Thoughts on moral intuitions

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-30T06:01:48.565Z · score: 41 (55 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 202 comments

The style in the following article is slightly different from most LW articles, due to the fact that I originally posted this on my blog. Some folks on #lesswrong liked it, so I thought it might be liked here as well.


Our moral reasoning is ultimately grounded in our moral intuitions: instinctive "black box" judgements of what is right and wrong. For example, most people would think that needlessly hurting somebody else is wrong, just because. The claim doesn't need further elaboration, and in fact the reasons for it can't be explained, though people can and do construct elaborate rationalizations for why everyone should accept the claim. This makes things interesting when people with different moral intuitions try to debate morality with each other.

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Why do modern-day liberals (for example) generally consider it okay to say "I think everyone should be happy" without offering an explanation, but not okay to say "I think I should be free to keep slaves", regardless of the explanation offered? In an earlier age, the second statement might have been considered acceptable, while the first one would have required an explanation.

In general, people accept their favorite intuitions as given and require people to justify any intuitions which contradict those. If people have strongly left-wing intuitions, they tend to consider right-wing intuitions arbitrary and unacceptable, while considering left-wing intuitions so obvious as to not need any explanation. And vice versa.

Of course, you will notice that in some cultures specific moral intuitions tend to dominate, while other intuitions dominate in other cultures. People tend to pick up the moral intuitions of their environment: some claims go so strongly against the prevailing moral intuitions of my social environment that if I were to even hypothetically raise the possibility of them being correct, I would be loudly condemned and feel bad for even thinking that way. (Related: Paul Graham's What you can't say.) "Culture" here is to be understood as being considerably more fine-grained than just "the culture in Finland" or the "culture in India" - there are countless of subcultures even within a single country.

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Social psychologists distinguish between two kinds of moral rules: ones which people consider absolute, and ones which people consider to be social conventions. For example, if a group of people all bullied and picked on one of them, this would usually be considered wrong, even if everyone in the group (including the bullied person) thought it was okay. But if there's a rule that you should wear a specific kind of clothing while at work, then it's considered okay not to wear those clothes if you get special permission from your boss, or if you switch to another job without that rule.

The funny thing is that many people don't realize that the distinction of which is which is by itself a moral intuition which varies from people to people, and from culture to culture. Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion of his finding that while the upper classes in both Brazil and USA were likely to find violations of harmless taboos to be violations of social convention, lower classes in both countries were more likely to find them violations of absolute moral codes. At the time, moral psychology had mistakenly thought that "moving on" to a conception of right and wrong that was only grounded in concrete harms would be the way that children's morality naturally develops, and that children discover morality by themselves instead of learning it from others.

So moral psychologists had mistakenly been thinking about some moral intuitions as absolute instead of relative. But we can hardly blame them, for it's common to fail to notice that the distinction between "social convention" and "moral fact" is variable. Sometimes this is probably done for purpose, for rhetorical reasons - it's a much more convincing speech if you can appeal to ultimate moral truths rather than to social conventions. But just as often people simply don't seem to realize the distinction.

(Note to international readers: I have been corrupted by the American blogosphere and literature, and will therefore be using "liberal" and "conservative" mostly to denote their American meanings. I apologize profusely to my European readers for this terrible misuse of language and for not using the correct terminology like God intended it to be used.)

For example, social conservatives sometimes complain that liberals are pushing their morality on them, by requiring things such as not condemning homosexuality. To liberals, this is obviously absurd - nobody is saying that the conservatives should be gay, people are just saying that people shouldn’t be denied equal rights simply because of their sexual orientation. From the liberal point of view, it is the conservatives who are pushing their beliefs on others, not vice versa.

But let's contrast "oppressing gays" to "banning polluting factories". Few liberals would be willing to accept the claim that if somebody wants to build a factory that causes a lot of harm to the environment, he should be allowed to do so, and to ban him from doing it would be to push the liberal ideals on the factory-owner. They might, however, protest that to prevent them from banning the factory would be pushing (e.g.) pro-capitalism ideals on them. So, in other words:

Conservatives want to prevent people from being gay. They think that this just means upholding morality. They think that if somebody wants to prevent them from doing so, that somebody is pushing their own ideals on them.

Liberals want to prevent people from polluting their environment. They think that this just means upholding morality. They think that if somebody wants to prevent them from doing so, that somebody is pushing their own ideals on them.

Now my liberal readers (do I even have any socially conservative readers?) will no doubt be rushing to point out the differences in these two examples. Most obviously the fact that pollution hurts other people than just the factory owner, like people on their nearby summer cottages who like seeing nature in a pristine and pure state, so it's justified to do something about it. But conservatives might also argue that openly gay behavior encourages being openly gay, and that this hurts those in nearby suburbs who like seeing people act properly, so it's justified to do something about it.

It's easy to say that "anything that doesn't harm others should be allowed", but it's much harder to rigorously define harm, and liberals and conservatives differ in when they think it's okay to cause somebody else harm. And even this is probably conceding too much to the liberal point of view, as it accepts a position where the morality of an act is judged primarily in the form of the harms it causes. Some conservatives would be likely to argue that homosexuality just is wrong, the way that killing somebody just is wrong.

My point isn't that we should accept the conservative argument. Of course we should reject it - my liberal moral intuitions say so. But we can't in all honestly claim an objective moral high ground. If we are to be honest to ourselves, we will accept that yes, we are pushing our moral beliefs on them - just as they are pushing their moral beliefs on us. And we will hope that our moral beliefs win.

Here's another example of "failing to notice the subjectivity of what counts as social convention". Many people are annoyed by aggressive vegetarians, who think anyone who eats meat is a bad person, or by religious people who are actively trying to convert others. People often say that it's fine to be vegetarian or religious if that's what you like, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same.

Compare this to saying that it's fine to refuse to send Jews to concentration camps, or to let people die in horrible ways when they could have been saved, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same. I expect that would sound absurd to most of us. But if you accept a certain vegetarian point of view, then killing animals for food is exactly equivalent to the Holocaust. And if you accept a certain religious view saying that unconverted people will go to Hell for an eternity, then not trying to convert them is even worse than letting people die in horrible ways. To say that these groups shouldn't push their morality to others is to already push your own ideology - which says that decisions about what to eat and what to believe are just social conventions, while decisions about whether to kill humans and save lives are moral facts - on them.

So what use is there in debating morality, if we have so divergent moral intuitions? In some cases, people have such widely differing intuitions that there is no point. In other cases, their intuitions are similar enough that they can find common ground, and in that case discussion can be useful. Intuitions can clearly be affected by words, and sometimes people do shift their intuitions as a result of having debated them. But this usually requires appealing to, or at least starting out from, some moral intuition that they already accept. There are inferential distances involved in moral claims, just as there are inferential distances involved in factual claims.

So what about the cases when the distance is too large, when the gap simply cannot be bridged? Well in those cases, we will simply have to fight to keep pushing our own moral intuitions to as many people as possible, and hope that they will end up having more influence than the unacceptable intuitions. Many liberals probably don't want to admit to themselves that this is what we should do, in order to beat the conservatives - it goes so badly against the liberal rhetoric. It would be much nicer to pretend that we are simply letting everyone live the way they want to, and that we are fighting to defend everyone's right for that.

But it would be more honest to admit that we actually want to let everyone live the way they want to, as long as they don't things we consider "really wrong", such as discriminating against gays. And that in this regard we're no different from the conservatives, who would likewise let everyone live the way they wanted to, as long as they don't do things the conservatives consider "really wrong".

Of course, whether or not you'll want to be that honest depends on what your moral intuitions have to say about honesty.

202 comments

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comment by JenniferRM · 2012-06-28T16:32:03.195Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

For example, most people would think that needlessly hurting somebody else is wrong, just because. The claim doesn't need further elaboration, and in fact the reasons for it can't be explained, though people can and do construct elaborate rationalizations for why everyone should accept the claim.

I think this is a folk theory about how "moral intuitions" work, and I don't think that it is true, in the sense that it is a naive answer to a naive question that should have been dissolved rather than answered. For example, most people think everything "just because", and further elaboration is just confabulation unless you do something unusual.

Thinking that morality is a specialized domain (a separate magisterium?) leads to the idea of "debating morality" as though the actual real communication events that acquire that label are like other debates except about the specialized domain: engaged in for similar purposes, with similar actual end points, resolved according to similar rhetorical patterns, and so on. Compare and contrast variations on the terms: "ethical debates", "political debates", "scientific debates", "morality conversations", "morality dialogues", "political dialogues", etc. Imagine the halo of all such terms, and the wider halo of all communication events that match anything in the halo of terms, and then imagine running a clustering algorithm on those communication events to see if they are even distinct things, and if so what the real differences are.

I don't want to say "Boo!" here too much. I'm friendly to the essay. And given your starting assumptions it does pretty much lead to the open minded interpretation of moral debates you derived. I tend to like people who go a little bit meta on those communication events more then people who just participate in them by blind reflex, but I think that going meta on those communication events a lot (with tape recorders and statistics and hypothesis testing and a research budget and so on) would reveal a lot of really useful theory. You linked to Haidt... some of this research is being done. I suspect more would be worthwhile :-)

Edited to add: And I bet the researcher's "moral debating" performance and moral conclusions would themselves be very interesting objects of study. Imagine being a fly on the wall while Haidt, Drescher, and Lakoff tried to genuinely aumann updated on political issues of the day.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-28T17:35:46.936Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is a folk theory about how "moral intuitions" work, and I don't think that it is true, in the sense that it is a naive answer to a naive question that should have been dissolved rather than answered

I'm not entirely sure what you mean, or perhaps you use "dissolving" in a different sense from how I understand it. I thought that dissolving a question meant taking a previously mysterious and unanswerable question and providing such an explanation that there's no longer any question to be asked. But if there is a mysterious and unanswerable question here, I'm not sure of what it is.

comment by JenniferRM · 2012-06-28T21:26:10.628Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Potential questions this essay could have been written to answer, that might deserve to be dissolved rather than answered directly:

  • How does moral reasoning work (and what are the implications)?

  • How do moral debates find ground in moral feelings (and what are the implications)?

  • Where does the motivational force attributed to pro-social intrinsic values come from (and what are the implications)?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-28T23:33:27.461Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm currently reading a book called Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality that frames the problem exactly like that. It's by Patricia Churchland. The view that she defends is that moral decision are based on constraint satisfaction, just like a lot of other decisions processes.

comment by torekp · 2012-07-22T21:14:58.655Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For what it's worth, I'd bet that your third question will be answered more or less directly, without dissolution. See Wix's reply for a step in that direction.

comment by JenniferRM · 2012-07-23T04:53:18.491Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're probably right. In some sense I just re-stated the same question a few times, dissolving more at each step :-)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-04T07:56:44.687Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Still not sure what you mean: questions one and two seem interesting but outside the scope of my essay, and I'm not sure I understand the third one. You said in your original comment that

I think this is a folk theory about how "moral intuitions" work, and I don't think that it is true, in the sense that it is a naive answer to a naive question that should have been dissolved rather than answered.

...but I don't think I really answered any of those three questions in my post.

comment by AnotherIdiot · 2012-06-30T23:21:43.087Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

To be fair, this post does point out a reason why debating morality is different from debating most other subjects (using different words from mine): people have very different priors on morality, and unlike in, say, physics, these priors can't be rebutted by observing the universe. Reaching an agreement in morality is therefore often much harder than in other subjects, if an agreement even can be reached.

comment by Incorrect · 2012-06-28T18:47:36.070Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Why do modern-day liberals (for example) generally consider it okay to say "I think everyone should be happy" without offering an explanation, but not okay to say "I think I should be free to keep slaves", regardless of the explanation offered?

"I think everyone should be happy" is an expression of a terminal value. Slavery is not a typically positive terminal value, so if you terminally value slavery you would have to say something like "I like the idea of slavery itself"; if you just say "I like slavery" people will think you have some justification in terms of other terminal values (e.g. slavery -> economics -> happiness).

So, to say you like slavery implies you have some justification for it as an instrumental value. Such justifications are generally considered to be incorrect for typical terminal values and so, the "liberals" could legitimately consider you to be factually incorrect.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-06-28T23:23:03.886Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

So, to say you like slavery implies you have some justification for it as an instrumental value.

Well, let's ask some folks who actually did like slavery, and fought for it.

From the Texas Declaration of Secession, adopted February 2, 1861:

[T]he servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations [...]

So at least some people who strongly believed that slavery was moral, claimed to hold this belief on the basis of (what they believed to be) both consequential and divine-command morality.

comment by taw · 2012-06-30T11:36:08.033Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It's not at all obvious if they really believed it. People say stuff they don't believe all the time.

comment by AlexanderRM · 2015-04-07T20:20:15.285Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

As I side note, I'd like to say I'd imagine nearly all political beliefs throughout history have had people citing every imaginable form of ethics as justifications, and furthermore without even distinguishing between them. From what I understand the vast majority of people don't even realize there's a distinction (I myself didn't know about non-consequentalist ideas until about 6 months ago, actually).

BTW, I would say that an argument about "the freedom to own slaves" is essentially an argument that slavery being allowed is a terminal value, although I'd doubt anyone would argue that owning of slaves is itself a terminal value.

comment by AlexMennen · 2012-06-29T07:01:38.276Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That seems like a valid distinction, but what makes you think that it is actually the distinction that motivates the difference in reactions?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-06-29T01:19:43.028Z · score: -6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

"I think everyone should be happy" is an expression of a terminal value.

I think it's gibberish.

"Should" expresses that a person has a moral obligation to perform an action. As you point out, I don't think this person is trying to express that everyone has a moral obligation to be happy, he's expressing a terminal value of his own.

Moral discourse is littered with such category errors. "It isn't fair." To what does "it" refer, and in what way is "it" not being fair?

comment by rocurley · 2012-06-29T07:15:21.334Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I think I understood the intended meaning of the sentence; something along the lines of "I consider it morally preferable for everyone to be happy", and I suspect most people did as well. Is there some particular reason you object to this use of should, which appears fairly standard to me?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-06-29T19:17:00.415Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I object because it is an extremely sloppy use of moral language, which in my experience inevitably leads to extremely sloppy moral thinking.

Case in point for sloppy moral thinking:

For example, social conservatives sometimes complain that liberals are pushing their morality on them, by requiring things such as not condemning homosexuality. To liberals, this is obviously absurd - nobody is saying that the conservatives should be gay, people are just saying that if somebody is gay, the conservatives shouldn't kill or harass them. From the liberal point of view, it is the conservatives who are pushing their beliefs on others, not vice versa.

See "To liberals...". Absolutely nothing in that sentence follows from anything, and it's a complete distortion of the reality of the issue.

Later in the thread, I have another post criticizing the original post, which may have made my greatest downvote ever.

I saw that Kaj_Sotala is a popular guy with a zillion karma points, but the moral reasoning in the article is embarrassingly bad, and anyone who upvoted it should be embarrassed as well.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-06-30T14:54:17.226Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There's a theory of ethics I seem to follow, but don't know the name of. Can someone refer me to existing descriptions?

The basic idea is to restrict the scope where the theory is valid. Many other theories fail (only in my personal view, obviously) by trying to solve universal problems: does my theory choose the best possible universe? How do I want everyone to behave? If everyone followed my theory, would that be a good or a stable world? Solving under these constraints can lead people to some pretty repugnant conclusions, as well as people rejecting otherwise good theories because they aren't universally valid.

By examining the rules I actually seem to follow, I am led to a more narrow theory. It doesn't tell me how to choose a whole universe from the realm of possibility - so it's not suitable for a superhuman AI to follow. But that makes it easier to decide what I personally should do.

Instead of having to decide whether democracy or autocracy is in some grand sense better, I can just estimate the marginal results of my own vote in the coming elections. Instead of figuring out how to maximize everyone's happiness, and fall into the traps of utilitarianism and its alternatives, I take advantage of the fact I am only one person - and maximize the happiness of myself and others near me, which is much easier.

Similarly, I don't have to worry about what would happen if everyone was as selfish as I was, because I can't affect other people's selfishness significantly enough for that to be a serious problem. Instead, I just need to consider the optimal degree of my own selfishness, given how other people in fact behave.

This doesn't mean I can't or don't take into account other people's welfare. I do, because I care about others. But I can accept that this is just a fact about the universe, produced by evolution and culture and other historical reasons, and that if I didn't feel a concern for others then I wouldn't act to benefit them. I don't need to invent a grand theory of how cooperating agents win, or how my morality is somehow objectively inferior and I should want to take a pill to modify my moral intuitions.

