with one book, but that's not because it's not there. If nobody bought books, there would be fewer produced. The fact that people are willing to pay for books shows that they're worth producing.

There are places where this is more obvious, such as medicine, but it applies to books as well.

If you're selfish, and you only care about the economy insomuch as it affects you, then you would steal (piracy or otherwise) as much as you could get away with. If you're not selfish, you'd have better things to do with the money, and thus still steal as much as you could get away with.

That said, in either case it would still be best to favor laws that discourage piracy, or possibly find a different way to compensate the owner. It does more good on average, so you're likely to benefit from it more than be hurt from it.

Can't I generally justify the instrumental value of actions which damage the economy so long as they enrich me personally?

If you only consider yourself valuable, then actions that enrich you personally are instrumentally valuable.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-15T04:56:36.454Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I really don't know what you're getting at. "Stealing is wrong because it's intrinsically wrong. However, anything that favours me at the expense of everyone else has instrumental value!" (I don't get whether you're trying to say 'it has instrumental value, therefore it's a good thing', or 'screw instrumental value, it's a stupid metric'.)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-12T20:10:10.576Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Huh? What does the broken window fallacy have to do with the fact that if I pay you $10 for a book, then my loss of $10 (and gain of a book) is exactly balanced by your gain of $10 (and loss of a book)?

Not if I have already read the book and you haven't, and not if I have less money (more specifically, I get more marginal utility per dollar) than you.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-13T00:42:53.059Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, of course "exactly balanced" is true only when we reckon in dollars and books rather than utility. (The way I put it earlier in the thread was: "first-order effects that cancel out exactly when expressed in terms of money, and therefore probably cancel out approximately when expressed in terms of utility".)

Perhaps a good argument can be made that for most book-buyers a transfer of money from them to the publisher (and thence to the author, publisher's employees, etc.) produces a net utility loss. But (1) I still don't see that this has anything to do with the broken window fallacy -- I suspect that Anubhav thinks I'm making a more complicated point than I actually am -- and (2) it certainly won't do to look only at my loss of money and act as if the money has just disappeared into the void.

(#2 might be wrong for people who are close to being purely selfish. I agree that someone motivated only by self-interest can, to a good first approximation, pretend that money they spend simply disappears, and that some reasons for preferring legal purchase over illegal copying will have no force for such a person. I'm fairly sure that Anubhav isn't assuming pure selfishness; certainly many of his/her arguments seem to assume the reverse.)

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-13T03:26:53.603Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, of course "exactly balanced" is true only when we reckon in dollars and books rather than utility.

But they're not exact even then.

Physical scenario: I pay you $10 and you give me a book. I lose $10, you gain $10. I gain the book, you lose it.

Your assumption holds so far. But now, consider...

Digital scenario (legal): I pay you $10 and you lease me a digital copy of the book. I lose $10, you gain $10. I gain a book, but you don't lose it, since my copy of the book was created (copied) as and when I ordered it, and you still have your copy.

Digital scenario (illegal/ legally free): I don't pay you anything and get a copy of your book. I lose no money, you gain no money. I gain a book, you don't lose a book.

On the whole (at least if you prefer digital copies and only consider first-order effects) it's a transfer of money that can be avoided and still have a net positive outcome. And as for the $10 you didn't pay to the author (publisher?) you can use it to pay for....

Wait, the author can use it to pay for something else too. You're right, this isn't the broken window fallacy; there is no destruction of value involved. It's still a pointless exchange of money though. (Assuming you're only interested in the contents of the book. If not, the exchange may or may not be pointless, but such cases are a minority.)

his/her

'his'. 'Anubhav' is an exclusively male name.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-01-13T17:30:21.680Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Digital scenario (legal, with DRM): I pay you $10 and you issue me a digital copy of the book, on terms that you can change at will. If you go out of business, I lose the book. If it turns out that you messed up your upstream licensing, I lose the book. If the book is banned by your government, I lose the book. If you decide to discontinue the service for business reasons, I lose the book. In some cases, if my computer breaks or if I upgrade it, I lose the book — at least until I spend an hour on the phone with your tech support convincing them to give it back to me.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-13T20:39:27.044Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But they're not exact even then. [...] Digital scenario [...]

Irrelevant, unless I'm confused. (Perhaps I am.) The claim I thought I was responding to is that one way in which buying a physical book is worse than taking a digital copy is that you have to pay for it and therefore lose utility; so I said why that utility is (roughly) transferred to others rather than merely lost.

I do, of course, agree that digital copying is fundamentally different from (legal or illegal) physical taking because it doesn't deprive anyone of the original. (This is one of the reasons why "intellectual property" is such a bad name for what it denotes.)

'Anubhav' is an exclusively male name.

Thanks. (I did have a quick google and establish that it is a male name, but I didn't have enough evidence to rule out the possibility that it might be a female name too.)

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-13T20:42:11.218Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is one of the reasons why "intellectual property" is such a bad name for what it denotes.

But it's an excellent name in the sense that, for Lockeans, it is an obvious consequence of the right to property.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-14T01:10:07.168Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How so? (And what do you mean by "it"? "Intellectual property" includes, at least, copyrights, patents and trademarks, no two of which are at all the same as one another.)

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-14T17:43:29.926Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How so?

For copyright, see this paper by Richard Volkman. Excerpt:

there is no requirement that I share my thoughts with you. Instead, I may let you use them under certain conditions, and among those conditions I might require that you not allow anyone else to make a copy of the disk. This bargain in no way diminishes your rights, since you are just as free as before to write your own program. The Proviso has not been violated.

It's unpacked rather rigorously through the paper.

"Intellectual property" includes, at least, copyrights, patents and trademarks, no two of which are at all the same as one another.

Certainly patents are dubious legal constructs, and trademarks are pretty much just a legal convenience, but they have much the same character in terms of ownership as copyright, so it makes sense to keep them under the same umbrella term (if they are to exist at all).

I disagree that they are not at all the same as one another; they are pretty much the only cases where one can own a pattern rather than a particular object. (Heraclitean objections notwithstanding)

comment by gjm · 2012-01-14T23:35:33.231Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The paragraph you quote from Volkman is arguing not that copyright is an obvious consequence of the right to property, but that the possibility of copyright is an obvious consequence of the right to make arbitrary contracts. I agree: it is (and so are lots and lots of other possibilities). But that's not at all the same as saying that copyright is a consequence of the right to property.

