Rebasing Ethics

post by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T13:56:09.689Z · score: -9 (28 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 72 comments

Lets start with the following accepted as a given:

Of the current figures who accept these premises, most espouse some form of secular humanism which argues that humans are genetically programed not to lie, murder or steal, therefore this is both the right morality & the one they practice. This, to my mind, is committing the naturalistic fallacy.

Instead, I want to offer an analogy: Humans have an innate preference for certain foods which evolved in an environment radically different from modern society. In a modern society, it is widely regarded as virtuous to be actively working against our innate, genetic impulses through the practice of dieting. Similarly, our ethical landscape is radically different from the one we evolved in. Thus what we should be doing is actively working against our innate moral sense to be more in line with the modern world. In the same way that there is junk food that tastes good but is ultimately unhealthy for you, I believe there is ethical junk food which fills us with a feeling of virtue that is underserved.

Let me start off with a mild example: Tipping.

Altruism evolved in an era of small tribes where individual altruistic acts could be remembered & paid back. Now that we live in a large, anonymous society, there are many times when altruism doesn't pay. Unless you are with friends or a frequent diner at a restaurant or bar, the correct moral move is to stiff the waiter on the tip. If you're traveling somewhere alone, you should universally fail to tip as you're not likely to ever return there.

If this fills you with immediate moral revulsion, you're not alone. I'm so skeeved out by this that I've never yet worked up the nerve to do it. My empathetic system simulates how the waiter must feel to not get a tip and I get queasy in the pit of my stomach. But this empathetic system isn't based on any moral fact, it's simply an evolutionary shortcut that helps us survive in small groups. To rebase your ethics is to start actively fighting against that feeling of moral revulsion, just as the first step of a diet is to fight against the desire for fatty, sweet, salty foods.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if your own personal moral system doesn't have parts that are morally repulsive to you, then you're not doing it right and anybody who tries to tell you different is selling you snake oil.

As to why I don't hear anyone talking about this stuff, it's like fight club. The first rule of rebasing your entire ethics system is that you never tell anyone you've rebased your entire ethics system.

72 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-16T02:40:09.190Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow. Just wow. And I had such high hopes, before the tipping example.

After two paragraphs about there being no objective basis for morality, you conclude, implicitly, that correct morality is unboundedly selfish, antisocial, non-cooperative utility maximization. You quietly omit this rather gigantic assumption, but it's clearly how you view it, since your evaluation of the value of altruism is based off of its strictly selfish payoff.

Under your reasoning, it would be immoral to pay your taxes if the expected cost of not paying them is lower than the expected cost if you do pay them; it's the exact same calculation as tipping, but with bigger numbers. I don't think I need to further demonstrate that a moral system that says, "Paying your taxes is immoral," is not compatible with modern society.

In general, if you conclude, "X is immoral," you've done it under an implicit framework. You really need to reference that framework, especially if your audience is unlikely to be on the same page you're on. The observation, "If your utility function is strictly self-centered, you should not generally tip at restaurants" is not exactly insightful.

comment by Clippy · 2009-12-16T16:53:57.256Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. A better example might be bending metal wires.

We like to bend metal wires because that's what we were, in a sense, made to do. We get personal pleasure out of bending metal wires, once, twice, thrice, and on to the next!

But see, there are modern manufacturing methods that can churn out paperclips much faster than we can personally build them. So, if we really want more paperclips, we should work on researching these methods and building these factories.

Yet we still feel that urge to just bend, bend, bend. I don't know anyone who could get through the day without bending an actual metal wire. I certainly wouldn't trust them.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-12-15T14:42:24.467Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Altruism is no longer valuable in evolutionary terms, but who cares?.

What's important to us as people isn't evolutionary value, it's satisfying personal preferences derived causally but not normatively from evolutionary value. Having money is one of those preferences. Being a nice person is another one of those preferences. If you deliberately make a choice that satisfies weaker preferences than the alternative, you're just throwing away utility for no reason.