A brief statement of my approach might be: I'm not going to change my rules of ethics to win in dilemmas I don't expect to actually encounter, if these changes would make me perform less well in everyday situations. I don't want to be vulnerable to ethical-rules Pascal's mugging, so to speak.

comment by shokwave · 2012-06-30T17:18:57.023Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There seems to be a parallel here, with the concepts of rationality and bounded rationality. Rational decision-making needs to solve problems like Newcomb's Dilemma, Pascal's Mugging, acausal outside-the-lightcone one-shot cooperation, and the trillionth digit of pi being odd with probability .5 when lacking logical omniscience. In contrast, bounded rationality recognises that these things are outside the scope, and concerns itself with being correct within its bounds.

So perhaps you could adopt the name 'bounded morality'?

comment by drethelin · 2012-06-30T16:30:07.349Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

http://blog.muflax.com/morality/non-local-metaethics/ I really like Muflax's post on this topic. For practical purposes, morality needs to be calculable.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-06-30T16:40:57.410Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks! Muflax comes to this conclusion in that post:

your moral theories better be local, or you’re screwed.

I agree that local theories are better than nonlocal ones - although "local" is in some degree relative; local theories with a large "locality" may be acceptable. This isn't specific to moral theories, it applies to all decision algorithms.

This doesn't directly address my position that theories that only tell you what to do in some cases, but do cover the cases likely to occur to you personally, are valid and useful.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2012-06-28T22:07:37.929Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion of his finding that while the upper classes in both Brazil and USA were likely to find things like "not wearing a uniform to school" to be violations of social convention, lower classes in both countries were likely to find them violations of absolute moral codes.

Does he? The data in the source disagree (tables on 619-620). I haven't read all the text of the source, but it gives the uniform as the prototypical example of a custom and seems to say that it did work out that way. 40% of low SES adults in Recife (but not Porto Alegre) did claim it universal, but that's less than on any of the interesting examples. (Children everywhere showed less class-sensitivity than adults.)


Just to be clear, the description of the results of the experiment is correct, just mixing up the control example with the experimental example.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-29T10:07:42.291Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, I edited the sentence to be clearer on that: "...that while the upper classes in both Brazil and USA were likely to find violations of harmless taboos to be violations of social convention, lower classes in both countries were more likely to find them violations of absolute moral codes."

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-02T09:33:47.428Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a fun result.

Years ago, I had a "spiritual person" telling me about how god could help me if I prayed to him. Wishing to make a point by metaphor, I told him "it seems to me that god is just santa clause for grown-ups." "Yes," he responded, "santa clause gives kids what they want, god gives you what you need."

If only clever repartee established truth, then Stephen Colbert would be the last president we would ever need.

If the smarter you get, the more things you think are social convention and the fewer you think are absolute morality, then what is our self-improving AI going to eventually think about the CEV we coded in back when he was but an egg?

comment by wedrifid · 2012-07-02T09:54:06.821Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

If the smarter you get, the more things you think are social convention and the fewer you think are absolute morality, then what is our self-improving AI going to eventually think about the CEV we coded in back when he was but an egg?

It isn't going to think the CEV is an absolute morality - it'll just keep doing what it is programmed to do because that is what it does. If the programming is correct it'll keep implementing CEV. If it was incorrect then we'll probably all die.

The relevance to 'absolute morality' here is that if the programmers happened to believe there was an absolute morality and tried to program the AI to follow that then they would fail, potentially catastrophically.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-01T09:10:30.992Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I have been corrupted by the American blogosphere and literature, and will therefore be using "liberal" and "conservative" mostly to denote their American meanings.

You could use “left-wing” and “right-wing”, whose meanings (across the First World at least) are more consistent.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2012-06-28T21:45:56.029Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Change you link to a better version of Haidt's paper. Your current link doesn't have searchable text.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-28T22:04:43.852Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, changed.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-01T21:58:07.884Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So what about the cases when the distance is too large, when the gap simply cannot be bridged? Well in those cases, we will simply have to fight to keep pushing our own moral intuitions to as many people as possible, and hope that they will end up having more influence than the unacceptable intuitions.

We're not stuck with our moral intuitions, unless we have "faith" that they're "true."

  1. Doesn't it seem odd, Kaj_Sojala—even irrational—that we should push our "moral intuitions" when that's all they are: intuitions—which don't describe any reality, which aren't intuitions about anything?

  2. We can change our "moral intuitions" rationally—although the mission isn't one of finding "truth". Our standards of personal integrity respond to our adaptive needs, and we can help change them in the interest of rational adaptation. They are not, even for us, "ultimate moral values."

comment by Gust · 2012-07-31T13:34:11.649Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

and we can help change them in the interest of rational adaptation

And why should you do that?

comment by torekp · 2012-07-01T16:22:41.363Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Our moral reasoning is ultimately grounded in our moral intuitions

I don't accept the premise. Moral intuitions play a part, but the ultimate constraints come more from the nature of rational discourse and the psychology of the discoursing species. For extended arguments along these lines (well mostly the emphasized part) see Jürgen Habermas and Thomas Scanlon.

comment by AlexanderRM · 2015-04-07T20:24:18.051Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't "the psychology of the discoursing species" another way of saying "moral intuitions"? Or at least, those are included in the umbrella of that term.

comment by torekp · 2015-04-08T01:03:01.514Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, they're included. Well said. I believe this way of putting it, however, supports my criticism of the phrase "ultimately grounded in our moral intuitions;" the phrase is badly incomplete.

comment by private_messaging · 2012-07-01T14:42:43.538Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I have an impression that most of the explicit thinking about "morality" gets sabotaged by conditioning. The type of thought that allows you to eat the last piece of cake is associated with eating cake, the type of thought that leads to sense of guilt is associated with guilt.

Subsequently a great deal of self proclaimed systems of morality are produced in such a manner that they are much too ill defined to be used to determine the correct actions , and are only usable for rationalization (utilitarianisms, i am looking at you).

Meanwhile, there is an objective scale: how effective are the rules for peer to peer cooperation (intellectual and other); and for the most part the moralities we find entirely reprehensible are also least productive. There is no relativism in the jungle. No survival relativism, no moral relativism. And the morality as practiced gets produced by selection on this criteria.

If you want to know if you should transplant organs out of 1 healthy person who was doing routine check up, into 10 people who will otherwise die, against healthy person's will - well, the sort of societies who just cut up the healthy person and transplant end up with hardly anyone ever going to check ups. The answer is clear if you actually want the answer what you should do (when doing something for sake of everyone). Unfortunately, when people think of morality, what results is a product of lifelong history of conditioning that includes multiple small misdemeanors with associated rewards, and the guilt that resulted from thinking too clearly, and the pleasure that resulted from thinking sloppy and grand. People don't think along the lines of what is the best action; people think along the lines of what type of thought was most self serving, and the one where ends justify means is usually the most self serving (when coupled with rationalization).

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-01T20:13:56.695Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, when people think of morality, what results is a product of lifelong history of conditioning that includes multiple small misdemeanors with associated rewards, and the guilt that resulted from thinking too clearly, and the pleasure that resulted from thinking sloppy and grand. People don't think along the lines of what is the best action; people think along the lines of what type of thought was most self serving, and the one where ends justify means is usually the most self serving (when coupled with rationalization).

Can you clarify this/give some concrete examples?

comment by private_messaging · 2012-07-02T10:03:28.263Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Morals are significantly restrictive and influence personal pleasure (to the point that thinking about your own action produces guilt, a pain-like feeling, and the morals stand in the way of getting what you want).

Subsequently the thought is subject to reward/punishment conditioning.

If you rationalize why you should have more cake than the other, you get cake, which is reward, if you think too clearly about your ill-doings, you are hurt by feeling of guilt; if you engage in particular form of thought whereby you do not ensure correctness of the reasoning and do not note the ways how your argument may fail (implicit assumptions etc) you can easily rationalize away the things you did wrong.

Basically, you are being conditioned to feel good about bad approach to reasoning - where you make huge jumps, where you don't note the assumptions you make, where you just make invalid assumption, where you don't search for faults, etc., and feel bad about good approach to reasoning. Your very thought process is being trained to be sloppy and broken, with only very superficial resemblance to the logic - only sufficient resemblance that the guilt circuit won't be triggered.

There is some minor conditioning from the situations where you received some external punishment or reward, but those are too uncommon and too inconsistent, and the reward/punishment is too delayed, and at the very best those would condition mere avoidance of being caught.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-03T10:41:38.697Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Basically, you are being conditioned to feel good about bad approach to reasoning - where you make huge jumps, where you don't note the assumptions you make, where you just make invalid assumption, where you don't search for faults, etc., and feel bad about good approach to reasoning.

My initial response to this was "that seems completely untrue," so I decided to hunt for examples. I think you're right, because I was able to come up with an example of myself doing this, namely downloading music and movies for free from the Internet. I do consider this kind-of-vaguely-like-stealing, but the "kind-of-vaguely" part is a good indication that my thinking is deliberately fuzzy in this area.

When I think about it, I don't know why–I don't consume enough entertainment materials that paying for it would be a significant pull on my finances, and I'm hardly financially strapped. I think it's because the usual strong positive reinforcement I would get for knowing I was "doing the right thing" despite wanting Thing X really badly is outweighed by the knowledge that several of my friends would make fun of me for paying for stuff on iTunes. Which...if I think about it...is also a pretty selfish reason!

You may just have convinced me that I should start paying for my music and movies, as a way of training my moral thinking to be less "sloppy"!

comment by private_messaging · 2012-07-03T12:24:04.070Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

You may just have convinced me that I should start paying for my music and movies, as a way of training my moral thinking to be less "sloppy"!

Heh. But why did I do that? Selfish motives also (I make software for living).

I came up with another example. Consider the sunk cost issue. Suppose that you spent years working on a project that is heading nowhere, the effort was wasted, and there's a logical way to see that it is wasted effort. Any time your thought wavers in the direction of understanding that the effort was wasted, you get stab of negative emotions - particular hormones are released into bloodstream, particular pathways activate - and that is negative reinforcement for everything you've been doing including the use of mental framework that did lead you to that thought. I think LW calls something similar an 'ugh field', except the issue is that reinforcement is not so specific in it's action as to make you avoid one specific thought without also making you avoid the very method of thinking that got you there.

I think it may help in general (to combat the induced sloppiness) to do some kind of work where you are reliably negatively reinforced for being wrong or sloppy. Studying mathematics and doing the exercises correctly can be useful. (Studying without exercises doesn't even work). Software development, also. This will build a skill of what to do not to be sloppy, but won't necessarily transfer onto moral reasoning, for skill to transfer something else may be needed.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-03T14:20:57.245Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Consider the sunk cost issue. Suppose that you spent years working on a project that is heading nowhere, the effort was wasted, and there's a logical way to see that it is wasted effort. Any time your thought wavers in the direction of understanding that the effort was wasted, you get stab of negative emotions - particular hormones are released into bloodstream, particular pathways activate - and that is negative reinforcement for everything you've been doing including the use of mental framework that did lead you to that thought.

Solution: have a community where you can gain respect and status by having successfully noticed and avoided sunk cost reasoning. LW isn`t the best possible example of such a community, but a lot of the exercises done at, say, the summer minicamps in San Francisco were subsets of "get positive reinforcement for noticing Irrational Thought Pattern X in yourself, when normally various kinds of cognitive dissonance would make it tempting to sort of vaguely not notice it."

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-04T05:27:30.684Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Solution: have a community where you can gain respect and status by having successfully noticed and avoided sunk cost reasoning.

This has its own failure mode.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-04T10:14:30.293Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I had read that article before. It's not something that I would consider a problem for myself...I rarely if ever abandon a project in the middle, and when I do, it's a) always been a personal project or goal that affects no one else, and b) always been something that turned out to be either a bad idea in the first place (i.e. my goal at age 14 of weighing 110 pounds...would never happen unless I actually develop an eating disorder), or important to me for the wrong reasons (going to the Olympics for swimming). Etc.

Note that this isn't any kind of argument against your point... If anything, it's my own personal failure mode of assuming everyone's brain is like mine and that their main problems are like mine.

However, I think it does count for something that nyan_sandwich posted this article, noticing a flaw in his reasoning, on LW...and got upvotes and praise.

comment by private_messaging · 2012-07-03T17:07:01.253Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

LW is a terrible example, an attachment to bunch of people (SI) who keep sinking their effort and other people's money, and rationalizing it. Regarding noticing irrational pattern, so you notice it, get rid of it, then what? You aren't gaining some incredible powers of finding correct answer (you'll just come up with something else that's wrong). It's something you always find in cults - thought reform, unlearn what you learnt style. You don't find people sitting at the desks doing math exercises all day being ranked for being correct, being taught how to be correct, that would be school/university course, it is boring, it's no silver bullet, it takes time.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-07-03T17:14:17.310Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

LW is a terrible example, an attachment to bunch of people (SI) who keep sinking their effort and other people's money, and rationalizing it. Regarding noticing irrational pattern, so you notice it, get rid of it, then what? You aren't gaining some incredible powers of finding correct answer.

Why are you here then? Please leave.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-04T05:24:22.698Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Why are you here then? Please leave.

Are you intentionally trying to promote evaporative cooling?

comment by wedrifid · 2012-07-04T07:19:00.182Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Are you intentionally trying to promote evaporative cooling?

Evaporative cooling regarding that attitude and this behavioral pattern? ABSOULTELY!

comment by private_messaging · 2012-07-03T17:17:29.328Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Boredom. You guys are highly unusual, have to give you that.

comment by shokwave · 2012-07-03T17:32:46.298Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Might I suggest using fungibility? There are more effective ways than LW to treat boredom and desire for unusual conversation, if you pursue them separately.

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-06-29T08:03:05.002Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Front page, I suggest.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-30T06:02:15.501Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, I moved it. Let's see how it does.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-29T16:30:26.056Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-06-28T17:45:17.576Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

FWIW, I don't actually want to let everyone live the way they want to.
Ideally, I would far prefer that everyone live the way that's best for everyone.

Of course, I don't know that there is any such way-to-live, and I certainly don't know what it is, or how to cause everyone to live that way.

I might end up endorsing letting everyone live the way they want to, if I were convinced that that was the best achievable approximation of everyone living the way that's best for everyone. (IRL I'm not convinced of that.) But it would be an approximation of what I want, not what I want.

So what use is there in debating morality, if we have so divergent moral intuitions?

It's worth drawing a distinction here between debating morality and discussing it.

Roughly, I would say that the goal of debate is to net-increase among listeners their support for the position I champion, and the goal of discussion is to net-increase among listeners their understanding of the positions being discussed. In both cases, I might or might not hold any particular position, and participants in the discussion/debate are also listeners.

So. The value to me of debating moral positions is to convince listeners to align themselves with the moral positions I choose to champion. The value of debating other positions in moral terms is to convince listeners to align themselves with the other positions I choose to champion. The value to me of discussing moral positions is to learn more and to help others learn more about the various moral positions that exist.

Of course, many people respond negatively when they infer that someone is trying to get them to change their positions, and so it's often valuable when debating a topic to pretend to be discussing it instead. And, of course, if I believe that to understand my position is necessarily to support it, then I won't be able to tell the difference between debating and discussing that position.

So all of those things are sometimes called "debating morality", sometimes accurately. And debating morality is sometimes called other things.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-06-28T17:50:42.489Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Of course, many people respond negatively when they infer that someone is trying to get them to change their positions, and so it's often valuable when debating a topic to pretend to be discussing it instead.

That can also backfire with charges of "disingenuous".

