Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas 2011-08-23T09:13:13.807Z
Some Heuristics for Evaluating the Soundness of the Academic Mainstream in Unfamiliar Fields 2011-02-15T09:17:23.723Z


Comment by Vladimir_M on LessWrong could grow a lot, but we're doing it wrong. · 2012-08-21T22:04:56.245Z · LW · GW

Things are good as long as most interactions have at least one side familiar with existing site culture, but once you start getting outside users talking with other outside users in volume, there's not much left maintaining the older culture.

Worse yet, the new users may comply with the culture in form but not in spirit. In the concrete case of LW, this means new users who are polite and non-confrontational, familiar with the common topics and the material covered in the classic OB/LW articles, making appeals to all the right principles of epistemology and logic, etc., etc., but who nevertheless lack the ability and commitment for truly unbiased and open-minded discussion at the level that used to be the standard. I think this is indeed what has been happening, and I don't see any way an open-access forum could prevent this course of events from taking place eventually.

(It's hard to make a point like this without sounding arrogant and conceited, so I should add that in retrospect, I believe that when I joined LW, at the time it probably caused a net lowering of its standards, which were higher back then.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Social interventions gone wrong · 2012-08-21T21:15:56.511Z · LW · GW

Failing all this I think we really should consider if the overly-strictly interpreted no mindkillers rule that was prevalent as little as a few months ago that much reduced political discourse wasn't a good thing that should be restored.

I used to be excited about the idea of harnessing the high intellectual ability and strong norms of politeness on LW to reach accurate insight about various issues that are otherwise hard to discuss rationally. However, more recently I've become deeply pessimistic about the possibility of having a discussion forum that wouldn't be either severely biased and mind-killed or strictly confined to technical topics in math and hard sciences.

It looks like even if a forum approaches this happy state of affairs, the way old Overcoming Bias and early LessWrong arguably did for some time, this can happen only as a brief and transient phenomenon. (In fact, it isn't hard to identify the forces that inevitably make this situation unstable.) So, while OB ceased to be much of a discussion forum long ago, LW is currently in the final stages of turning into a forum that still has unusual smarts and politeness, but where on any mention of controversial issues, battle lines are immediately drawn and genuine discussion ceases, just like elsewhere. (Even if the outcome may still look very calm and polite by the usual internet standards.)

The trouble is, the only way a "no-mindkillers" rule can improve things is if it's done in an extreme form and with ruthless severity, by reducing the permissible range of topics to strictly technical questions in some areas of math and hard science and consistently banning everything else. The worst possible outcome is to institute a partial "no-mindkillers" rule, which would work under a pretense that rational and unbiased discussion of a broad range of topics outside of math and hard sciences is possible without bringing up any controversial and charged issues, and without giving serious consideration to disreputable and low-status views. This would lead to an entrenched standard of cargo-cult "rationality" that incorporates all the biases, delusions, and taboos of the respectable opinion wholesale, under a pretense of a neutral, pragmatic, and unbiased restriction of irrelevant and distracting controversial topics.

Thus, it seems to me like the only realistic possibilities at this point are: (1) increasing ideological confrontations and mind-killing, (2) enforcement of the above-described cargo-cult rationality standards, and (3) reduction of discussion topics to strictly technical questions, backed by far stricter, MathOverflow-type standards. Neither of these looks like a fulfilment of LW's mission statement, but (2) seems to me like the worst failure scenario from its point of view.

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Social interventions gone wrong · 2012-08-21T04:06:31.491Z · LW · GW

If I remember correctly, you replied to several of my comments on fairly controversial topics recently, but for the record, I didn't downvote any of them. I downvote direct replies to my comments only if I believe that someone is arguing in bad faith, or when I'm annoyed with some exceptionally bad failure of basic logic or good manners.

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Social interventions gone wrong · 2012-08-21T03:45:36.807Z · LW · GW

It seems like you're losing focus of my point. I am merely trying to demonstrate that it's wrong to consider studies of this sort as solid and conclusive evidence about the overall effects of the social interventions under consideration. I mentioned this scenario only as one plausible way in which one of these studies could be grossly inadequate, not as something I'm trying to prove to be the case.

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Social interventions gone wrong · 2012-08-21T03:20:43.942Z · LW · GW

I'm not sure what exactly you're trying to imply with this comment. You have complained that I was reading your comments too uncharitably in the past, so I'm trying to interpret it as something other than a taunt, but without success.

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Social interventions gone wrong · 2012-08-20T15:46:59.875Z · LW · GW

As it usually happens in the social "sciences," it's very naive to believe that in any of these cases we have anything like solid evidence about the total effect of the programs in question. Even ignoring the intractable problems with disentangling all the countless non-obvious confounding variables, there is still the problem of unintended consequences -- which may be unaccounted for even if the study seemingly asks all the relevant questions, and which may manifest themselves only in the longer run.

Take for example this nurse-family partnership program. Even if the study has correctly proven that these positive outcomes have occurred in the families covered by the intervention, and that they are in fact a consequence of the intervention -- a big if -- we still have no way of knowing its total long-run effect. For one, it may happen that it lowers the cost of having children for poor unmarried women, both by providing assistance and by lowering the stigma and fear of such an outcome, so that in the new long-term equilibrium, more children are born to such women, especially the least responsible, resourceful, and competent ones, eventually increasing the total measure of child poverty, neglect, abuse, etc. Of course, this may or may not be the case, but there's no way to know it based on these studies that purport to give a definitive evaluation of the program's success.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-19T01:55:50.316Z · LW · GW

Clearly it's a very complex topic, but generally speaking, I do believe that Haidt's recent work is more or less on the right track in this regard.

That said, much of his insight is not very original, and can be found in the work of other, often much older thinkers, some of whom Haidt cites. Haidt's significance is mainly that he's trying to pull off a "Nixon in China," i.e. to leverage his own liberal beliefs and credentials to formulate these insights in a way that's palatable to liberals, who would be instantly repulsed and incensed by the other authors who have presented them previously. (I'm not very optimistic about his chances, though, especially since he has to dance around some third-rail issues that might destroy his reputation instantly. Similar can be said for other modern authors who delve into social theory based on evolutionary insight, like e.g. Geoffrey Miller.)

