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The Value of Nature and Old Books

6 Post author: David_J_Balan 25 October 2009 06:14PM

People have always had a religious or quasi-religious reverence for nature. In modern times, some people have started to see nature more as an enemy to be conquered than as a god to be worshiped. Such people point out that uncontrolled nature causes a tremendous amount of human suffering (to say nothing of all the misery that it causes other creatures), and that vast improvements to human welfare have largely been the result of us ceasing to love and fear nature and starting to control it.

There are several common responses to this. One response is that it is solipsistic for humans to measure the value of nature in terms of what is and is not good for us. This strikes me as right only insofar as it ignores the welfare of non-human creatures who have enough going on in terms of consciousness and/or sentience to matter; I think the objection would be without merit if one were to broaden the scope of concern to something like all creatures, present and future, capable of having experiences (who else is there to care about?). A  second response is that seeing ourselves as highly effective lords over nature leads to dangerous overconfidence, which leads to costly mistakes in how we deal with nature. This is a very fair point, but what it really amounts to is a claim that we shouldn't underestimate the enemy, not that the enemy is really a friend. Anyway, the solution to that problem is to become better rationalists and get better at being skeptical regarding our powers, not to retreat into quasi-mystical Gaia worship. A third response is that getting into a "conquer nature" frame of mind puts people into a "conquer everything" frame of mind and leads to aggression against other people. This might have merit historically, but that problem is also best confronted directly, in this case by more effectively promulgating liberal humanistic values.

So what, if anything, is left to the idea that there is something special about nature worthy of particular regard? And by special I mean something beyond the fact that many people just plain enjoy it the way they enjoy lots of other things that nevertheless have no claim to any special status. I would say that the main thing that makes nature special in this sense is that when you are in nature or contemplating nature, you can be confident that the resulting thoughts and feelings are uncontaminated by all of the (visible and invisible) ideas and biases and assumptions that are present in your particular time and place. When you look at a waterfall and you like it, you can be pretty sure that: (i) it wasn't put there by anyone with an agenda; (ii) you weren't manipulated into liking it by contemporary ideology or social pressure or persuasive advertising or whatever; and (iii) the thoughts that you think while contemplating it aren't the thoughts anyone is trying to lead you into. In other words, nature is a way of guaranteeing that there is a little corner of experience that we are instinctively drawn to and that we can be confident doesn't represent anyone else's attempt to control us. And since other people are trying to control us all the time, even in relatively free societies (all the more so in oppressive ones), this is of real value.

I think the same basic point applies to some other things besides nature. Why do people still read old books* even when the knowledge in them has been refined and improved-upon in the meantime? In many subjects, we don't. Nobody learns geometry by reading Euclid, because there would be no point. But people do still read ancient works of philosophy. It seems to me that one good reason to do so is that for all the ways that these works have been analyzed and surpassed in the intervening years, the reader can be sure that what is written there is not the product of manipulation by the forces that are at work in the reader's own time and place. So it represents another way to gain valuable freedom and distance.

*Here I'm talking about non-fiction books. The merits of old creative works even when the innovations in them have become widespread in newer works is a different story. Often a point like the one in this post still applies, and sometimes the old stuff really is still just the best.

Comments (61)

Comment author: PlatypusNinja 25 October 2009 11:14:00PM 11 points [-]

In modern times, some people have started to see nature more as an enemy to be conquered than as a god to be worshiped.

I've seen people argue the opposite. In ancient times, nature meant wolves and snow and parasites and drought, and you had to kill it before it killed you. Only recently have we developed the idea that nature is something to be conserved. (Because until recently, we weren't powerful enough that it mattered.)

Comment author: David_J_Balan 26 October 2009 04:46:44AM 1 point [-]

Other commentors have said something similar, and you may well be right about this, I'm certainly not enough of a historian to know. However, the main point of the post remains: a lot of people today have what I think are pretty bad reasons for giving a privileged place to nature, and I have offered an alternative one that I think has more going for it.

Comment author: gjm 01 November 2009 01:12:29AM 6 points [-]

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."

(From C S Lewis's preface to a translation of Athanasius. There's a lot to dislike about C S Lewis, but he was a clever chap.)

Comment author: DanArmak 01 November 2009 01:38:49AM 1 point [-]

A very apt quotation. I think it could well go on the rationality quotes thread, too.

Comment deleted 01 November 2009 02:04:54AM *  [-]
Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 07:11:52PM 6 points [-]

A few notes and responses...

