In which I ask an inappropriate question...

post by CronoDAS · 2012-12-23T14:48:55.287Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 30 comments

The man-made object responsible for the most deaths worldwide is the tobacco cigarette. It isn't even close.

Tobacco kills 443,000 Americans a year and 5 million people a year worldwide. This is more than the total number of people killed by cars and firearms combined. Cars kill about 32,000 Americans each year and 1.3 million people worldwide, while firearms kill about 32,000 Americans each year and "several hundred thousand" people worldwide.

100 million people were killed by tobacco in the 20th century. This is more than the death toll from World War 1 (17 million) and World War 2 (50 to 70 million) combined.

From a strictly utilitarian perspective, would there be anything to be gained by, say, starting a campaign of assassination against executives of tobacco companies?

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comment by Desrtopa · 2012-12-23T14:55:20.967Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From a strictly utilitarian perspective, would there be anything to be gained by, say, starting a campaign of assassination against executives of tobacco companies?

Well, it would be unlikely to convince people not to smoke. It would create a kooky outgroup faction, the Violent Anti-Smokers, that people would be afraid to be associated with, so people would become uncomfortable with being too vocally anti-smoking lest they be mistaken for one of Them. No such campaign is likely to be effective enough to make people unwilling to become the executive of a tobacco company to the point that positions aren't filled, they'd just ramp up security.

Also, deaths-caused isn't really the best metric for toll on human society. Cigarettes rarely do anyone in at thirty, while car accidents don't discriminate. Adjusting to life-years-lost would be a step in the right direction.

Replies from: crap, None
comment by crap · 2012-12-23T15:25:52.097Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would create a kooky outgroup faction, the Violent Anti-Smokers, that people would be afraid to be associated with, so people would become uncomfortable with being too vocally anti-smoking lest they be mistaken for one of Them.

Exactly. It already happened to Germany with precisely this result. (You know who else was against smoking? Hitler, that's who!)

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-23T22:01:52.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, deaths-caused isn't really the best metric for toll on human society. Cigarettes rarely do anyone in at thirty, while car accidents don't discriminate. Adjusting to life-years-lost would be a step in the right direction.

Yep.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2012-12-23T20:51:32.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

New proposed censorship policy:

Any post or comment which advocates or 'asks about' violence against sufficiently identifiable real people (as opposed to aliens or people on trolley tracks) may be censored.

Reason: Talking about violence makes it more probable, makes LW look bad, and numerous message boards across the Earth censor discussion of various subtypes of proposed criminal activity without anything bad happening to them.

More generally: Posts or comments advocating or 'asking about' violation of laws that are actually enforced against middle-class people (e.g., not drug laws) may be censored on the grounds that it makes LW look bad and that anyone talking about a proposed crime on the Internet fails forever as a master criminal (i.e., even if a proposed conspiratorial crime were hypothetically good, there would still be net negative expected utility from talking about it on the Internet, therefore and in full generality this is a low-value form of discussion).

This is not a poll, but I am asking in advance if anyone has non-obvious consequences they want to point out. In other words, the form of this discussion is not 'Do you like this?' - you have a different utility function from people who are responsible for how LW looks as a whole - but rather, 'Are there any predictable consequences we didn't think of that you would like to point out, and possibly bet on with us if there's a good way to settle the bet?'

Replies from: None, Tenoke
comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-23T22:01:21.993Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think he chose “starting a campaign of assassination against executives of tobacco companies” as a deliberately extreme example so that it would be obvious he isn't serious. (EDIT: Though of course he failed Poe's Law.)

comment by Tenoke · 2012-12-24T00:36:11.205Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is the account of the user who posted this also deleted?

comment by jimrandomh · 2012-12-23T17:49:52.703Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From a strictly utilitarian perspective, would there be anything to be gained by, say, starting a campaign of assassination against executives of tobacco companies?

No, that would be bad. The heuristic that says violence is always a bad strategy is reliable, and it works for reasons beyond the obvious. One important reason is that whenever someone uses violence, other people respond by trying to figure out what his goals are and undermining them. So the practical consequence would be to move tobacco into the "good" category in some peoples' minds, and to undermine anti-tobacco strategies that actually work (taxes, advertising, and regulations).