The rest of Volkman's paper does attempt to argue something nearer to what you said, but I have to say I don't find it very convincing. He begins well enough, by saying that you aren't obliged to write books or software or whatever if you don't like the ways in which they will be used. But then he abruptly changes the subject, apparently without noticing, when he says:

So, you have no claim on the product of my labor, at least where that product would not exist were it not for my actions.

which in fact doesn't at all follow from what's gone before because it's a statement about "the product of my labor" whereas all the previous argument has been concerned with the labor itself. Now, that doesn't mean that this new statement is wrong, just that it's misleading to introduce it with "so". And in Locke's view, AIUI, the product of one's labor is indeed one's own to do with as one pleases. But here we run up against a key difference between "intellectual property" and more traditional sorts of property. It's much more obvious that (A) if I go to a lot of effort to make something, then others should not take it away from me, than that (B) if I go to a lot of effort to make something, then others should not look at what I've done and then make (near-)identical things for themselves. And while I'm willing to grant Lockeans premise (A), I'm not so willing with premise (B).

After that, Volkman spends a few paragraphs on matters that aren't (I think) directly relevant here and then turns to the argument you've cited above. As I've already said, this also doesn't show that copyright (or any other sort of intellectual property right) is a necessary consequence of the right to property, or that Lockeans or libertarians ought to approve of it. The most it shows is that you and I may make a contract that says you'll write a book and show it to me provided I promise not to give copies to anyone else. But such a contract can't possibly bind anyone else; your protection against others' actions, as far as that contract goes, is limited to being able to insist that I take steps to stop anyone else getting hold of the book. Whereas the whole idea of a copyright (and also a patent or trademark) is that a creator automatically gets to restrict the actions of everyone else, including lots and lots and lots of people who never entered into any sort of contract with her.

I disagree that they [sc. copyrights, patents and trademarks] are not at all the same as one another; they are pretty much the only cases where one can own a pattern rather than a particular object.

Sure, they have something in common. (Though I suggest that your choice of the word "own" is at least partly because we happen to use the term "intellectual property" to describe these things. If it weren't for that term, I suspect it wouldn't feel at all natural to say that one owns a trademark, for instance; "controls" or "have the right to use" would be better.)

But I wasn't denying that they have something in common. Just seeking clarity as to what particular sort(s) of "intellectual property" you think follow from (ordinary) property rights. It looks to me as if both Volkman's arguments, such as they are, apply to copyrights; the first applies to patents but the second doesn't; and neither applies to trademarks. (But maybe if it's possible to adapt his right-to-contract argument to cover copying done by people who aren't party to a contract with the creator, that will enable it to apply to patents and/or trademarks too.)

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-16T14:59:45.066Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But such a contract can't possibly bind anyone else; your protection against others' actions, as far as that contract goes, is limited to being able to insist that I take steps to stop anyone else getting hold of the book. Whereas the whole idea of a copyright (and also a patent or trademark) is that a creator automatically gets to restrict the actions of everyone else, including lots and lots and lots of people who never entered into any sort of contract with her.

And indeed, that contract can insist that before showing the book to anyone else, the recipient must require them to sign a similar contract. Thus, under such a system copyright could exist as a direct consequence of contracts, but you'd have to bring a lawyer to the library, and you'd be at risk for damages for being negligent in locking up your books. But if the vast majority would want their books to be bound by such contracts, then a lot of time and money could be saved for everyone by enshrining copyright in the law.

comment by gjm · 2012-01-16T21:16:30.271Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Precisely similar lines of reasoning, of course, apply to most of the other things that libertarians often dislike, such as taxes and national armies and state-run education. (It's debatable whether they work, but then the same goes for the argument you're offering.)

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-16T21:29:15.697Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

such as taxes and national armies and state-run education

Even better, a similar argument could be made in favor of state-sponsored charity. Though there is reason to suspect the government would not be very efficient in such endeavors.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-08T14:36:18.916Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How do I get an account on library.nu?

comment by throwaway102 · 2012-01-11T13:19:31.044Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

To you and everyone else reading this: PM me and I'll let you use my account.

library.nu isn't much better than other free book sites like freebookspot.com. The main good thing about it is that it hosts files on ifile.it, which means that you can download as much as you want for free, and it has some books not on other ebook sites (which you can still easily get via google). On the other hand, it has no rating system (so if you search "calculus" you have 100 pages to look through), books aren't categorized well, and it has no system for book recommendations (unlike freebookspot, for instance).

In general, if you want a specific book, just google it. If you want a book but not a specific one, use an ebook site like freebookspot or library.nu.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-02-16T08:25:11.135Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, library.nu is now dead AFAICT.

freebookspot looks promising, thanks.

comment by Anubhav · 2012-01-08T14:44:06.409Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

...... Good question.

A month or so ago, they just had an ordinary "register" link, IIRC.

EDIT: Apparently they're shutting down or trying to go legit or something, as per this.

Oh well, new sites will pop up to fill the void.

comment by D_Malik · 2012-01-11T13:08:21.297Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To you and everyone else reading this: PM me and I'll let you use my account.

library.nu isn't much better than other free book sites like freebookspot.com. The main good thing about it is that it hosts files on ifile.it, which means that you can download as much as you want for free, and it has some books not on other ebook sites (which you can still easily get via google). On the other hand, it has no rating system (so if you search "calculus" you have 100 pages to look through), books aren't categorized well, and it has no system for book recommendations (unlike freebookspot, for instance).

In general, if you want a specific book, just google it. If you want a book but not a specific one, use an ebook site like freebookspot or library.nu.

comment by lukeprog · 2012-01-08T17:36:15.585Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No. Obviously, I'm not proposing anything so simple and direct.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-01-08T10:39:05.557Z · score: 18 (20 votes) · LW · GW

I'd handle shame-flavored incentives with tongs. It's plausible that I have an unusual degree of sensitivity on the subject, but I'm making progress on a very bad case of self-hatred and akrasia, and "is my curiosity good enough?" strikes me as a sort of self-alienation which takes focus away from paying attention to whatever you might be curious about.