People have always had a religious or quasi-religious reverence for nature. In modern times, some people have started to see nature more as an enemy to be conquered than as a god to be worshiped.

Evidence please? I had thought this was merely part of the myth of the Noble Savage. Some people have had nature-oriented religions, but plenty of others haven't.

More importantly, people started to see nature as something to be conquered at precisely the point that people gained the numbers, technology, and profit motive to do so. That people didn't try to conquer nature before that, when they 1) couldn't and 2) had no reason to do so, proves nothing. Going forward, the ability and desire won't disappear, so any comparison is misleading.

I think the objection would be without merit if one were to broaden the scope of concern to something like all creatures, present and future, capable of having experiences (who else is there to care about?)

You seem to assume that such broadening would be somehow right or justified (morally? expirentially?) but without a good argument, many people don't accept that - and legitimately so, I feel.

A third response is that getting into a "conquer nature" frame of mind puts people into a "conquer everything" frame of mind and leads to aggression against other people. This might have merit historically

I think that the causal relationship, such as it is, is the other way around - especially historically. Because people were in a "conquering" frame of mind about all other people and things - notably the people living "in nature" - they also naturally proceeded to conquer nature.

So what, if anything, is left to the idea that there is something special about nature worthy of particular regard? And by special I mean something beyond the fact that many people just plain enjoy it

Why do you need something more special than that? I think all meaning and value should ultimately derive from people just plain enjoying things :-)

when you are in nature or contemplating nature, you can be confident that the resulting thoughts and feelings are uncontaminated...

That would require some massive weight of evidence to prove it. A priori, all of your thoughts and feelings about everything you encounter are pretty much determined by all those things whose "contamination" you fear - up to individual variation, of course.

When you look at a waterfall and you like it...

But what about when I look at a waterfall and I don't like it? What if I think that, in fact, it would be nice if some park employees came along and cleared a proper trail from the parking lot and put down some benches? Are you going to claim that I'm "contaminated" and need to be cleansed... er, deprogrammed? Or is preservation of wild nature more important than such opinions which are held by some people?

I realize you don't say this, but it's the logical outcome of your ideas...

Comment author: David_J_Balan 25 October 2009 07:31:25PM 0 points [-]

Clearly nothing is perfectly "uncontaminated." You can't entirely escape the world which formed you. The question is whether there is something that gets you some decent part of the way there, and it seems to me that nature has that property. This does not mean that it is the only thing of value in the world, and it does not mean that people who don't regard it as a value should be ignored.

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 07:55:44PM 0 points [-]

Why do you think nature has that property?

Comment author: olimay 26 October 2009 08:15:18PM 4 points [-]

It seems to me that one good reason to do so is that for all the ways that these works have been analyzed and surpassed in the intervening years, the reader can be sure that what is written there is not the product of manipulation by the forces that are at work in the reader's own time and place. So it represents another way to gain valuable freedom and distance.

Outside of learning about the context/history of some field of thought, I think that's the general reason people give for recommending "classic" works of nonfiction.

Older works can also differ in their presentation, which can make them more interesting. You bring up Euclid, so I feel I'm free to mention I really, really wish I'd learnt Calculus from a high-level text like Courant, instead of Stewart and Sallas+Hille+Etgen. I would've have become more enthusiastic about math much earlier. (Maybe. Ah, counterfactuals.)

Comment author: Zachary_Kurtz 05 November 2009 02:55:24PM 0 points [-]

Same here, buddy.

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 26 October 2009 08:16:27AM 4 points [-]

You could say similar things about mathematical truths, which are also uncontaminated by your own biases and assumptions.

Comment author: Jordan 26 October 2009 06:43:03PM 1 point [-]

Unless your bias is something like "the axiom of choice is baloney", in which case your biases will indeed affect your personal version of mathematical truth.

Comment author: David_J_Balan 26 October 2009 03:16:05PM 0 points [-]

Good point.

Comment author: Dustin 26 October 2009 01:44:38AM 3 points [-]

I would say that the main thing that makes nature special in this sense is that when you are in nature or contemplating nature, you can be confident that the resulting thoughts and feelings are uncontaminated by all of the (visible and invisible) ideas and biases and assumptions that are present in your particular time and place.

Uncontaminated by the wishes of my fellow humans, yes. Uncontaminated by eons of biases built in to my brain, no. I'm not sure why one is preferable to the other.

Comment author: David_J_Balan 26 October 2009 05:02:26AM 2 points [-]

If there was something that could get you out of your own biases, if only for a little while, that would be even better! But I sure don't know how to do that.