On the other hand, displacing cigarettes with nicotine vaporizers or with some other drug looks like a straightforward win.

Replies from: devas
comment by devas · 2012-12-23T19:54:25.436Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

could you point me to the heuristics that say that violence is always a bad strategy? I have a strong gut feeling that they're right, but I'd really like to see them in a formalized or semi-formalized fashion :-)

Replies from: drethelin, jimrandomh
comment by drethelin · 2012-12-23T20:06:39.337Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seconding this request. I would say the basic argument is similar to arguments against theft as a generalized policy eg it disincentivizes creation and hard work. Generalized violence disincentivizes civilization if you look at civilization as a framework for the interaction of strangers in large groups or individually but interchangeably. Basically, a culture of violence devolves to groups of people that can only trust very small numbers of other people on the level of family or tribe. The idea that you can venture into town to purchase anything you want and not have to worry about being murdered by a stranger is extremely important, in my view.

comment by jimrandomh · 2012-12-23T23:22:17.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could you point me to the heuristics that say that violence is always a bad strategy?

There's nothing to point at; that's the whole heuristic. While there are lots of good arguments for violence being bad in general and in specifics, the only thing a heuristic requires is that when asking "is violence a good strategy here?" the answer is almost always "nope". Which it is, but for a slightly different mix of reasons every time you ask it.

comment by KrisC · 2012-12-23T15:34:03.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would destruction of tobacco crops or processing facilities be more effective? Eliminating a few executives won't slow distribution significantly, unless their positions are already held by the ablest people and their replacements would be less able to distribute the product.

Targeting executives may win them sympathy. I think sales would go up, as the news reports would serve much the same role as advertising.

comment by CarlShulman · 2012-12-23T18:12:40.525Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Per the title, this post was extremely inappropriate. Making suggestions of hypothetical criminal violence against an identifiable group of people is not OK, at Less Wrong or anywhere else. There are mentally ill people on the internet who aren't thinking clearly and might be inspired to do something foolish and destructive by such talk.

comment by drethelin · 2012-12-23T19:29:23.565Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First: you can find people who are violently against almost any given field of endeavor. The general policy that you should not try to assassinate CEOs of companies that do something you are against seems a lot more reliable than allowing people to do so. If you don't think PETA should fund assassinations of meat farmers, you should not support this scheme.

From a strictly practical point of view: The cost of hiring bodyguards is at a quick googling topped out at around 80 thousand a year. The lowest paid tobacco executive from a similarly weak google search earns 3.7 million a year. He could hire ten bodyguards and still have 2.9 million dollars a year. I certainly wouldn't want to risk prison and death for the possible chance of simply making CEOs hire some bodyguards. How many successful assassinations take place each year? What's the base rate for success?

Finally,as NancyLebovitz said in a comment: This totally ignores the benefits of tobacco. How do you measure the difference between a life that is 13 years shorter due to tobacco use, but 20 percent better? The reason we don't outlaw cars is because we think the benefits are well worth the costs, but no one ever seems to try to actually measure either one in this sort of dialog. You're proposing a unilateral campaign to wipe out something that over a billion people actually want to do. If you want to talk about taking extreme actions from a strict utilitarian perspective you have to actually DO THE MATH.

comment by Tenoke · 2012-12-23T15:17:21.309Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any citations on the numbers? I assume those aren't just the number of smokers who died from lung cancer or something as silly as that. Did you factor in the fact that air pollution kills a lot of people and is also caused by people (and cars as in your example) in different ways, for example by being one of the causes for Cardiovascular diseases(so is smoking, yes) which are the most frequent cause of death? Does pollution kill less people than tobacco? I mean you are saying that it isn't even close so you probably have, but I would not take such statements at face value without more data.

Replies from: timtyler
comment by timtyler · 2012-12-23T15:54:02.252Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

443,000 deaths annually is from here. It offers a reference.

comment by Kawoomba · 2012-12-23T15:20:00.580Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From a strictly utilitarian perspective, would there be anything to be gained by, say, starting a campaign of assassination against executives of tobacco companies?