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-06-28T17:57:07.705Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Well, yes. I mean, it is disingenuous.
If I'm going to successfully pretend to be doing something I'm not, it helps to not get caught out.

comment by pleeppleep · 2012-07-03T02:48:42.172Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would compare ethics to swimming in a giant tub of ice cream (all the same flavor) with the rest of humanity. Everyone has a favorite flavor which their intuitions pick for them, but the world can't fit everyone's tastes. Some flavors are acceptable deviations, but others are painfully unbearable. It only makes sense to try and fill the tub with your personal preference.

comment by AlexanderRM · 2015-04-07T21:02:09.507Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have much to contribute here personally; Just want ton ote that Yvain has an excellent diagram on the "inferrential distances" thing: http://squid314.livejournal.com/337475.html

(Also, the place he linked it from: http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/05/30/fetal-attraction-abortion-and-the-principle-of-charity/ is probably the more obviously relevant thing to moral debates in politics and the like.)

comment by taw · 2012-06-30T11:34:45.681Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I probably have very different sense what's moral and what isn't from the author (who claims to be American liberal), but I agree with pretty much everything the author says about meta-morality.

comment by prase · 2012-06-30T11:40:26.699Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The author doesn't claim to be American and in fact is, as far as I know, Finnish.

comment by shokwave · 2012-06-30T17:19:53.877Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Potentially "American liberal" is American-flavour liberalism, and not an American who is also a liberal.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-01T21:10:06.336Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Though it should probably be noted that I used "liberal" mostly a convenient shorthand to characterize my views regarding gay rights, rather than as a characterization of my political views in general. I expect there to be a number of issues on which my views map badly to the views of the typical American liberal, though I don't actually know American politics well enough to know exactly what views those are.

comment by prase · 2012-07-01T17:52:05.056Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Damn ambiguous natural languages, you may be right.

comment by djcb · 2012-06-28T22:24:27.278Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Moral intuitions (i.e, 'kneejerk reactions') are what fuels many people's opinions. Can we do better on LW? Meta-ethical systems (consequentialism, deontology) are often used as post-hoc rationalizations for said moral intuitions, but can we do better?

For these kind of problems I especially like Kant's approach -- can we come up with a rule that underlies our opinion on something, and would we be willing to follow that rule, even if it goes against our immediate intuitions in some other case? And the more specific a rule gets (ie., 'this only applies to green people', the clearer is the sign that we're doing some special pleading.

comment by mwengler · 2012-06-30T02:21:40.507Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

How is coming up with a rule based on our moral intuitions and then following that rule even when it means violating our intuitions any better than just following intuitions in the first place? How is it better to replace following intuitions with following an imperfect simplification derived from an intuition?

I have been thinking these past months that I could somehow be immune from or outside of the necessity of having my intuitions dictate my values. Someone pointed out to me that it was essentially an intuition of mine that separating from this source of morality would be a good idea, and since then I have been trying to figure out how to live with being just an evolutionarily determined set of arbitrary (to anyone outside the system) values.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-01T08:54:30.186Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How is coming up with a rule based on our moral intuitions and then following that rule even when it means violating our intuitions any better than just following intuitions in the first place? How is it better to replace following intuitions with following an imperfect simplification derived from an intuition?

You can't get away from your intuitions.

We contemplate our moral intuitions and intuitively abstract rules from them, and have the intuition that such rules should be followed. Yet the rules may turn out to violate other intuitions. The problem is not rules against intuitions, but intuitions against intuitions.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-06-30T03:59:42.387Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, deriving and following a rule can allow for consistent behavior across sets of situations where my intuitions are inconsistent. If I value consistency, I might endorse that.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-02T09:30:38.909Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you value consistency, AND your moral system is derived from your moral intuitions and nothing else, AND your moral intuitions are inconsistent...

If it walks like a science and it talks like a science but it is astrology, is it worth doing the calculations?

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-03T05:13:44.729Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If it walks like a science and it talks like a science but it is astrology, is it worth doing the calculations?

When you consider that "doing the calculations" is how astronomy was ultimately derived from and separated from astrology quiet possibly.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-03T07:25:34.904Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. So we have now had astronomy for more than 2000 years, thanks Astrology!

What have we gotten from doing Ethics? What has moral realism delivered? I suppose you might say a population easier to rule, and that would be something indeed, but before I put words in your mouth, you tell me what you get for having tried to systematize morality for 4000 years?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-02T13:44:17.561Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. Though not more than once.
Incidentally, I don't accept that adding the "and nothing else" clause preserves the meaning of my original comment. Which is fine; you're under no obligation to preserve that meaning, I just wanted to make that explicit.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-02T18:46:40.992Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't accept that adding the "and nothing else" clause preserves the meaning of my original comment.

Since we are talking about how to form a system of morality, where it might come from, and what might be good or bad about doing so, if there is some source of morality that youare presuming that has not yet entered the discussion, by all means, please, let 'er rip. I would prefer knowing what it is than to merely knowing that you may or may not have one in your pocket that you haven't stated.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-02T19:08:00.598Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have not claimed a hidden source of morality, nor do I possess one, so you can rest easy on that score.

But deriving a rule, or a consistent set of rules, or a system of morality based on my moral intuitions and my knowledge of the world is different from deriving it based on my moral intuitions and nothing else, even if my knowledge of the world is not itself a source of morality.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-03T07:40:49.832Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Its better if you tell me what you think and I don't have to guess. I don't see how a moral intuition could ever even appear absent some knowledge of the world, these are feelings which arise in response to situations we find ourselves in and (at least we think) comprehending.

Ir your systematized morality is "better" than your non-systematized moral intuitions, please tell me, at least through examples, 1) How it is different and 2) How you know (or at least why you think) it is better.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-03T15:06:19.597Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not asserting that moral intuitions can arise without any knowledge of the world.

But not all of my knowledge of the world plays a significant role in the formation of my moral intuitions, for various reasons, any more than all of my knowledge of the world plays a significant role in the formation of my physical and social intuitions.

And (as I've said repeatedly) taking all of that knowledge into account along with my moral intuitions when deriving moral rules can lead to a different set of rules than deriving those moral rules based on my intuitions and nothing else (as you initially framed the question).

1) How it is different and 2) How you know (or at least why you think) it is better.

As I said in the first place, the potential value of a systematized moral framework is that it can allow for consistent behavior across sets of situations where my intuitions are inconsistent, and some people value consistency.

If that's not clear enough to preclude the need for guesswork, I apologize for the lack of clarity. If you have specific questions or challenges I'll try to address them. If I'm just not making any sense at all, I'd prefer to drop this exchange here.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-01T06:51:16.731Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How is coming up with a rule based on our moral intuitions and then following that rule even when it means violating our intuitions any better than just following intuitions in the first place?

Well, in mathematics and science we made a lot of progress when we stopped doing the latter and started doing the former.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-02T09:24:41.759Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. In science and math we had reality against which to measure our progress.

What do you measure your progress against in coming up with a moral system? If it is the extent to which your moral system matches your moral intuitions, you will never do better than just following your intuitions.

If you are measuring your progress against something else, do say what it is. I know I have been searching for decades for some way to make morality objective.

If there is nothing against which to measure your progress, than following your intuitions is immeasurably better or worse than making up a system based on SOME of your intuitions.

comment by AlexanderRM · 2015-04-07T20:49:35.297Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I would say that for someone who accepts liberal ideas (counting most conservatives in western countries), this seems like a very useful argument for convincing them of this: If we always used intuitional morality, we would currently have morality that disagrees with their intuitions (about slavery being wrong, democracy being good, those sorts of things).

Of course, as a rational argument it makes no sense. It just appeals to me because my intuitions are Consequentialist and I want to try to convince others to follow Consequentialism, because it will lead to better outcomes.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-03T05:10:02.280Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. In science and math we had reality against which to measure our progress.

Except how do you measure something against reality in a way that doesn't (at least implicitly) rely on your intuitions?

What do you measure your progress against in coming up with a moral system? If it is the extent to which your moral system matches your moral intuitions,

Well, this is more-or-less what we do in mathematics.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-03T07:34:37.516Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I can routinely travel thousands of miles in a few hours at extremely finite cost. Our modern society gives US citizens on average the benefit of 25 humans worth of energy usage (that is, the amount of energy per day used by the average american would require 25 slaves to generate if human slaves were used to generate energy).

Even in math, I can build my understanding in to circuits which by working, verify my mathematical reasoning, and more importantly, verify that the reasoning stands independently of my own feelings or intuitions about it it. I routinely calculate things and then build software to implement them that 1) either works as I expected from my mathematical calculations, or 2) doesn't, in which case, so far, I have always been able to find that I made a mistake in my calculations, or in my interpretation of how my implementation was related to my calculations.

I'll admit some theoretical intuitive component to understanding the connection between science/math and real benefits that come from it.

But it isn't just that I am privileging math/science in a way I refuse to privilege moral reasoning. It is that I don't even know what benefits for systematized morality you are claiming. What do I expect as my payoff for systematizing morality, that I may perhaps have to make some intuitive leaps to notice? What does systematized morality offer us that merely relying on moral intuition in a non-systematic way doesn't do just as well?

This is a real question, not some rhetorical question to say "see, I am right." What do you get out of throwing your faith behind moral realism and systematizing it?

comment by djcb · 2012-06-30T07:53:10.788Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is a good question.

I think determining some underlying rule can help me make (subjectively of course) better judgements, which have a much better chance of being consistent (as TheOtherDave mentions).

It's much too easy for the emotional machinery in our brains to be hijacked by images of baby-seals, terrorists, etc., and I feel my judgements are better if I can use some underlying rules rather than my intuitions.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-02T09:28:56.748Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If all you have to base your moral system on is your intuitions, then the best you can hope for in a "consistent" systematization is to do no worse than flipping a coin when you have conflicting intuitions.

I suppose what I am really reacting to is that it strikes me that carefully systematizing morality makes as much sense as carefully systematizing astrology. The details and the calculations and the cogitation serve to give the illusion of there being something there while in actuality... all you have is Rationality Theater.

comment by djcb · 2012-07-02T21:34:57.530Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

True, at some point intuitions come into play (unless you are some kind of Spock), to determine your personal moral bedrock. But at least for me, these intuitions are not all born equal, and not all intuitions are part of this bedrock.

A typical example would be: 'Cute animals are more important', which may conflict with some deeper rule in some situation. Instead of just following my intuition with that first rule, I think my moral judgements are better when I take a step back and try to use the deeper rule.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-03T05:20:46.704Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If all you have to base your moral system on is your intuitions, then the best you can hope for in a "consistent" systematization is to do no worse than flipping a coin when you have conflicting intuitions.

Well, the same problem exists in science but that hasn't stopped us from making progress.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-03T07:22:51.534Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You are on to something, science in some sense is taken on faith and morality in a similar sense is taken on faith.

But the faiths are different. The faith of science is a testable faith. Either you build stuff that works or you don't. if your musings about thermodynamics lead to a steam engine and later to an air conditioner, and your musings about electrons in a semiconductor lead to a transistor and later to a smartphone, well, that is what your high priests of science can bring you.

What is the test of a faith in moral realism? I don't wish to answer with a strawman that I will knock down, I really want to know, how do you evaluate if your moral system is doing a good job? Do you measure fewer inconsistencies in intuition? Do you get elected to the senate? Do people vote up your karma?

Science leads to jet aircraft and HD TVs and hip replacements. 2 out of 3 Abrahamic religions lead toenjoyable promises of an eternity of bliss.

What is the promise of a moral system? What is the thing it claims to give me that I don't have just following my intuitions in a non-systematic way? I know what the high-priests of science are claiming for their mojo, and it sure seems to me they deliver. (And they don't require me to believe in their mumbo jumbo "induction" stuff in order to use their jet aircraft and smartphones). What are the moral realists offering? And even more important, what are they delivering?

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-04T06:27:19.567Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The best answer I can give you is that a moral realist today is currently in the same situation as a physical realist was before the development of the scientific method. There were lots of competing not-quite coherent theories of what it means for something to be real, but if you asked 100 people they would all agree on whether something was a rock or a glass of milk barring weirdness. Similarly, today there are lots of competing not-quite coherent theories of what it means for something to be moral, but if you asked 100 people they would all agree that killing an innocent person is wrong barring weirdness.

(The above is paraphrased from another comment that I can't locate right now.)

I realize that the above may not be the most satisfying answer, especially if the history of philosophy isn't available for you.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-04T16:20:00.634Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So perhaps we still await the development of "the moral method."

It does strike me, and I mean I have not thought of this really until right now, that law and government are the engineering branches of "the moral method" of "moral realism" as "the scientific method" corresponds to "physical realism." Economics and Sociology may be the Physics and Chemistry of "moral realism." The progress that law and government have enabled are an economic productivity contributed to by billions of people (or at least 100s of millions) which dwarfs that of our predecessors in the same way that our technology dwarfs that of our predecessors.

There are at least a few interesting things about this idea. One need not "believe" in science to use the fruits of it, whereas plausibliy a belief in science is necessary to contribute to developing its progress. One can be an anarchist or a communist or an ignoramus or a nihilist and benefit from the modern economy and unprecedented levels of personal security in society. Presumably any "realism" would have implications that did not depend on the state of belief in the thing which is real.

What my off-the-cuff thesis lacks is any neessity for the truth-or-falsehood of moral statements. "You ought to obey the law" or "killing in a way which is against the law is wrong" are NOT required to be meaningful statements with an objective truth value. Or are they? In some sense, the truth value of scientific statements require the assumptions of logic and induction. One could say that it is not necessary to have a truth value associated with "all electrons repel each other" in order for me to build a smartphone which will only work if its untested electrons act the same in the future as the very very few electrons I have actually tested in the past. So perhaps "de facto" as it were, the practitioners and advancers of the law and government have a belief in "the moral method" just as non-philosopher scientists and engineers seem to have a "de facto" belief in induction.

This identification of law and government with the stuff of moral realism even has the feature that it can be wrong, or wrong-ish, just like science and engineering. ALL engineering design is done using approximations of physics. That is, we KNOW the principles behind our designs our "wrong" in that they are inexact approximations for what is really happening. We then use trial and error to develop an art of design which "usually" works, which usually keeps the thing we are designing away from where the inaccuracies of our design assumptions matter. Heck we even have the idea that there can be better and worse law and government just as there are better and worse science.

To stretch the analogy past all reason, can I say something interesting about the moral discussions that to me seem typical and which make me want to be a nihilist? These are the discussions of "my morality comes from moral intuitions but one of my intuitions is my morality should be consistent so I build these elaborate personal strutures instead of just doing what feels right." Their analogy in science might be someone who assiduously records all sorts of personal data to advance his health without a clue that his better option would be to plug in to the progress made in medical research. Someone who attempts to build his own smartphone through introspection instead of getting the professional product.

I don't know. Now I'll have to read about philosophy of law and government to discover that everything I've just said has been said before, its flaws categorized into labeled branches of belief. But for now I'm pretty happy with the concept and feel as though I've just invented something even though I've probably just dredged it up from things I've heard and read over the last half a century and, at least consciously, forgotten.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-05T07:08:40.641Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It does strike me, and I mean I have not thought of this really until right now, that law and government are the engineering branches of "the moral method" of "moral realism" as "the scientific method" corresponds to "physical realism." Economics and Sociology may be the Physics and Chemistry of "moral realism."

Given the current state of economics and sociology I'd replace chemistry with alchemy in that metaphor. Also, foundational systems like utilitarianism and deontology are the equivalent of astronomy/astrology before they got separated.

To stretch the analogy past all reason, can I say something interesting about the moral discussions that to me seem typical and which make me want to be a nihilist? These are the discussions of "my morality comes from moral intuitions but one of my intuitions is my morality should be consistent so I build these elaborate personal strutures instead of just doing what feels right." Their analogy in science might be someone who assiduously records all sorts of personal data to advance his health without a clue that his better option would be to plug in to the progress made in medical research. Someone who attempts to build his own smartphone through introspection instead of getting the professional product.

A better analogy might be someone who believes that he can develop a physical theory simply by introspection without looking at the world. (It was a popular philosophical position before the scientific method was developed, after all that's how mathematics works and it had been successful.)

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-06-29T08:04:53.738Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Doing this is, of course, a major project in philosophy. Many attempts have serious problems.

comment by djcb · 2012-06-29T18:46:20.655Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I can see that... one of the obvious problems that we can find some case where the meta-ethical systems go against our moral intuitions. This sometimes leads to attempt to make the meta-ethics incorporate this case (and then some more), but I feel it quickly becomes rather obvious that we cannot come up with any consistent system that also satisfies our intuitions. I'm a bit pessimistic philosophers will resolve this problem soon...

On a more happy note, I have found Kant's reasoning very useful for my own personal opinion-making, by constantly reminding me that if I find X about, say, genetically-modified food, nuclear energy etc., I really need to make my opinion in terms of a rule that doesn't include the particular case, and I try to think what this same rule would mean for other opinions I hold.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-01T06:48:57.989Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I can see that... one of the obvious problems that we can find some case where the meta-ethical systems go against our moral intuitions. This sometimes leads to attempt to make the meta-ethics incorporate this case (and then some more), but I feel it quickly becomes rather obvious that we cannot come up with any consistent system that also satisfies our intuitions. I'm a bit pessimistic philosophers will resolve this problem soon...

