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AndrewH's observation and opportunity costs

22 Post author: Yvain 23 July 2009 11:36AM

In his discussion of "cryocrastination", AndrewH makes a pretty good point. There may be some better things you can do with the money you'd spend on cryonics insurance. The sort of people who are into cryonics would probably accept that donating it to the Singularity Institute is probably, all in all, a higher utility use of however many dollars. Andrew's conclusion is that you should figure out what maximizes utility and do it, regardless of how small a contribution is involved. He's right, but I want to use the same example to push a point that is very slightly different, or maybe a little more general, or maybe the exact same one but phrased differently.

Consider an argument frequently made when politicians are discussing the budget. I frequently hear people say it would cost between ten and twenty billion dollars a year to feed all the hungry people in the world. I don't know if that's true or not, and considering the recent skepticism about aid it probably isn't, but let's say the politicians believe it. So when they look at (for example) NASA's budget of fifteen billion dollars, they say something like "It's criminal to be spending all this money on space probes and radio telescopes when it could eliminate world hunger, so let's cut NASA's budget."

You see the problem? When we cut NASA's budget, it doesn't immediately go into the "solve world hunger" fund. It goes into the rest of the budget, and probably gets divided among the Congressman Johnson Memorial Fisheries Museum and purchasing twelve-thousand-dollar staplers.

The same is true of cryocrastination. Unless you actually take that money you would have spent on cryonics and donate it to the Singularity Institute, it's going into the rest of your budget, and you'll probably spend it on coffee and plasma TVs and famous statistician trading cards and whatever else.

I find myself frequently making this error in the following way: a beggar asks me for money, and I want to give it to them on the grounds that they have activated my urge to help people. Then think to myself "I can't justify giving the money to this beggar when it would help many more people if I gave it to a responsible charity." So I say no, and forget all about it, and never give the money to anyone. Even though (from a charity point of view) I know of a superior alternative to giving the money to the beggar, I would still be better off just giving the beggar the money!

All this means that for any entity that does not use its resources with maximum efficiency, the opportunity cost of spending a certain amount of resources should not be calculated as what you'd get earn from the best possible use of those resources, but what you'll earn from the use of those resources which you expect to actually occur.

Comments (56)

Comment author: jimmy 23 July 2009 06:19:22PM 7 points [-]

The first thing that comes to mind is to have an "efficient charity" box that you drop money in every time you turn down a beggar or in any way invoke this excuse. If you can stick to it, it should have the effect of getting the money to the right people, and may even help you purchase "warm fuzzies" if you can convince the warm fuzzy factory that "I really did more than help that beggar, which would have felt warm and fuzzy".

Comment author: Marcello 24 July 2009 02:57:50AM 7 points [-]

The most effective version of this would probably be an iPhone (or similar mobile device) application that gives a dollar to charity when you push a button. If it's going to work reliably it has to be something that can be used when the beggar/cause invocation is in sight: for most people, I'm guessing that akrasia would probably prevent a physical box or paper ledger from working properly.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 July 2009 05:15:31PM 20 points [-]

I would still be better off just giving the beggar the money!

Increasing the payoff of begging just increases the number of beggars until the average wage once again falls to the point where it is just marginally unattractive - or so I've heard. I think someone once suggested that if you visit a poor country and want to help, do not under any circumstances give money to beggars; find someone who seems to be doing something productive, and give the money to them.

Comment author: Marcello 23 July 2009 06:10:28PM 7 points [-]

I recently visited Los Angeles with a friend. Whenever we got lost wandering around the city, he would find the nearest homeless person, ask them for directions and pay them a dollar. (Homeless people tend to know the street layout and bus routes of their city like the backs of their hands.)

Comment author: roland 24 July 2009 01:06:49AM 5 points [-]

Good point! I live in Brazil and in some places you can actually rent babies to improve your success at begging as a woman.

Also what will the beggars do with the money? The truth is most of them will spend it on drinks. Begging attracts a certain type of persona, why do you want to encourage it instead of giving a help to people who are not begging? In some cases beggars will actually make more money than people doing serious work.