Yea these kinds of questions resonate badly with casual visitors, and a few affirmative answers can be easily misused to paint LW in a bad light. Maybe choose another, functionally equivalent but less controversial example?

Replies from: Raemon, Mestroyer, Furcas, Viliam_Bur
comment by Raemon · 2012-12-23T15:58:38.958Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I once got a friend to read HP:MoR after a year of mentioning it. After the first few pages, he googled Eliezer Yudkowsky and within a few minutes was on the Less Wrong discussion section, where he immediately found "Nazis vs Jews" (posing the question "what if Jew-killing is a terminal value for Nazis, and what if there are orders of magnitude more Nazis than Jews, what do you do, from a utilitarian perspective?"), as well as "how to stop people from being creepy at your Less Wrong meetup."

Also, not one, but two My Little Pony Friendship is Magic Rationalist Fanfics.

That was pretty much the end of that.

Replies from: quiet
comment by quiet · 2012-12-23T21:36:53.726Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not all fanfics are created equally, eh?

comment by Mestroyer · 2012-12-23T17:41:15.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That reminds me of a feature of 4chan, where there is no archive and every conversation is deleted after it becomes inactive. (This has been circumvented by other websites that archive 4chan threads, but not all of them get archived). I like being able to discuss ideas like this without ruining a website's reputation (though 4chan isn't a perfect analogy, because it discusses awful stuff so often that even if you can't find it on Google, it's reputation is terrible). Maybe LW should have something similar? Maybe you should be able create a thread that can only be viewed by people with >N karma? Or that, after so much time, will become viewable only by people with >N karma?

Replies from: MugaSofer
comment by MugaSofer · 2013-01-01T21:20:27.739Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting idea. It might give off phygish vibes, though (you must be Pure Thetan Level Six to learn about Xenu.)

comment by Furcas · 2012-12-23T17:10:46.430Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the other hand, if we can't ask questions like CronoDAS' on LessWrong, where the hell can we?

Replies from: Kawoomba
comment by Kawoomba · 2012-12-23T17:20:41.695Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In all controversial questions I can think of (offhand), that problem can be sidestepped by phrasing it in less loaded terms, e.g. "group A", "group B", you get the picture.

Also has the benefit of avoiding political/mindkilling contexts when they are not inextricably linked with the question, making rational discourse easier (though a controversial framing does offer the benefit of often making the question more poignant).

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-12-23T18:06:17.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, the question would be less visible if asked in an Open Thread. Writing it as an article makes it seem more... official? ...than writing it as a comment. At least, if I would read a different website, I would take articles as stronger evidence about the community than isolated comments. The articles are supposed to reflect the ideas of website owners; the comments could be from anyone, and often they are contrary to the ideas of the website.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-23T22:06:07.416Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Way to derail a good topic with a stupid question...

Terrorism against tobacco company execs isn't really the place to push the world for this...

comment by Manfred · 2012-12-23T16:49:27.625Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If one wants to be precise, one should measure deadly harm not in deaths (past people were still going to die if lung cancer didn't get them), but in quality-adjusted life years, pretty much the best unit ever.

And no, I'm not sure assassinating CEOs would help, unless it was public enough and effective enough to actually dissuade people from leading the company in any capacity. Bombing factories would be much more efficient.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-12-23T17:05:22.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Should the fact that a fair number of people actually enjoy smoking be figured into this?

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-12-23T20:35:17.233Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Second thought: some might say that people only enjoy smoking because they're addicted. On the other hand, people enjoy eating when they're hungry because they need food. Would a serious hedonist want to increase the number and intensity of their desires so as to get more pleasure from fulfilling them?

Replies from: Alicorn, None
comment by Alicorn · 2012-12-23T21:07:00.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Katja Grace deliberately sought a caffeine addiction for this reason.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-23T22:10:10.176Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I once heard a story/legend/parable/joke/something about someone who had deliberately bought very tight shoes so that every evening they would enjoy the relief of taking them off.