If you haven't already, I suggest reading the Evolution Sequence, especially Alien God, Adaption-Executors, and Evolutionary Psychology, and the Metaethics Sequence

Now, if you want to make this into a reaaaallly repulsive ethical dilemma, add that true utilitarians should refuse to tip so they can donate that money to a charity that produces greater utility than the tip does.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-15T16:35:13.089Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now, if you want to make this into a reaaaallly repulsive ethical dilemma, add that true utilitarians should refuse to tip so they can donate that money to a charity that produces greater utility than the tip does.

And for this the reference is Fuzzies and (to a lesser extent) Shut up and multiply.

comment by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T15:56:27.480Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I deliberately chose an innocuous example so as to not overly trip the discussion into the specifics of the example itself. I'm not going to talk about some of the more extreme examples of what this would imply until other people do.

You're correct in that modifying tipping behavior by itself would probably not be worth being a dick about in the same way that just switching to low fat milk is probably not worth absorbing all of our science of nutrition & dieting about. You have to be able to see the cumulative effects of a complete rebasing before you can judge it's ultimate utility.

As for whether it's worth it, I think you need to look at where a person wants to be vs where they actually are. Looking out in the world, I don't see a lot of rationalists of the type who inhabit this board who are rich, powerful, admired, have happy marriages or have fulfilled the potential they believe they have. I'm not promising that you'll have all of that if you just rebase your ethics but If you happy not to try just so you can keep your warm fuzzy moral feelings, that's, of course, your own choice.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-12-15T19:16:32.076Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looking out in the world, I don't see a lot of rationalists of the type who inhabit this board who are rich, powerful, admired, have happy marriages or have fulfilled the potential they believe they have.

Looking out in the world, I don't see a lot of rationalists of the type who inhabit this board, period. But now we're talking about rationality instead of morality. Why?

I'm not promising that you'll have all of that if you just rebase your ethics but If you happy not to try just so you can keep your warm fuzzy moral feelings, that's, of course, your own choice.

To summarise what you have said:

  1. There's no morality.

  2. People should act in their own material self-interest, without regard to anyone else's welfare, except as a means to that main end.

  3. Money to spend on hookers and blow is an example of the self-interest that should outweigh tipping waitresses.

  4. But you're not advocating any moral system.

  5. You don't choose this system yourself, oh no.

  6. But anyone who did wouldn't say so.

  7. Find the lady. ("I'm not going to talk about some of the more extreme examples of what this would imply until other people do.")

  8. Rationalists are losers.

  9. Of course, rooting out your moral feelings doesn't guarantee money, power, fame, a happy marriage, and achievement, nudge, nudge.

  10. Moralists are losers consoling themselves with warm fuzzies.

Can someone suggest a rationalist equivalent of Retro me, Satana?

comment by bgrah449 · 2009-12-15T22:09:18.106Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not speaking for him, but I think his point is more along the lines of: We feel moral revulsion sometimes when we shouldn't, and don't feel it sometimes when we should, according to the moral systems we profess, and sometimes we have to trust our rational selves over our feelings of disgust to both do what we think is right and get what we want.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-12-15T18:34:25.176Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That helps me understand where the evolution reference comes from and how the tip fits in, but I still don't understand where you get your preference.

Most people would like to be richer, more powerful, and more admired, and it may be that their morality is keeping them from that. But most people would probably also like to be more moral, more compassionate, and contribute more to society, and their desire for material success is keeping them from that. Moral choices are a trade-off between these two desires.

Like all trade-offs, which option to choose depends on the value of each good involved. In a choice between getting an extra dollar and saving a million lives, I'd choose the lives. In a choice between getting a million dollars and preventing one other person getting a dust-speck-in-the-eye, I'd take the million. The question isn't whether to take moral or material goods, it's at what rate to exchange them.

This post seems to be arguing that people consistently overvalue moral goods and undervalue material goods. But when psychologists actually study the issue, they find the opposite: that moral goods are much more effective at purchasing life satisfaction and personal happiness than material goods (This study is the first I found, and not necessarily the best, of a large number).

If increasing our consumption of material as opposed to moral goods isn't justified by evolutionary history and doesn't make us happier, what exactly is the advantage?

comment by cousin_it · 2009-12-15T19:01:20.912Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post seems to be arguing that people consistently overvalue moral goods and undervalue material goods.