Comment author: Yvain 23 July 2009 07:47:01PM *  9 points [-]

...no, I don't see why that means one shouldn't give money to beggars.

Let's say beggars in my city can make $1/hour. Everyone who, in a world without begging, would have made <$1/hour becomes a beggar, and everyone who in a world without begging would have made >$1 hour does not become a beggar.

Now let's say people in my city become more generous and give more money. The number of beggars cannot increase without the wage of beggars also increasing, because the only reason more people would become beggars is that there is a higher incentive, and if the influx of new beggars drive wages back down, those new beggars will "quit" their "job" and the hourly wage will stabilize. So it may be that now beggars earn $2/hour, and everyone who would earn <$2/hour at normal labor quits and becomes a beggar.

In a country with a minimum wage, this suggests that no one will ever leave a job for begging until a beggar's wage exceeds minimum wage; despite the horror stories I don't think this has happened here. It suggests that the population of beggars will probably consist of the people who would have a (low-paying) job if there was no minimum wage but can't get any job in the current regulatory climate. These people seem worth helping.

In a country with no minimum wage, begging establishes an effective minimum wage. That is, if beggars can earn $1/day, then no one will work for less than $1/day because they'd rather beg. This may be bad from an economic standpoint, but it's good from a humanitarian standpoint; it means we can be assured every poor person in the country will earn at least $1/day, whether working or begging, and that no one will have to make do with less. If people become more generous and donations rise to $2/day, this just means that all poor people can be assured of a little bit more money. This seems like exactly what people donating to beggars have as their goal.

Although it may leave a bad taste in our mouths that beggars are quitting their fifty-cent-a-day jobs for begging, if we place a greater value on people not having to live on fifty cents a day than we do on the "moral value of hard work", we are making people better off. We'd have to balance that against the lost productivity of these beggars' fifty-cent-a-day jobs,but if they're only earning fifty cents a day, they can't produce all that much.

[possible counter-argument: if you have a fifty-cent-a-day job, you might learn skills and get promoted. This seems a much more relevant concern in a first world country than in a third world country, where most people labor at dead-end jobs their whole lives, and since first world countries generally have minimum wages anyway, I don't consider it too important]

[this argument probably only works in Economics Land; I think gworley does a better job of describing what happens in the real world.]

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 23 July 2009 11:28:14PM 8 points [-]

You seem to be assuming that begging is unskilled "work" and thus all beggars make roughly the same "wage" on average. I highly doubt this is the case; a beggar who can more effectively evoke sympathy in passers-by will make a better haul.

For instance, in an urban environment, a beggar probably wants to maximize their exposure to naive folks from out of town; urban residents will probably have learned to ignore the begging more effectively. With a population sufficiently generous and gullible, it's entirely possible that, for people with few career prospects, it will only be the ones too incompetent to beg who will end up in no-skill minimum wage work.

On the higher end, this also blends into buskers and low-level "my wallet was stolen, I need money for a train ticket to get home to my kids" type scamming as more sophisticated (and profitable) forms.

See also this article.

Comment author: thomblake 23 July 2009 11:34:35PM 0 points [-]

I'm glad you included a link on this one. Until I got to that, it seemed like pure armchair theorizing.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 23 July 2009 11:43:21PM *  5 points [-]

It was armchair theorizing, informed by knowledge I have acquired, including memories of articles such as the one linked to. I actually wrote the whole comment before looking up that article based on vague recollection of it.

That said, the assumption that an activity that one does to acquire money should, in absence of bureaucratic meddling, pay similar amounts independent of skill at the activity, seems to me far more implausible by default than the opposite.

Comment author: FrankAdamek 24 July 2009 05:42:54AM 4 points [-]

Living for a few years in an area that had a somewhat regular beggar population, I think the psychology of begging can't go unexamined. There's more at play than just how much money you can get: prominently the dislike of doing "actual work" and the already mentioned suffering of the beggar stigma. From my experience the sort of people who beg are not so much the people who can't get any jobs (unless won't = can't, motivationally speaking), but people with low or uniquely valued enough self-esteem to suffer the stigma, and who would much rather sit on the street corner than do the 9 to 5 day in and day out. Unfortunately I don't have experimental data on this. Of course they're mixed in with the people who really can't get jobs, but giving to beggars for me at least factors in how much I want to reward people who have the above mentioned preferences.