Reasoning about, e.g., mathematics or physics has the same problem, and yet in those fields we can still build the system on our intuitions while accepting that they're sometimes wrong.

comment by AlexanderRM · 2015-04-07T20:45:35.772Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that Utilitarianism can be similar to the way you describe Kant's approach: Selecting a specific part of our intuitions- "Actions that have bad consequences are bad"- ignoring the rest, and then extrapolating from that. Well, that and coming up with a utility function. Still, it seems to me that you can essentially apply it logically to situations and come up with decisions based on actual reasoning: You'll still have biases, but at least (besides editing utility functions) you won't be editing your basic morality just to follow your intuitions.

Of course, as mwengler notes, we're just replacing our arbitrary set of moral intuitions, with a cohesive, logical system based on... one of those arbitrary moral intuitions. I'm pretty sure there's no solution to that; the only justification for being moral at all is our moral intuitions. Still, if you are going to be moral, I find Utilitarianism preferable to intuitional morality... actually, I guess mainly because I'd already been a Utilitarian for awhile before realizing morality was arbitrary, so my moral intuitions have changed to be consequentialist. Oh well. :/

comment by stcredzero · 2012-06-28T23:30:16.692Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps we should view our moral intuitions as yet another evolved mechanism, in that they are imperfect and arbitrary though they work well enough for hunter gatherers.

When we lived as hunter gatherers, an individual could find a group with compatible moral intuitions or walk away from a group with incompatible ones. The ability or possibility that an unpleasant individual's moral intuitions would affect you from one valley over was minimal.

One should note, though, that studies of murder rates amongst hunter gatherer groups found that they were on the high side compared to industrialized societies.

comment by taw · 2012-06-30T11:37:32.011Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Dear everyone, please stop talking about "hunter gatherers". We have precisely zero samples of any real Paleolithic societies unaffected by extensive contact with Neolithic cultures.

comment by Nisan · 2012-07-02T03:00:58.057Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Can you elaborate on this? I mean, can you give me a reason that using the phrase "hunter-gatherer" is a mistake? I understand your second sentence but I don't understand why that's a reason.

comment by taw · 2012-07-02T10:22:50.863Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

People make all kinds of stuff about how humans supposedly lived in "natural state" with absolute certainty, and we know just about nothing abut it, other than some extremely dubious extrapolations.

A fairly safe extrapolation is that human were always able to live in very diverse environments, so even if we somehow find one unpolluted sample somehow (by time travel most likely...), it will give us zero knowledge of "typical" Paleolithic humans.

The label has also been used on countless modern and fairly recent historical societies which are definitely not living in any kind of Paleolithic-like conditions. Like agricultural societies in Papua New-Guinea. And banana farmers Yanomami (who are everybody's favourite "hunter gatherers" when talking about violence in "Paleolithic"). etc. Or Inuit who had domesticated dogs, and lived in condition as climatically removed from Paleolithic humans as possible.

With pretty much 100% rate of statement being wrong when anybody says anything about "hunter gatherers" due to these reasons.

One should note, though, that studies of murder rates amongst hunter gatherer groups found that they were on the high side compared to industrialized societies.

That's a great example of all these fallacies put together. Murder rates of some people who were actually not hunter gatherers (my bet is they refer to Yanomami), after fairly significant amount of contact with civilization (so not even in their "natural" state, whatever that might be), in one short time period when research was conducted (as we know 1939-1945 murder rates are perfectly extrapolable to entire European history), among people who are not really hunter gatherers in the first place, was found to be fairly high. This is then generalized to what all humans must have been like in prehistory.

With such a clusterfuck of fallacies happening every time anybody says anything about "hunter gatherers", let's just stop.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-07-02T10:47:06.423Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

With pretty much 100% rate of statement being wrong when anybody says anything about "hunter gatherers" due to these reasons.

Assuming your premises, how the heck would you know?

comment by TimS · 2012-07-02T14:16:55.705Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that that paragraph before the one you quoted counts as "presenting evidence."

That just leaves hyperbole - which I'm sure you've never used yourself.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-07-02T14:30:05.025Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That just leaves hyperbole - which I'm sure you've never used yourself.

I try to avoid self defeating ironic hyperbole.

comment by TimS · 2012-07-02T14:38:14.118Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't approve of taw's tone - as you note, it is more off-putting than persuasive. But "ancestral environment" is an applause light in this community. I don't see what your comment adds beyond reinforcing the applause light.

comment by wedrifid · 2012-07-02T15:04:14.848Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"Ancestral Environment"? I thought he was talking about the phrase "Hunter Gatherer". The former phrase isn't even in the comment!

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-03T15:15:53.991Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The meaning is, however, found in the original context. stcredzero:

When we lived as hunter gatherers

That's a reference to ancestral environment.

One should note, though, that studies of murder rates amongst hunter gatherer groups

That's a reference to present-day hunter-gatherers, with the implication that what we see among modern groups so described is what happened among humans generally in the Paleolithic, when hunting and gathering were the only ways that people had yet invented for getting their food. This is the fallacy that taw is talking about when he says:

We have precisely zero samples of any real Paleolithic societies unaffected by extensive contact with Neolithic cultures.

To which stcredzero replied by quoting:

Bushman society is...

And so on.

comment by stcredzero · 2012-07-03T02:02:40.722Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

http://www.crinfo.org/articlesummary/10594/

Bushman society is fairly egalitarian, with power being evenly and widely dispersed. This makes coercive bilateral power-plays (such as war) less likely to be effective, and so less appealing. A common unilateral power play is to simply walk away from a dispute which resists resolution. Travel among groups and extended visits to distant relatives are common. As Ury explains, Bushmen have a good unilateral BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). It is difficult to wage war on someone who can simply walk away. Trilateral power plays draw on the power of the community to force a settlement. The emphasis on consensual conflict resolution and egalitarian ethos means that Bushmen communities will not force a solution on disputing parties. However the community will employ social pressure, by for instance ostracizing an offender, to encourage dispute resolution.

Please explain to me how Bushmen picked up the above from industrialized society. It strikes me as highly unlikely that this pattern of behavior didn't predate the industrial era.

Did you consider precisely what you were objecting to, or was this a knee-jerk reaction to a general category?

comment by taw · 2012-07-03T14:47:51.380Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Bushmen lived in contact with pastoralist and then agricultural societies nearby for millennia. The idea that they represent some kind of pre-contact human nature is baseless.

"Industrialized" or not isn't relevant.

comment by mwengler · 2012-06-30T02:17:28.246Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When we lived as hunter gatherers, an individual could find a group with compatible moral intuitions or walk away from a group with incompatible ones.

I suspect that this was much less true among hunter gatherers than it is now. From what I have read of groups in the Amazon and New Guinea, if you were to walk away from your group and try to walk into another, you would most likely be killed, and possibly captured and enslaved.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-30T10:08:30.249Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

From what I have read of groups in the Amazon and New Guinea, if you were to walk away from your group and try to walk into another, you would most likely be killed, and possibly captured and enslaved.

What groups? Low-tech tribal societies in the Amazon and New Guinea aren't necessarily hunter-gatherers. Both regions have agricultural societies going back a long way.

comment by stcredzero · 2012-06-30T03:06:04.717Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

From what I have read of groups in the Amazon and New Guinea, if you were to walk away from your group and try to walk into another, you would most likely be killed, and possibly captured and enslaved.

Perhaps this varies because of local environmental/economic conditions. From my undergraduate studies, I seem to remember that !Kung Bushmen would sometimes walk away from conflicts into another group.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-30T10:09:10.128Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. That's true of many other mobile forager societies as well.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-06-29T03:32:48.865Z · score: -11 (25 votes) · LW · GW

Now my liberal readers (do I even have any socially conservative readers?)

I doubt it.

(Note to international readers: I have been corrupted by the American blogosphere and literature, and will therefore be using "liberal" and "conservative" mostly to denote their American meanings.

No, you haven't. This post seems like a liberal cartoon version of liberals and conservatives.

For example, social conservatives sometimes complain that liberals are pushing their morality on them, by requiring things such as not condemning homosexuality. To liberals, this is obviously absurd - nobody is saying that the conservatives should be gay, people are just saying that if somebody is gay, the conservatives shouldn't kill or harass them.

being required to not condemn homosexuality <> being gay <> being prohibited from killing or harassing.

But it would be more honest to admit that we actually want to let everyone live the way they want to, as long as they don't things we consider "really wrong", such as discriminating against gays. And that in this regard we're no different from the conservatives, who would likewise let everyone live the way they wanted to, as long as they don't do things the conservatives consider "really wrong".

We could throw away all distinctions and say that everyone wants what they want, so they're all "the same". Yes, "the same" by a stupid equivalence class unrelated to any human purpose. By most human standards, my desire to blow your head off with a shotgun is not "the same" as your desire not to have your head blown off.

One improvement to most political discourse would be to taboo "X is the same as Y". Two people, dancing about, trying to frame the issue according to some verbal category, then claiming that sameness according to their frame implies sameness of action. Guess what? People who value differently are probably unlikely to agree on what verbal category is the relevant category for the issue in the first place.

In case you're wondering, I'm neither liberal nor conservative, but have taken to calling myself a Tom Paine Libertarian to distinguish myself from the property fetishism of most US Libertarians. I was appalled to see this post upvoted, and flabbergasted to see the OP near the top of the all time leader board.

As appalled as I am, I was heartened to see that toward the end, you're climbing out of the relativist swamp and asserting values, instead of lying prostrate before "sameness".

Compare this to saying that it's fine to refuse to send Jews to concentration camps,

Argumentum Ad Hilterum. Really?

But it would be more honest to admit that we actually want to let everyone live the way they want to, as long as they don't things we consider "really wrong", such as discriminating against gays. And that in this regard we're no different from the conservatives, who would likewise let everyone live the way they wanted to, as long as they don't do things the conservatives consider "really wrong".

I would suggest again that your category for sameness isn't particularly illuminating. And not even accurate, as far as it goes.

It's just not true that liberals confine their meddling to what is "really wrong". In NYC, there was recently a big stink over the Mayor proposing banning sugary drinks that are "too large" - except for a number of arbitrary exceptions which compounded the idiocy. I don't think liberals think it's "really wrong", i.e., a serious moral transgression, to drink a very large soda. But liberals were about evenly split (actually, democrats were, I suspect self identified liberals an progressives were in favor), while republicans were overwhelmingly opposed.

comment by prase · 2012-06-29T17:59:13.382Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This is an extraordinarily uncharitable reading of the OP, by LW standards.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-06-29T19:45:02.818Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

And this article contained some extraordinarily poor moral reasoning by LW standards, and was particularly uncharitable to social conservatives, though lack of charity to social conservatives is largely tolerated here.

I'll note that you didn't say I was incorrect, only that I was uncharitable.

Was I uncharitable? Maybe so. If this were some newbie posting, without a bunch of upvotes, or maybe net negative votes, I might not have even bothered to respond, or would have taken a lighter touch.

But it's not some newbie posting. It's a post by a grown up with a zillion karma points, with a large upvote for this particular article. I figure he's a big boy with a big fan club at his back, and they all can take their medicine straight, and need to.

Amidst the cheering throng, I admit to having a something of a John McEnroe moment - "You cannot be serious!" I actually removed a number of even more uncharitable comments. But I stand by the accuracy and fairness of my comments.

comment by prase · 2012-06-29T21:29:08.944Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I have said you read the post uncharitably, which implies that I think that you have interpreted the post incorrectly, taking the interpretation you can most easily argue against rather than the interpretation that would be expected from a reasonable writer. For example, it seems that you assume that the post was arguing in favour of the most primitive moral relativism of "all preferences are equal" sort. Which is not true. For another example, calling argumentum ad Hitlerum suggests that you assumed that Kaj_Sotala was comparing someone to nazis to shed negative light on them (because that is usually called such). But that's also a misinterpretation since the original post used the analogy as an exaggerated illustration of what the vegans might feel - upon reading that neither I got the suspicion that Kaj thinks eating meat is comparable to the Holocaust, nor did I feel like reading an anti-conservative (or pro-vegan, or whatever) political argument.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-14T23:18:49.527Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

For example, it seems that you assume that the post was arguing in favour of the most primitive moral relativism of "all preferences are equal" sort.

No, you've misread me. As I said, while the author accepts the presuppositions of moral relativism, he was busy climbing out of the relativist swamp to be able to assert his own values. He attempts to resolve the unease of the liberal moral relativist at the apparent contradiction between their avowed moral relativism and the assertion of liberal values.

It's a backhanded "tu quoque". Basically, yeah, we're forcing our values on people, but everybody does it. It's much like Doug Wilson's "tu quoque" defense of faith - rationality isn't self justifying, so reason is just "another faith". Everybody's doing it.

Both of these tu quoques operate by destroying the distinctions made by the concepts in question, faith and force. Just as no one believes that having faith that quacking like a duck will start your car is "the same" as relying on reason and evidence to use your key, no one believes that my desire to murder you is "the same" as your desire not to be murdered.

In his argument, he pits a conservative straw man and a vegan straw man against his relatively favorably portrayed liberal moral relativist. It's peculiar that you accuse me of straw manning Kaj, when his whole argument is based in contrasts to straw men he disagrees with, which is part of what allows him to blithely assert liberal values despite his admission that "we're no different than the conservatives".

Notice who's missing in his political universe? Libertarians - those who assert the difference between my desire to murder you and your desire not to be murdered. Yet another straw man aspect to his argument - those who would most strenuously object to his thesis don't even exist.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-17T09:33:45.627Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, upon reconsideration you were right all along: the characterization of conservatives was uncharitably strawmannish. My apologies for both this, and for not admitting it earlier: your original comment was so aggressively hostile that I was automatically put on the defensive, without giving your criticism the proper consideration.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-18T10:26:55.784Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I've gotten comments on my tone before, and in this case I'd say there's more justification than usual - more justification for some hostility, and more justification for noting it.

Yes, I was feeling hostile. But it wasn't really as much about what you said as the general reaction to it. You were unfairly casting your political opponents not just as wrong, but as morally reprehensible. But that really isn't that big a deal. Obviously, it's uncalled for, but who doesn't take a cheap shot at the Enemy every now and again?

What was disappointing, and frustrating, is to see no one call you on it. I looked before I posted. To the contrary, you were upvoted to the moon and applauded on all sides. That's no longer an oopsie, a slip up - that's a pattern. And when I get karma hammered when I call you on it, that's a pattern too. And when people rush to defend the indefensible, that's a pattern too.

I've seen the pattern before on this list. I've seen the pattern before in the world. EY had Harry expound on the patterns in Slytherin - the pattern of people desperate to hate. I don't see that in liberals. But I see something similar - a pattern of people desperate for someone to look down on, someone to sneer at, and that there is any justification for that sneering is simply beside the point.

You don't strike me as someone desperate to sneer. Some liberals seem desperate to sneer, and some don't. But get enough of them together, and even those who don't, say these kinds of things, and everyone goes along. Similar kinds of Group Sneer may exist on the right, but I've never really come across it up close and personal.

Where ever it comes from, I'm not digging it. I think it's particular shameful on this list, with airs to overcoming bias. People here should know better and do better.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-18T11:20:33.284Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

You were casting unfairly casting your political opponents not just as wrong, but as morally reprehensible.

Right - and the interesting thing is, I had no idea that I was doing it, and in fact was trying to do the opposite. I did my best to take extreme viewpoints like "eating meat is like committing genocide" and "everyone should be converted or they'll go to hell" and attempted to portray them as psychologically no different from any other belief. But although I think I did okay with that, an uncharitable and exaggerated strawman still managed to slip in earlier on.

For the most part, I think it's just about the general ingroup-outgroup tendency in humans, and the desire to look down on any outgroups. But as for that bias slipping into my writing, even when I was explicitly trying to avoid it - that seems to have more to do with the way that most of our thought and behavior is built on subconscious systems, with conscious thought only playing a small role. Or to use Jonathan Haidt's analogy, the conscious mind is the rider of an elephant:

'm holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn't have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I'm no match for him.

...The controlled system [can be] seen as an advisor. It's a rider placed on the elephant's back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will...

...The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don't always work together well.

That elephant is very eager to pick up on all sorts of connotations and biases from its social environment, and if we spend a lot of time in an environment where a specific group (conservatives, say) frequently gets bashed, then we'll start to imitate that behavior ourselves - automatically and almost as a reflex, and sometimes even when we think that we're doing the exact opposite.