Huh? I read Shalmanese's post as arguing that some moral goods are "moral junk food" and impede your progress towards other, more "wholesome" moral goods - not necessarily material. This thesis strikes me as correct, but for some reason the commenters aren't addressing it directly.

comment by DanArmak · 2009-12-15T22:54:55.554Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most people would like to be richer, more powerful, and more admired, and it may be that their morality is keeping them from that. But most people would probably also like to be more moral, more compassionate, and contribute more to society, and their desire for material success is keeping them from that.

I agree with your larger point, but I have a minor quibble. I don't think 'contribution to society' should be grouped with the second set of goals - generally it's much easier and more productive to contribute through money and power.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-15T22:28:34.668Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But when psychologists actually study the issue, they find the opposite: that moral goods are much more effective at purchasing life satisfaction and personal happiness than material goods (This study is the first I found, and not necessarily the best, of a large number).

Not only that, but moral goods are also often the best way of gaining or maintaining status. As Shalma's video observes, this even applies to gorillas.

comment by Blueberry · 2009-12-16T05:22:04.212Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume the point is to then use the money you save in the most moral way possible. If you're a utilitarian, this would then mean spending it in the way that creates the highest utility. An ethical hedonist might spend it on "hookers and blow". If you have a more relational view of ethics, the most moral way to use it is to tip in the first place, though.

I'm not going to talk about some of the more extreme examples of what this would imply until other people do.

The extreme would be to create a huge business empire based on poor-quality products, like, I don't know, a buggy operating system or something. Break the law at every turn as long as you can get away with it, commit numerous antitrust violations, take open standards and slightly modify them so nothing else is compatible with your company's products. Then take all your profits and set up a charitable foundation, and donate billions to, I don't know, improve global health or something.

comment by smoofra · 2009-12-15T16:48:10.577Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You don't tip in order to be altruistic, you tip because you informally agreed to tip by eating in a restaurant in the first place. If you don't tip (assuming the service was acceptable), you aren't being virtuous, you're being a thief.

Perhaps you should say the correct moral move is to tip exactly 15%.

comment by mattnewport · 2009-12-15T19:44:57.393Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see the implicit contract slightly differently. When you eat at a restaurant in North America you enter into (at least) two implicit contracts. The first is to pay for the food and drink you consume before you leave (not to do so would certainly be theft). The second is to pay a service charge that you feel is appropriate to the quality of service you received, with 15-20% generally considered appropriate for service that is of average quality and lower or higher tips appropriate for below or above average quality service.

You are in breach of the second implicit contract if you tip below 15% despite being satisfied with the service but I think calling that theft is a little strong. Bad faith or breach of contract would be closer to describing the offence. The system would be pointless if you never raised or lowered your tip to reflect the quality of the service as you perceive it however.

The system works to the extent that the cultural norm persists. If something caused the cultural norm to break down then new informal contracts would have to arise, perhaps more like the ones found in Europe where tipping is not the expected norm. Tipping is not particularly unusual in relying on widespread adherence to an implicit/informal contract however - paying for your meal after you eat it is just as reliant on cultural norms.

comment by smoofra · 2009-12-16T16:28:51.831Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I basically agree with you, though I'm not sure the legal distinction between "theft" and "breach of contract" is meaningful in this context. As far as I know there's no law that says you have to tip at all. So from a technical legal perspective, failing to tip is neither theft nor breach of contract nor any other offense.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-12-15T17:16:01.130Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's only theft not to tip if they actually include the tip in the bill as a "service charge". Otherwise, the tip is technically a gift. Withholding a customary gift might be mean (compare the likely outrage if you don't get your children gifts on their birthdays) but it's not stealing.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-12-15T17:49:47.526Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the tip is technically a gift

What do you mean by "technically"? What authority gets to impose precise definitions? The IRS doesn't consider it a gift.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-12-15T19:35:47.602Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's legally a gift in that they can't compel you to tip (unless they call it a service charge and include it in the bill). It's also, legally, income, but so is any gift as long as it's of a size the IRS gets interested in.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2009-12-15T22:33:56.582Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My understanding is that the giver of a gift pays taxes to the IRS, but the recipient doesn't (with many qualifiers (at most $10k/year to family?) that I don't recommend we research or discuss, because it's boring and irrelevant).