"What might I be missing about this?", "How can I increase my enthusiasm for learning?", "How can I spend less time on errors while still taking on difficult projects?" seem much safer. "What am I doing to improve my life? Is it having the desired effect?" should probably be on the list.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T05:49:12.116Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

I'm having difficulty knowing what level of rationalist this is aimed at. Are the people you talk to every week students of rationality, or 'normal' people?

This post applies to both, I imagine. But because you talk about "people" instead of explicitly talking about people like me, it's easy to see this post as not being aimed at me. (Maybe it's not).

What I mean is: It's easy to praise oneself and one's peers by talking about people of a lower class. When I was young, it was 'dumb people', when I was a bit more sophisticated it was 'theists', when I was an Objectivist, it was 'non-Objectivists', and now that I'm a rationalist the temptation is to criticize those who "know almost nothing of logic, probability theory, argument, scientific method, epistemology, artificial intelligence, human cognitive science, or debiasing techniques." So this post, because it isn't clearly directed at people who have worked hard to do better in the ways prescribed by the Sequences, causes my semiconscious mind to ask: "is this a beginning level post, or something I should actually pay attention to?" Are you telling me to do better, or criticizing outsiders in order to promote group bonding?

Of course my rider knows I should pay attention; I must always work harder to cultivate the virtues. And I don't actually expect that you're just trying to promote group bonding. But what I really want - and what this post may not have been designed for - is a honest criticism of people you see who are a lot like me in that they have access to all the same correct memes as I have, and they have exerted effort to improve in the appropriate areas.

comment by lukeprog · 2012-01-07T07:05:46.633Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My target audience was meant to be ambiguous. Even the most curious people I know spend some of their time not looking very curious. My post is meant as a vignette of the human condition, like a scene from Gummo, and also (I hope) "valuably motivating (by way of shaming)."

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T17:07:11.206Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

.

comment by lukeprog · 2012-01-07T18:40:17.319Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I predict you're selling yourself short. Maybe my weaknesses and shortcomings are largely filtered out if you know me only through my writings, but the people I work with every week could list them for you. There is clearly a level (or 5) above my own.

Moreover, I've been studying rationality for years, and since April have had the benefit of working on rationality or x-risk full time.

It's very hard to tell "what it is about me" that gives me the rationalist powers I do possess, but if I had to guess, the single biggest thing would be my deep desire to say oops whenever appropriate, which I suspect I got from having wasted 21 years of my life for failing to say oops about the supernatural. I don't want to waste my time like that again.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T19:12:52.786Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

.

comment by latanius · 2012-01-07T12:41:20.401Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I for one have read it as a possible criticism to what I do, exactly along the lines of "don't just look like you're curious and comment on LW and think that you're better because you share the beliefs of the coolest tribe" but go out and really do learn something...

(... so I ended up commenting on LW and thinking I'm even better than the people described above... to increase the number of relevant illustrations :P)

comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-02-14T21:11:46.450Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am currently working my way through reading the responses to this essay, but I really liked your response and wanted to comment. I hope that is ok. You asked for "honest criticism" of people who are a lot like you; and while I realize you were asking Lukeprog I hope you don't mind if I throw my two cents in.

What I took from this essay is an idea I first encountered studying symbolic interactionism: That humans are animals with the unique capacity to act or to act. To act, in the sense that we, like all other living organisms can intentionally impact the territory we exist within. As a person I can run, fight, search for truth, etc. What makes humans unique is that in addition to this we hold the capacity to act, as in the sense of to pretend. In Tibetan Buddhism I believe this is called "shadow dancing," where you do something to mimic a form rather than become it. Luke has focused specifically in on the action of searching for truth. People can either genuinely search for truth, or they can for political reasons don the air of a truth seeker.

Now here comes your critique. The assumption people "who see it a lot like you" is that the former is in some way superior to the later. That one is necessary and the other is detrimental. it is important to genuinely seek truth, however, it is just as important to let it go and just actlike you are seeking truth. Not being able to do this is a problem of moderation. Probably more than 80% of humanity needs to learn how to act, how to be genuine in purpose. However, the elite who are already purpose driven need to learn how to balance serious action with social harmony (social harmony being what i think acting accomplishes).

I do not mean to pick a fight, but my honest criticism is you need to learn when to be irrational. What do you think?

comment by Wei_Dai · 2012-01-08T14:17:38.807Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

Also, they would seek to personally become an immortal super-intelligence, since many truths simply can't be learned by an unenhanced human, and certainly not within a human lifetime.

(Which is why the Yudkowsky-Armstrong Fun-Theoretic Utopia leaves me cold. Would any curious person not choose to become superintelligent and "have direct philosophical conversations with the Machines" if the only alternative is to essentially play the post-Singularity equivalent of the World of Warcraft?)

comment by cousin_it · 2012-01-09T19:33:36.337Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

On a grand scale, my hunger for truths is probably as limited and easy to satisfy as my hunger for cheeseburgers. I do feel that in a post-Singularity world I'd want to enhance my intelligence, but the underlying motivation seems to be status-seeking, a desire to be significant.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-09T20:10:49.348Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Something I learned viscerally while I was recovering from brain damage is that intelligence is fun. I suspect I'd want to enhance my intelligence in much the same way that I'd want to spend more time around puppies.

comment by Prismattic · 2012-01-09T20:35:39.276Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Context matters, I suspect. I don't think that having a 140 IQ would be all that fun if everyone one interacted with on a daily basis was in the 90-100 range.

edited to depersonalize the pronoun.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-10T02:26:49.849Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Context matters, I suspect. I don't think that having a 140 IQ would be all that fun if everyone one interacted with on a daily basis was in the 90-100 range.

Unless you really enjoy winning or achieving social success and dominance (and don't have an accompanying social disfunction to go with your IQ).

comment by Prismattic · 2012-01-10T02:47:29.515Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that in the country of the stupid the moderately intelligent individual would be less successful and dominant than he might hope.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-10T02:50:04.964Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect that in the country of the stupid the moderately intelligent individual would be less successful and dominant than he might hope.

I would bet against you - with the aforementioned caveats that said individual is not socially handicapped and is ambitious.

I also wouldn't call 90-100 IQ 'stupid' or 140 IQ 'moderately intelligent'.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-09T20:42:29.148Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's certainly true. "If you're routinely the smartest guy in the room, find a different room."

And yeah, in a "post-Singularity" world that contained a lot of different ranges of intelligence I would probably tune my intelligence to whatever range I was interacting with regularly, which might involve variable intelligence levels, or even maintaining several different disjoint chains of experience.