Comment author: d_m 24 July 2009 02:59:58PM 4 points [-]

It's worth pointing out that where I live (a major east coast city) the vast majority of the homeless population seem to have drug, social and/or mental problems, ranging from obviously but mild to incredibly severe. Of course this data is somewhat anecdotal but I have enough friends who are social workers to feel relatively confident about it. There doesn't seem to be a large class of people making strategic plans to beg based on expected return.

For reference, I don't give money to beggars (due to concerns about how that money will be used), but I do try to give food to beggars, and I support tax money being used for public health projects. I guess this exposes me as someone who supports interventionist social policies in some cases.

Comment author: FrankAdamek 24 July 2009 06:40:02PM 3 points [-]

I like the idea of giving actual food away, being something they almost certainly are going to get something worthwhile out of. My father used to keep bag lunches of prepackaged food in his car for that reason.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 24 July 2009 05:51:15AM *  3 points [-]

I do not have hard data, but I strongly suspect a lot of beggars make more than minimum wage. Many don't, and this varies by area, but in Berkeley at least, there's a ton of foot traffic and people beg in the same spot day-in, day-out, and I would make a large wager that some if not most of them make more than $7 an hour, on average, tax-free. In fact, you occasionally hear about someone who is employed or on disability or otherwise should not be begging doing it on weekends to make a bit extra, though this is more an issue of supply size than it is of wage.

Comment author: knb 24 July 2009 04:51:32PM *  3 points [-]

From the straight dope:


"I bet this won't surprise you, but estimates vary. As Michael S. Scott, the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, says in his online article "Panhandling": Estimates vary from a couple of dollars (U.S.) a day on the low end, to $20 to $50 a day in the mid-range, to about $300 a day on the high end. Women, especially those who have children with them, and panhandlers who appear to be disabled tend to receive more money. For this reason, some panhandlers pretend to be disabled and/or war veterans. Others use pets as a means of evoking sympathy from passersby. Panhandlers' regular donors can account for up to half their receipts. In a study of Toronto panhandlers conducted by Robit Bose and Stephen Hwang, panhandlers reported a median monthly income equivalent to US $190-$200. "

I really like Tyler Cowen's position on the issue. He basically said when in a third world country that receives lots of first world tourists, there usually are a huge number of beggars. Many of these people could get work, but they would make less than they can as skilled beggars. Instead of rewarding this non-productive work, he gives money to poor people who are cooking, offering to work as guides, etc. This way he incentivizes doing productive work, while still giving money to the poor.

Comment author: thomblake 23 July 2009 08:01:40PM 0 points [-]

this argument probably only works in Economics Land

Agreed, with the caveat that in Economics Land you should've just made the high-utility donation in the first place.

Comment author: gworley 23 July 2009 06:10:25PM 4 points [-]

But the economical and social situations are different in rich countries. In a poor country many people are poor, usually because there is something keeping them poor, be it war, famine, government oppression, societal oppression, or something else. In such a country this argument works: you have to make begging so economically unattractive that few people would do it because they could make more with less effort by overcoming whatever problems are making them poor. Not to mention that if too many people become beggars the begging industry might collapse because there would be too few people producing things for the beggars to buy.

In a rich country, there is a strong social stigma attached to begging. Some cultures make exceptions for beggars with particular obvious reasons for begging (injured war veterans, orphans, etc.), but to my knowledge no rich society considers it acceptable for a person who could earn a living by other means to beg. And, being humans and not "economic men", the people in those societies feel that pressure and will go to extreme measures to avoid begging, including resorting to theft (albeit a career choice made possible by having a large population with enough money to have things worth stealing). So in a rich society it probably actually doesn't hurt to give money to beggars, and may even help because it might make begging attractive enough to overcome the social stigma that pushes some people to commit crimes.

That's my armchair social analysis. It feels like it's at least a shadow of reality, though, if not more.