Also, I think there are many other crucial pieces of the puzzle that Haidt is still missing completely, so he still strikes me as very naive on some issues. (For example, I don't know if he's familiar with the concept of Schelling points, but he definitely fails to recognize them on some issues where they are crucial. He also apparently fails to grasp what virtue ethics is about.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on Competence in experts: summary · 2012-08-19T00:29:26.632Z · LW · GW

It's hard to tell, but if they have been influenced by that post, then considering the lack of adequate reception of the post in the first place, this probably didn't improve their understanding of my comments, and has perhaps even worsened it.

Also, I don't claim to be anywhere near the ideal of optimizing for feedback in practice. After all, "When vanity is not prompting us, we have little to say." But I would certainly change my posting patterns if I were convinced that it would improve feedback.

I also don't think that low returns from top-level posts are a general rule -- it's probably mainly due to my lack of writing skills (particularly in English) that results in more readable and cogent writing when I'm confined to the shorter space and pre-established context of a comment.

(Although, on the other hand, one general problem is the lack of any clear and agreed-upon policy for what is on-topic for LW, which makes me, and I suspect also many other people, reluctant to start discussions about some topics, but ready to follow up when others have already opened them and found a positive reception.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-18T23:54:52.913Z · LW · GW

Most of the points relevant to your comment are covered in this reply to Tyrrell McAllister, so to avoid redundancy, please follow up on that comment if you think it's not an adequate answer.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-18T23:39:37.322Z · LW · GW

How do you reduce autonomy to sacredness? I think of sacredness as something that inheres in some single object of veneration towards which a group of people can genuflect, such as a family shrine, a flag, a saint, or (for the left) "the environment". I would also extend the notion of a "single object" to slightly more abstract things, such as a single holy text (which might exist in multiple copies) or a single ritual way of eating (which might be enacted on multiple occasions).

One way in which sacredness commonly manifests itself is through sacred boundaries that serve as strong Schelling points. In fact, I am convinced that any large-scale human social organization depends to a significant degree on Schelling points whose power and stability rests on the fact that the thought of their violation arouses strong moral intuitions of sacrilege. (Even though this might be non-obvious from their stated rationale.)

Take for example the ancient Roman pomerium, the boundary of the city of Rome that was explicitly held as sacred. In particular, bearing arms within the pomerium was considered as sacrilege, and this norm was taken very seriously during the Republican period. Of course, a norm like this can easily be given a practical rationale (preventing coups, assassinations, etc.), and it seems plausible that it indeed had a practical effect of this sort, contributing to the long-standing stability and competitive success of the republican institutions. However, it was in fact the sacredness aspect that gave the norm its power, since a consequentialist rationale for any norm can always be rationalized away, thus making it a weak Schelling point, easily pushed down a slippery slope. And indeed, when the reverence for this traditional norm of sacredness started fading in the late Republic (along with many others), it was a good sign that the Republic had indeed gone to the dogs, and soon the state was torn by constant civil wars between competing generals who had no problem finding justifications and support for their plans to conquer Rome and seize power by armed force.

Similarly, intuitions of sacrilege can be associated with non-physical boundaries. Take for example the modern norms against euthanasia, even in cases where it's voluntary and in fact strongly desired by the patient, and the alternative is nothing but a prolonged suffering. People are horrified by the thought of euthanasia because it violates the perceived sacredness of human life. And again, one can make a cogent Schelling point/slippery slope argument in favor of such norms, but this is not what gives them their power.

Now, it seems quite plausible to me that this is in fact a common state of affairs for all sorts of norms that deal with the prohibition of crossing certain boundaries. Not all such norms are based on sacredness intuitions, of course -- they can also rest on a basis of fairness, harm, liberty, or some mix of those -- but in that case, their violation causes different and lesser kinds of outrage, and it's also easy to convince people to make exceptions based on concerns for fairness, harm, or liberty. For example, the norms about private property rights seem to be typically in this category: their violation causes nothing similar to the visceral feelings of sacrilege, and it's easy to convince people that some violations and curtailing of property rights are OK if you can convince them that it reduces harm and increases fairness or liberty.

With this in mind, I think it should be reasonable to ask whether the liberal intuitions of personal (and particularly sexual) autonomy are in fact a sort of pomerium backed by moral intuitions of sacrilege triggered by the perceived violations of this autonomy. (Whether or not we end up agreeing on the answer to this question.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-18T07:48:58.529Z · LW · GW

I haven't read The Happiness Hypothesis, but I've just read these pages on Amazon's preview. It seems to me that this was indeed an earlier phase of Haidt's thought, when he advocated a much more simplistic theory of the moral foundations and was still a partisan liberal. (I'm not just throwing around an ideological label here -- these days Haidt indeed describes himself as a "partisan liberal" in past tense.)

In these cited pages, Haidt gives some clearly biased and unrealistic statements. For example, we are told that "On issue after issue, liberals want to maximize autonomy by removing limits, barriers, and restrictions." But obviously, you only need to ask a libertarian for his opinion about this claim to realize that in fact "removing limits, barriers, and restrictions" applies only to a strictly circumscribed set of issues, and the liberal understanding of autonomy in fact has a more complex basis.

These days Haidt is far above such evident partisan biases, but I think he still hasn't come around to re-examining the issues of liberal autonomy in the light of his more recent insight, while at the same time he realizes at some level that it's incompatible even with his current view of the liberal moral foundations. I don't think he's avoiding these problematic discussions in a calculated way, so I think he simply has some sort of "ugh field" around these questions and thus fails to address them clearly and openly.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-18T04:38:51.511Z · LW · GW

Just in case I don't remember correctly, I've just checked The Righteous Mind's index for "abortion." It lists three pages, each of which mentions abortion only in passing as an example of a public moral controversy, without getting into any analysis whatsoever of the issue. To the best of my recollection, there is no such analysis elsewhere in the book either, nor in anything else I've read by Haidt.