And I'm perfectly prepared to believe that past a certain point the negative tradeoffs of marginal increases in intelligence outweigh the benefits.

But at least up to that threshold, I would likely choose to socialize with other people who tuned themselves up to that level. It's admittedly an aesthetic preference, but it's mine.

comment by Dustin · 2012-01-17T23:48:49.629Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I have an IQ in the 140-ish range. (At least, that's what the professionally administered test I had when I was a child said. Online IQ tests tell me I've lost 20 IQ points in the intervening years. Make of that what you will.)

I would estimate I regularly converse "in real life" with someone of above-average IQ a few times a year. This is just a guess, of course. One indicator of the accuracy of this assessment (granting that education as a proxy for intelligence isn't perfect) is that no one in my circle of friends or family that I regularly communicate with has ever went to, or graduated from anything greater than high school.

You're right it's not fun.

The internet alleviates this issue to a large degree.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2012-01-10T02:16:17.899Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

On a grand scale, my hunger for truths is probably as limited and easy to satisfy as my hunger for cheeseburgers.

I have very good reasons to think that my hunger for cheeseburgers is limited and easy to satisfy (e.g., ample evidence from past consumption/satiation of various foods including specifically cheeseburgers). On the other hand, there seems good reason to suspect that if my appetite for truths is limited, the satiation level comes well after what can be achieved at human intelligence level and within a human lifetime (e.g., there are plenty of questions I want answers to that seem very hard, and every question that gets answered seems to generate more interesting and even harder questions).

(It's an interesting question whether all my questions could be answered within 1 second after the Singularity occurs, or if it would require the more than the resources in our entire light cone, or something in between, but the answer to that doesn't affect my point that a curious person would seek to become superintelligent.)

I do feel that in a post-Singularity world I'd want to enhance my intelligence, but the underlying motivation seems to be status-seeking, a desire to be significant.

If Omega offered to enhance your intelligence and/or answer all your questions, but for your private benefit only (i.e., you couldn't tell anyone else or otherwise use your improved intelligence/knowledge to affect the world), would you not be much interested?

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-10T09:53:02.308Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It's an interesting question whether all my questions could be answered within 1 second after the Singularity occurs, or if it would require the more than the resources in our entire light cone, or something in between, but the answer to that doesn't affect my point that a curious person would seek to become superintelligent.

Are you at all curious about what the 3^^^3rd digit of Pi is?

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-10T04:31:14.610Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If Omega offered to enhance your intelligence and/or answer all your questions, but for your private benefit only (i.e., you couldn't tell anyone else or otherwise use your improved intelligence/knowledge to affect the world), would you not be much interested?

Nice. The opposite of the premise of a lot of fantasy worlds!

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2012-01-16T17:39:33.637Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If Omega offered to enhance your intelligence and/or answer all your questions, but for your private benefit only (i.e., you couldn't tell anyone else or otherwise use your improved intelligence/knowledge to affect the world), would you not be much interested?

I would be interested, but I wouldn't take it unless I got a solid technical explanation of "affect the world" that allowed me to do at least as much as I am doing now.

comment by cousin_it · 2012-01-10T11:15:07.151Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, I wouldn't be much interested, I'd even pay to refuse the offer because I don't want the frustration of being unable to tell anyone.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-10T12:03:47.635Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No, I wouldn't be much interested, I'd even pay to refuse the offer because I don't want the frustration of being unable to tell anyone.

You aren't willing to just console yourself with all the hookers, cars, drugs, holidays and general opulence you have been able to buy with the money you earned with your 'personal benefit only' intelligence? Or are we to take it that we can't even use the intelligence to benefit ourselves materially and can only use it to sit in a chair and think to ourselves?

comment by cousin_it · 2012-01-10T12:39:05.244Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think that counts as "using your improved intelligence to affect the world". If it's allowed, then sure, sign me up.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-10T13:29:35.187Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that counts as "using your improved intelligence to affect the world". If it's allowed, then sure, sign me up.

And if even personal use is not allowed then I rapidly become indifferent between the choices (and to the question itself).

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-01-12T10:49:56.903Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Affecting your mind is still a discernible effect...

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-12T13:01:20.843Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Affecting your mind is still a discernible effect...

Yes, you can reduce Wei's counterfactual to nonsensical if you try to pick it apart too far. Yet somehow I think that misses his point.

comment by Document · 2012-01-10T12:46:50.439Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Worst-case (and probable) scenario, you get trapped inside your head and forced to watch your body act like an idiot. If you could engage in transactions, you could make lots of money and then selectively do business with people you like.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-10T13:25:20.771Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

you could make lots of money and then selectively do business with people you like.

This part isn't the case. You can't game "can't use powers for personal gain" laws of magic - the universe always catches you. The reversed case would be analogous.

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2012-01-16T17:37:17.177Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(Which is why the Yudkowsky-Armstrong Fun-Theoretic Utopia leaves me cold. Would any curious person not choose to become superintelligent and "have direct philosophical conversations with the Machines" if the only alternative is to essentially play the post-Singularity equivalent of the World of Warcraft?)

I was under the impression that in Yudkowsky's image of utopia, one gains intelligence slowly over centuries, such that one has all the fun that can be had at one level but not the one above, then goes up a level, then has that level's fun, etc.

comment by DuncanS · 2012-01-08T00:51:08.125Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Dare I say it? Few people look like they really want true beliefs.

I think otherwise - most people want to have true beliefs. However, they have rather limited trust in the powers of their own logic, as the experience of school has taught them that they are often wrong. They don't have the numerical skills to embark on anything more numerically ambitious than what money requires. They expect to be wrong often, and rarely use formal reason as such. But they still want to have true beliefs, and rely mostly on intuition and experience to decide on that.

For most people, most beliefs are socially acquired - people acquire their beliefs from the people around them, and they tend to acquire large blocks of belief together. One shouldn't underestimate the sheer amount of work needed to do anything different.

Most people never create a new idea (in the sense you're talking about) in their entire lives - they have experiences, yes, and they change beliefs based on experience. But they do not regard themselves as having the basic equipment to generate ideas, or to be sophisticated in judging between them.

In the end I've come to the view that none of us can change this (well, not anytime soon at any rate). Human beings think in groups - and the best most of us can do to help others think better is to do it for them, and talk about it sometimes. Obviously there is a group of people who can do more than that, but they are a minority.