It is a pity that this kind of a bias hasn't really been discussed much on LW. Probably because the original sequences drew most heavily upon cognitive psychology and math, whereas this kind of bias has been mostly explored in social psychology and the humanities.

comment by SusanBrennan · 2012-07-18T11:54:26.269Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I remember coming across this paper during my PhD, and it provides a somewhat game theoretic analysis of in-group out-group bias, which is still fairly easy to follow. The paper is mainly about the implications for conflict resolution, as the authors are lecturers in business an law, so it should be of interest to those seeking to improve their rationality (particularly where keeping ones cool in arguments is involved), which is why we are here after all.

I've been thinking about doing my first mainspace post for LessWrong soon. Perhaps I could use it to address this. Unfortunately I've forgotten a very famous social psychology experiment wherein one group (group A) was allowed to dictate their preferred wage difference between their group and and another group (group B). They chose the option which gave them the least in an absolute sense because the option gave them more than group B by comparison. They were divided according to profession. It's a very famous experiment, so I'm sure someone here will know it.

comment by VincentYu · 2012-07-18T14:03:50.862Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately I've forgotten a very famous social psychology experiment wherein one group (group A) was allowed to dictate their preferred wage difference between their group and and another group (group B). They chose the option which gave them the least in an absolute sense because the option gave them more than group B by comparison. They were divided according to profession. It's a very famous experiment, so I'm sure someone here will know it.

In Irrationality, Sutherland cites Brown (1978, "Divided we fall: An analysis of relations between sections of a factory workforce") and states:

In real life, the rivalry between groups may be so irrational that each may try to do the other down even at its own expense. In an aircraft factory in Britain the toolroom workers received a weekly wage very slightly higher than that of the production workers. In wage negotiations the toolroom shop stewards tried to preserve this differential, even when by so doing they would receive a smaller wage themselves. They preferred a settlement that gave them £67.30 a week and the production workers a pound less, to one that gave them an extra two pounds (£69.30) but gave the production workers more (£70.30).

In a highly-cited review, Tajfel (1982) states:

An intriguing aspect of the early data on minimal categorization was the importance of the strategy maximizing the difference between the awards made to the ingroup and the outgroup even at the cost of giving thereby less to members of the ingroup. This finding was replicated in a field study (Brown 1978) in which shop stewards representing different trades unions in a large factory filled distri­bution matrices which specified their preferred structure of comparative wages for members of the unions involved. It was not, however, replicated in another field study in Britain (Bourhis & Hill 1982) in which similar matrices were completed by polytechnic and university teachers.

A brief look at recent studies seems to suggest a more nuanced relation, but I'm not familiar with the literature. See, e.g., Card et al. (2010).

comment by SusanBrennan · 2012-07-18T14:09:24.828Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Bang on! Brown ("Divided we fall") is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you. I regret having only one up-vote to give you.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-23T08:21:25.190Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Right - and the interesting thing is, I had no idea that I was doing it, and in fact was trying to do the opposite.

I didn't think you were particularly trying to do it - it just came out.

I did my best to take extreme viewpoints like "eating meat is like committing genocide" and "everyone should be converted or they'll go to hell" and attempted to portray them as psychologically no different from any other belief.

People keep saying that this is what you were trying to do. I think that misses the punchline, which is something else:

My point isn't that we should accept the conservative argument. Of course we should reject it - my liberal moral intuitions say so. But we can't in all honestly claim an objective moral high ground. If we are to be honest to ourselves, we will accept that yes, we are pushing our moral beliefs on them - just as they are pushing their moral beliefs on us. And we will hope that our moral beliefs win.

Basically, you're encouraging liberals to enforce their moral beliefs on others. And in that argument, even if you hadn't slipped into unfair characterizations, choosing the most extreme beliefs of your opponents gives the implicit options of liberals force their morals on others, or these crazies do. That false alternative clearly serves the quoted thesis.

And while you paint your opponents in the worst light, you inaccurately paint liberals in a rosier than life hue:

But it would be more honest to admit that we actually want to let everyone live the way they want to, as long as they don't things we consider "really wrong"

In a previous comment, I pointed out that it's just not true that liberals limit use of coercive force to what is "seriously wrong". Force will be used for the most minor and trifling issues. Half of New York Democrats were in favor of a ban on sugary drinks over 16 ounces, while the vast majority of other New Yorkers were against it.

It is a pity that this kind of a bias hasn't really been discussed much on LW.

Perhaps the general avoidance of politics (though no one complained when you did it) likewise puts a damper on metapolitical talk, barring the real world data points from which one could generalize.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-23T16:04:01.801Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

People keep saying that this is what you were trying to do. I think that misses the punchline, which is something else:

That was mostly just intended to make clear that, well, I didn't think that we should accept conservative arguments as being just as good as liberal ones. Since most of the post was (intended to be) quite sympathetic towards conservatives, it would have been easy for people to get the wrong impression.

In a previous comment, I pointed out that it's just not true that liberals limit use of coercive force to what is "seriously wrong".

True, though liberals do think that they do. But yes, that could probably have been worded more accurately. Which really just strenghtens the thesis of the post - that even though the liberals claim to only want to restrict things that they consider really wrong, most of them want to impose just as much control on the lives of others as the conservatives do...

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-08-11T20:22:28.008Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

that even though the liberals claim to only want to restrict things that they consider really wrong, most of them want to impose just as much control on the lives of others as the conservatives do...

Notice how this statement sidesteps another alternative - that liberals want to impose more control than conservatives do?

That has always been my perception as a libertarian in the US, and I think it is shared by most US libertarians, who tend to lean right because of it.

An even more unfavorable comparison that you don't discuss is the obvious one - that liberals certainly want to impose more control than libertarians do.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-08-12T09:59:30.532Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The essay was not using the framing of "wishing to impose control", but "wishing to push one's morality on others". These are somewhat related, but different. E.g. libertarians are pushing their morality on others when they say that everyone should be as free as possible, when both liberals and conservatives are likely to say that everyone shouldn't be as free as possible.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-08-13T01:16:48.732Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I got the language of imposing control from you in the quote I gave:

most of them want to impose just as much control

One of the issues that I never got to was how you used "pushing morality" in two fundamentally different senses: 1) persuading others to adopt your moral values (as immediately above) and 2) using coercive force to impose your moral values on others, and you do when referring to numerous cases of using the force of law to impose moral values on other people.

But I wasn't as clear as I should have been. It's not just that liberals want to impose more control, it's that they attempt to impose more control, and are too often successful at it.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-08-12T07:50:17.530Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Comparisons of exactly which group seeks to control others the most would be going beyond the scope of the essay. Especially since part of the whole point of the essay was that there isn't any objective criteria of "control" that everyone would agree upon, essentially making any such comparisons meaningless. Also, coarse terms like "liberals" and "conservatives" (as well as "libertarians") work fine if we're only making general statements, but in reality they're all heterogeneous groups. Figuring out exactly which proposals can be fairly attributed to the whole of the group would be as much work as comparing those proposals in the first place.

You're right that saying something about libertarianism would probably have been a good idea, though. It doesn't seem to me like they would be immune to the "want to control others" charge, though - the essence of having a political agenda is that you want to influence how others behave. In particular, libertarians seem excessively focused on negative liberties, and one could probably make the argument that they're seeking to control others by effectively reducing the positive liberties that most people would want to have. But I don't really know that movement well enough to make a fair commentary about them, so I left that out.

comment by prase · 2012-07-15T18:51:06.845Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Still I think you are misinterpreting (not strawmanning) Kaj when you assume that he was trying to assert, defend or justify his (liberal) ideological position. I read the post as doing something very different: pointing out reasons why many political arguments naturally fail when both parties have insufficiently compatible base values.

I believe Kaj does not think that there is no difference between the statements "killing people without a very good reason should be illegal" and "homosexual partnerships should be illegal". But he probably thinks that the important difference is a matter of value judgement. Even if I justify the distinct moral status of murder and homosexuality by a more general principle, e.g. that an act is immoral if and only if it causes harm, the justification relies on my fundamental values and is no good in a debate where my interlocutor doesn't share these values.

(I think this should be pretty uncontroversial and politically neutral. Kaj has perhaps made a mistake using the labels "conservative" and "liberal" and expressing where his own sympathies are, which may have created an impression that the article was defending liberal ideas.)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-15T22:47:04.948Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, this. My worst mistake was probably straying into normative wording, given that the post was meant to be mainly/purely descriptive.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-15T08:57:06.757Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

a conservative straw man and a vegan straw man

Hardly strawmen. The characterization of (some) conservatives was based (among other things) on the violence and harassment inflicted against LGBT people, while the vegan characterization was based on an essay I once read which made the Auschwitz / slaughterhouse comparison directly. (I'd give you the link, but it's in Finnish.) I'm also not entirely unsympathetic towards the view in that essay.

ETA: However, since it's obvious that the original wording is diverting attention from the actual point of the essay, I've edited that sentence. Instead of saying that gays shouldn't be killed, it now says "people are just saying that people shouldn’t be denied equal rights simply because of their sexual orientation."

Notice who's missing in his political universe? Libertarians

Giving examples in terms of every existing political group would have made the post unbearably long.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-01T20:27:34.528Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I think it's a good thing that you're posting your actual opinions, uncharitable or not. Discussions where everyone agrees with everyone else are boring.

comment by shminux · 2012-06-29T21:55:20.172Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Amidst the cheering throng, I admit to having a something of a John McEnroe moment - "You cannot be serious!"

I doubt that bringing up John McEnroe, who, though a great player, was quite biased even by the rather relaxed standards of professional sports, supports your next point:

I actually removed a number of even more uncharitable comments. But I stand by the accuracy and fairness of my comments.

It has also been my experience that anyone who with a straight face calls oneself "accurate and fair" (as opposed to trying their best to be unbiased), is usually none of those things.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2012-06-30T22:27:34.230Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Kaj argues that even that straw-man conservative (who wants no law protecting gays from harassment) is not susceptible to a legitimate "don't push your moral intuitions onto us!" riposte.

It seems that you've knee-jerked and missed the point.

It's not interesting or controversial to point out that there exist obnoxious nanny-statists, either. Most of us are smart enough to not lump together all conservative viewpoints (there's always Chesterton's Fence to consider). Conservative of what is the point, as Konkvistador said.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-01T10:51:56.860Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Katja argues that

(Kaj.)

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2012-07-02T22:36:08.650Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Apologies. Edited.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-07-04T08:06:43.343Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No problem, thanks for the edit. :-)

comment by [deleted] · 2014-01-21T20:32:57.857Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Tom Paine Libertarian

What's special about it?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-01-21T20:56:48.337Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm neither liberal nor conservative, but have taken to calling myself a Tom Paine Libertarian to distinguish myself from the property fetishism of most US Libertarians.

I was just trying to more precisely indicate my political persuasion. I don't know that this makes me an extra special snowflake, only a more precisely specified one. "Geolibertarian" works pretty well too, although "Geo" seems a strange and potentially misleading qualifier, which would be easily taken to have environmental connotations that aren't really part of the concept for me.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-01T20:25:14.198Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, you haven't. This post seems like a liberal cartoon version of liberals and conservatives.

I know next to nothing about politics, so could you specify in what way this post portrays a "cartoonish" image of liberals and conservatives?

But it would be more honest to admit that we actually want to let everyone live the way they want to, as long as they don't things we consider "really wrong", such as discriminating against gays. And that in this regard we're no different from the conservatives, who would likewise let everyone live the way they wanted to, as long as they don't do things the conservatives consider "really wrong".

We could throw away all distinctions and say that everyone wants what they want, so they're all "the same". Yes, "the same" by a stupid equivalence class unrelated to any human purpose. By most human standards, my desire to blow your head off with a shotgun is not "the same" as your desire not to have your head blown off.

To me it seems like a useful equivalence class... A "conservative person's" internal experience of wanting people to live the way they want but follow certain rules about things that are "really wrong' probably feels around the same as a "liberal person's" experience of wanting people to follow different rules. These kind of beliefs run on the same bits of brain hardware, and so a liberal saying that something is "really wrong" is not a universal argument against that thing. That was how I interpreted Kaj_Sotala's point... I don't know if you interpreted him as making a stronger point that you disagree with, or if you disagree with what I said too.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-15T00:15:19.974Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Cartoonish? Social conservatives really aren't trying trying to get murdering homosexuals legalized. It's a cartoon that liberals think such a thing, and although we have someone pretending to be such a cartoon in our midst, I believe that's liberal "macho flash".

The solipsistic first person experience of wanting may be relevant for lots of things, but politics is about the interaction of people, so the second and third person perspectives are what's relevant - the political problem is about what to do about what others want and do.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-15T02:06:35.650Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

the political problem is about what to do about what others want and do.

Again, isn't the problem of liberals wondering what to do about what conservatives want to do (sorry for the long sentence!) equivalent to conservatives wondering what to do about what liberals want to do?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-29T16:30:53.810Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I doubt it.

Hi there!

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-14T22:19:51.919Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Now, now, you're giving the wrong impression here. You do not self identify as a social conservative, and the overwhelming majority of social conservatives would not identify you as one either.

The failure to agree with all things liberal does not a social conservative make.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-06-29T21:04:09.278Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A social conservative here. I'm surprised.

While you're here, do you feel the following is an accurate, fair, and balanced portrayal of the disagreement between social conservatives and liberals on the relationship of homosexuality to the state?

For example, social conservatives sometimes complain that liberals are pushing their morality on them, by requiring things such as not condemning homosexuality. To liberals, this is obviously absurd - nobody is saying that the conservatives should be gay, people are just saying that if somebody is gay, the conservatives shouldn't kill or harass them. From the liberal point of view, it is the conservatives who are pushing their beliefs on others, not vice versa.

Do you think that liberals think that you "should be gay", or that liberals are trying to make you gay, and you would be heartened by disavowals to the contrary? As a social conservative, is your political goal to make killing and harassment of homosexuals legal?

I assume the answer to all my questions would be "no".

What redeeming value do you find in that paragraph?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-30T06:11:49.278Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I oppose gay marriage because I also oppose regular marriage, at least the state recognized kind. Which is to say I don't actively oppose gay marriage at all, though I don't lift a finger to help as well because I'm certain that:

  • Victory on gay marriage is assured.
  • I am quite confident the next issue the cultural progressives will focus on will be a destructive one.

Imagine an unstoppable mad man. He spends one day tearing down a damn, which results in flooded villages. The next day demolishing a wall in a hospital that causes some patients to die of exposure. The day after that sabotaging a power plant causing economic damage and chaos. If you see him carry on like this day after day for many months, and then observe him one day piling off the prison bars where an innocent man is being held, would you as a presumably good consequentialist really want to help him? You are sure he will manage to do it, but it will take him all day, if you help him he'll just go do the next thing that strikes his fancy.

Now obviously if you consider the mad man a morality oracle, a prophet of sorts, you have to help him! But what if you see him more as a force of nature or amoral process much like evolution? But I digress.

Marriage is a personal or religious arrangement, it is only the states business as far as it is also a legally enforceable contract. It is fundamentally unfair that people agree to a set of legal terms and cultural expectations that ideally are aimed to last a lifetime yet the state messes with the contract beyond recognition in just a few decades without their consent.

Consider a couple marrying in 1930s or 1940s that died or divorced in the 1980s. Did they even end their marriage in the same institution they started in? Consider how divorce laws and practice had changed. Ridiculous. People should have the right to sign an explicit, customisable contract governing their rights and duties as well as terms of dissolution in it. Beyond that the state should have no say, also such contracts should supersede any legislation the state has on child custody, though perhaps some limits on what exactly they can agree on would be in order.

Such a contract has no good reason to be limited to just describing traditional marriage or even having that much to do with sex or even raising children, it can and should be used to help people formalize platonic and non-sexual relationships as well. It should also be used for various kinds of non-traditional (for Western civ) marriage like polygamy or other kinds of polyamours arrangements and naturally homosexual unions.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-06-30T06:20:45.405Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

People should have the right to sign an explicit, customisable contract governing their rights and duties as well as terms of dissolution in it.

Thank you for my daily dose of exposure to sanity. I needed that.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-06-30T22:35:39.849Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

However, are you sure that you understand just how radical the above statement is? The libertarian theory of contracts -- that you should have full freedom to enter any voluntary contract as far as your own property and rights are concerned -- sounds appealing in the abstract. (Robin Hanson would probably say "in far mode.") Yet on closer consideration, it implies all sorts of possible (and plausible) arrangements that would make most people scream with horror.