Comment author: Dustin 26 October 2009 09:30:50PM 1 point [-]

But why are the biases we're giving up when we leave the influence of people worse than the biases we're activating when we're in the presence of nature?

Comment author: Yvain 25 October 2009 10:33:12PM 3 points [-]

I like the thinking behind this post and I think it gives a good reason for reading old books. Upvoted.

But I don't know if you're quite right about nature. This study shows that being in nature provides various hard cognitive benefits. It makes evolutionary sense that we feel more at home in nature and more connected to ourselves there. Why should we be looking for more explanations of why people like nature than that?

I also don't think our views of nature are all that uncontaminated. Yes, there's the animal core of us that thinks "Oh, nature, I understand this." But that's overlaid by a lot of very culturally-determined feelings. In Western culture, the a certain idea of loving wild nature for its own sake really started with the Romantics, and then went through people like Muir to come down to us as various ideas like romanticism, environmentalism, hippie-ism, wilderness sports, and the like. Those counterbalance a whole bunch of other ideas including a medieval Christian/Protestant distrust of wilderness, a Randist "bulldoze it to construct something profitable" ethic, and a whole bunch of other things. I doubt a hippie and an Objectivist would see a waterfall the same way any more than they'd see a strip mall the same way.

I do think everyone including the Objectivist would have a certain biological core set of preprogrammed responses to nature, but I don't know if that's what you're saying.

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 10:50:11PM 5 points [-]

It's worthwhile quoting the summary given for the study you linked (this quote is not part of the study itself):

The basic idea is that nature, unlike a city, is filled with inherently interesting stimuli (like a sunset, or an unusual bird) that trigger our involuntary attention, but in a modest fashion. Because you can't help but stop and notice the reddish orange twilight sky - paying attention to the sunset doesn't take any extra work or cognitive control - our attentional circuits are able to refresh themselves. A walk in the woods is like a vacation for the prefrontal cortex.

Strolling in a city, however, forces the brain to constantly remain vigilant, as we avoid obstacles (moving cars), ignore irrelevant stimuli (that puppy in the window) and try not to get lost. The end result is that city walks are less restorative (at least for the prefrontal cortex) than strolls amid the serenity of nature.

In other words, it's not being in nature that's good for us. It's just not being in a city that's good for us :-)

So once we learn to build super-duper-optimized resorts for relaxation, we can put them in every other city block, and your reason for preserving real nature will become irrelevant.

there's the animal core of us that thinks "Oh, nature, I understand this."

Apart from all the cultural views you quote, my animal core panics in nature. It thinks: There's trees and bears and rocks and, and different looking trees! Where's my car? My cellphone? My backpack of food? My insulin pump supplies? HEEEELP!

Don't get me wrong, I love a walk in a quiet wood. But to feel relaxed I need a lot of safety and infrastructure. I'd guess quite a few modern city dwellers are more like me than they are like "oh, nature, I know this".

Comment author: PhilGoetz 26 October 2009 06:49:30PM 6 points [-]

Because you can't help but stop and notice the reddish orange twilight sky - paying attention to the sunset doesn't take any extra work or cognitive control - our attentional circuits are able to refresh themselves. A walk in the woods is like a vacation for the prefrontal cortex.

Strolling in a city, however, forces the brain to constantly remain vigilant, as we avoid obstacles (moving cars), ignore irrelevant stimuli (that puppy in the window) and try not to get lost. The end result is that city walks are less restorative (at least for the prefrontal cortex) than strolls amid the serenity of nature.

The person who wrote this wouldn't last long in the wild.

Comment author: David_J_Balan 26 October 2009 04:59:20AM 1 point [-]

If people just plain like nature, that alone is a good reason for there to be nature. That's true for just about anything (that doesn't harm others). The question is whether nature is deserving of some special status or protection (maybe nothing is deserving on such protection and there should be only as much of it as arises under free markets, but that's another argument). I certainly didn't mean to suggest that nature is a world completely apart and that we bring none of our baggage with us when we enter it. But I do think that I can be more relaxed and confident that my experience is genuine and that I'm not being played in the woods than I can in Disney World, that this is of special value, and that this is precisely the kind of thing that the market tends to under-provide since no profits can be made from it.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 October 2009 07:26:38AM 2 points [-]

If people just plain like nature, that alone is a good reason for there to be nature. That's true for just about anything (that doesn't harm others).

And everything that does too! (For a start because having activities with no negative externalities is virtually impossible. Both keeping and destroying nature included.)