The other comment I have on your post is that all of the above is actually just one idea. Which is that the basis of all knowledge about the world is inductive reasoning, and, in principle, all such reasoning should be based on the sound use of statistics. There are many mathematical ways of messing up such use, and our intuitive reasoning also messes up these stats too. If you really need the right answer, you will need to learn enough to get your statistics right, and compensate for the shortcomings of your wetware. And that's the whole idea in a nutshell.

An example. Did you know that brakes are the most dangerous piece of equipment on your car? In a staggeringly large number of accidents, the driver was using the brake at the time of the collision. Surely we could make driving safer by removing the brakes, then? Of course the thesis is ludicrous, but how many of us are confident that we wouldn't make a similar statistical mistake in a different context? But once you embark on the journey of trying to fix such problems in your own thinking, the road leads all the way to the place your post describes.

Most people think the journey is beyond them, and leave it to people like you and Eliezer to make the journey for them, and report back your findings. And unfortunately I don't think they're wrong about that.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-01-08T10:29:03.689Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

However, they have rather limited trust in the powers of their own logic, as the experience of school has taught them that they are often wrong. They don't have the numerical skills to embark on anything more numerically ambitious than what money requires.

I believe the situation is a good bit worse than that. One of the underlying lessons of conventional schooling is "You can't be trusted to think about what you need to know."

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2012-01-16T19:03:49.021Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

One of the underlying lessons of conventional schooling is "You can't be trusted to think about what you need to know."

Do mean this in the sense of "you can't think be trusted to think about important things" or in the sense of "you can't be trusted to decide which things are important"? I agree with the second, and think it's what you mean, but not the first.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-06T22:47:06.430Z · score: 15 (35 votes) · LW · GW

You're doing that thing where you write like Yudkowsky again. It's kind of hot.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2012-01-07T03:09:05.628Z · score: 35 (35 votes) · LW · GW

And yet the conclusion is so...Hansonesque.

Every week I talk to people who say they are trying to figure out the truth about something. When I ask them a few questions about it, I often learn that they know almost nothing of logic, probability theory, argument, scientific method, epistemology, artificial intelligence, human cognitive science, or debiasing techniques...I conclude that they probably want to feel they are truth-seeking, or they want to signal a desire for truth-seeking, or they might even self-deceivingly "believe" that they place a high value on knowing the truth. But their actions show that they aren't trying very hard to have true beliefs.

Really? What percent of people are aware of the existence of cognitive biases? One percent? At least I wouldn't expect more than that to realize that probability theory or artificial intelligence bear upon questions in seemingly unrelated fields like philosophy or medicine.

And of people who know of the existence of cognitive biases, how many are even capable of genuinely entertaining the thought that they themselves might be biased, as opposed to Rush Limbaugh or unethical pharmaceutical researchers or all those silly people who disagree with them?

And of people who are worried about cognitive biases, how many have access to "debiasing techniques"? I'm not going to put a percent on this one because it's pretty vague, but outside of Less Wrong and a few ahead-of-the-game finance companies, you can't exactly go on Amazon and buy Debiasing for Dummies.

I think I agree with the conclusion (well, maybe, since I don't know enough psychodynamics to really be able to cash out a phrase like "their actions show that they aren't trying very hard) but this particular argument breaks Hanlon's Razor aka the Generalized Anti-Hanson Principle.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T04:31:53.387Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

this particular argument breaks Hanlon's Razor aka the Generalized Anti-Hanson Principle.

Cute, but I'm not sure I would call a Hansonian interpretation "malicious". Maybe "differently optimized".

I'd reserve malice for active manipulation, not status-seeking.

comment by falenas108 · 2012-01-07T01:57:05.299Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I agree, when I first read this I was surprised to see comments with responses, as I felt that this was part of the sequences.

comment by endoself · 2012-01-07T01:29:24.168Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It could be even more awesome if you rephrased "they" as "the one". :)

comment by lukeprog · 2012-01-07T01:35:48.791Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps that would be more natural to me had I been raised Jewish not Christian. :)

(My impression is that using "the one" that way is common in the Rabbinic literature.)

comment by Manfred · 2012-01-08T18:57:17.457Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

jibbly jibbly jibbly.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T04:39:22.092Z · score: 14 (18 votes) · LW · GW

.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2012-01-10T12:20:59.905Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

FWIW I linked to this though my Twitter feed and got a very negative reaction from my friends, though the reasons they give for disliking it are pretty varied; they said things like

  • it's so arrogant!
  • It's absolutist - not everyone will have time to study these things
  • but what is "truth" really?
  • what about my-favourite-discipline? (Physics in one case)

One person has promised to write up what they felt in a blog post, which I look forward to reading.

comment by dbaupp · 2012-01-21T12:44:32.448Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Has this blog post eventuated?

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2012-01-21T13:47:15.777Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

They wrote a private version which I discussed with them; they're working on a second version for public sharing now. I found their argument about the ways in which it's inaccurate and bad PR fairly convincing; I now think I made an error propagating this post.

comment by Technoguyrob · 2012-01-14T22:16:26.168Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The Neurathian bootstrap is a process whose most difficult part is the beginning as a person has to painstakingly and meticulously override their autonomous set of systems, a portion of their brain that is far larger and more sophisticated than the recently evolved analytical system, cleverly sidestepping their primary design: a social ape.

All of this has to be performed in the midst of the confusion that is popular culture and without awareness of what is actually going on, while maintaining social dignity, a concession that could easily send you back to square one. I do not envy my friends who have not begun the process, as with the benefit of hindsight I can only describe it as incredibly painful.

My relationship with my parents and many friends was wonderful many years ago, but continuing to climb Mount Bayes while maintaining what's left without it becoming A Big Sham feels like juggling a dozen eggs.

I'm preaching to the choir.

comment by Vaniver · 2012-01-07T04:38:46.421Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

They would study artificial intelligence to learn the algorithms, the math, the laws of how an ideal agent would acquire true beliefs.

Really? The others make sense, but it's not clear this will be useful to a human trying to learn things themselves. If I want to notice patterns, "plug all of your information into a matrix and perform eigenvector decompositions" is probably not going to get me very far.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T20:04:10.350Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The mathematical techniques like eigenstuff and particle methods and so on can't be directly applied by humans, but the field is still useful.