In any realistic human society, there are huge limitations on what sorts of contracts you are allowed to enter, much narrower than what any simple quasi-libertarian theory would imply. Except for a handful of real honest libertarians, who are inevitably marginal and without influence, whenever you see someone make a libertarian argument that some arrangement should be permitted, it is nearly always part of an underhanded rhetorical ploy in which the underlying libertarian principle is switched on and off depending on whether its application is some particular case produces a conclusion favorable to the speaker's ideology.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-07-01T06:52:51.102Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

What sort of examples can you bring up of custom marital contracts that would make people scream in horror? My guess is that people would generally feel queasy about allowing legal enforcement of what looks like slavish or abusive relationships. I think this would be a genuine cause for concern, not because I don't think that people should be able to enter whatever relationships please them in principle, but because in practice I'm concerned about people being coerced into signing contracts harmful to themselves. Not sure where I'd draw the line exactly; this is probably a Hard Problem.

I simply want more freedom to do things in ways that suit me and the other person as long as it doesn't harm anyone else. There may be gotchas and necessary qualifications once you get into the details, but the basic idea I think is hardly outrageous; surely there is at least room to move from the current stale state of affairs in that direction.

So I guess I don't believe the statement I quoted earlier entirely without qualification. Still, I like it because it recognises the fact that the current situation with marriage is ridiculous and it doesn't, in principle, have to be that way. That recognition, as opposed to taking existing absurdities for granted without even thinking about them like most people do, is what I was referring to as a rare dose of sanity:

"Yes," Harry said. "It's what you do to bad teachers. You fire them. Then you hire a better teacher instead. You don't have unions or tenure here, right?"

Fred and George were frowning in much the same way that hunter-gatherer tribal elders might frown if you tried to tell them about calculus.

"I don't know," said Fred after a while. "I never thought about that."

"Me neither," said George.

"Yeah," said Harry, "I get that a lot.

Your second paragraph serves... I'm not sure what purpose. To tell me that the idea is politically unfeasable? I know that.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-01T20:07:07.280Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I think this would be a genuine cause for concern, not because I don't think that people should be able to enter whatever relationships please them in principle, but because in practice I'm concerned about people being coerced into signing contracts harmful to themselves. Not sure where I'd draw the line exactly; this is probably a Hard Problem.

Well, there you go. Any restriction on freedom of contract can be rationalized as preventing something "harmful," one way or another.

And it's not a hard problem at all. It is in fact very simple: when people like something for ideological reasons, they will use the libertarian argument to support its legality, and when they dislike something ideologically, they will invent rationalizations for why the libertarian argument doesn't apply in this particular case. The only exceptions are actual libertarians, for whom the libertarian argument itself carries ideological weight, but they are an insignificant fringe minority. For everyone else, the libertarian argument is just a useful rhetorical tool to be employed and recognized only when it produces favorable conclusions.

In particular, when it comes to marriage, outside of the aforementioned libertarian fringe, there is a total and unanimous agreement that marriage is not a contract whose terms can be set freely, but rather an institution that is entered voluntarily, but whose terms are dictated (and can be changed at any subsequent time) by the state. (Even the prenuptial agreements allow only very limited and uncertain flexibility.) Therefore, when I hear a libertarian argument applied to marriage, I conclude that there are only two possibilities:

  1. The speaker is an honest libertarian. However, this means either that he doesn't realize how wildly radical the implications of the libertarian position are, or that he actually supports these wild radical implications. (Suppose for example that a couple voluntarily sign a marriage contract stipulating death penalty, or even just flogging, for adultery. How can one oppose the enforcement of this contract without renouncing the libertarian principle?)

  2. The speaker has an ideological vision of what the society should look like, and in particular, what the government-dictated universal terms of marriage should be (both with regards to the institution of marriage itself and its tremendous implications on all the other social institutions). He uses the libertarian argument because its implications happen to coincide with his ideological position in this particular situation, but he would never accept a libertarian argument in any other situation in which it would imply something disfavored by his ideology.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-02T06:17:22.752Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

And it's not a hard problem at all. It is in fact very simple: when people like something for ideological reasons, they will use the libertarian argument to support its legality, and when they dislike something ideologically, they will invent rationalizations for why the libertarian argument doesn't apply in this particular case.

I would like to point out that the above reads just as well with both instances of the word "libertarian" removed.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-07-02T07:17:12.104Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

True. And then it starts to sound like there is no bona fide seeking of solutions going on at all.

Which is, shall we say, suspect.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-07-01T21:09:45.662Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

And it's not a hard problem at all. It is in fact very simple: when people like something for ideological reasons, they will use the libertarian argument to support its legality, and when they dislike something ideologically, they will invent rationalizations for why the libertarian argument doesn't apply in this particular case.

I don't think you're solving the same problem that I am.

You seem to think (and based on your upvotes, people seem to agree for some reason) that a cynical summary of the ideological landscape is somehow an answer to anything. And sure, that is not a hard problem. I'm more interested in actual solutions and their consequences than in why people argue for them: what happens if we increase freedom thus and thus, how will this affect society and what harm will come from it as side effects?

Also I find it grating when everything gets summed up as ideology and politics. Do people only ever claim to want more freedom because they happen to be pushing some particular ideological agenda? I don't know, but personally I dislike limitations for which there isn't a good enough reason. I first started thinking about this when I was considering getting married, not when I was thinking about politics.

Likewise, are all objections to increase in freedom rationalisations? Again, I find this offensive cynicism. Maybe someone's done the math or seen how it works in another country, and sees real negative consequences?

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-02T02:55:26.659Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm more interested in actual solutions and their consequences than in why people argue for them: what happens if we increase freedom thus and thus, how will this affect society and what harm will come from it as side effects?

If I am reading you correctly, you now seem to be saying something very different from your original comment that prompted this exchange. Yes, I certainly agree that it's a fascinating intellectual exercise to speculate on what would happen if various restrictions on freedom of contract were relaxed, in this context as well as others. However, your original comment went far beyond that -- it expressed enthusiastic support for a sweeping and blanket elimination of such restrictions, going so far as to equate such support with "sanity." Yet as I pointed out, such sweeping relaxation would, in turn, have straightforward implications that the entire mainstream public opinion nowadays would consider insane -- which position may be wrong, to be sure, but that would still make it odd to oppose it as if you were asserting something obvious and uncontroversial. I thought it would be interesting to seek some clarification on this point.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-07-02T07:15:10.956Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I clarified these things in my first response to you. I conceded that I don't support that statement without qualification, and clarified what exactly I found so sane about it despite that.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2012-07-01T23:13:54.361Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I conclude that there are only two possibilities: 1. The speaker is an honest libertarian. [...] 2. The speaker has an ideological vision of what the society should look like [...] He uses the libertarian argument because its implications happen to coincide with his ideological position in this particular situation, but he would never accept a libertarian argument in any other situation in which it would imply something disfavored by his ideology.

While I agree that strict adherence to libertarian principles is rare, it does not therefore follow that most appeals to libertarian principles are merely opportunistic argumentative ploys. Libertarianism is a continuum, not a boolean; it seems to me that people can simultaneously have both an ideological attachment to some particular vision of what they want society to look like, and also an ideological attachment to libertarianism, and that these conflicting desires get traded off against each other in some proportion. The end result is that people end up saying, "People should be free to do whatever they like, except x_1, x_2, ... x_n, which are obviously harmful." I agree with you that the x_i are not chosen on any sort of neutral, principled basis, but that only means that libertarian arguments have limited force, not no force. There are some things I disapprove of so strongly that I want them to be illegal, but that doesn't mean I want everything I disapprove of to be illegal.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-02T01:24:03.428Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Libertarianism is a continuum, not a boolean; it seems to me that people can simultaneously have both an ideological attachment to some particular vision of what they want society to look like, and also an ideological attachment to libertarianism, and that these conflicting desires get traded off against each other in some proportion.

I agree that this is possible in principle, but from what I observe in practice, libertarian arguments have extremely low weight in such trade-offs, except for the tiny minority of principled libertarians, who form a small and reasonably well-delineated cluster. When it comes to issues that are otherwise neutral and uncontroversial, people will normally default to the libertarian position. However, as soon as an issue has any bearing on ideology, tradition, religion, ethnic identity, political power, economic interests, status hierarchy, etc., etc., people normally assign near-zero weight to libertarian arguments, except insofar as they provide useful material for unprincipled rhetorical ploys.

This is especially true for the whole enormous cluster of controversial topics that involve sex, reproduction, marriage, and family. This is in part because these topics involve many questions of grave importance on which libertarian theory completely breaks down and can't provide any sensible answers. (For example, what should be the mutual rights and obligations between parents and children? What should be the legal age of consent? What constitutes valid adoption? What's the legal boundary between abortion/infanticide and murder? And so on -- you can squeeze out only tortured answers from libertarian principles, and yet some answers must be agreed upon, and it matters a great deal what they will be.)

However, even more importantly, the social norms on these topics in all human societies are especially heavy on what Jonathan Haidt identifies as the moral foundation of "sacredness." Again excepting the small fringe of libertarians, on these topics, none of the contemporary ideological groups takes seriously arguments based on libertarian principles, or even on cost-benefit analysis -- except insofar as such arguments may provide useful rhetorical ammunition for promoting their sacredness-based norms. (And when such arguments give answers contrary to people's sacredness intuitions, they tend to perceive them as shockingly vile or insane.)

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2012-07-02T02:34:35.510Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that this is possible in principle, but from what I observe in practice, libertarian arguments have extremely low weight in such trade-offs, except for the tiny minority of principled libertarians, who form a small and reasonably well-delineated cluster. When it comes to issues that are otherwise neutral and uncontroversial, people will normally default to the libertarian position. However, as soon as an issue has any bearing on ideology, tradition, religion, ethnic identity, political power, economic interests, status hierarchy, etc., etc., people normally assign near-zero weight to libertarian arguments, except insofar as they provide useful material for unprincipled rhetorical ploys.

This seems exaggerated to me (although I agree that the tendencies you mention exist and are significant). Consider, for example, the famous incident in which the American Civil Liberties Union defended a Nazi group's right to demonstrate. The ACLU was and is a non-fringe organization, and likewise, the position that "Nazism is despicable, but freedom of speech and assembly is more important than silencing Nazis" is reasonably mainstream in the United States. Similarly, the idea that "Drug use is bad, but marijuana should be legal" seems not-uncontroversial but also non-fringey.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-02T03:26:54.535Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough -- I agree that's a valid counterexample to my thesis. (I do think, however, that you overestimate the amount of principled support for free speech in the contemporary U.S. For many of its defenders, it's a matter of strategic expediency, since they are not confident that, if speech-restricting precedents were established, their side would win the subsequent political battles over whose favored speech restrictions would get instituted. In particular, many prominent ACLU-affiliated people don't seem to have any problem with the existing speech restrictions in places where their co-ideologues are firmly entrenched in power, even though they wouldn't want to establish a legal basis for such restrictions in the U.S., at least for now. But I do agree that this is one issue where there is some serious weight given to libertarian principles in the mainstream discourse.)

(I should maybe also add that I don't live in the U.S., which is a pretty extravagant outlier when it comes to the attitudes and legal norms regarding free speech, so the example didn't occur to me readily.)

That said, I still think my comments are valid when it comes to the issues of sexuality, marriage, etc. Here I really see an ideological clash fundamentally motivated by incompatible sacredness norms, with all other considerations, including libertarian principles, entering the debate only insofar as they provide useful rhetorical ammunition.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-02T06:34:59.515Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This seems exaggerated to me (although I agree that the tendencies you mention exist and are significant). Consider, for example, the famous incident in which the American Civil Liberties Union defended a Nazi group's right to demonstrate. The ACLU was and is a non-fringe organization, and likewise, the position that "Nazism is despicable, but freedom of speech and assembly is more important than silencing Nazis" is reasonably mainstream in the United States.

There's not much danger of the Nazis convincing non-negligible numbers of people, so this is a cheap way to signal one's support for freedom of speech. Call me when the ACLU is interested in protecting the right of pro-life groups to demonstrate outside abortion clinics.

Similarly, the idea that "Drug use is bad, but marijuana should be legal" seems not-uncontroversial but also non-fringey.

My understanding is that most of these people actually hold the position that "use of certain drugs is bad, but marijuana isn't one of those drugs".

comment by Strange7 · 2012-07-01T20:44:27.416Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

(Suppose for example that a couple voluntarily sign a marriage contract stipulating death penalty, or even just flogging, for adultery. How can one oppose the enforcement of this contract without renouncing the libertarian principle?)

Personally I'd be okay with the flogging version. Some people are into that sort of thing. As for death... legitimate governments generally consider murder a fairly serious crime, and refuse to enforce contracts which would require illegal activity of the signatories. I'm comfortable with having the libertarian principle superceded by criminal law. The interesting part of the question is: is there any choice a person should be allowed to make about their self or property, where they should not have the option of committing to a specific choice in advance as part of a contract?

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-01T21:54:03.214Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

[L]egitimate governments generally consider murder a fairly serious crime, and refuse to enforce contracts which would require illegal activity of the signatories. I'm comfortable with having the libertarian principle superceded by criminal law.

Read literally, this means that you're OK with any violation of the libertarian principle, as long as this violation happens to be formally codified as part of the criminal law. Is that really your position?

comment by Strange7 · 2012-07-02T01:01:40.067Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In short, yes. I also think that the range of activities covered by criminal law should be greatly reduced, e.g. possession of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals should not be something people are imprisoned for.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-01T22:08:43.565Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The interesting part of the question is: is there any choice a person should be allowed to make about their self or property, where they should not have the option of committing to a specific choice in advance as part of a contract?

A person can work for the benefit of another at the other's direction without receiving remuneration, but he can't contract into becoming the other's slave--that is, despite being free to act the part. Would you repeal the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery?

comment by Strange7 · 2012-07-02T01:07:14.983Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was asking, not answering. Trying to point out a more interesting gray area, rather than standing back and accusing each other of unreasonable extremes. Where would you draw the line between "acting the part" and actual slavery?

comment by Desrtopa · 2012-07-01T21:53:47.094Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Personally I'd be okay with the flogging version. Some people are into that sort of thing.

I don't know of anyone who's into serious, blood-down-the-back flogging, although I'm not confident there aren't any, but supposing they are, doesn't that render it meaningless as a disincentive?

comment by Strange7 · 2012-07-02T00:46:32.249Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even someone who regards the process itself as pleasurable or spiritually satisfying could logically recognize it as inconvenient, or prefer it in certain quantities at certain times. Compare, say, two people making a bet wherein the loser has to eat half a gallon of icecream in one sitting.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-02T02:25:20.576Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe they want to encourage adultery.

comment by Strange7 · 2012-07-02T20:00:18.057Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Or, perhaps they expect to engage in adultery and feel guilty about it, but want the relationship to continue in such circumstances, so the flogging is a way to discharge those guilty feelings and get on with things.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-01T20:59:35.525Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Off-hand, I'd say not. What makes that the interesting part of the question, though? I don't know anyone who objects to the existence of voluntarily entered-into contracts, merely to the idea that they supersede or obviate the need for other social/legal/governmental mechanisms.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-02T01:51:10.462Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The interesting part of the question is: is there any choice a person should be allowed to make about their self or property, where they should not have the option of committing to a specific choice in advance as part of a contract?

Off-hand, I'd say not.

Really? How about these examples (given in the context of the contemporary common law jurisdictions):

  • You're allowed to commit suicide. (Assisting another person's suicide is still illegal, but legal penalties for one's own suicide attempt have been repealed for a long time.)

  • You're allowed to mutilate yourself.

  • You're allowed to act voluntarily as someone's slave or serf.

  • You're allowed to make yourself permanently available to someone for sexual acts.

  • You're allowed to remain permanently an adherent of a specific religion.

  • You're allowed to stay permanently confined to a small area, or even inside a single house.

All these are perfectly legal choices, and some of them aren't even very unusual. Do you believe that people should therefore be able to bind themselves contractually to make them?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-02T02:15:11.519Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sort of, yeah. What I actually believe is that if the activity is problematic enough that I should not permit people to bind themselves contractually to perform it, it's not clear to me that I should allow people to perform it at all.

I don't necessarily endorse allowing all of those options in the first place, though.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2012-07-02T06:40:24.807Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is for many of the items on Vladimir's list (especially the last 4) allowing the government to force people not to do them is also scary.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-02T13:53:05.257Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, OK.

First, let me clarify that my point was simply that if contracts are being relegated to the role of managing agreements among individuals to perform acceptable activities, and something else maintains the responsibility for managing what activities are acceptable, then I have no problem with relying on contracts to perform that role. But it doesn't follow from this that individual contracts can substitute for that "something else."

With respect to your articulation of "the" problem, though: I agree that there are activities that it's problematic to declare unacceptable, whether we do that by governments formally passing laws or by local communities enforcing more informal social norms.