Comment author: Nanani 24 July 2009 12:26:59AM 10 points [-]

..."Making them poor?"

Poverty is the default condition of most of humanity for most of history. It would be more accurate to say they have a lack of the conditions for becoming wealthy. Not to say that war, oppression, etc don't prevent the necessary conditions from forming.

Comment author: thomblake 24 July 2009 12:40:22AM 3 points [-]

Poverty is the default condition of most of humanity for most of history

Only if poverty is very poorly-defined. Poverty is a relative term.

Comment author: Nanani 24 July 2009 12:53:20AM 1 point [-]

It's also an absolute term. I believe <2USD/day is a common figure, with <1USD/day for Extreme poverty.

Relative poverty is by definition intractable. That is not the case with absolute poverty. Is there another term that can be used to differentiate the two with a single word, as opposed to these adjectives?

Comment author: thomblake 24 July 2009 12:57:52AM 2 points [-]

It's a moving target. As soon as you've "solved poverty", "absolute poverty" will be defined as <4USD/day. It's probably best to specify the threshold you mean, if you're thinking of a particular threshold. This will also make it less confusing to readers a thousand years from now.

Comment author: Nanani 24 July 2009 01:02:57AM 1 point [-]

What counts as a threshold if not monetary values?

Lack of access to things like running water and antibiotics is a mark of poverty in 2009. The pharoahs of course had neither thing because they didn't exist, but this does not mean they were poor.

Readers a thousand year from now will inevitably regard all of us as incredibly poor, if they are reading this at all.

Comment author: bogus 24 July 2009 01:09:00AM 4 points [-]

The pharoahs of course had neither thing because they didn't exist, but this does not mean they were poor.

The pharaohs may have been richer than Egyptian peasants in strictly monetary terms, but they were definitely poor in an absolute sense. Since poverty is the default human condition, this shouldn't be surprising.

Comment author: thomblake 24 July 2009 01:26:49AM 1 point [-]

What counts as a threshold if not monetary values?

I was not suggesting using something other than monetary values as a threshold (though they are of course something of a placeholder). Rather, I'm suggesting that you specify exactly what threshold you mean when you use one. Rather than "absolute poverty" you could say "living on <2USD a day", or perhaps define "poverty" stipulatively as "living on <2USD a day".

Comment author: bentarm 27 July 2009 12:19:49AM 3 points [-]

I doubt he was the first person to notice it, but Tyler Cowen has made this point more than once. I think it's also mentioned in Discover Your Inner Economist. Basically, it's trivially easy to find poor and deserving people who aren't begging, so why bid up the wages of beggars?

Comment author: arundelo 24 July 2009 02:05:08AM -1 points [-]

The main character of Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy spends his youth as a professional beggar.

Comment author: Benquo 23 July 2009 07:27:43PM 1 point [-]

Tyler Cowen's suggested this on his blog and in one of his books.

Comment author: steven0461 23 July 2009 07:47:14PM *  4 points [-]

Presumably some fraction of the cryonics money is transferred away from more useful targets even if most of it isn't, so if the utility of the more useful targets outweighs the utility of cryonics by a large enough factor, cryonics is still a bad option.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 24 July 2009 03:00:52AM 3 points [-]

Another way of saying this is just that you need to be aware of the current market price at which you are purchasing utilons, and you need to justify budget decisions by comparing the utility of the thing to be purchased (NASA rockets, food aid, Starbucks coffee) to the going rate.

If an opportunity comes up to purchase utilons at a cost substantially below the going rate, you should happily make the purchase, and balance the budget by dropping other purchases that are more expensive relative to the amount of utility they provide.

This scheme is much much efficient from a computational standpoint. The "food aid" vs "NASA rockets" model of budget analysis, you need to make N-squared comparisons, where N is the number of budget items. By keeping track of the utilon-dollar exchange rate you only need to make about N utility calculations.

Regarding cryonics, the problem is not that we're irrational regarding how we spend our money. The problem is that it's enormously difficult to evaluate the expected utility of cryonics.