As for the blog you link to, I strongly suspect that the author is in fact extrapolating from his (her?) view of what Haidt believes, not relaying an actual argument by Haidt. I might be wrong, but a few minutes of googling didn't turn up any relevant statements by Haidt.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Competence in experts: summary · 2012-08-18T04:17:11.055Z · LW · GW

I'm not complaining about a lack of upvotes and links, but about the lack of responses that leave me with more insight than I started with, and also a general lack of understanding of the nature and relevance of the problems I'm trying to discuss. I'd rather have a comment buried deep in some obscure subthread with zero upvotes, which however occasions a single insightful response, than a top-level post upvoted to +200 and admiringly linked from all over the internet, which however leaves me with no significant advance in insight (and possibly only reinforces my biases with the positive attention).

(Not that I'm always optimizing for feedback, of course -- sometimes I just fall prey to the "someone is wrong on the internet" syndrome. But, for whatever reason, as embarrassing as such episodes may be, they fill me with less dissatisfaction in retrospect than failures of systematic and planned effort.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-18T03:22:21.065Z · LW · GW

I haven't read Haidt, so I don't know how he accounts for "concern for autonomy" under his system. Does he reduce it to fairness and harm somehow? Or does it arise incidentally out of diminished concern for authority?

I've read Haidt's book, and I'd say he skirts around the topic of autonomy (sexual and otherwise) in liberal thinking, never giving it a satisfactory treatment, and avoiding issues where it would unavoidably come to the fore. For example, as a notable and glaring omission, the book doesn't address the controversies over abortion at all. (Thus putting Haidt in a very odd position where he purports to have a general theory of moral psychology that explains the contemporary American ideological rifts, but nonchalantly refuses to apply it to the single most ideologically charged moral issue in the U.S. today.)

Now, as you probably guess, I would hypothesize that he avoids autonomy-centered topics because they tend to contradict his theory of liberals as low on sacredness. But whether or not one agrees with this view, it seems clear that his treatment of such topics is incomplete and unsatisfactory.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Competence in experts: summary · 2012-08-17T05:24:50.276Z · LW · GW

I tried that a while ago, but the results were disappointing enough that in the meantime I've grown somewhat embarrassed by that post. (Disappointing both in terms of the lack of interesting feedback and the ruckus occasioned by some concrete examples that touched on controversial topics, which I avoided with less scrupulousness back then.) For whatever reason, insofar as I get interesting feedback here, it looks like I get more of it per unit of effort when I stick to run-of-the-mill commenting than if I were to invest effort in quality top-level posts. (I don't think this is a general rule for all posters here, though.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on Competence in experts: summary · 2012-08-16T22:24:07.952Z · LW · GW

You're right, these topics do make me sound like a broken record, and I also didn't take into account the broader context. It's just that I'm really irritated with papers like these.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Competence in experts: summary · 2012-08-16T18:57:18.061Z · LW · GW

(retracted, see below)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-16T02:10:00.193Z · LW · GW

That would indeed be a fully general counterargument, but it's not the sort of argument that I'm making. My theory is not that liberals elevate harm and fairness so much that they should be called "sacred" for them. Rather, my theory is that they have their own peculiar moral intuitions of sacredness -- which is evidenced by the fact that if these intuitions are challenged by arguments based on harm or fairness analogous to those they accept in other cases, they react with emotions and rationalizations in a manner typical of people brought into dissonance by an attempt to elicit conflicting moral intuitions.

Of course, my view may be wrong, but I don't think it can be dismissed as a fully general counterargument.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-15T19:36:45.939Z · LW · GW

OK, if you want to delve into a concrete example with all the inflammatory details, PM me your email address. (I find the PM interface on this site very annoying.) If the discussion produces any interesting results, maybe we can publish it later suitably edited.

I'll also post a further reply later today, addressing some of your points that I think can be answered satisfactorily without going into too much controversy.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-15T16:32:16.485Z · LW · GW

Sorry, I composed the above comment in a rush, and forgot to address the other questions you asked because I focused on the main objection.

Regarding other forums, the problem is that they offer only predictable feedback based on the ideological positions of the owners and participants. Depending on where I go, I can get either outrage and bewilderment or admiring applause, and while this can be fun and vanity-pleasing, it offers no useful feedback. So while I do engage in ideological rants and scuffles for fun from time to time on other forums, I've never bothered with making my writing there systematic and precise enough to be worth your time.

Regarding other thinkers, I actually don't think that much of my thinking is original. In fact, my views on most questions are mostly cobbled together from insights I got from various other authors, with only some additional synthesis and expansion on my part. I don't think I have any unusual epistemic skills except for unusually broad curiosity and the ability to take arguments seriously even if their source and ultimate conclusion are low-status, unpleasant, ideologically hostile to my values and preferences, etc. (Of course, neither of these characteristics is an unalloyed good even from a purely epistemic perspective, and they certainly cause many problems, possibly more than benefits, for me in practical life.)

The problem, however, is that on controversial topics, good insight typically comes from authors whose other beliefs and statements are mistaken and biased in various ways, and whose overall image, demeanor, and affiliation is often problematic. And while people are generally apt to misinterpret agreement on a particular point as a full endorsement of someone, and to attack a particular argument based on the author's mistakes and biases on other questions, I think LW has some particularly bad problems in this regard. This is because on LW, people tend to assign a supposed general level of "rationality" to individuals and dismiss them if sufficient red flags of supposedly general irrationality are raised.

Whereas in reality, on controversial and ideologically charged questions, there is much less consistency within individuals, and people whose rationality is sterling as judged by the LW public opinion (often not without good reason) typically have at least some horribly naive and biased views, while much good insight comes from people whom LW would judge (also often with good reason) as overall hugely biased and irrational. (The only people who maintain high standards across the board are those who limit themselves to technical questions and venture into controversial non-technical topics only rarely and cautiously, if at all.) So that on many questions, saying "I think X has good insight on topic Y" would be just a way to discredit myself. (When I think it isn't, I do provide references with the appropriate caveats.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-15T01:11:42.271Z · LW · GW

I agree that this is a valid concern, but I don't think your evaluation of the situation is entirely fair. Namely, I almost never open any controversial and inflammatory topics on this forum. (And I definitely haven't done so in a very long time, nor do I intend to do it in the future.) I make comments on such topics only when I see that others have already opened them and I believe that what has been written is seriously flawed. (In fact, usually I don't react even then.)