I think the big gain from AI is that you get practice in understanding and debugging mental processes, which can be applied to your own reasoning. AI theory is philosophy that's at least true if not optimally relevant.

comment by gaffa · 2012-01-07T13:47:03.773Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

At least for me, I've found that studying some machine learning has kind of broadened my perspectives on rationality in general. Even if we humans don't apply the algorithms that we find in machine learning textbooks ourselves, I still find it illuminating to study how we try make machines perform rational inference. The field also concerns itself with more general, if you will philosophical questions relating to e.g. how to properly evaluate the performance of predictive agents, the trade-off between model complexity and generality and the issue of overfitting. These kind of questions are very general in nature and should probably be of some interest to students of any kind of learning agents, be they human or machine.

comment by latanius · 2012-01-07T12:31:48.300Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

True in a way: for example, emulating a planning algorithm in your mind is a terribly inefficient way of making decisions. However, in order to understand the concept of "how an algorithm feels from inside", you need to think of yourself too as an algorithm, which is (I guess) very hard if you have no idea how agents like you might work at all.

So, as I see it, AI gives you a better grasp of "map vs. territory". Compared to "the map is the equations, the territory is what I see" you get "my mind is also a map, so where I see a pattern, maybe there is none". (See confirmation bias.)

comment by kilobug · 2012-01-10T15:01:00.084Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think you are confusing between wanting to know, and being good at it.

Imagine someone in the stone age, would you say none was genuinely curious because they didn't know about all those fields which weren't invented yet ?

Then, what about someone living in our world, but not knowing about Bayesian reasoning, AI, ... ? How can he know that those fields are fundamental to learn, to satisfy their curiosity on another field, before at least learning the basis of them ? When you don't know about Bayes' theorem, but you are curious (you really want to know the truth) about, say, ancient Rome history or about if there ever was life on Mars, what would drive you to learn probability theory ? How can you know you must learn it to learn other thing, when you don't know much about that other thing ?

Sure, if you are curious, you'll want to learn in all fields. But since we have a limited amount of time, you can't except someone to learn Bayesian reasoning, even if he's really curious, unless there is some kind of trigger that makes him realize how useful it would be to be efficient in being curious.

Genuinely wanting something and being good at doing it are not directly linked. You can't say someone isn't really wanting something just because he pursues it in an efficient way.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-10T15:33:59.467Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The stone age analogy doesn't quite fly. There's a difference between the state where I want X and someone else is offering X, and the state where nobody is offering X.

But you're right, of course, that even in the first case I have to know I want X.

That said, I don't have to know the name of the field.

For example, if I'm genuinely interested in what actually happened in ancient Rome (which is of course only one possible meaning of the phrase "ancient Rome history"), I will sooner or later discover that there are disagreements among experts about some aspects of it, as well as questions about it that are simply unanswered.

A genuinely curious person, who is actually motivated to know what actually happened in ancient Rome, will in consequence sooner or later have thoughts like "how do I decide which experts to believe?" or "how do I decide which of these competing theories is true?" or "how do I come up with answers to questions that haven't been answered yet?"

There's no particular guarantee that it will occur to them that the thing called "probability theory" or "cognitive science" is related to that (though "decision theory" seems like a reasonable thing to investigate), but asking those questions cogently enough of the Internet, often enough, will sooner or later get them there, assuming they don't settle for something along the way that doesn't actually satisfy their curiosity but gives them some other thing instead.

comment by kilobug · 2012-01-10T15:44:33.233Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I think you overestimate the ease it is to "jump to the meta-level" (ie, you want to learn about something, so you jump to learning how to learn) to people who were not pointed to do it - by reading Gödel, Escher, Bach, some of LW or anything like that. Someone genuinely curious about "what actually happened in ancient Rome" will read lots of books about it, will go to visit the ruins, go to museums, ... but won't spontaneously start asking about "decision theory" or about "what is the general process to resolve dispute between scholars ?" if not given strong hints that they should do it.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-01-10T16:00:43.986Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I'm overestimating the ease; it's difficult. And, yes, it generally requires some sort of outside input.

In practice, though, the reason people don't do this isn't because they couldn't do it with, say, a year or four of consistent asking, receiving answers, evaluating those answers for whether they actually resolve their genuine curiosity, discarding those answers which don't, and repeating the process.

The reason they don't do it is because they settle for one of the answers they get early on, and stop asking.

comment by wallowinmaya · 2012-01-07T11:15:47.205Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

So are those who claim to seek truth, but really don't, merely akratic or are they hypocritical?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T19:51:13.079Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of them as the same thing. (for yourself, doing so for others is bad).

I'm going to try that...

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-13T01:03:43.745Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Do "curious" people want to learn the (already discovered) truth or to discover heretofore unknown truths? You seem to confound the two. Data on the statistical correlation between these distinct motives would be interesting, but I doubt most scientists are primarily concerned with personally accumulating true beliefs. Preparing to make contribution to human knowledge probably looks a lot different from preparing to absorb the greatest mass of truths. It probably also looks different from preparing to function rationally as far as go quotidian beliefs.

comment by moshez · 2012-01-10T01:09:29.853Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure there's an overarching "curiosity" that people have or don't have: I'm very curious about whether a specific kind of database will perform adequately in certain circumstances (long story) but I'm only mildly curious about how to identify which French painter during the 19th century painted which picture. Some art experts, I'm sure, have cultivated the skill to guess within seconds which painter it is for every picture. I wouldn't mind having that skill -- it sounds like a fun skill to have -- but it seems like it would be more resources than it's worth. OTOH, I really want my probability estimations re: the database to reflect reality. Do I need to use AI theory? Doubtful. Probably a little bit of statistics, and even that fairly mild, but I do have to think a lot about how to use my knowledge of databases to design experiments to find the truth out. I'm not sure if that would look "curious" to the lay person (and, of course, there's also a factor of "signaling curiosity" -- I want to make sure that everyone with a stake in the process sees that I've done the due diligence), but nonetheless, I'm truly curious about this (and yes, it could go both ways...I think this is the most important part of curiosity vs. fake curiosity).