Comment author: Emile 23 July 2009 02:57:59PM 4 points [-]

(minor quibble : a link to AndrewH's post would help, especially for those reading the archives in a few months)

Comment author: marks 25 July 2009 05:06:17PM 2 points [-]

Would a simple solution to this be to say plan a date each year to give away some quantity of money? You could keep a record of all the times you gave money to a beggar, or you could use a simple model to estimate how much you probably would have given, then you can send that amount to a worthwhile charity.

When I get more money that's what I plan on doing.

Comment author: AndrewH 23 July 2009 02:40:58PM 2 points [-]

Neat! I did not think of generalizing my arguments; we could call it the resource commit fallacy. We need techniques to help us solve this problem.

One strategy that comes to mind is precommitting to allocate the resources to the most efficient place before you optimize yourself. Then taking a bet with someone that if you fail to follow through with your commitment, you take a penalty of resources.

Comment author: dsjoerg 24 July 2009 10:22:30AM 3 points [-]

To find a superior alternative to giving money to the beggar, check out GiveWell's charity effectiveness analysis here: http://www.givewell.net. GiveWell's spirit of inquiry and skepticism is a good fit for readers of this blog.

Comment author: djcb 24 July 2009 07:57:50PM 1 point [-]

After all the controversy about exclusionary language, gender-neutrality and so on, it seems that beggars are a different case -- I think the kind of stereotyping, de-personification would not be accepted for some other groups.

I'm not trying to heat up the offense-debate once more, but the difference in approach is striking.

Comment author: conchis 24 July 2009 08:21:43PM 1 point [-]

Could you be a little more specific about what exactly you perceive the problem to be here? I see a discussion treating beggars as human beings whose welfare we are interested in, that assumes that they respond to incentives. I'm not sure how accurate people's begging models are, but I didn't notice anything particularly offensive about them. It's possible I'm missing something though, so would appreciate being enlightened.

Comment deleted 24 July 2009 09:11:02PM *  [-]
Comment author: conchis 25 July 2009 10:18:49AM *  3 points [-]

What if the thing he [sic] most needs right now is to buy a pack of cigarettes or get drunk or whatever?

This is a valid question, but I think you also need to allow the possibility that these things are not what the beggar most needs right now. Not all attempts to substitute one's own decisions for someone else's involve "impos[ing] your values on the person." Sometimes people make decisions that do not further their own values, and in such cases, I think it is morally justified to try to respect their values rather than just their choices. Not to say that this is easy, and that we shouldn't be incredibly wary of the possibility that we're actually just projecting our own values on others. But claiming that others' decisions are morally inviolable seems like an overreaction to me (albeit one that is founded in a legitimate concern).

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 25 July 2009 01:35:27PM *  3 points [-]

It's worth noting that a non-trivial percentage of homeless individuals are considered mentally ill, which generally means that society has, for better or worse, deemed them systematically incapable of making appropriate choices.

A lot of the homelessness problem in the USA came about from the big deinstitutionalization push in the 60s that... didn't really work as intended. Policy on homelessness since then has mostly been built around "make them go somewhere else".

Comment author: marks 25 July 2009 05:38:07PM 2 points [-]

I am uneasy with that sentiment although I'm having a hard time putting my finger one exactly why. But this is how I see it: there are vastly more people in the world than I could possibly ever help and some of them are so poor and downtrodden that they spend most of their money on food since they can't afford luxuries such as drugs. Eventually, I might give money to the drug user if I had solved all the other problems first, but I would prefer my money to be spent on something more essential for survival first before I turn to subsidizing people's luxury spending.

Imposing my values on somebody seems to more aptly describe a situation where I use authority to compel the drug user to not use drugs.

Comment author: djcb 24 July 2009 10:21:08PM 0 points [-]

I didn't see anything that I would find offensive in this discussion.

However, if I would apply some the criteria mentioned in some of the other debates; for example, take the The Nature of Offense; examples of things that people find insulting are:

  • to be thought of, talked about as, or treated like a non-person (Alicorn)
  • analysis of behavior that puts the reader in the group being analyzed, and the speaker outside it (orthonormal)
  • exclusion from the intended audience (Eliezer)

I would argue that this applies to beggars too. They may not be the intended audience, but they are definitely put in 'the group being analyzed'; and they are treated as a 'non person' in a way that is not too different from what some in the 'gender discussion' considered inappropriate for women.