Therefore, while I certainly accept that my incomplete arguments may cause the problems you describe, you must take into account that the alternative is a situation where other people's arguments stand unchallenged even though they are, in my opinion, seriously flawed. In such situations, leaving them unanswered would create a problem similar to the one you point out with regards to my comments, i.e. a misleading impression that there is a more agreement with them that there actually is. (This even aside from the problem that, if I am correct, it would mean wrong arguments standing unchallenged.)

In these situations, I take my arguments as far as I believe I can take them without causing so much controversy that the discourse breaks down. This is a sort of situation where there is no good outcome, and I believe that often the least bad option is to make it known that there is some disagreement and voice it as far as it can be done. (In the sense that this outcome, whatever its problems, still makes the best out of the unfavorable trade-offs that unavoidably appear whenever some controversial and inflammatory topic is opened.)

Of course, there are many ways in which I could be wrong. Maybe the arguments I see as flawed are in fact usually correct and I'm just creating confusion and misleading people by parading my mistaken contrary beliefs this way. Maybe these topics are so unimportant that it's always better to ignore them than to raise any amount of fuss. Maybe my comments, however careful and diplomatic I try to make them, still serve as a catalyst for too much bad discourse by other posters. Relevant to your comment, maybe the confusion and misleading impressions left by my comments end up worse than the alternative outcome in case I stay silent. I recognize all these possibilities, but nevertheless, I think the concrete objection from your comment fails to recognize the relevant concerns I outlined above.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-14T15:19:23.725Z · LW · GW

I don't have any significant disagreement here, except that I'm not sure if you believe that people's ideological views tend to be actually motivated by this kind of self-interest. I certainly don't think this is the case -- to me it seems like a very implausible model of how people think about ideological issues even just from common-sense observation, and it's also disproved by the systematic evidence against the self-interested voter hypothesis.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-14T07:47:12.096Z · LW · GW

I think my problem with your responses on this thread so far has been that you've taken various liberal positions, said "Obviously this a sacredness value, liberals say it's about harm but they are lying", and not justified this.

"Lying" is not the right word, since it suggests conscious deception. The term I have used consistently is rationalization.

In order to demonstrate that liberal sexual values are sacredness rather than harm based, you'd need to point out some specific practice that was harmless but which liberals still violently opposed [...] or harmful but which liberals supported [...]

Arguing against liberal positions on such matters is very difficult because they tend to be backed by a vast arsenal of rationalizations based on purportedly rational considerations of harm or fairness, often coming from prestigious and accredited intellectual institutions where liberals predominate. This is of course in addition to the dense minefield of "boo lights" where an argument, whatever its real merits, will trigger such outrage in a liberal audience that the discourse will be destroyed and the speaker discredited.

So, while I can readily point out concrete examples of the sort you're asking, unfortunately in many of them, crossing the inferential distances would be an uphill battle, or there would be immediate unpleasantness that I'd rather avoid. Therefore I'll limit myself to a few more vague and general points:

  • Laissez-faire in sex leads to all kinds of expensive negative-sum signaling and other games. Why not crack down on those, which would lead to a clear improvement by any utilitarian metric?

  • If it's OK for the government to ban smoking and other activities harmful for public health, why not extend such treatment to sexual activities that have obvious and drastic public health implications?

  • If the alleged vast inequality of wealth is a legitimate complaint against economic laissez-faire, why is it not legitimate to complain about the vast inequality of sexual and romantic opportunities (and of the related social status) under sexual laissez-faire? (The problem is by no means limited to men, of course.)

  • Why the automatic hostility towards the idea that under sexual laissez-faire, a huge segment of the population, which lacks sufficient prudence and self-control, will make disastrous and self-destructive choices, so that restrictive traditional sexual norms may amount to a net harm reduction? Especially since liberals make analogous arguments in favor of paternalistic regulation of practically everything else.

There are many other examples too, but these are the best ones I can think of without either running into enormous inferential distances or sounding too provocative. It really seems to me that liberal norms change suddenly and dramatically towards laissez-faire once sexual matters come under consideration, and I don't see how this could be because their regular considerations of harm and fairness just happen to entail laissez-faire in this particular area and nowhere else.

I agree that certain liberal values are based on sacredness (diversity and anti-racism) or purity (environmentalism), although I have yet to hear any good argument that liberals explicitly value authority.

Explicitly, certainly not often. But in many of their observed views and behaviors, I detect strong authority-based intuitions, even though they will invariably be rationalized as something else. The typical way is to present authority as some kind of neutral and objective expertise, even in areas where this makes no sense.

Once Peter Singer says he can't really see any problems with infanticide because it doesn't harm anyone, the hypothesis that he still is secretly trying to uphold sacredness values just as much as everyone else becomes pretty hard to support.

As I said, I'm not an expert on Singer in particular, and I don't deny the possibility that he might be an outlier in this regard. (Although I do remember reading things from him that seemed to me like a clear case of rationalizing fundamentally non-utilitarian liberal positions.) Also, I agree that someone's serious utilitarian bullet-biting on some issues provides some evidence that he is overall less dedicated to the values of sacredness etc. I do think, however, that you underestimate how often such serious bullet-biters can be inconsistent on other issues.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-14T03:54:38.738Z · LW · GW

Fallacy of gray? Arguably no one has completely removed all minor unconscious belief in purity/sanctity/authority based values, but I think endorsing harm/fairness values at least correlates with holding fewer values based on P/S/A, even secretly.

There are two distinct questions here:

  1. Are the standard liberal ideological positions (in the American sense of the word) really as low on the sacredness/authority/in-group values as Haidt would claim?

  2. Are there, generally speaking, significant numbers of people (perhaps weighted by their influence) whose ideological positions are truly low on the sacredness/authority/in-group values? (Whatever their overlap with the standard liberal positions might be.)

I believe that the answer to (1) is decisively no. And here I don't have in mind some minor holdovers, but some of the very central tenets of the ideology of modern liberalism -- which are largely liberal innovations, and not just unexamined baggage from the past. So even if I'm committing fallacies here, they're not fallacies of gray. In this thread and the linked older comments, I have already elaborated on one significant example where the standard liberal positions are heavy on sacredness (the sacralization of individual autonomy in sex-related matters). I could also give examples of liberal authority and in-group values, some of which I've already mentioned in passing. Unfortunately, you can probably see why such topics are, practically by definition, inordinately likely to inflame passions and destroy the discourse.