When I was genuinely curious about the US immigration laws applied to me (and again, it could have gone both ways -- before running any experiments, I made sure to visualize both options, and realizing I can live with both) I just called an immigration lawyer (and, for a latter question, the paralegal who was involved with my visa). In that case I needed very little knowledge from LW -- I didn't apply my knowledge about Bayes, or about heuristics and biases, and just went and asked a professional (of course, in some cases, like wanting to know if a stock will go up, asking a professional is disasterous, but with immigration law, lawyers can estimate probabilities fairly accurately even if they lack formal rationality training).

Those were the two examples of real curiosity from my life that I could think of, that looked nothing like the description here of "real curiosity"....

comment by scientism · 2012-01-11T15:47:00.474Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is a question of what satisfies your curiosity. Neither of the examples you give is a paradigm example of curiosity as such - curiosity is generally taken to mean a desire for knowledge for its own sake whereas both your examples involve seeking knowledge for practical reasons - but perhaps in your case these work and personal issues are enough to satisfy your curiosity. The fact that you're here makes me think otherwise though. Surely you read LessWrong out of curiosity?

comment by moshez · 2012-01-12T18:40:43.142Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, I do seek knowledge for other reasons, here and elsewhere. But my expectation that this will not "look like" curiosity because I expect to have few changes in my behavior based on what I read, and so the importance of it being "true" is likewise diminished. Sure, I would like to have my beliefs about the brain and AI be true, but I'm not prepared to spend a LOT of resources to do it -- I'm sure if I were really curious about the role of Oxytocin in relationships, I could reach true beliefs faster by spending more resources. There are gradations between "French paintings" and "database performance" in how curious I am about things, I agree, and most of Less Wrong falls somewhere in the middle of it. The curiosity Luke was alluding to is the all consuming curiosity of "things I expect belief accuracy to have large impact on my utility", which I doubt most of Less Wrong falls on.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-13T00:52:37.862Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Who can quarrel with this, except perhaps on emphasis? All that can really be asked is whether the list of subjects prime for pursuit by rationalists is complete. The one major omission: acquiring writing skill. This is vital not only for articulating your ideas, so you get worthwhile feedback. The quality of ideas themselves depends on how well they're expressed. That Darwin was a superb writer isn't an incidental fact. (See "Can bad writers be good thinkers?"; "Are good thinkers good writers?"; "Some writing skills undermine thought"; and "Plain-talk writing: The new literary obfuscation."

Revised citations using markdown format; added last two citations. - Jan. 15,2012, 1 p.m.

comment by Barry_Cotter · 2012-01-13T01:18:42.132Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

One suggests either using the default urls or Markdown, (basic guidance available from Show Help at the bottom right of the window that appears once one hits Comment. Shorteners are bad fur teh interwebz and if the characters are valuable http://ow.ly would be better.

comment by dbaupp · 2012-01-21T12:48:54.118Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why is that particular service better than others? (I don't know the context of the grandparent, so this question is possibly misguided.)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-21T21:02:17.071Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think he's saying ow.ly is better only in that it gives you some control over the content of the shortener. What I don't understand is 'shorteners are bad for the interwebs'—how? In what sense? Is this advice prudential or normative?

comment by Prismattic · 2012-01-21T21:12:02.362Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think the "shorteners are bad" is shorthand for, "it will become hard to find information later, if the shortener service goes out of business, because the shortlinks won't lead anywhere and you will have no idea what they originally pointed to."

comment by gwern · 2012-01-21T22:25:27.516Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Jason Scott:

Besides the scraping of millions of Delicious users, a small subset of archive team has formed URL team, dedicated to pulling down the content of URL shorteners. URL shorteners may be one of the worst ideas, one of the most backward ideas, to come out of the last five years. In very recent times, per-site shorteners, where a website registers a smaller version of its hostname and provides a single small link for a more complicated piece of content within it.. those are fine. But these general-purpose URL shorteners, with their shady or fragile setups and utter dependence upon them, well. If we lose TinyURL or bit.ly, millions of weblogs, essays, and non-archived tweets lose their meaning. Instantly. To someone in the future, it'll be like everyone from a certain era of history, say ten years of the 18th century, started speaking in a one-time pad of cryptographic pass phrases. We're doing our best to stop it. Some of the shorteners have been helpful, others have been hostile. A number have died. We're going to release torrents on a regular basis of these spreadsheets, these code breaking spreadsheets, and we hope others do too.

comment by CharlesR · 2012-01-09T04:02:26.968Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the hardest step is deciding you just want to know what's true.

comment by Macaulay · 2012-01-09T03:48:26.027Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Truth seekers should deliberately impose costs on themselves for holding false beliefs. That is, they should increase the cost of being wrong. One way to do this is to bet on your beliefs. Another way is to bond your beliefs: post a bond that you will forfeit if your prediction is wrong. Yes, imposing such costs is bothersome, but for truth seekers the tradeoff is easily worth it.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2012-01-07T01:25:06.597Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

More or less accurate, though of course there's a ton of stuff that was left unsaid. "Study fields like these" is easy to say, "learn skills like these" is really difficult. There's no easy way to communicate skills, and sanity is a skill-set. You kinda just have to hope people have enough lucidity to make connections between fields and reliably see single step implications, and enough ambition to seek out and learn the skills from better thinkers than themselves. E.g. thanks to having brilliant friends I know a lot of cognitive tricks and verbal patterns that can't be learned from books or blog posts. Before I had these skills I wasn't a very good truth-seeker, and I'm sure a lot of people get stuck in that valley. Luckily a surplus of lucidity and reflectivity gets you a long way by itself.

comment by Will_Newsome · 2012-01-07T01:41:04.123Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, and play a lot of chess. It's important.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T20:30:25.320Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I prefer poker, actually. Unlike chess, real life is not a perfect-knowledge game.

comment by Nisan · 2012-01-08T03:15:24.563Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Playing chess is important because the form constant of the chessboard has a salubrious stimulating effect on the mind.

(I'm not serious.)

comment by MixedNuts · 2012-01-08T03:19:22.409Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You have caused me to hallucinate the faint superimposition of a chess board over the center of my field of vision. I hope you're happy.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T05:34:11.175Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would love to hear more about how playing chess helps whatever skills you think it helps.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-07T05:46:01.221Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I would love to hear more about how playing chess helps whatever skills you think it helps.

I expect it helps with your dubstep moves.

comment by Solvent · 2012-01-07T08:41:06.238Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Will is never going to live that down.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-01-07T10:03:07.233Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If someone does a study on it and turns out that he is right he'll be laughing at us something shocking!

comment by atucker · 2012-01-07T05:43:12.658Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If I understand correctly, good chess players use something like motor planning for playing chess.