comment by smoofra · 2009-12-15T18:54:22.852Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It may not be legal theft, but it's still moral theft. You sat down and ate with the mutual understanding that you would tip. The only reason the waiter is bringing you food is because of the expectation that you will tip. If you announced your intention not to tip, he would not serve you, he would tell you to fuck off. The tip is a payment for a service, it is not a gift. The fact that the agreement to pay is implicit, the fact that the precise amount of the payment is left partially unspecified are merely technicalities that do not change the basic fact that the tip is a payment, not a gift.

comment by Cyan · 2009-12-15T19:20:26.830Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The only reason the waiter is bringing you food is because of the expectation that you will tip.

Wacky. The waiter brings food because that's the job description.

If you announced your intention not to tip, he would not serve you, he would tell you to fuck off.

And then the manager would fire him or her.

I tip, often generously, never at less than the standard 15%, but I have no illusions about the enforceability of the tipping folkway.

comment by smoofra · 2009-12-16T16:33:14.674Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suggest you run an experiment. Go try to eat at a restaurant and explicitly state your intention not to tip. I predict the waiter will tell you to fuck off, and if the manager gets called out, he'll tell you to fuck off too.

comment by Cyan · 2009-12-16T16:42:27.937Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoted. I'll have to try to find time to do this, although I have qualms over the jerkiness of subjecting unsuspecting waitstaff to this experiment. Oh, well -- I guess I'll just have to leave a big tip.

ETA: If my waiter does tell me to fuck off, I won't ask for the manager -- if I'm right, then that would get the waiter fired, and I'm not up for that.

comment by SilasBarta · 2009-12-16T17:09:53.927Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If my waiter does tell me to fuck off, I won't ask for the manager -- if I'm right, then that would get the waiter fired, and I'm not up for that.

You're not getting off that easily, Cyan. I agree with smoofra, and I'd be willing to front the "unemployment compensation package" on this one -- if the waitress gets fired, I'll pay two weeks of her typical (after tax) income to her.

I think you're forgetting that "announcing intent not to tip" is not very common and your extrapolation from similar scenarios seems hasty.

I also think you were oversimplifying the issue here:

The only reason the waiter is bringing you food is because of the expectation that you will tip.

Wacky. The waiter brings food because that's the job description.

The job requires them to bring out food, but they joined on with the expectation of being tipped. To the extent that they don't expect a tip, they may still bring out the food, but not with the same effort and enthusiasm.

comment by Cyan · 2009-12-16T17:18:38.137Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're not getting off that easily, Cyan.

Sure I am. If you want to front the "unemployment compensation package", go ahead and run your own experiment.

To the extent that they don't expect a tip, they may still bring out the food, but not with the same effort and enthusiasm.

...or sabotage the food while I'm not looking. No duh. I'm just saying that I expect they wouldn't refuse to serve me outright.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-15T16:14:21.697Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[S]ome form of secular humanism [...] argues that humans are genetically programed not to lie, murder or steal, therefore this is both the right morality & the one they practice. This, to my mind, is committing the naturalistic fallacy.

It is naturalistic fallacy. You should avoid murdering people not because evolution programmed you to do so, but because it's the behavior you prefer to implement. That you were also (causally) created as you are by evolution is another issue entirely: the difference becomes important where you see some of the features implemented by evolution as (normatively) undesirable. It doesn't even have to be something to do with change in the environment, it may well be something that works as "intended". See Which Parts Are "Me"?, and more generally the Metaethics sequence.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-12-16T01:46:29.097Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with large chunks of what you say; but caution:

There exists no supernatural forces in the world and there is no objective morality imposed from above.

Those who believe in supernatural forces "above" us, often think they believe in objective morality. This does not imply either that belief in a God implies belief in objective morality, or that belief in objective morality implies belief in a God.

(It's ironic, and a major source of confusion, that Christian "morality", which is often used as the prototype for "morality", does not address the problem of "where does oughtness come from?", any more than positing a God addresses the problem of where life comes from. It's the same cheap trick in both cases.)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-12-15T15:22:18.031Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there are no moral facts, why are you telling us what we should and should not do?

