A Tale of Four Moralities

post by Sailor Vulcan · 2019-03-24T03:46:34.026Z · score: 14 (12 votes) · LW · GW · 9 comments

Author's note: This is a children's story I wrote a while back, which teaches a very important life lesson that none of us got to learn as kids. That lesson is extremely important, so all the adults here should pay attention too. I'll explain more of the nitty gritty details of the underlying theory behind it later.

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Ivan was very angry.
His teddy was stolen.

Ivan decided.
He would catch the thief and steal from them.

"This will pay them back," said Ivan. "Serves them right."

Goldie was very happy.
It was her birthday.
Her papa gave her a teddy.

Goldie decided.
She would give a gift to her papa in return.

"It was nice of him to give me a teddy," said Goldie.
"This is the least I can do."

The next day, her teddy was gone.

Minnie was very sad. Someone was stealing teddies from her friends.
She looked at her teddy.
Would she be next?

Minnie decided. She would find the stolen teddies.
And she would return them.

"It's the right thing to do," said Minnie.
"This way, no one will be missing their teddies. Not anymore."

The next day, her teddy was gone.

Maxie felt guilty, but hopeful.
Earlier, his mama told him something sad.

"The other neighborhood is poor.
Kids there don't have teddies."

So Maxie decided.
He would steal teddies from his friends. He would give them to the other neighborhood.

"It's the best thing I can do," said Maxie. "My friends can afford new teddies. But the poor kids can't."

So Maxie stole teddies from his friends,
and gave them to the other neighborhood.

This made the kids there happy.
But his friends were sad, because now THEY had no teddies.

The next day,
the sad kids went with their parents to the teddy store,
to buy them new teddies.
But the store was all sold out of teddies.

"It's been hard to sell teddies in this town," said the store clerk. "Many poor people can't afford them. And many rich people already have teddies."

"Why not give teddies to the poor?
For free?" asked Maxie.

"We tried that before," said the clerk.
"It didn't work.
A long line of people came for teddies.
Many poor people can't afford cars.
When they got here, they were last in line. Then they got to the front of the line.
But by then, we were out of teddies."

"Then why give teddies to the rich?" asked Minnie.
"Can't you tell them no?"

"Other rich people paid us to give teddies for free.
They can't do that all the time.

"We have to sell to the rich, too.
Otherwise, we can't afford to make teddies.

"At all."

"Why not?" asked Goldie.

"We have to pay for the stuff to make the teddy," said the clerk.

"Why can't you just get that stuff for free?" asked Maxie.
"Then you could give teddies, without being paid."

"Maxie," said Maxie's mama. "There aren't enough teddies for everyone.
There isn't enough stuff to make that many."

Maxie began to cry.
"I wanted to make more people happier," he said.
"I thought by giving teddies to poor kids, I could make more of the town happier. There are more kids in the poor neighborhood.
And they had no teddies."

"YOU stole our teddies!" Ivan accused. "You should be punished.
Someone should steal a teddy from you."

"I'm sorry!" said Maxie.
"I don't have any teddies.
I gave them to the kids in the other neighborhood."

"Maybe if you asked nicely, they would return our teddies?" asked Goldie.

"No," said Minnie.
"They would feel the same way we did, when the teddies were stolen from us.
They don't know the teddies were stolen.
If we tell them, they won't know we're telling the truth."

No one was sure what to do.

Finally, Maxie said,
"We need to find a way to make more stuff.
That way, there will be enough to make teddies for everyone."

"And if we can't do that?" asked Minnie.

"I don't know," said Maxie.
"But we have to try!"

"Why should we help everyone?
The poor kids have never helped us," said Goldie.

"What else can we do?" asked Minnie. "We can't steal the teddies back."

"The poor kids didn't do anything wrong!" said Ivan. "We shouldn't punish them!"

"Maybe if we find a way to make more stuff," said Maxie.
"the poor kids will have enough to give you something, in return."

"Okay," said Goldie. "I'll help."

The kids talked.

The parents looked at each other.

"Do you think they can do it?" asked Goldie's papa.

Ivan's mama laughed.
She thought it was a joke.

Minnie's papa sighed sadly.

And Maxie's mama turned to the kids and said:


"If you're kind and just,
understanding and giving.
If you listen to each other, and to others.
If you work hard and do your best.
If you learn, grow and become stronger.
If you are brave, and never give up.
Then, maybe, you will find a way."


They would find a way to make more stuff. Someday.

And so they began their quest.

9 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Dagon · 2019-03-24T15:52:26.280Z · score: 20 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Not downvoted, but skeptical.

  • Starting with a story you've made up to illustrate a theory (which you call a lesson) without specifying the theory, makes it VERY hard to evaluate the story or the theory. https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Generalization_from_fictional_evidence, and https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Motivated_cognition both may apply here.
  • Trying to teach life lessons here is like teaching a pig to sing. Wastes your time and annoys the pig. As the pig in this analogy, I want models and evidence, not parables and assumptions about how it should be.
  • The topic of poverty and wealth is deeply political and is difficult or impossible to discuss rationally, especially on a public online forum. https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Politics_is_the_Mind-Killer. Use of loaded words like "steal" and ignoring the real resource constraint (human motivation for the unpleasant work of making teddies) both make me suspect this is the case.
comment by mr-hire · 2019-03-24T17:05:59.201Z · score: 9 (8 votes) · LW · GW
Trying to teach life lessons here is like teaching a pig to sing. Wastes your time and annoys the pig. As the pig in this analogy, I want models and evidence, not parables and assumptions about how it should be.