As for (2), clearly, if you look for outliers hard enough, you'll find them, and there is some variability even among people closer to the mainstream. But I think that you are greatly underestimating how much of the entire utilitarianism shtick in the contemporary ideological debates is just a convenient framework for rationalizations of views and intuitions held for completely different reasons. (And it's not very different for egalitarian and other arguments that leverage the fairness intuitions.)

Even when it comes to bullet-biters who will be convinced by utilitarian (or egalitarian etc.) arguments to adopt odd and extreme positions on some issues, it's a mistake to conclude from this that they have done an equally consistent scrutiny of all their beliefs, or even the majority of them. I think this is a good description of someone like Singer (with the caveat that I haven't read anything close to a large and representative sample of his work, so that my view of his particular case might be biased).

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-13T05:08:32.704Z · LW · GW

Looking back at my comment, I did perhaps use a very broad brush at certain points, which is unfortunately hard to avoid if one wishes to keep one's comments at reasonable length. However, I'd still be curious to hear where exactly you think my description diverges from reality.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-13T05:07:16.869Z · LW · GW

Well, yes, but that's basically a rationalization for the glaring inconsistency, which in fact exists as a sheer historical accident. Americans would be bothered by explicitly random traffic stops. But in reality, cops have the de facto authority to pull over whomever they want, and you have no right to defy them even if they decide to do it purely on a whim.

Note that it's irrelevant for my point that you can get tickets and charges suppressed later if you somehow manage to convince the judge that you were pulled over without reasonable suspicion. I'm focusing purely on the interaction between you and the cop on the spot.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-13T02:15:21.544Z · LW · GW

The thing is, what determines when autonomy is absolute and inviolable, and when it should be weighed against other concerns?

When it comes to interventions in human affairs by the state and other institutions, modern liberals pride themselves on their supposed adherence to (what they see as) rational and scientific cost-benefit analysis and common-sense notions of equality and fairness. They typically assert that their opponents are being irrational, or acting out of selfish interest, when they insist that some other principle takes precedence, like for example when conservatives insist on respecting tradition and custom, or when libertarians insist on inviolable property rights. In particular, liberals certainly see it as irrational when libertarians oppose their favored measures on the grounds of individual liberty and autonomy.

However, there are issues on which liberals themselves draw absolutist lines and lose all interest for cost-benefit analysis, as well as for concerns about equality and fairness that are perfectly analogous to those they care about greatly in other cases. Sex is the principal example. Liberals argue in favor of comprehensive intervention and regulation in nearly all areas of human life, but in contrast, people's sexual behavior is supposed to be a subject of complete laissez-faire. This despite the fact that many arguments that liberals normally use against the evils of laissez-faire and in favor of economic intervention, wealth redistribution, and paternalistic regulation, would apply with equal (or even greater) force to sex as well. Yet an attempt to argue in favor of more restrictive sexual norms on any of these grounds will be met with immediate hostility by liberals -- often so fierce that you'll be immediately dismissed as obviously crazy or malicious.

I don't think it's possible for liberals to salvage the situation by claiming that sexual laissez-faire is somehow entailed by the same considerations that, according to them, mandate complex and comprehensive regulation of almost everything else. This would be vanishingly improbable even a priori, and a casual look at the arguments in question definitely shows a glaring inconsistency here. The only plausible explanation I see here is that, just like everyone else in the human history, liberals base their sexual norms on a sacredness foundation -- except that for them, this foundation has the peculiar form of sacralizing individual autonomy, thus making a violation of this autonomy a sacrilege that no other considerations can justify.

Ironically, the sexual norms based on sacralized individual autonomy end up working very badly in practice, so that we end up with the present rather bizarre situation where we see an unprecedented amount of hand-wringing about all sorts of sex-related problems, and at the same time proud insistence that we have reached unprecedented heights of freedom, enlightenment, and moral superiority in sex-related matters. (And also a complete impossibility of discussing these topics in an open and honest manner, as witnessed by the fact that they reliably destroy the discourse even in a forum like LW.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-12T22:44:29.896Z · LW · GW

On the contrary -- it seems to me that the modern Western societies are, by all historical standards, exceptionally obsessed with sacredness norms on sex-related issues. See my old comment I linked earlier, in which I elaborate on some particularly striking manifestations of this.

(Also, among the most amusing posts on Overcoming Bias are those where Robin Hanson elicits outrage from the respectable progressive folk by putting some sex-related issue under dispassionate scrutiny and thereby violating their sacredness intuitions.)

As for the polyamorists, I don't have any direct insight into the inner workings of these communities except for a few occasional glimpses offered by LW posts and comments. But unless they are composed of extremely unusual self-selected outliers (which might be the case given their very small size), I would suspect that they are again just rationalizing a somewhat different (and possibly even more extreme) set of sacredness norms.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-12T22:03:38.985Z · LW · GW

But I think it's probably wrong to say that all discussion of morality is rationalization. If that were true, nobody would ever be swayed by a moral argument. In fact, people do change their views -- and they frequently do so when it is pointed out that their stated views don't match their actions.

This is a non sequitur. An argument may change people's moral beliefs and intuitions by changing the underlying tacit basis for their rationalizations, whereupon they get displaced by new ones. The most frequent way this happens is when people realize that a realignment of their moral intuitions is in their interest because it offers some gain in power, wealth, or (most commonly) status, or perhaps it will help avoid some trouble.

Moreover, pointing out that people's stated views don't match their actions is almost never an effective way to change their views. Usually it's effective only in provoking hostility and making their rationalization mechanisms work somewhat harder than usual.

If the sacred in food and sex evolved to combat parasites, then it is at this point, in Western societies, an onion in the varnish.

They have never been just about parasites, especially when it comes to the norms about sex (and the whole enormous cluster of related issues about reproduction, family, etc.). Strong norms about these matters must exist in order for any human society to function and perpetuate itself, and it seems to me that humans are hardwired to use the sacredness foundation as the fundamental basis for their moral intuitions about many of them. Even if it were possible to formulate these norms based on "rational" considerations of harm and fairness in a way that wouldn't be just a convenient rationalization for deeper intuitions -- and I don't think anything like that is possible -- such norms would probably be unworkable in practice with realistic humans.