Note, I personally haven't seen anything that is offensive, and I think LW is a very friendly and stimulating environment. It just suggests that rules like the ones above are untenable.

Comment author: conchis 25 July 2009 09:49:07AM 2 points [-]

I'm afraid that I still don't really see the supposed double standard - bear with me!

In particular, I'm interested in what specific aspects of the discussion you think treat beggars as "non-persons".

As for points 2 and 3, I took these to be primarily issues of effective writing for one's audience. As such, they just don't seem especially relevant here, and I'm unclear why they're supposed to be untenable in general.

Comment author: djcb 25 July 2009 10:34:50AM 0 points [-]

Sorry if I was unclear.

Regarding the non-person issue: in previous discussions, the objection was raised (see above) that some comments treat women like non-persons, objects. My point is that the comments about beggars are of the same kind. Either they are both offensive, or they both aren't.

Points 2-3 are not just about effective writing; they are about the kind of statements that should be avoided because they are considered offending. Once more, my point was that if we consider these sufficient indicators for 'offense', this would also apply to the beggars discussed here.

So, my point would be that if we would really want such rules, it would be hard to have the discussion like we had here involving beggar without breaking them... that is why I called them 'untenable'.

Comment author: conchis 25 July 2009 11:02:52AM *  1 point [-]

My point is that the comments about beggars are of the same kind.

Sorry for being dim, but I'm still struggling to see why you would think this. My impression is that they are not of the same kind. But I am interested to know why somebody else would think differently. Would you mind pointing to specific examples of comments you think treat beggars as non-persons/objects, and explain how/why they do so?

(FWIW, if you can convince me that they do so, I probably will agree that they are, to that extent, "offensive".)

Points 2-3 are not just about effective writing; they are about the kind of statements that should be avoided because they are considered offending.

I do not expect people to go significantly out of their way to write in a manner that is inclusive of people not in their audience. I do expect people to make a reasonable effort to write in a way that is inclusive of people who are in their potential audience. I don't think these expectations constitute a double standard of any sort. Is there anything we disagree about here?

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 25 July 2009 01:05:00PM 1 point [-]

To be fair, it's not inconceivable that a homeless person could be reading Less Wrong--internet access in public libraries is pretty common these days, for instance.

Probably not likely, though.

Comment author: ciphergoth 24 December 2009 12:09:39PM 1 point [-]

I've been homeless twice while a student, and often slept in computer rooms.

Comment author: djcb 25 July 2009 07:31:42PM 0 points [-]

Let me try once more; I am a bit sorry for bringing up this debate here. But I appreciate your persistence.

There have been many comments about the kind of comments we should avoid in the last few days, and there is no group opinion.

I think Sayeth the Girl has some posts which were considered offensive. The one linked as 'jerkitude' really goes a step further -- about manipulating people to make them do what you want. But the others (like the one named 'objectification') is not more about objectifying women than some of the post were about beggars.

In The Nature of Offense this is referred to, as well as in Of Exclusionary Speech and Gender Politics

One important point - and your persistance pays off here - is that the latter two articles do emphasize the importance for the target audience. So if we consider beggars not to be target audience, then there is not really an inconsistency. They can't be choosers, after all.

I agree with you that we should try to be inclusive for the target audience -- although I think that generally trying to be rational (which includes avoiding biases, stereotyping and so on) should also select for the target audience.

Comment author: conchis 26 July 2009 11:11:31AM *  1 point [-]

But the others (like the one named 'objectification') is not more about objectifying women than some of the post were about beggars.

Unfortunately, we seem to be coming from quite different places here, so I still don't understand why you think this. Could you please try to explain? I don't mean to be belligerent, but from my perspective it seems as though you're just repeatedly restating your conclusion, when what I need to understand are your reasons for reaching that conclusion.