Overindulging in fatty, sweet, salty foods appears to be harmful; this is why one may do well to limit it. What corresponding harm do you see done by tipping waitresses that one will never see again, that would be prevented by the moral code that you advocate?

You're not explicit about it, but you appear to be advocating "selfish utilitarianism": the principle that one's personal utility is the only proper moral value, and should consider other people only as a means to one's own benefit. But as I said, having thrown out shoulds at the start, I don't see how you get them back in.

The first rule of rebasing your entire ethics system is that you never tell anyone you've rebased your entire ethics system.

For much the same reasons that you should never tell anyone you're a serial killer.

I second Yvain's recommendation for further reading.

comment by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T16:03:31.088Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's easy: not tipping gives you an extra 18% of your dining out budget that you can spend on hookers & blow.

Better minds that I have talked about the quest for purpose in the absense of faith and I choose deliberately not to endorse any particular moral goal in this piece. selfish utilitarianism (is this really any different from hedonism?) is a good a goal as any although it's not one I personally choose as a moral end goal.

The crux of the argument is not about how you should act but you how you should fight your own moral revulsion when deciding how you should act.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-15T16:11:17.411Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The crux of the argument is not about how you should act but you how you should fight your own moral revulsion when deciding how you should act.

'Fight' (action) is preceded by 'should'.

comment by byrnema · 2009-12-15T19:22:07.671Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, your comments are more about 'debasing language' than rebasing ethics. Your word choices are distracting. ... I feel something like mild moral revulsion to the words, 'dick', 'hookers' and 'blow'.

comment by Morendil · 2009-12-15T20:18:07.399Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What the ?.. The OP, Shalmanese, didn't use "dick" in the post, only in a comment, and "hookers" and "blow" were used by someone else. You can find fault with the post on several grounds but "debasing language" seems out of line.

comment by radical_negative_one · 2009-12-15T21:50:04.747Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not in the original article, but Shalmanese did use those words here and here.

comment by Cyan · 2009-12-15T21:52:03.802Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Under the scroll bar on the right hand side of the comment box, you will find a "Help" link that explains how to formulate links. (LessWrong uses Markdown syntax, if you are familiar with that.)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2009-12-15T18:39:45.406Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Better minds that I have talked about the quest for purpose in the absense of faith and I choose deliberately not to endorse any particular moral goal in this piece.

But you did. You said that people should fight against the moral impulse to do good to strangers at their own expense, and strive to ignore their moral revulsion at ill-treating strangers.

selfish utilitarianism (is this really any different from hedonism?) is a good a goal as any although it's not one I personally choose as a moral end goal.

You are advocating it, but not choosing to follow it yourself?

comment by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T19:20:06.544Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first person who understood nutrition didn't start on a perfect diet from day 1. Dieting is hard and we're still not very much closer to figuring out effective strategies of subverting our harmful evolutionary preferences. Rebasing ethics is at least as difficult so have some patience while it gets figured out.

comment by byrnema · 2009-12-15T19:30:25.720Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I agree that morality might need tweaking from what evolution gave us. With dieting, the aim is to eat in a healthier way. What would the aim be with adjusting morality?

comment by byrnema · 2009-12-15T19:19:55.900Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, this posts and its comments are more about 'debasing language' than rebasing ethics. Your word choices are distracting. I feel something like mild moral revulsion to the words, 'dick', 'hookers' and 'blow'.

comment by Morendil · 2009-12-15T15:06:16.416Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Move to France for a while. You will learn not to tip, and you won't feel bad about it.

If this fills you with immediate moral revulsion

This assumes a culturally narrow "you".

comment by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T15:22:46.985Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not tipping when the social expectation is not to tip is no big deal. But not tipping when it's culturally expected of you is being a dick and that's what I'm talking about.

comment by Morendil · 2009-12-15T16:39:29.519Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll stand behind my suggestion that you move here for a while. Even a short stay can be enlightening.

When I eat out while staying in the US, which happens every so often, "tipping" consists of writing an amount of money on top of the check amount, which nearly always I pay by credit card. Therefore, there is social interaction with the waiter after I've decided how much to tip. This is an effective deterrent against violating the cultural norm, and no moral calculation enters into it; I don't enjoy being glared at by strangers, I mostly prefer my interactions to follow the expected script, so I tip.