(I could conceive more easily of a hypothetical society in which food-related norms would be free of purity/sacredness. But it still looks implausible that people wouldn't keep inventing new ones like they presently do, even if it requires ever more creative rationalizations. Plus, it seems to me that such norms can be practically useful in a variety of ways.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-12T20:25:58.301Z · LW · GW

Or to take an even more poignant example, what will happen if you refuse to be humble and obedient when you get pulled over by a cop? Historically, in many places and times, this example would have had similarly great emotional power as those employed by the author of the original post.

(In fact, I find it fascinating that present-day Americans would see it as a creepy totalitarian idea if you proposed that cops should be authorized to stop and detain pedestrians for random paper checks, even though the same thing is considered a normal and unremarkable fact of life for drivers. This example demonstrates especially clearly how random and incoherent human intuitions are when it comes to feelings of outrage at a perceived lack of freedom or equality.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-12T19:18:50.262Z · LW · GW

Even if humans have loyalty, authority and sanctity built-in, they can still recognize their instrumental role and can only instrumentally optimize for those.

The trouble is, absent certain unusually favorable circumstances, attempts at such optimization run into insurmountable practical problems. For start, such analysis would be tremendously difficult even for a superhumanly unbiased intellect. And then there is the even worse problem that realistic humans will be under an almost irresistible temptation to bias their analysis in favor of their own particular authority, sanctity, and in-group norms.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-12T18:59:54.372Z · LW · GW

The questions Haidt ask are about what we judge to be moral. I simply don't judge disrespect for authority (for instance) as immoral in itself.

I am not going to analyze you in particular, but what I write certainly applies to typical people who adhere to modern ideologies that claim to be concerned exclusively with harm and fairness.

These people would presumably insist that they "don't judge disrespect for authority... as immoral in itself." But what people say are rationalizations, not the real motivations for their beliefs and actions. To employ Haidt's rider-elephant metaphor, you see the rider insisting loudly that disrespect for authority is not immoral by itself, while the elephant is charging to stomp you to death, infuriated by your disrespect. Whereupon the rider, if pressed to explain what happened, invents a rationalization about how your real sin is in fact something in terms of harm (and maybe fairness), or maybe how you're simply being delusional or disingenuous. It's similar for sacredness and loyalty, of course.

I'm also not convinced that purity is as instrumentally necessary as you say;

Can you think of any functioning human society without strong norms of sacredness/purity when it comes to, say, sex or food?

(Of course, with regards to the present-day Western societies, this applies to the entire contemporary ideological spectrum. In fact, people who supposedly have a "rational" harm/fairness-based approach to these matters are, in my opinion, characterized by particularly intense fervor driven by their sacredness/purity-based norms.)

What is the difference between an ideology and morality?

Their overlap is only partial. Ideologies normally also include non-moral beliefs (although moral motivations usually lurk not very far underneath). In turn, some moral judgments are human universals, and others may be a matter of such strong consensus within a particular culture that calling them ideological would stretch the term beyond the normal variation in its meaning.

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Admitting to Bias · 2012-08-12T07:18:39.602Z · LW · GW

If you want to get a job providing safety equipment for workplaces, you should probably not proclaim that you believe that workplaces are too safe.

It looks like here you have inadvertently provided a good argument for the opposite of what you wanted. Namely, what you write applies even if your belief that workplaces are too safe is correct. (Workplaces can certainly be too safe by any reasonable metric, at least in principle. Imagine if office workers were forced to wear helmets and knee pads just in case they might trip over while walking between the cubes. Then imagine a thriving industry of office helmets, an ever expanding bureaucracy for regulating and inspecting them -- and august academic experts getting grants to study them and issue recommendations for their use.)

If your stated beliefs are misaligned with the institutional incentives in the business or bureaucracy in which you work, it will indeed be very bad for your career. And what reason do you have to believe that the institutional incentives in the contemporary academia are aligned with the truth on all (or even on most) ideologically charged matters?

Comment by Vladimir_M on What is moral foundation theory good for? · 2012-08-12T06:53:44.147Z · LW · GW

It is, however, missing a piece: why are there people who don't share all five foundations?

You are right that Haidt is missing that piece, although judging by his recent writings, he might be slowly converging towards the answer. Namely, the answer is that, contrary to Haidt's model of contemporary ideologies, there are in fact no such people.

What does exist are people whose ideology says that harm and (maybe) fairness are the only rational and reasonable moral foundations, while the other ones are only due to ignorance, stupidity, backwardness, malice, etc. Nevertheless, these same people have their own strong norms of sacredness, purity, authority, and in-group loyalty, for which they however invent ideologically motivated rationalizations in terms of harm and fairness. These rationalizations are usually very flimsy, and often they amount to little more than an instinctive emotional urge to dismiss anyone who asks unpleasant questions as crazy or malicious. Yet, given the high status and institutional dominance of such ideologies, their adherents generally do manage to create a public image of themselves as concerned only with the "rational" foundations (and thus superior intellectually and morally to their ideological opponents).

As for the claim that "you need loyalty, authority and sanctity to run a decent society," I would actually go further and say that they are necessary for any sort of organized human society. In fact, the claim can be stated even more strongly: since humans are social beings who can live and reproduce only within organized societies, these things simply will exist wherever there are humans. Therefore, if you are concerned with harm, the only reasonable question you can ask is about the practical consequences of the (necessarily multi-foundational) social norms in different societies on whatever metric you use to evaluate harm. And here you will find that, even in terms of a purely utilitarian metric, an accurate analysis of the social role of the norms based on these "irrational" foundations will give you very different answers from those given by the pseudo-rational ideologies that claim to reject these foundations.

Comment by Vladimir_M on What are the optimal biases to overcome? · 2012-08-11T00:15:45.756Z · LW · GW

Could you make the link go both ways?


Comment by Vladimir_M on What are the optimal biases to overcome? · 2012-08-05T08:15:38.920Z · LW · GW

Basically, the problem is that K&T-style insights about cognitive biases -- and, by extension, the whole OB/LW folklore that has arisen around them -- are useless for pretty much any question of practical importance. This is true both with regards to personal success and accomplishment (a.k.a. "instrumental rationality") and pure intellectual curiosity (a.k.a. "epistemic rationality").