FWIW, my take on what constitutes "objectification" can be found here: I think it corresponds roughly to treating other people as means to an end, without regard for their interests.* I did not notice anything in the discussion of begging that appeared to do this (though jajvirta raised a legitimate concern). Do you think I've missed something in the discussion here?

Or is it rather that you don't think the behaviour Alicorn originally objected to was objectifying in this sense? In the claimed instance of "jerkitude" I think it pretty clearly was (and I assume from your comment that you'd agree). The claimed instance of "objectification" is less extreme. It's true that talk about "getting" members of the opposite (or indeed the same) sex doesn't necessarily mean that the speaker doesn't care about their interests. But I do think that the language Roko used, and in the context it was used, tended to promote thinking about women as trophies rather than human beings. Again, I may be missing something, but the parallel to the begging discussion isn't obvious to me.

* As noted here I do not think that objectification in this sense is always and everywhere problematic. Whether it is or not also depends on context.

ETA: I just noticed that you'd been voted down above. FWIW, this is not me.

Comment author: pjeby 26 July 2009 05:15:05PM 1 point [-]

But I do think that the language Roko used, and in the context it was used, tended to promote thinking about women as trophies rather than human beings.

Did it promote you thinking that way?

And what do you mean by "promote", anyway?

Hm. I think I'm beginning to see something about the whole social status and offense thing that I didn't see before.

See, that sentence doesn't "promote" in the sense of "encourage others to think" or "put that idea in their heads". It simply is a statement that would make sense to people who already have the idea of women being trophies in their head.

IOW - if you don't on some level already have the idea in your head (and I do not), the statement can't mean that to you, so it clearly means something else.

And this is independent of whatever the original speaker actually meant. In other words, it could easily be that Roko meant something that is not what either I or Alicorn took him to mean -- we are each simply using whatever interpretation of his words "makes sense" in our own model of the world. To me, women are not trophies, and the statement does not say that, so it's impossible for me to take it that way.

At the same time, I can see how somebody who does think of women as trophies might take Roko's statement as implicitly supporting their position. And further, that someone else, who is sensitized to the existence of a faction of people who think that way, might then treat Roko's statement as explicitly supporting that position, or defining him as a member of that fashion.

After all, in that person's world, the "trophies" definition is more emotionally salient (albeit negative), and our brains are biased to retrieve the most emotional (especially negative) interpretations of current events... leading to it being as impossible for them to take seriously the idea that the comment was innocent, as it is for me to take seriously the idea that it was objectifying.

Hm. Interesting.

Comment author: conchis 26 July 2009 07:19:56PM *  2 points [-]

Interesting. I agree with you that the effects of statements are independent of the original speaker's intentions. (At least in the sense of not being necessarily related; I would expect the two to be statistically dependent). For that reason I can easily accept that the comment was innocently intended, but at the same time think that such statements, in general, are not innocent in effect, and that they should ideally be reduced.

However, I don't agree with this at all:

that sentence doesn't "promote" in the sense of "encourage others to think" or "put that idea in their heads"

I wonder whether part of the reason is that I think that both the attitudes in question (e.g. "thinking of women as trophies") and the means of their promotion can be (and probably are) less conscious than your analysis suggests. It seems perfectly possible to me that someone could both consciously affirm the proposition "women are not trophies", and that they could nonetheless think about women in a way that bears problematic resemblance to the way they would think about trophies. (For the avoidance of doubt, I do not intend to accuse anybody here of this.)

As a result, it also seems perfectly possible for language to promote thinking of women as trophies even if (a) individuals' do not consciously interpret its meaning as affirming the proposition "women are trophies", and/or (b) the individuals would consciously deny such a proposition themselves. I do think that the extent to which someone consciously believes "women are not trophies" should reduce any subconscious effect of this sort, but I see little reason to think that it must necessarily have no effect for that reason; and it's not at all clear to me why the idea that women are trophies must already be in somebody's head for such an effect to occur at all. In part from personal experience, it seems to me that the cumulative effect of language that normalizes particular patterns of thought can be quite strong.

NB: As a vaguely related aside, one thing that has struck me about many defenses made here of particular forms of language use is the extent to which they rely on claims about how reasonable people should consciously interpret a statement's meaning. For a site that so frequently discusses issues of subconscious priming and bias, this focus has always struck me as a little odd.