I suppose things might be different if you pay in cash, but I can see other ways that things could be structured so as to enforce the norm: other diners can look at you and see whether you're leaving a tip, for instance.

The specific case of tipping sounds as if it might be empirically testable: if you place people in situations where they are guaranteed to have zero further interaction with the waiter, and made aware of that fact, would they still leave a tip ?

comment by LauraABJ · 2009-12-15T20:24:12.627Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post suffers from lack of a clear example. You give no reason why not tipping should be preferable in spite of the moral revulsion. If you wanted to make utilitarian claims like Yvain pointed out, it would be one thing, but it's not clear at all that you are filling the moral void created by not tipping with anything better. A better argument would be: think about what you really value, and if the sum total of 20% of your food budget isn't worth avoiding the feeling of moral revulsion you get from not-tipping, then don't do it. This statement doesn't suggest that one shouldn't feel moral revulsion, just that we should consider the price. If you want to argue that we shouldn't feel moral-revulsion to not tipping, then you need to provide arguments as to why it's better for the world not to tip. I think there is a good point lurking in this post, but it's not explicit and the post gives no real advice about how to identify, evaluate, and deal with 'moral junk food'.

comment by taw · 2009-12-15T14:30:21.533Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unless you are with friends or a frequent diner at a restaurant or bar, the correct moral move is to stiff the waiter on the tip. If you're traveling somewhere alone, you should universally fail to tip as you're not likely to ever return there. If this fills you with immediate moral revulsion, you're not alone.

I never tipped any waiter in my life. Tipping waiters seems to be an American idea. They are employees and they should be getting normal salaries.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-12-16T02:24:18.416Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tipping, for all the grief it gives old-school economists, is actually a really efficient system if social norms are strong enough to maintain it.

I always tip ~15% for competent service. There have been a few occasions where I've simply refused to tip because I found something egregiously offensive about the service (usually related to quietly billing me for something without telling me it was extra).

I got comparably bad service as many times In two weeks of traveling in continental Europe, as I have in twenty years living in the States. A lot of waiters in Europe were incredibly slow, disrespectful, or otherwise below normal competence, which made perfect sense since there wasn't a thing you could do about it.

comment by taw · 2009-12-16T07:54:14.047Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've never seen American waiters, but European waiters seem just fine to me. I never remember any spectacularly bad or spectacularly good service - it's normally professional and competent - I'm not even sure what outstanding service would look like.

comment by randallsquared · 2009-12-17T23:14:40.400Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Really outstanding service would be where the waiter always shows up when you wish they would to refill (or replace) your drink or other bottomless item (chips and salsa are commonly unlimited in tex-mex places), remove dishes you no longer need, and generally is available to be flagged for whatever else you need without hovering.

Bad service can be where you're ignored for almost the whole meal, or where they hover constantly and require reassurance every minute or so that you don't need anything else, or act angry or as though they have some place else they'd rather be, or they mess up your order, or spill something or assist you in spilling something...

Bad service is enough to ruin a meal; really great service is almost invisible -- things just happen when you would want them to, just before you'd think of it. :)

It takes a special kind of person to have the attention to detail, social skills, and intelligence to provide outstanding service as a waiter, and few people with those skills stay in that kind of job long, so outstanding service is very rare. Possibly this is less true at more expensive restaurants.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2009-12-15T14:46:34.445Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They are employees and they should be getting normal salaries.

Maybe they should be, but In American restaurants, they aren't -- it can even in some places be permissible to pay them less than the minimum wage in the expectation that average (voluntary) tips from customers will bring their total compensation above the minimum wage. It might not be an efficient method of payment, but in the American context it isn't a method that one can unilaterally do away with.

comment by Technologos · 2009-12-16T09:40:20.888Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And it might even be more efficient than a salary, in the same way that performance-based pay is used in retail stores and other places where effort is harder to monitor than desk jobs.

comment by randallsquared · 2009-12-17T23:17:01.900Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you meant to say "easier to measure".

comment by Technologos · 2009-12-18T09:49:10.232Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Where the results of effort are easier to measure, do you mean?