Comment author: alyssavance 26 October 2009 08:33:53PM 2 points [-]

I think the primary reason people feel some special attachment to nature is that nature contains optimizing processes other than us. In a universe without sentient aliens, nature is the next best thing.

Comment author: taw 25 October 2009 08:00:04PM 2 points [-]

As far as reasons people read them go, philosophy/religion/biography books are all fiction. I cannot think of any old and truly non-fiction books people that read.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 25 October 2009 10:32:26PM 2 points [-]

As far as reasons people read them go, philosophy/religion/biography books are all fiction. I cannot think of any old and truly non-fiction books people that read.

How about Adam Smith and Darwin? In some senses, they have been been surpassed, but many feel they are still the best big-picture accounts. Or are they "new"?

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 10:43:10PM 3 points [-]

How about the textbooks on intro to calculus that passed on from my father to me? They're not going to be badly outdated until we invent some really new ways of teaching people.

Comment author: David_J_Balan 26 October 2009 04:48:36AM 1 point [-]

Economists, and particularly economic historians, definitely still take Adam Smith very seriously, though I don't know to what extent that is for anything like the reason discussed in the post.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 26 October 2009 05:30:28AM 2 points [-]

Economists, and particularly economic historians, definitely still take Adam Smith very seriously

That it's particularly true of economic historians is a bad sign that they like him just because he's old, or because his examples match their work.

I was advocating those authors for a somewhat different reason than the post. They are advocating new ideas which are taught today, but which are taught as the status quo. The original authors are more careful to argue for them and more careful to delineate them. I took you more to be talking about reading arguments between two schools that both eventually lost so that one does not have a stake in their arguments.

Comment author: taw 25 October 2009 10:42:45PM 1 point [-]

Anybody reads them to learn about biology or economics? Or just for entertainment?

The oldest non-fiction book I read for serious reasons was from 1899, and I'd much rather read something more recent if it existed.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 26 October 2009 06:54:08PM 3 points [-]

Einstein's little book on special relativity is still one of the best on the subject.

/On Growth and Form/, written mainly between WW1 and WW2, is more thorough than any subsequent work on the interaction between environment, physics, and morphology. We have some additional key insights, but you still need to read OG+F if you're interested in that subject.

Med students still use Gray's Anatomy.

Comment author: taw 27 October 2009 10:15:54AM 2 points [-]

Gray's Anatomy has been revised 40 times, sort of proving my point.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 27 October 2009 09:40:24PM 1 point [-]

I think it still uses the original art. Haven't checked, though.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 October 2009 12:20:16AM 1 point [-]

This history seems to say that it was redone in 1905 because of changes in printing technology, and 1/3 was redone in 1973. I think there was continuous small turnover, too. [This] says that 113 engravings were added in 1887, which is adds up. But it might just give that number because it was a larger than normal change.

Comment author: djcb 26 October 2009 07:10:47PM 2 points [-]

So the point is that few people read old non-fiction books for their original purpose (i.e., 'convey knowledge'), but only for secondary reasons -- any useful observations the originals made would have been observed in newer, clearer works. In general, I agree with that.

But are there any exceptions?

Depending on what is called 'old'... I found Einsteins introduction to relativity one of the best layman's introductions.

Much older, I would say that Plato's/Aristotle's writings on philosophy are much clearer than the philosophy of the last centuries. They are misguided in various ways, but at least that is clear - and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend someone to read those works to gain some insight in philosophy, not just for their historical importance.

Comment author: Neil 27 October 2009 02:52:47AM 1 point [-]

The oldest non-fiction book I've read (cover-to-cover) as it happens was a book of Seneca's letters (first century). His Stoic philosophy might hold some interest to people here.

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 10:56:58PM 0 points [-]

I read The Origin of Species. I wasn't trying to learn any specific thing, but I did learn from it, and it was interesting enough to finish the book. (Disclaimer: I find all kinds of history interesting, as well as biology.)

Comment author: Alicorn 25 October 2009 07:05:25PM *  1 point [-]

How about this: While nature may be "ours" to do with as we please, "we" are a gigantic bunch of people (including future people who will have interests in what we do now), and without a unanimous vote, messing with nature is going to be stealing it from somebody who was entitled to its being left alone.