From the point of view of a human being, the really important questions are worlds apart from anything touched by these neat academic categorizations of biases. Whom should I trust? What rules are safe to break? What rules am I in fact expected to break? When do social institutions work as advertised, and when is there in fact conniving and off-the-record tacit understanding that I'm unaware of? What do other people really think about me? For pretty much anything that really matters, the important biases are those that you have about questions of this sort -- and knowing about the artificial lab scenarios where anchoring, conjunction fallacies, etc. are observable won't give you any advantage there.

Note that this applies to your biases about abstract intellectual topics just as much as to your practical life. Whatever you know about any such topic, you know largely ad verecundiam from the intellectual authorities you trust, so that chances are you have inherited their biases wholesale. (An exception here is material that stands purely on rigorous internal logical evidence, like mathematical proofs, but there isn't much you can do with that beyond pure math.) And to answer the question of what biases might be distorting the output of the official intellectual authorities in the system you live under, you need to ask hard questions about human nature and behavior akin to the above listed ones, and accurately detect biases far more complex and difficult than anything within the reach of the simplistic behavioral economics.

Of course, the problem you ultimately run into is that such analysis, if done consistently and accurately, will produce results that clash with the social norms you live under. Which leads to the observation that some well-calibrated instinctive bias towards conformity is usually good for you.

Comment by Vladimir_M on "Epiphany addiction" · 2012-08-05T07:24:09.025Z · LW · GW

My vague impression is that it's closely related to distrust of authority. If one trusts authority, any change takes you farther away from a trusted safe state and thus carries a large hidden cost.

On the other hand, unless you have the enormously rare constellation of talent and circumstances to give you a realistic chance to rise to the very top, too little trust in authority leads to a state of frightened paralysis or downright self-destruction. What you need for success is the instinct to recognize when you should obey the powers-that-be with your heart and your mind, and when to ignore, defy, or subvert them.

The ability to conform to the official norms and trust the official dogma with full honesty when it's optimal to do so is just as important as the ability to ignore, defy, and subvert them in other cases. Otherwise your distrust of authority will lead you either to cower in fear of it or to provoke its wrath and be destroyed. A well-calibrated unconscious strategic instinct to switch between conformity and non-conformity is, in my opinion, one of the main things that sets apart greatly successful people from others.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Is Politics the Mindkiller? An Inconclusive Test · 2012-07-28T18:40:38.326Z · LW · GW

Looking at the world, we can see that even if not perfect, there are many cases of things which are done "outside of the market" but does works, from CERN to Appolo project, EDF/SNCF as I said in my original comment, European-style universal healthcare, ... it feels to me that being libertarian in this context is more like akin to refusing vaccines and keeping Azathoth alone.

When you mentioned economic "engineering," the first thing that occurred to me were various schools of macroeconomics and their proposed measures for economic planning via monetary, fiscal, trade, and other policies. Speaking as someone who has spent considerable effort trying to make sense of this supposed "science," I really don't see anything there but pseudoscience driven by ideology, hubris, political expediency, and rent-seeking.

What you mention here, however, is in the domain of those much older kinds of interventions that I spoke of: public infrastructure spending, wealth redistribution, and patronage of arts and sciences. Unlike the modern macroeconomic "science," you could have an interesting discussion about those even with an ancient Roman statesman. I am definitely not opposed to them in principle, and I think they should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

However, I believe you are far too optimistic in evaluating the outcomes of the contemporary such policies. For example, if properly done, government patronage of science can work wonders, but if not, it can give rise to a diabolical system of perverse incentives that will thoroughly corrupt the entire field of science in question -- and in a way that will still make it look fully legitimate to the general public, and make the critics who understand the terrible truth seem like laughable crackpots. Similar things can be argued about other government enterprises too, with corruption and disastrous bungling often rampant under a veneer of perfect respectability and (often sincerely deluded) pretense of success. And while we clearly won't agree about the extent this is happening, given the confident off-hand style of your examples, I definitely think you're badly underestimating this extent.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Is Politics the Mindkiller? An Inconclusive Test · 2012-07-28T17:33:49.308Z · LW · GW

Of course, for competition to really work out, immigration should not be regulated.

How does this follow? Unless I'm having a severe case of reading misapprehension, this is equivalent to arguing that there should be a market in housing because competition between landlords will result in good housing with reasonable rents -- and then adding, as if it were obvious, that for competition to work out, landlords should not have any rules for screening potential tenants.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Is Politics the Mindkiller? An Inconclusive Test · 2012-07-28T15:44:35.042Z · LW · GW

I'm not a principled libertarian who will defend the "free market" consistently (in fact, I think the very notion is rather incoherent), but the sort of "engineering" you're talking about runs into two problems:

  1. We still lack the epistemological means to obtain the expertise necessary for such engineering, except for some basic simple insights that were already known to governments of civilized countries centuries ago. Insofar as any economic engineering interventions have been successful historically, they have been based on this ancient common-sense knowledge. Practically all the other stuff dreamed up by economists during the last hundred (or maybe even two hundred) years is a frightful abomination of cargo-cult science, anti-epistemology, and rationalizations for ideology and rent-seeking. (This also goes for the bulk of "social science" in general.)

  2. Even insofar as such expertise can be obtained, there is still the problem that the intervention must be executed by a realistic government, whose agents have their own venal interests and ideological aims (and delusions). And given the above-described state of the economic "science," even the most delusional ideology and the most blatant venal interest can be given a perfectly respectable veneer of "scientific" economics, if only some high-status and appropriately credentialed economists will vouch for it. So even insofar as we have some sound insights about the possible interventions, they are unlikely to be recognized as such unless there's a lucky alignment of interests and incentives. (But that is extremely unlikely in contemporary political systems.)