comment by Sebastian_Hagen · 2009-12-15T15:01:37.285Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You could certainly make a consistent argument along those lines. To the extent that waiters get consistent tips, this should lead to either one of two outcomes:

  1. Their employers will pay them less, correctly reasoning that since their effective income is boosted from an external source, the employer can pay them a lower nominal wage and still attract the same quality of employees.
  2. If 1. doesn't happen for whatever reason (e.g. because they're already at the minimum wage), this will effectively push the waiter job into a higher pay grade, leading to job gentrification (i.e. restaurants will hire more competent and expensive employees, and the people currently doing waiting will no longer be qualified for the job).

Tipping might make sense if you did it selectively - if you tipped people proportionally to the quality of the service they gave you personally, and made sure the tip doesn't exceed the gains you got through the better-than-baseline waiting. That would motivate them to produce more positive-sum gains while waiting you, and actually make society better off. But the trick here is the selective rewards, not the tipping.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-12-15T18:39:25.573Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd predict that restaurants would start charging 15% more on all meals. Waiters would still get about the same amount. The only difference is that the money would be taken equally from generous and stingy people instead of coming disproportionately from the generous, and given equally to good and bad waiters instead of going disproportionately to the good.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2009-12-16T08:46:59.931Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd predict that restaurants would start charging 15% more on all meals. Waiters would still get about the same amount. The only difference is that the money would be taken equally from generous and stingy people instead of coming disproportionately from the generous, and given equally to good and bad waiters instead of going disproportionately to the good.

My impression is that this is true, that the US has "good" waiters, the kind that are get big tips, but that this has nothing to do with restaurant service. That varies geographically, but is uncorrelated with tipping and has a similar range in the US and Europe. I recommend the discussions on Marginal Revolution

comment by taw · 2009-12-16T08:00:00.551Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

... and risk of low turnover would be taken by rich restaurant owners, not by below minimum wage staff.

comment by radical_negative_one · 2009-12-15T15:29:07.119Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've never given the topic of tipping much thought before, so i don't have a very good idea of what constitutes average tipping behavior. But i'd have assumed that the whole point of tipping is to reward good service. Do you give the same amount to a good waiter as you give to a bad waiter?

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2009-12-17T01:35:59.652Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They are employees and they should be getting normal salaries.

They are. It's just that the role of employer is shared by two parties: the restaurant and the patron. These parties both contribute to the payment received by the waiter, and this payment in total amounts to a normal salary (as much as anything does).

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-12-16T00:17:44.653Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Shalmanese, your heart's in the right place, but I strongly recommend that you start reading through the Sequences.

comment by bgrah449 · 2009-12-15T21:56:09.296Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I understand where you're going with this, but I'm mostly going off the sentence:

In the same way that there is junk food that tastes good but is ultimately unhealthy for you, I believe there is ethical junk food which fills us with a feeling of virtue that is underserved [sic].

I think you're saying that we have actions that don't fulfill our moral systems as much as we feel like they fulfill our moral systems. I.e., tipping makes us feel like much better people than its fulfillment of our modern moral system justifies, whereas donating a big chunk of money to charity might actually not be making us feel as good as it should.

Or the reverse, depending on your moral system. The specific examples are beside the point - you're saying our natural sense of moral revulsion has not kept pace with the progress made on the moral systems it is trying to fulfill.

Is this about right?

comment by Morendil · 2009-12-15T16:44:54.698Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps a better test than tipping might be alms, giving money to people on the street.

Does either giving or not giving to beggars fill you with moral revulsion ? This is a case where I personally make the same decision (almost) every time, and each time feel serious qualms about it, so at least insofar as I'm concerned it's more representative of "rebasing" than tipping, which I've never had a moral feeling about.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-15T15:42:44.037Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let me start off with a mild example: Tipping.

Altruism evolved in an era of small tribes where individual altruistic acts could be remembered & paid back.

Tipping isn't altruism. It is even less about altruism in those countries (not here) where it a social obligation.

Now that we live in a large, anonymous society, there are many times when altruism doesn't pay. Unless you are with friends or a frequent diner at a restaurant or bar, the correct moral move is to stiff the waiter on the tip.