I agree that for some of the items on Vladimir's list, allowing people to be forced not to do them, or to be forced to do them, is scary in some contexts. But whether they are being forced by their government, by a foreign government, by their neighbors, or by an independent commercial norm-enforcement agency, doesn't play a significant role in how scary I find it. If they are being forced by virtue of an arrangement they willingly entered into, I am somewhat more sanguine about it, but not infinitely so.

comment by Strange7 · 2012-07-02T01:14:11.665Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The objections I am aware of are to specific subcategories of contracts, such as variant marriage terms or multigenerational commitments.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-07-01T15:44:11.878Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

because in practice I'm concerned about people being coerced into signing contracts harmful to themselves. Not sure where I'd draw the line exactly; this is probably a Hard Problem.

Agreed.

Speaking personally, I'm also concerned about people willingly signing contracts harmful to themselves without coercion (since I don't believe that people are always correct, or even definitive, about what harms them). I'm also concerned about people willingly signing contracts that benefit them but are harmful to third parties far out of proportion to that benefit. In some cases I'm even concerned about people willingly signing contracts that benefit them proportionally to the harm they cause third parties.

As you say, it's a Hard Problem.

But, sure, within the context of a framework that avoids the more egregious harms, I'm all in favor of allowing people to do things in ways that suit them, including agreeing to binding contracts if that's what they want to do.

comment by APMason · 2012-07-01T13:50:49.543Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What sort of examples can you bring up of custom marital contracts that would make people scream in horror? My guess is that people would generally feel queasy about allowing legal enforcement of what looks like slavish or abusive relationships. I think this would be a genuine cause for concern, not because I don't think that people should be able to enter whatever relationships please them in principle, but because in practice I'm concerned about people being coerced into signing contracts harmful to themselves. Not sure where I'd draw the line exactly; this is probably a Hard Problem.

Remember that "enforcing contracts" could mean two things. It could mean that the government steps in and makes the parties do what they said they would - it keeps whipping them until they follow through. It could also mean punishing the parties for damage done on the other end when they breach the contract. For example, in a world in which prostitution is legal, X proposes to pay Y for sex. Y accepts. X hands over the money. Y refuses to have sex with X. The horrific version of this is the government comes in and "enforces" the contract... by holding down Y and, well, yeah. The alternative is the government comes in, sees that Y has taken money from X by fraud, and punishes Y the same way it would punish any other thief. The second option is, I think, both more intuitive and less massively disturbing.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2012-07-01T14:28:35.443Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-02T10:06:19.224Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The libertarian theory of contracts -- that you should have full freedom to enter any voluntary contract as far as your own property and rights are concerned -- sounds appealing in the abstract.

There is a certain tension between that theory and some other libertarian theories that also sound appealing in the abstract. The idea of a minimal state sounds appealing in the abstract, as does the idea that a contract transfers rights, a transfer which it is one of the few jobs of the minimal state to enforce.

"In the abstract" merely means "without having actually thought about it". When one does, one finds certain conflicts between these ideas. The larger the transfer of rights, the more it demands of the state to enforce it. You cannot have maximal contracts maximally enforced by a minimal state.

That a contract literally transfers the rights stated in the contract from one person to another is in fact not what a contract is, at least in Western society. If you read a contract, that might be what it looks like, but if you look at what happens as a result of signing a contract, it is not. Contracts are very rarely enforced, in the literal sense of forcing the parties to carry out their promises. (Joining the army is the only common exception.) The courts usually go no farther than imposing monetary penalties for breach of contract. In ordinary, non-libertarian states, all you risk by failing to perform on a contract is your assets and reputation. Your rights in your person are generally not transferable by any contract. That they should be seems a strange thing for a libertarian to be arguing for.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-02T20:46:47.813Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The larger the transfer of rights, the more it demands of the state to enforce it. You cannot have maximal contracts maximally enforced by a minimal state.

I disagree about this. There is a stable equilibrium in which the state is known to be fast, effective, reliable, and uncompromising in enforcing the rules, and in which transgressions are consequently extremely rare (and swiftly punished when they occur), so that the resources devoted to judiciary and law enforcement can be very small. Such an equilibrium in which little enforcement effort is necessary in practice is possible with contracts too, not just with criminal law.

(In fact, large resources devoted to law enforcement are usually a sign of the state's weakness, not strength. They indicate widespread law-breaking, which in turn indicates that a lot of people are in a position where it seems like they can get away with it -- and the state is, for whatever reason, incapable of making law enforcement more effective and pushing things towards the above described equilibrium, and instead responds by throwing more resources into the existing ineffective system.)

Contracts are very rarely enforced, in the literal sense of forcing the parties to carry out their promises. (Joining the army is the only common exception.)

That's not completely true. Specific performance orders are given by courts in other kinds of cases too, typically when the contract is about something unique, i.e. when the exact same thing can't be obtained elsewhere, like a piece of land or an artwork. (In other cases, such an order wouldn't be in the plaintiff's interest anyway, since the defendant would presumably provide the worst quality work/goods he could get away with.)

To some degree, you can even stipulate specific performance in case of breach, although I have no idea to what degree this is enforceable in different jurisdictions.

On the other hand, regarding this:

That a contract literally transfers the rights stated in the contract from one person to another is in fact not what a contract is, at least in Western society. [...] In ordinary, non-libertarian states, all you risk by failing to perform on a contract is your assets and reputation. Your rights in your person are generally not transferable by any contract. That they should be seems a strange thing for a libertarian to be arguing for.

This is basically a question of definition. If you insist on using the name "contract" only for those contracts that are enforceable in today's Western societies, fair enough. However, the following must be taken into account:

  1. The limitation that your rights in your person are not transferable by contract is just one example of the limitations I was mentioning. This limitation didn't exist (or was far weaker) even historically in Western societies, let alone in others.

  2. This limitation, while seemingly reducing to a simple statement, is by no means straightforward when you consider its implications in practice. For example, what exact types of marriage contracts would be implicitly disallowed by it? Trying to answer that question leads immediately to deep ideological clashes.

  3. This limitation, even under the broadest interpretation, is by no means the only one that exists in modern Western societies, both with regards to marriage and all other voluntary arrangements.

  4. Finally, however you turn it, this limitation is ultimately a limitation on freedom. If I'm forbidden to sell my car, this diminishes my rights in my car; similarly, if I'm forbidden to sell myself into slavery, this diminishes my rights in my person. This conclusion is very unpleasant for libertarians, but the fact is that a libertarian must make some sort of unprincipled exception to libertarian principles to disallow slavery contracts. (There is a very well written article titled "The Libertarian Case for Slavery," which was intended as satire, but there's absolutely nothing in it, save for the sneer in its last sentence, that is not perfectly logical and valid reasoning from libertarian principles.)

(Of course, it may be that for game-theoretic reasons, such limitations on freedom ultimately increase total freedom by some reasonable measure -- "freedom may be freedom to capitulate," as Schelling says. But once you admit exceptions to libertarian principles on these grounds, the slope is very slippery and steep.)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-03T09:13:05.276Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is basically a question of definition.

I didn't mean it to be. I was just pointing out that the rules written on a contract and the rules which the state applies in case of dispute are two different things. They are drastically different in Western societies, where breach of contract is a civil matter, usually incurring only damages, but the distinction applies everywhere. On the one hand is what the parties to a contract promise, and on the other, what the state does if the promises are broken. There is no a priori reason that these two things should be brought into coincidence. I don't even see it as a reasonable place for discussion to start.

There is a very well written article titled "The Libertarian Case for Slavery," which was intended as satire, but there's absolutely nothing in it, save for the sneer in its last sentence, that is not perfectly logical and valid reasoning from libertarian principles.

Are you being as satirical as Philmore? If so, I'm wasting my breath here, but on the supposition that you aren't:

Whether well-written, I think Philmore's article is not well argued (reading it straight, not as satire). "Slavery" in the article ranges from an absolute property right in someone's whole person, which he does not defend (nor, for that matter, condemn, or it would undermine his satire), to the mere sale of one's lifetime labour, which he regards as equivalent to the daily or monthly sale of labour that constitutes typical modern employment.

I am paid monthly. However, I am free to just walk, at any time. No-one will drag me back to my employer and chain me to a desk. My former employer merely ceases to pay me. If my departure is sufficiently abrupt, I will forgo my last month's pay, but that is all. All employment contracts in the UK are of that form.

Under Philmore's concept of slavery, having sold my lifetime's labour, I would similarly be free to depart at any time, subject only to the return of what I was paid, pro rata, whch he calls self-manumission.

Why does he call this slavery? It gives him a catchy title, and he gets to satirically claim that libertarians should approve of "slavery". However he has only done this by diluting the word so far as to deprive it of most of its ordinary meaning: people as property, having no right and little real possibility to change that state without the agreement of their owner. That is how slavery was practiced in the American South. There are variations on the concept, and other names, but that is what is meant, in everyday discourse, when any situation is likened to slavery: being prevented from leaving the coercive control of one's "owner".

Of course, it may be that for game-theoretic reasons, such limitations on freedom ultimately increase total freedom by some reasonable measure -- "freedom may be freedom to capitulate," as Schelling says. But once you admit exceptions to libertarian principles on these grounds, the slope is very slippery and steep.

I don't see such a slope. The freedom to become a slave in the ordinary meaning of the word is the freedom to deprive your later selves in perpetuity of their freedom. There may be room for a discussion about the extent to which, in effect, your future selves should be the property of your present self, but merely waving "libertarian principles" is not that discussion.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-04T03:05:12.174Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

No, I'm not being satirical. Your effort in explaining is not wasted, and in fact, I think I've located the root of our disagreement.

In your argument, you assume the legal framework of the modern liberal states. In these states, there is a sharp distinction between criminal and civil law, the former enforced with fines, imprisonment, and loss of citizen privileges (in some places also the death penalty), and the latter enforced by awarding monetary damages. Moreover, in these states the government has a complete monopoly on violence in law enforcement -- aside from a few narrow exceptions like self-defence or citizen's arrest, and some very mild uses of force like e.g. throwing out a trespasser, if violence is necessary to enforce a law or a court decision, you must call the police to do it. As you note, in this system, contracts fall under civil law, and the worst that can befall you for breaking a contract is losing money and perhaps bankruptcy. (Where even in the latter case, you are allowed to keep some assets and thus protected from falling into complete indigence.)

You are right that a slavery contract within this system, even if it were enforceable, wouldn't be deserving of the name. The master wouldn't be able to punish and coerce the slave using private force, but only by suing him. And the slave, even if penniless, would always have the option to walk away and simply declare bankruptcy when sued. You are also right that Philmore fails to discuss this point clearly, and this is indeed a significant problem with the essay. (I can see this myself now that I have re-read it after several years.)

Now, where we disagree is our view of the relationship between the above-described modern liberal legal framework and libertarian principles. You seem to take this framework as given, and understand libertarian principles only as implying freedom of contract within this framework. However, I consider the rules of this framework as themselves highly un-libertarian, and significantly limiting the freedom of contract. It has always seemed to me that the principles of self-ownership and freedom of contract -- if one accepts them axiomatically; I'm not saying I do -- imply that one should be able to enter a contract where one gives the other party the permission to use private force to enforce its terms, and where one may take up liabilities and obligations without the safety net of comfortable bankruptcy. (Such contracts, at least in some forms, used to be legal and widespread in the Western world. Notably, North America was settled to a large degree by indentured servants, whose contracts allowed the masters to use private force to prevent them from escaping and coerce them into obedience.)

Therefore, I see the prohibition of such contracts as just one of the many historical steps towards the modern institutions of paternalistic regulatory state and welfare state that libertarians otherwise decry. I really don't see any principled difference between eliminating people's freedom to take up obligations that can't be evaded with a comfortable bankruptcy and any other paternalistic regulation. (When libertarians yearn for some golden age of classical liberalism, which they imagine roughly as freedom of contract within the limits of the above described modern liberal legal framework, they are at best yearning for a brief and transient phase of the historical descent down this slippery slope.)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-05T19:59:30.590Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I really don't see any principled difference between eliminating people's freedom to take up obligations that can't be evaded with a comfortable bankruptcy and any other paternalistic regulation.

I do. What is a contractual obligation? It is not a magic spell that creates a reality that it would require some positive action to depart from. It describes a promised reality that takes positive actions to attain. If the parties to a contract disagree over its attainment, then in the first place they must try to resolve the matter themselves. If they fail to agree, and neither party can impose a solution by force, then nothing further can happen, without some third party entering on the matter.

That third party might be the wisdom of the tribal elders, or a magistrate who on local matters combines in one person the power to make, judge, and enforce the law, or a Western-style framework of laws and courts, or many other possible institutions. But in all cases, the dispute is resolved by that institution using its resources to impose a verdict. (I include in that the case where the institution does not enforce it directly, but by proclaiming a verdict that gives one party a right to use force against the other which it would not otherwise have had.)

If the institution looks at the terms of the contract and declines to have anything to do with the matter (as was once the case in England regarding gambling debts -- unenforceable at law), that is not a limitation on anyone's freedom to enter into such a contract. They can still write that contract. They merely do not have a claim on anyone else's assistance in enforcing it against the will of the other party. I think this is entirely in accordance with libertarian principles. Nobody is being coerced when the state declines to coerce someone on your behalf just because they have broken a promise to you. And it is surely the opposite of paternalism for the state to limit its involvement.

I am also sure that if Robin Hanson has not yet argued for making breaking a promise a criminal act, he will.

What are these libertarian principles, anyway? You refer to them but distance yourself from them, suggesting that you are arguing a point of view you do not hold, a situation vulnerable to letting a finger nudge the scales. Indeed, what is satire but a bottom-line-driven argument from your opponent's position to an unwelcome conclusion, the cloak of satire giving deniability to refutations of the argument? (ETA: I'm not accusing you of bad faith. It's just that you seem to be saying, "this is what libertarian principles imply", without necessarily subscribing to those principles yourself. It's very easy to go wrong in arguing someone else's point of view for them, especially if in fact you disagree with them.)

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-22T19:19:26.445Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If the institution looks at the terms of the contract and declines to have anything to do with the matter […] that is not a limitation on anyone's freedom to enter into such a contract. They can still write that contract. They merely do not have a claim on anyone else's assistance in enforcing it against the will of the other party.

The problem with this argument is that in the modern liberal order (and again ignoring some marginal exceptions), the state has a monopoly of violence, including violence that may be necessary to enforce a contract. Therefore, the state not only refuses to apply violence to enforce your claim based on such a contract, but will also intervene violently to stop you if you try to enforce it with private force. It is a criminal offence to breach the peace even in the course of privately enforcing a valid contractual claim, let alone one that is legally declared void.

So however you turn it, this is a limitation on people's right to enter such contracts, as well as their other rights that depend on this. If the state told you that from now on it would refuse to enforce car-selling contracts to which you are a party, your freedom to own a car would be gone, regardless of whether you'd be allowed to perform the legally void act of signing such a contract. You wouldn't be able to buy a car, since if the seller failed to deliver it, you couldn't use private force to take possession of it. You wouldn't be able to own one, since the previous owner or manufacturer could just steal it back as soon as you turned away from it. And as the most pertinent analogy, you couldn't even sell a car you already have, since the buyer would have no guarantee that you wouldn't fail to deliver it upon payment. (Admittedly, for relatively minor dealings, perhaps even including cars, the situation would be remedied somewhat by private reputational mechanisms.)

All this is by no means idle theorizing, even with respect to the normal everyday business. For example, where I live, the government has declared various provisions of tenancy agreements unenforceable, like for example no-pets rules. You are still allowed to put such provisions in the contract, and many landlords do, probably counting on the tenants' ignorance of the law, or perhaps appealing to their consciences. However, there is no way to enforce them against a tenant, and as a result, it's hard to find very nice places for rent, except at a high price that includes implicit insurance against such tenant misbehaviors. (It's fairly easy to screen away people who will fail to pay the rent or who will behave downright destructively, but even very nice, affluent, and accomplished people may end up getting a cat whose hair the subsequent occupants will be finding in their dinner for years, or a dog that will ruin the wood floors in a way that they could excuse as normal wear and tear if you sued them over it.) As someone who is in the market for nice rentals, and would gladly assent to no-pets and other presently unenforceable provisions for keeping the place tidy and undamaged, I really don't see how this is not a very real and costly limitation on my (and the landlords') freedom of contract.