So, basically, you can see my view as roughly equivalent to someone who is sick but lives in a society where the only physicians available are crazed charlatans and superstitious witch-doctors (and where, in addition, institutionalized incentives are strongly against anything resembling valid medicine). Passively hoping for mercy from Azathoth (i.e. that your immune system will win out on its own) may well be the most rational strategy in this situation.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Thoughts on moral intuitions · 2012-07-23T01:13:13.220Z · 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 Vladimir_M on Thoughts on moral intuitions · 2012-07-22T19:19:26.445Z · 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 Vladimir_M on What Is Signaling, Really? · 2012-07-11T04:46:50.436Z · LW · GW

Conformity too. This is a factor often overlooked in discussions of this sort.

(There are in fact two ways in which education signals conformity. The first one is the fact that you have conformed to the social norm that you are supposed to signal your intelligence and conscientiousness with this particular costly and wasteful endeavor, not in some alternative way that would signal these traits just as well. The second one is that you have successfully functioned for several years in an institution that enforces an especially high level of conformity with certain norms of behavior that are especially important in a professional context.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on Rationality Quotes July 2012 · 2012-07-07T04:27:25.402Z · LW · GW

I wouldn't call the present U.S. system "absurdly lenient." The system is bungling, inefficient, and operating under numerous absurd rules and perverse incentives imposed by ideology and politics. At the same time, it tries to compensate for this, wherever possible, by ever harsher and more pitiless severity. It also increasingly operates with the mentality and tactics of an armed force subduing a hostile population, severed from all normal human social relations.

The end result is a dysfunctional system, unable to reduce crime to a reasonable level and unable to ensure a tolerable level of public safety -- but if you're unlucky enough to attract its attention, guilty or innocent, "absurd leniency" is most definitely not what awaits you.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Irrationality Game II · 2012-07-06T04:26:38.262Z · LW · GW

It seems to me very different to say that it is difficult to assess whether something is a provocation than to say that there are some definitions of provocation under which it is and some under which it isn't.

If we could read minds (including those in the past), it would probably be possible to come to agreement about which concrete acts have been provocations in all cases, by looking for the mens rea: was the given act specifically motivated by the desire to induce a hostile reaction?

But since we can't read minds, the practical criteria for what counts as "provocation" are murky, and they are typically a mixture of attempts to evaluate indirect evidence about motives and attempts to define certain acts in certain contexts as ipso facto provocative. So there is lots of difficulty on both fronts, even if there is a general agreement on what happened: it's hard to evaluate the evidence about motives correctly, and there is also disagreement on which acts qualify as ipso facto provocative.

In this concrete case, some people would say that the actions of the U.S. government prior to Pearl Harbor were ipso facto provocative, i.e. that they were far outside of the limits of reasonable behavior of someone who is not actively trying to provoke hostility. Others would say that it isn't so, and they'd presumably also claim that there is no clear evidence about motives to pronounce the verdict of "provocation."

Do you think Acheson would lie about external facts, like whether he offered to let the Japanese pay with money in a Latin American bank account?

It strikes me as wildly implausible that someone relatively low in the pecking order, like Acheson in 1941, could have been in a position to make such tremendous history-shaping decisions on his own whim and without directions from above. So I think his account presents, at best, a strong lawyerly spin on the events with plenty of important omissions, even if there is no outright lying.

Now, why the oil embargo was instituted in this particular puzzling way, I don't know. I've never found the time to sit down and study all the available sources in detail. However, it seems to me that the most probable explanation is that FDR and his clique wanted to execute the embargo in a duplicitous and plausibly deniable way (which would be very much within their usual modus operandi), so they tried to make it look like an underling did the paperwork of export licensing a bit too eagerly, and then also the Japanese unreasonably failed to do the correct bureaucratic procedure, etc., etc.

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Why the kids don’t know no algebra · 2012-07-06T03:10:42.536Z · LW · GW

Assuming your summary is correct, it would be an insult for the cargo cults to use them as a metaphor for this sort of "science."

Comment by Vladimir_M on Rationality Quotes July 2012 · 2012-07-05T17:36:02.887Z · LW · GW

Another important reason is that Americans have in the meantime embraced a lifestyle that would have struck earlier generations as incredibly paranoid siege mentality. (But which is completely understandable given the realities of the crime wave in the second half of the 20th century.)

Yet another reason is, of course, the draconian toughening of law enforcement and criminal penalties.

Comment by Vladimir_M on Irrationality Game II · 2012-07-05T17:18:04.165Z · LW · GW

Even in that scenario, Japanese victory is conditional on the political decision of the U.S. government to accept the peace. My comments considered only the strategic situation under the assumption that all sides were willing to fight on with determination. And I don't think this assumption is so unrealistic: the American people were extremely unwilling to enter the war, but once they did, they would have been even less willing to accept a humiliating peace. Especially since the Pacific great naval offensive could be (and historically was) fought with very low casualties, and not to mention the U.S. government's wartime control of the media that was in many ways even more effective than the crude and heavy-handed control in totalitarian states.

Now, in your scenario, the U.S. would presumably see immediately that its first priority was navy rebuilding. (An army is useless if you can't get it off the mainland.) This means that by 1944, Americans would be cranking out even more ships than they did historically. I don't think the Axis could match that output even if they were in control of the entire Eurasia.

(The U-boats would have been a complicating factor. Their effectiveness changed dramatically with unpredictable innovations in technology and tactics. In actual history, they became useless by mid-1943, although Germans were arguably on the verge of introducing dramatically superior ones at the time of their capitulation. But in any case, the U-boat factor cuts both ways: Americans could swamp the Pacific with even greater numbers of U-boats and wreck the entire Japanese logistics, as they actually did.)

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Why the kids don’t know no algebra · 2012-07-05T03:33:54.234Z · LW · GW

Are you familiar with the signaling theory of education? I think that, properly considered, it makes sense of a lot of the things you find so aggravating.

Comment by Vladimir_M on [Link] Why the kids don’t know no algebra · 2012-07-05T03:26:26.047Z · LW · GW

Steve himself seems to be pretty tonedeaf- I suspect a lot more people would listen to him if he didn't post stuff on such overtly racist locations.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was writing for respectable mainstream conservative papers. The trouble is, once you've written too openly about certain topics, you will be ostracised from the respectable media, and these limits of acceptability are getting ever stricter and narrower. And once you've been placed under such ostracism, unless you're willing to restrict yourself to writing for free on your personal blog, you can only write for various disreputable outlets where you'll have to share the URL or column space with less seemly people.