Comment author: David_J_Balan 25 October 2009 07:15:45PM 3 points [-]

Anything we do to just about anything has implications for other people (present and future). And hopefully we have a decent moral framework for dealing with that (and if we don't that's a whole 'nother problem). But I don't see how it applies to nature in particular, and the point of the post was to identify reasons (if any) for a privileged place for nature.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 October 2009 07:31:29PM *  0 points [-]

Most forms of property - I'm willing to consider nature property - have an apparent owner, and while behaving in certain ways with one's property has effects on others, among those effects isn't typically that one is stealing that property from those others. In the case of nature, the ownership seems to me to be collective and across time, such that doing anything to it will typically need to be justified to everyone in order to not suffer ethical pitfalls.

Comment author: David_J_Balan 25 October 2009 07:34:50PM 0 points [-]

I agree that special moral issues arise when you are talking about valuable items to which property rights can't be assigned for one reason or another, and that nature is an important example of that.

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 07:18:59PM 2 points [-]

The more fundamental problem is that many people will vote to use their share of nature for profit and not preserve it. I don't think the problem with conservation is entirely due to the absence of popular influence.

Regarding the future people, I don't honor the rights and don't assign value to the well-being of potential people. How about you?

My reasoning: the only decision to do with ethics is whether to create those people. If I act to improve the well-being of children who may be born years from now, and who won't be my children (i.e. it won't be my decision to give them birth), then I will also cause an increase in the number of children produced by these other people, and I will never catch up.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 October 2009 07:28:52PM 1 point [-]

You're misreading me if you think I think we each have "a share" of nature. My suspicion is that the right way to look at it isn't as a bunch of discrete nature-slices, such that everybody gets complete dominion over one; rather, I think it's better looked at as everyone having an equal stake in an indivisible chunk of nature.

I assign value to the well-being of future people, and think that they also have rights. (For instance, while a fetus is not a person, in paradigm cases it will one day be a person. It's fine to prevent it from ever being a person by aborting it; but assuming that's not on the agenda, it'd be wrong to, say, drink and smoke and contract STDs while pregnant such that the future person will suffer health problems as a result.)

I can't parse your last paragraph at all.

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 07:54:56PM 1 point [-]

About dividing nature, it does look like a good ideal, but realistically we need a way to resolve disputes. Unanimous agreement is very rare.

My own idea was to assign to everyone a personal chunk of nature, which was small enough to not be commercially useful on its own, and if people were sufficiently certain of never gaining more/new chunks (e.g., we forbid sales, single ownership of many chunks, and corporate ownership). Of course realistically nothing like that's going to happen either.

Re: future people. Your example is of a fetus, which will become an adult if we don't interfere with it, as opposed to unconcieved "potential" people - the vast mass of "future people". The example of drinking and smoking, again, is an act done by the mother - who chose to create the new child - and so I don't think it should be extended to my liability towards the child (before that child exists).

My last paragraph was poorly worded, here's a restatement. Suppose I value purely potential future people (not foetuses, for the sake of argument). These future people, almost entirely, would not be my own children.

Suppose I act now to improve their lives in case they come to exist later. This would tend to increase the amount of such new people who are actually created. The more resources I create for future people to consume, the more people will be able to live in the future on these resources. Increasing population is not a goal of mine, so I prefer to stop this early and not act in favor of "future people" at all.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 October 2009 08:06:26PM 0 points [-]

Unanimous agreement is very rare.

Yes - which is why I privilege the status quo (that is, what the situation would be absent human action) in cases where such agreement can't be reached. For a smaller-scale example of collective property: I have a roommate, and our apartment has one bathroom. If he decides he'd like to keep koi in the bathtub, and I don't approve of this idea, then even though we have equal stakes in the bathtub, the status quo (a non-koi-containing state of affairs) ought to win. We would need to agree to make a change from the status quo to some other state.

The example of drinking and smoking, again, is an act done by the mother - who chose to create the new child

This is a mischaracterization of many, if not most, pregnancies.

the vast mass of "future people"

The fact that most future people haven't been conceived yet doesn't seem meaningful to me, assuming you're not expecting species extinction next week. Does it matter who they are exactly, as long as they're people? It doesn't seem so to me.

Why do you assume that making the future a nicer place to live will also make it more crowded? Many actions that can be taken to make the future a nicer place to live also make it less crowded. In fact, making the future less crowded probably also makes it a nicer place to live quite directly.

Comment author: Yasser_Elassal 26 October 2009 09:27:01PM 3 points [-]

I privilege the status quo

I wholeheartedly disagree with this mentality, and I think it's one of the major hindrances to the righting of social injustice. When people feel like they're entitled to "the way things are", it's difficult for them to notice when the status quo is unfair in a way that benefits them at the expense of others.