I believe that youwant only the the models and evidence, but I want the models, the evidence, AND the stories.

I find that to truly learn things, I need the what, the how, and the why. [LW · GW] The why is important, and I'm much better able to get the why from a parable, story, or poem.

Inadequate Equilibria is great, but it was much easier to learn the lessons having also read Meditations on Moloch.

The sequences are also great, but they're still enhanced by HPMOR.

I would have been very sad if Scott wrote Meditations on Moloch, and didn't share it here because the norms were that he had to write inadequate equilibria first (or that inadequate equilibria was the only type of post we allowed).

I think WHY posts are useful and I'd like to see norms that encourage them with comments like "Really enjoyed this and it made some good points, I'd like to see research on XYZ as that seems to be the main crux that motivates this story." Rather than "This is a story, it's not evidence, and evidence is better than stories."

comment by gjm · 2019-03-24T19:24:09.018Z · score: 28 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think Dagon saying not "don't tell stories" but "if you want to make an argument by telling stories, please at least tell us what the argument is meant to be so that we can evaluate it with system 2 as well as system 1".

Meditations on Moloch didn't just quote Ginsberg and say "Lo!", it explained what Scott was calling Moloch and why, and gave explicit concrete examples.

I think it's entirely possible that Sailor Vulcan has something interesting and/or important to say here, but at least from my perspective (as I think from Dagon's) it still needs actually saying rather than merely gesturing towards. Until we have at least some of those "nitty gritty details" we're promised later, it's hard to tell what bits of the story are intended more or less literally, what bits are intended as metaphors for other things, and what bits are mere window-dressing.

comment by Dagon · 2019-03-25T15:55:15.352Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed - I perhaps should have been more explicit when I wrote "STARTING WITH a story..." Stories are important in presenting, reifying, and exploring details of a theory. Stories are an important part of the way humans discover truth about the world and each other (and they're often entertaining). I heartily encourage storytelling!

But on this site specifically, we aspire to be mostly about truth-seeking. Stories don't belong here without a pretty clear tie (preferably footnotes and links) to the theory and data you're trying to illustrate.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-03-25T21:09:19.849Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW
But on this site specifically, we aspire to be mostly about truth-seeking. Stories don't belong here without a pretty clear tie (preferably footnotes and links) to the theory and data you're trying to illustrate.

This is the part that worries me. I think you should be able to start with a story (like meditations on Moloch) and only after get the theory (like inadequate equilibria).

At the top of Sailor Vulcan's post he specifically talked about wanting to post the theory later. I do push against a culture that says the order in which you have to start with is the data then the story. I know this goes against concepts here like "Dark Arts" but I think a lot of that stuff is actually just wrong for truth seeking communities.

comment by Dagon · 2019-03-25T23:16:30.593Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Medidations on Moloch and the stories in Inadequate Equilibria (and HPMOR, and Luminosity and Friendship is Optimal and pretty much all popular rationalist-centric stories) were written in a way that referenced and built on a whole lot of explicit theory.

And you're right - I don't want to mandate a sequence of publication. Everyone should do what works, and there are probably some story/theory pairs where it works to publish the story first. I can't think of any, and I'd advise having the theory post ready if it turns out it's needed sooner than you thought, but I won't say "never". This didn't work for me. I think because I have pretty serious reservations about the theory (both whether it's appropriate here and about the theory itself), but I can't know whether those concerns are valid or not, as the story is fairly inexplicit.

I think story-first runs the very large risk that people will infer a theory different than you intend, and then downvote you for that (flawed interpretation of your) theory. I may be doing exactly this. It also runs the risk that if the theory has holes, people will retroactively feel tricked by the misleading story, and be angry at your presentation style in addition to respectfully disagreeing with your theory.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-03-26T11:05:39.658Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think story-first runs the very large risk that people will infer a theory different than you intend, and then downvote you for that (flawed interpretation of your) theory. I may be doing exactly this. It also runs the risk that if the theory has holes, people will retroactively feel tricked by the misleading story, and be angry at your presentation style in addition to respectfully disagreeing with your theory

This seems like an important pitfall of the strategy and something people should be aware of. I agree it's a problem especially in cases like this where the model is a bit opaque. I suspect that part of this is because the story was written for a different context than being a LW parable and therefore was less on the nose than lwers might like.

I think we mostly don't disagree, I was mostly worried about people taking the critique and updating their general rules for what they should feel comfortable posting and in what order.

comment by ryan_b · 2019-03-26T15:43:19.700Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I notice that the question of Maxie stealing from her friends is simply dropped.

I find this notion of zero consequences baffling. It wasn't even evaluated.

comment by Dagon · 2019-03-27T16:13:22.559Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The kids also pretty easily abandon their values (which they're named after). Maxie is sorry, and seems surprised that his actions hurt his friends, rather than defending his choice by saying that the teddies help the other neighborhood more than this one. Ivan gives up his indignation and desire for retribution very quickly as well.

More importantly, nobody is acknowledging that all property is theft, and that the parents have made sacrifices and moral compromises to get the initial teddies, rather than feeding starving people or doing other more useful things that match the goals implied by their children's names. Supporting the horrific conditions in the teddy mines renders the whole parable suspect.