In general improving my motor planning over abstractions seems like a good way of getting the part of my brain that actually works really well for planning to get better at planning, and doing things.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-07T02:09:07.486Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, getting skilled is hard, but reading this site helped me immensely. Yet, my experience is that my peers don't believe me when I say that studying fields like philosophy and rationality help people think, and my (Catholic) English teacher doesn't even want to hear anything about these topics. Getting over social politics is pretty difficult for me.

Would you be willing to try to explain your ideas about why chess is important (for people like me who don't particularly like chess) and maybe talk about the "cognitive tricks and verbal patterns"?

comment by [deleted] · 2016-07-29T18:58:38.068Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

…What would that look like?

The immediate answer which I cannot shake off is - Stanislaw Lem:) or, perhaps, the hero of his novel "Runny nose".

comment by JonathanLivengood · 2012-01-10T05:25:59.918Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Something is missing here. Curiosity about what? Are we only supposed to care about having true beliefs or are we supposed to care about what those true beliefs tell us about the world? I'm betting on the latter. In fact, I would go further and say that it is better to have lots of literally false but approximately true beliefs about the world than to have only a few, completely true beliefs about the world or even to have the same number of completely true beliefs but not have them cover as much interesting territory.

I don't have a theory of what makes intellectual territory more or less interesting, but I am pretty sure that content matters. I could have infinite curiosity and complete commitment to having true beliefs and still never know anything really interesting if my curiosity is about the results of simple addition problems and I am careful in carrying out those additions.

comment by adamisom · 2012-01-12T05:21:06.935Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

One possible reason this may have been downvoted is that Less Wrong-ers tend not to distinguish between "true beliefs" and "what those true beliefs tell us about the world". Okay, I may be committing mind projection fallacy, I don't know. At least I think of them as kind of the same thing if those "true beliefs" are fundamental enough (which, it's worth point out, kind of makes them "more true" if you have a reductionist viewpoint).

For example, knowledge of addition may tell you little in itself, but if you think about addition, it's an abstraction of a useful operation that holds for any kind of object, which implicitly claims (it seems to me) that some physical laws are universal. The same idea could lead you to the notion of logic (since it has the idea that you can make universal statements about form, versus content).

comment by JonathanLivengood · 2012-01-12T06:11:30.818Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I hope that's not the reason for the downvote, because that completely misses the point of my comment.

My point is basically that the advice Luke gives -- while very good advice -- is not advice that follows from the simple desire to believe true things.

Believing true things is great. Believing true, interesting, useful things is better. Believing true, interesting, useful things while not believing false, trivial, useless things is better still. The content of our beliefs matters and that fact should be up front in the goal of rational inquiry. Again, the goal of rational inquiry is not simply to have true beliefs.

If simply having as many true beliefs as possible were really the goal of rational inquiry, then the best strategy would be to believe everything (assuming that is possible). By believing everything, you believe all of the true things. Sure, you also believe a lot of false things, but Luke didn't ask about what it would look like if people really wanted to avoid believing falsehoods.

I don't know if I was especially unclear in the earlier comment or if I was too uncharitable in my reading of Luke's post. Whatever. It is still the case that the goal of maximizing the number of true beliefs one holds is a bad goal. A slightly better goal is to maximize the number of true beliefs one has while minimizing the number of false beliefs that one has. But such a rule leads, I think, to a strategy of acquiring safe but trivial beliefs. For example, the belief that 1293 cubed is equal to the sum of three consecutive prime numbers. Such a belief does not have nearly the same utility of the belief that bodies in rectilinear motion tend to remain in rectilinear motion unless impressed upon by a force, even if the latter belief is only approximately true.

I am not picking on Luke's advice. The advice is great. I am picking on his starting point. I don't think the goal as stated leads to the advice. Something is missing from the goal as stated.

comment by adamisom · 2012-01-12T14:30:09.883Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, maybe I was being too charitable. Maybe you didn't actually read the post, in which he outlines what kind of knowledge is most likely to be useful.

Of course, you have a good point regarding true vs useful beliefs, and I picked up on that in your original comment, and provided an angle of thinking about it that you also may not have read.

Anyway, as a rule, you should read a post through before commenting.

comment by ErnstMuller · 2012-01-12T16:17:04.255Z · score: -4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

In their search for "true beliefs" they would quickly discover that there is no such thing as "actually true" but that science deals in more and more viable models. So, they would abandon their search for "truth" and would go onward to the search for better and better fitting models. (See definitions of science ... and, for a philosophical point of view, radical constructivism).

Our senses don't perceive the "real" world. They build a highly refined and effective illusion of complete perception. (See for example the blind spot in the eye, the physiology of color perception, or our sense of hearing.

Likewise, our minds always use simplified models. No one would be able to catch a falling ball if he had to actually calculate the flight curve - yet, even children are able to do it. That's because if you keep your eyes fixed at the ball and have to lower your head in a constant way you are standing at the right spot to catch the ball. (If your rate of head-lowering is slower you have to move till it is.)

So, doing the actual calculations would be a waste of time, because there's a simpler way to catch a ball.

Even if one uses always the best and newest models science provides, you will never, ever be really at the frontier because so many papers are published every day. And even if one could, scientists are able to err. And do so frequently.

(See for example selection bias. There are LOTS of papers about it.)

So, someone on a quest to find "truth" is a romantic twerp who will accomplish nothing, because he will expect to find something static and final. Science and understanding are processes.

The only fields of human endeavor where you find "truth" are mathematics and religion.

(Most things I mention in this article are findable in the wikipedia. If you don't understand, look them up. Everyone should now about scientific models, "truth" and constructivsm. Oh, and the physiology of our senses.)

comment by thomblake · 2012-01-12T18:10:29.301Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

See the simple truth.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-01-12T16:24:42.582Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm confused. If there's no such thing as the actually true, how are we to understand the claims you make in this comment? Are they not actually true? I take it you don't think they're false. Perhaps they're what you call viable models? But of what? And if you do want to say that they're viable models, you would be saying that its true that they're viable models. But then is the claim that they're viable models itself a viable model? Doesn't this lead to a vicious regress?

Sincerely, A romantic twerp