What are these libertarian principles, anyway? You refer to them but distance yourself from them, suggesting that you are arguing a point of view you do not hold, a situation vulnerable to letting a finger nudge the scales.

I'll clarify how I see the libertarian position, and please tell me if you think I'm distorting it.

Regardless of the issue of the legitimacy of private versus state violence, where there is much disagreement among them, libertarians agree that there is a certain set of property rights that a person can legitimately claim, and that people should be free to enter voluntary contracts by which they exchange these rights (i.e. alienate some and acquire others) and thus incur mutual obligations. There is of course a lot of further disagreement over the exact criteria for what makes a property right valid, but if there is any meaningful agreed-upon content to the notion of libertarianism, it is that once a property right has been established, one should be free either to keep and enjoy it unmolested or to exchange it or give it away -- including the rights transferred by a voluntary contract from someone else.

Now, what about the state? As per the above, both anarchist and minimal-government libertarians agree that the state should not limit the people's right to enter voluntary agreements concerned purely with their own rights and obligations. Such limitations may be in the form of outlawing the contract itself (for example, in many places you can go to jail for trying to negotiate a prostitution deal). However, as I explained above, they can also have the form of the state wielding its monopoly of force in contract enforcement selectively, so as to eliminate the freedom of particular kinds of contracts in practice, in order to further some other goals. Whether a libertarian is an anarchist who believes the state should get out of the enforcement business altogether and let people enforce contracts with private force, or a minimal-statist who believes it should limit itself to enforcing valid rights claims, I don't see how this selective enforcement can be reconciled with any coherent statement of the above-described libertarian principles.

This of course runs into the already mentioned problem: if I own my person and my labor, why can't I sell them in some sort of slavery contract? If I sell my car and then refuse to deliver it, Rothbardian anarchists would say that the buyer is entitled to come and subdue me and seize it by force, and non-anarchist libertarians would say that the buyer should be able to call the cops who will then subdue me and seize it for him. Similarly, why shouldn't I be able to sell my person too, so that if I try to escape, either my owner himself or the cops acting on his complaint would seize me and haul me back to his service?

This is where I see what looks, from the above described perspective, like a paternalistic slippery slope. The state won't enforce a slavery contract just like it won't enforce a no-pets clause of a rental contract where I live, even though in both cases the contract is about an exchange of what both parties otherwise uncontroversially claim as their property rights. And I don't see any potential stable Schelling points except either allowing both kinds of contracts or recognizing that the state can allow or disallow contracts at its pleasure in order to further paternalistic, ideological, or whatever other aims.

Finally, what about my own disagreement with the libertarian principles? I don't consider them workable in any general and absolute formulation, for a multitude of reasons, one of which is that all realistic human societies will consider many (though possibly different) things implied by them as impermissible. But insofar as these principles exist in a coherent and agreed-upon form, I think I am presenting them fairly.

comment by gwern · 2012-07-22T19:38:30.957Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The problem with this argument is that in the modern liberal order (and again ignoring some marginal exceptions), the state has a monopoly of violence, including violence that may be necessary to enforce a contract. Therefore, the state not only refuses to apply violence to enforce your claim based on such a contract, but will also intervene violently to stop you if you try to enforce it with private force. It is a criminal offence to breach the peace even in the course of privately enforcing a valid contractual claim, let alone one that is legally declared void.

Germany reportedly enforces illegal contracts.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2012-07-23T01:13:13.220Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"Illegal contracts" is a misleading term here. These are not contracts that are illegal because they stipulate some action that is ipso facto criminal (like e.g. an illegal drug sale contract) or because they stipulate a transfer of rights that is inherently unenforceable in the existing law (like e.g. an indentured servitude contract). Rather, the issue is about perfectly normal and ordinary transactions that just happen to run afoul of the law in some relatively minor way, as in the given examples of ordering a meal in a restaurant that stays open beyond its licensed hours, or hiring a gardener who doesn't report this income for his taxes.

The relevant questions here are how severe such violations have to be to void the contract altogether, and how eager the government will be to prosecute the violators if this information comes out when a breach of contract is adjudicated in court. Obviously, in any legal system, both issues are a matter of degree, and clearly different countries will have different systems, with Germany apparently being unusually lenient on both counts. With this in mind, I fail to see any relevance of this fact for my above cited argument.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-22T23:16:31.806Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Germany reportedly enforces illegal contracts.

Irrelevant. The question isn't whether the state refuses to enforce all illegal contracts but rather if it refuses to enforce some; no state enforces all illegal contracts.

Most jurisdictions in the U.S. enforce some illegal contracts. It depends mostly on the comparative culpability of the parties and the importance of the public policy making the contracts illegal.

comment by gwern · 2012-07-22T23:27:21.086Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was pointing out a false generalization. "the modern liberal order" indeed.

What illegal contracts are enforced in U.S. jurisdictions?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-22T23:47:51.985Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The 'modern liberal order' does have a monopoly on violence, or at least something very close to one. That's a fairly central point of having a civil court system.

The linked article doesn't seem to relate to that, anyway. The German government isn't permitting people to hire private enforcement for their illegal contracts.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-22T21:44:09.004Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Though presumably only 'grey market' contracts are being enforced.

I imagine any attempt to enforce, for example, a slavery contract while maintaining illegality would lead to international and continuous outrage (among other things). The degree of social proscription is too strong.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-23T13:15:32.953Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The argument is vanishing up its own fundament.

With any general philosophy or morality, one can tie it in a knot by asking how it applies to itself. What is the empirical evidence for empiricism? Does positivism satisfy its own verifiability criterion? What is the utility of utilitarianism? What is the inductive evidence for induction?

Libertarianism places a high, even paramount value on freedom, and a correspondingly negative value on coercion. So, playing the circularity game, we can ask: does freedom include the freedom to give up one's freedom? Is coercion allowed if it was previously agreed to but is against one's current will? Whatever institution is set up to provide resistance to coercion for those unable to resist it themselves, should it not merely ignore, but join in with such coercion? Either way, it will be applying coercion against one party or the other. I don't see a slippery slope when the state decides to cut off the entire tangle without going even one turn around the loop, and decides that such contracts are void.

Finally, what about my own disagreement with the libertarian principles? I don't consider them workable in any general and absolute formulation, for a multitude of reasons, one of which is that all realistic human societies will consider many (though possibly different) things implied by them as impermissible.

This is true of all principles. None of them are workable in any general and absolute formulation.

comment by Jayson_Virissimo · 2012-08-13T09:12:34.079Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

(In fact, large resources devoted to law enforcement are usually a sign of the state's weakness, not strength. They indicate widespread law-breaking, which in turn indicates that a lot of people are in a position where it seems like they can get away with it -- and the state is, for whatever reason, incapable of making law enforcement more effective and pushing things towards the above described equilibrium, and instead responds by throwing more resources into the existing ineffective system.)

Are you aware of any research done on this question? Granted, Russia and Mexico have cops everywhere, but so does Singapore and Monaco.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-08-13T12:13:28.364Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On theoretical grounds, I would expect there to be little correlation between resources devoted to law enforcement and amount of law-breaking, whether across or within societies, with such lack of correlation having little implication for causal connections between the two. Someone must have studied this question, but not being a sociologist I don't know. Is there anyone here who can point us to actual data and inference from such data?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-14T23:26:18.440Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I must say, I found this funny. A political argument I hadn't heard before. Something new under the sun.

Yes, indeed, there is something to keeping progressives busy with something you actually agree with.

Harmless political bread and circuses? Is that your justification for monarchy as well?

As for your thoughts on marriage and politics, I have some sympathy. If they were arguing to end government preferences for the married, and interference in personal marriage contracts, I'd be more enthusiastic.

But as is usually the case, I find liberals wrong even when they're right. While I'd prefer that homosexuals have equal rights, I can't agree that the political movement for homosexual marriage is about equal rights at all. It's about expanding the membership qualifications to a legally privileged class based on lifestyle choice - the married. Not being married, it's hard to get all excited about ensuring that others enjoy legal privileges that they wouldn't extend to me based on our different lifestyle choices.

comment by TimS · 2012-06-29T21:11:59.310Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It seems like a fair paraphrase of theist right-wing political thought. Theist right-wing thought is not a fair representation of right-wing thought on LessWrong, but Kaj Sotala hardly claims that. And theist right-wing thought is a major strain of "conservative" thought in the United States.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-30T06:21:31.688Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Yes you are quite right on this.

I'm not sure buybuydandavis realizes that by far the single largest donor for the Singularity Institute as well as a major backer of anti-ageing research is a Gay Christian Conservative Libertarian who wrote a book denouncing Multiculturalism and political correctness, thinks too many people are going to college and isn't that enthusiastic about democracy.

I think at least a few readers minds have been blown. :D

Stereotyping is useful but sometimes misleading. This lessons is hardest to apply to one's perceived political opponents.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-14T21:30:58.179Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

????

I didn't realize that, but I have no idea why you find Thiel relevant to my criticism of a particularly bad moral argument. If you see some relevance, please spell it out for me.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-30T05:50:56.733Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think that liberals think that you "should be gay", or that liberals are trying to make you gay, and you would be heartened by disavowals to the contrary? As a social conservative, is your political goal to make killing and harassment of homosexuals legal?

Note that I was not saying that all social conservatives feel this way, only that some do. Certainly there are also social conservative arguments against e.g. homosexual marriage that do not rest on these foundations, or that do not have these exact goals.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-06-30T08:04:44.154Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Note that I was not saying that all social conservatives feel this way, only that some do

In your estimation, what percentage of social conservatives are working to make killing homosexuals legal?

And where does the fellow you linked to, Peter LaBarbera, call for making the killing of homosexuals legal?

Since your reference was to the RIght Wing Watch, and you were contrasting liberals with social conservatives in the US, I assume you're talking about right wing Christians in the US, and not muslims in the US or abroad. My first question was based on that demographic.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-30T12:36:45.508Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In your estimation, what percentage of social conservatives are working to make killing homosexuals legal?

Literally killing? A negligible percentage if indeed any, though there are probably a bunch more who would want it to be legal (but know that there's no chance of that law passing).

comment by TheOtherDave · 2012-06-30T16:56:32.504Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's perhaps also worth noting that this whole discussion presupposes a certain set of countries. Not only are there countries in the world where killing homosexuals is legal, there are countries where it's mandatory.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-06-30T21:01:39.689Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, that is an excellent point.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-30T11:32:27.091Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What redeeming value do you find in that paragraph?

I see what you mean, this is straw manning social conservatives a bit for an audience of people who already likely to be biased in their perception of them.

Its redeeming only in that using absurd examples makes the point easier to reason about.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-29T21:10:18.842Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'll expand this answer tomorrow, to give you a proper response. Especially on the topic you picked, despite it being a rather poor example for me personally because it is one of the few parts where I have little objection to modern liberal views.

I'm much more socially conservative on things like my opinion on say gender roles, and in my criticism of various 20th century social and cultural movements. Also I toy with more radical reactionary thought such as my current estimate that Monarchy is a jolly good idea when you have a good ruling family, that democracy is incompatible with liberty and that "liberalism" is non-theistic Christianity. Also I think that Peter Thiel is right about the causes of technological stagnation. I'm not yet sure we actually are stagnating in the "world of stuff" as he calls it, but I am sure we are paying a large opportunity cost in terms of what we could do if it wasn't for those problems.

Even before I started thinking about such issues I thought the American revolution a mistake, the French a disaster and the Russian one both.

Fun Fact: Once you dump the odd notion of moral progress occurring in our recorded history rather than merely moral change it becomes much easier to coherently preserve and argue for your values (whatever they may be).

comment by shminux · 2012-06-29T21:32:26.323Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm surprised by your self-identification as a socially conservative, at least as the term is understood in the US, unless it is tongue in cheek. My guess is that if you sat down to discuss politics with an average US social conservative, there would be precious little you would agree on.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-30T05:46:41.385Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm surprised by your self-identification as a socially conservative, at least as the term is understood in the US, unless it is tongue in cheek.

It was made in a humorous tone, I don't self identify as socially conservative, but I do have traditionalist views on many subjects and have more in common with "paleoconservatives" than "liberals". I do realize that I have little in interest in with what mainstream US social conservatives find worth spending their time on. But that's just because US social conservatives are very religion centred and have pretty liberal assumptions, about things like the nature vs. nurture or the goodness of democracy.

My guess is that if you sat down to discuss politics with an average US social conservative, there would be precious little you would agree on.

Recall that to have a conservative world view, is to want to protect a particular set of values and institutions of a people at a particular time. I don't claim I value the same institutions or the same people as US conservatives do. Surprisingly I have little in common with Muslim social conservatives in the Middle East or ancient Roman social conservatives as well. A thinking person with conservative opinions has a hard time not being a de facto cultural relativist. His is a local resistance in mindspace, requiring no more universal principles than self-defence (another case where people consistently use similar mental tools to defend something of ultimately arbitrary and relative value).

I do think I could find some common ground with a US conservative, we would agree Communism is bad, we would agree on the unacceptability of the well documented leftist bias in academia, we would agree family should be the basic unit of society and if the person was an older gentleman or a smarter conservative we could probably agree that the cultural changes in the 1960s where mostly for the worse.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-07-14T21:55:48.701Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

and that "liberalism" in non-theistic Christianity.

Couldn't parse that one. Did you mean "Is a non-theistic Christianity"? I'd say more of a collectivist theocracy whose political advantage is not using the word God, and thereby evading Western preferences for freedom of religion.

Technological stagnation? Only by the standards of people who thought the future meant flying cars. Moore's law marches on in silicon, and it's moving even faster in wetware. Ventner is busy programming new life forms from scratch. Got my 23andme SNP sequencing for $99 bucks a few years ago, and will likely get my whole genome for under $1000 in the next couple of years. Probably just in time for some serious microfluidic home blood testing (though I'll likely have to order that from abroad, since the FDA sure as hell won't approve.)

If I'm getting your positions right, I think I'd disagree with most of your self stylized reactionary opinions, though I'd see the point to them. From what you say I think we're quite close on the political map - far off on the looney fringe.

comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-07-01T20:36:17.201Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fun note: Once you dump the odd notion of moral progress occurring in our recorded history rather than merely moral change it becomes much easier to coherently preserve and argue for your values (whatever they may be).

Upvoted just for that line, because this is something I have to work on reminding myself of.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-06-30T06:51:00.017Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

that liberals are trying to make you gay

In think they eventually may want me to bisexual. Regardless if I'm right on that prediction I think their agenda is far worse than messing with my sexual preferences or aesthetics, no they are the Borg of value systems.

you would be heartened by disavowals to the contrary?

To the contrary their disavowals make me nervous! If you could reanimate the progressive and non-progressive sides on nearly any debate in the past 200 or 300 years...

As Moldbug argues if we exposed the sides of such a debate to modernity one side would likely concede in shame to the other, but it might not be the side we would like to think.

Historiographic triangulation is the art of taking two or more opposing positions from the past, and using hindsight to decide who was right and who was wrong. The simplest way to play the game is to imagine that the opponents in the debate were reanimated in 2008, informed of present conditions, and reunited for a friendly panel discussion. I'm afraid often the only conceivable result is that one side simply surrenders to the other.

...

Imagine assembling Page, Baker and Miller in a hotel room in 2008, with a videocamera and little glasses of water in front of them. What would they agree on? Disagree on? Dear open-minded progressive, if you fail to profit from this exercise, you simply have no interest in the past.

However, an even more fun one is the now thoroughly forgotten Gladstone-Tennyson debate. I forget how I stumbled on this contretemps, which really does deserve to be among the most famous intellectual confrontations in history. Sadly, dear open-minded progressive, it appears to have been forgotten for a reason. And the reason is not a good one.

...

In general what I find when I perform this exercise, is that - as far to the right of us as 1922 was - the winner of the triangulation tends to be its rightmost vertex. Not on every issue, certainly, but most. (I'm sure that if I was to try the same trick with, say, Torquemada and Spinoza, the results would be different, but I am out of my historical depth much past the late 18C.)

What's wonderful is that if you doubt these results, you can play the game yourself. Bored in your high-school class? Read about the Civil War and Reconstruction and slavery. Unless you're a professional historian, you certainly won't be assigned the primary sources I just linked to. But no one can stop you, either. (At least not until Google adds a "Flag This Book" button.)

I am certainly not claiming that everything you find in Google Books, or even everything I just linked to, is true. It is not. It is a product of its time. What's true, however, is that each book is the book it says it is. Google has not edited it. And if it says it was published in 1881, nothing that happened after 1881 can have affected it.

I hope no future progressive movement arises that favours paper clip production!