Comment author: djcb 26 July 2009 04:39:38PM *  0 points [-]

Indeed, it's the 'Or'-paragraph in your comment.

I do agree with her that some of the posts went a bit overboard -- in particular, the ones about manipulating people ('jerkitude'). But, for example, Roko's comment about 'manipulation' seemed benign -- it seems to me that it's used in the sense of 'interaction' rather than 'trickery'.

But, as you suggest, I did not agree with the 'objectification'-part, and I saw (albeit) tacit support for that in Elizier's and Wei_Dai's posts, as I have been trying to show.

I couldn't see much difference from (with regards to their 'objectification-value') between:

"Women are attracted to rich men, so if I were rich I would get attractive women"

and some of the comments about beggars -- which jajvirta has already explained much better than I can.

Note, that my point is not that these comments are somehow inappropriate, but really that they are can be seen as similarly 'objectifying'. And furthermore, that you can disagree with some of the comments, but you can do so on rationalist grounds, for example by challenging unsupported statements (esp. generalizations).

Comment author: conchis 26 July 2009 05:54:21PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks for persisting with me. I appreciate it!

Unfortunately I still don't feel as though I've gotten an explanation of your position as much as another restatement of it. You seem to have just reiterated that you can't see much difference between the cases, rather than actually explaining how they are relevantly similar.

I've tried to explain why I don't see the comments about beggars and women as equivalent according to my (perhaps idiosyncratic) definition of objectification. The discussion about beggars seemed to me to assume that beggars are people with interests, and that we are generally concerned to further those interests - the question was how best to do that. This stands in stark contrast to talk about "getting" women, which (I think) promotes thinking about them as prizes whose main value is their instrumental value to the men "getting" them.

This seems to me to provide a clear distinction between the two conversations. You seem to disagree, but I still can't tell exactly why. Is it that:

  1. you do not think the distinction I am drawing is tenable, either because: (a) you disagree that the sort of language Roko used tends to promote treating women as prizes of primarily instrumental value; or (b) you think the the discussion of begging did in fact neglect the fact that beggars have interests or tended to promote viewing them as objects without interests; or is it that
  2. you think that my definition of objectification is wrong (or at least differs from that relied on by others, such as Alicorn), and that on the "correct" definition there is no difference between the two cases?

In order to try to make some progress here, could you perhaps tell me (a) which of these you believe, and (b) why you believe it? (Alternatively, if you don't think any of these is the source of our disagreement, then perhaps you could let me know what you think the actual source is.)


ETA: I realise that you appear to state at the beginning of your previous comment that it's 1(a), but the rest of your comment suggests to me that it might actually be something else, and in any event, I'm still not sure why you think 1(a) (if you do).

Comment author: wedrifid 27 July 2009 11:39:57PM *  0 points [-]

After all the controversy about exclusionary language, gender-neutrality and so on, it seems that beggars are a different case -- I think the kind of stereotyping, de-personification would not be accepted for some other groups.

Quite right. But if you translate most objections to that kind of stereotyping into "I have power and I demand status privelidges" then things start making sense again! (This, by the way, is not to suggest that demanding respect is a bad thing. Just that it is in most cases completely irrelevant to any of the ideals that the demands themselves may make reference to.)

We need some good high status beggars to set us straight. Where's David Eddings when I need him?

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 23 July 2009 06:37:44PM 1 point [-]

The beggar example is a little different. You should assess now whether / under what circumstances you should give money, so that you don't need to make a snap decision. This has something in common with the NASA example--someone has manipulated the discussion to focus on one agency, rather than the whole budget--but there's no real urgency.

Comment author: TraderJoe 25 April 2012 01:21:18PM *  0 points [-]

[comment deleted]

Comment author: wedrifid 27 July 2009 11:44:37PM *  0 points [-]

and you'll probably spend it on ... famous statistician trading cards and whatever else.

Trade ya 3 Fisher's and a Shalizi for Gosset and a slab of Guinness. Actually, keep the Gosset.