When the potential complications are assumed away it is a rational move. That doesn't make it moral. It's a completely different concept.

If you're traveling somewhere alone, you should universally fail to tip as you're not likely to ever return there.

Except, of course, that you may be beaten or arrested if you are not careful.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2009-12-15T14:41:08.542Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Of the current figures who accept these premises, most espouse some form of secular humanism which argues that humans are genetically programed not to lie, murder or steal, therefore this is both the right morality & the one they practice.

This sounds wrong to me. It seems rather that humans are genetically programmed to lie, murder, and steal, and that, insofar as ethics help society function smoothly, they do so by constructing a system in which people feel inhibited about doing the "bad" things they are genetically programmed to do.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-15T16:30:36.525Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not murdering is for the most part not an instrumental decision "to help society function smoothly". People flat don't like murdering. This dislike is also not uncaused, both drive to murder and to avoid murdering were put in human minds by evolution, but preference to not murder clearly wins (for now!).

comment by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T15:25:10.661Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That may or may not be so but I'm going by what leading atheists claim. The only reason I finally wrote this was because I just got back from a screening of Collapse where Hitchens was espousing some Brotherhood of Man nonsense while weaseling out of directly confronting the issue of why secular morality looks suspiciously like christian morality warmed over.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-15T15:31:43.167Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That may or may not be so but I'm going by what leading atheists claim.

I don't believe you. Leading atheists don't say that. Perhaps they said something else similar and you oversimplified their meaning?

comment by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T16:10:53.670Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCL63d66frs

"I do not lie, I do not cheat and believe it or not, all because that is what I CHOOSE. I know right from wrong. It is in the best interests of Humankind to 'get along'. If we all killed each other off then we wouldn't be able to carry on generation after generation. Killing each other and doing harm goes against all of Evolution!"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bx1yXvcT2kw

As an aside, it's much harder to find text references to this than video links.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-12-15T18:12:14.184Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first item (Dawkins) is about causal explanation for why people are often nice, saying that religious upbringing has very little to do with the way people actually act, that the way people actually act got determined by evolution, and of course this common origin applies to atheists in the same way. See Human universal.

The item doesn't argue that you should be nice because of evolution; that is a cached pattern for religion that argues along the lines of you having to be nice because a certain book says so.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-15T16:18:44.672Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps they said something else similar and you oversimplified their meaning?

comment by Shalmanese · 2009-12-15T16:21:19.025Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps. Could you unsimplify it for me? I don't really see where they are being less than clear in their descriptions.

comment by wedrifid · 2009-12-15T22:12:20.356Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The speaker personally chooses not to lie and cheat (or, one hopes, murder). He doesn't claim that humans don't have programming that encourages such behaviours at times, he claims that humans are programmed to have morality, which can involve suppressing other programming. We having names that we use to moralize and disapprove of lies, cheating and murder is somewhat of an indicator that humans do have impulses that push them in that direction.

Morals are also culturally dependent. In some cases it would be considered immoral not to commit what we would describe as 'murder'. The closest male relative of a victim is considered morally obligated to avenge him. Our culture (or perhaps 'cultures' given that my culture doesn't care about tips) calls this 'murder' and disapproves even though most people would have some degree of empathy for the motive. That is, *they expect the killer to be programmed to want to commit such a murder".

As for cheating and stealing: the speaker allegedly personally does neither. But does he lock his car or leave his keys in the ignition?

comment by JamesAndrix · 2009-12-15T14:35:15.366Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems to imply that because our instincts came from payback to our genes, that ethics-in-general is supposed to be based on payback to the moral agent.

Also, the traveling tipper seems to be in a prisoners dilemma against other traveling tippers.

comment by AnnaGilmour · 2009-12-15T18:56:54.861Z · score: -5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
* There exists no supernatural forces in the world and there is no objective morality imposed from above.
* Our current moral codes are currently based on some mix of sociobiological influences & cultural forces

Backwards. There exists supernatural forces in the world and there is objective morality imposed from above and our current moral codes are not currently based on some mix of sociobiological influences & cultural forces.

If you are thinking thoughts, you are transcending matter. To assert that anything is true presupposes the existence of truth.