In your example about the koi fish in the bathtub, the no-koi-containing state of affairs doesn't win out because it's the status quo, but because the disutility of not being able to shower (where there was a reasonable expectation prior to renting of being able to shower) outweighs the utility of having koi fish. If you had used Craigslist to rent a room abroad with a shared bathroom and you discovered upon arriving that there were koi fish in the only bathtub, I doubt you'd consider "the koi fish have always been there so let's not intervene" to be particularly fair, especially given your expectations when you arranged for the room. The situation can be assessed without privileging the current state of affairs.

As a particularly extreme historical example of status quo privileging, if you were a white man in 18th century America and you worked hard, you could have earned enough money to buy a slave. And you might have felt entitled to that slave because you played fairly according to the rules of the status quo. So if someone came along and argued that even though you followed the rules, it's not actually fair for you to own a slave because the rules themselves were unfair, you might disagree. In fact, you might argue that it would be unfair to you if the rules were changed after you followed them so obediently.

However, a few hundred years later, it's obvious to us that slavery was unfair, even if slaveowners disagreed. The slaveowners' disutility should certainly be taken into account when optimizing for fairness, but it shouldn't get some special "status quo" multiplier in society's utility function. The status quo deserves no special privileges because it's simply one of the many possible states of affairs.

Unfortunately, the tendency to privilege the status quo permeates our modern politics.

I expect that a few hundred years from now, it will be obvious to everyone that it's unfair for an economic system to fail to provide adequate health care as compensation for any full-time contribution to society, even though many people currently feel entitled to the benefit of the higher after-tax purchasing power that they're provided by the status quo at the expense of the uninsured working class.

Comment author: Alicorn 26 October 2009 10:57:45PM 1 point [-]

You're either ignoring "absent human action" or taking it to mean something wildly different from what I had in mind. Buying a slave is a human action. I used the word "status quo" because we were talking about "nature" - a thing that usually includes in its definition that humans haven't messed with it all that much. I'd have chosen a different term (or more likely, made one up - I don't think there is a good one already for the general case) if the topic had not been nature.

If I moved into an apartment only to discover that the only bathtub was home to koi, I think much of my irkedness would stem from having been subject to misleading advertising. Misleading advertising is certainly a human action.

Comment author: Yasser_Elassal 27 October 2009 12:25:11AM 0 points [-]

You're either ignoring "absent human action" or taking it to mean something wildly different from what I had in mind.

I took it to mean "absent further human action", which I thought was the only coherent way to interpret your post. (If that's not what you meant, then please forgive the rant.)

If what you really meant was "absent human action at all" (i.e. just nature), then in your original example about koi, the "natural" status quo would not have been no-koi-in-bathtub, but instead no-bathtub-at-all.

So the only way I could make sense of your example was to assume that you were assigning special status to "no further action" such that it was more relevant to the question of what to do with the bathtub than comparing the utilities of "being able to shower" and "having pet koi" in order to optimize for fairness.

I'm not saying that I think your position is that the status quo is always better. That would be a silly straw man. I'm just saying that privileging the status quo is a form of anchoring that can make people resist change even when they'd consider the new state of affairs to be "more fair" than the old state of affairs, had they not been anchored.

In my example about discovering the bathtub home to koi, "no further action" would have left the koi in place. The misleading advertising had already happened. It would take further action to find the koi a new home.

In my example about the slaveowner being confronted by abolitionists, "no further action" would have kept the slave enslaved. The slave had already been bought "fair and square" according to the rules at the time. The status quo was legal slavery. Abolition is what needed further action.

Am I completely missing your point? If so, by what interpretation of "status quo" was your original koi example relevant?

Comment author: Alicorn 27 October 2009 12:38:25AM 2 points [-]

If what you really meant was "absent human action at all" (i.e. just nature), then in your original example about koi, the "natural" status quo would not have been no-koi-in-bathtub, but instead no-bathtub-at-all.

Of course. However, since I think that nature probably belongs to all humans now and in the future, I couldn't use a nature example without begging the question and having it be giant and cumbersome. The bathtub was supposed to illustrate the collective property notion, not the status-quo notion.

You're inserting the word "further". I never included or meant to include the word or notion of "further". Among other things, that would lead to the conclusion that once a factory is already set up to dump waste into a river (for instance), since it'd take further human action to undo that setup, it should be left in place unless everyone agrees to change it. But that's not the answer I want - I think it matters that it took human action to set it up that way to begin with.

Comment author: Yasser_Elassal 27 October 2009 01:58:29AM 0 points [-]

The bathtub was supposed to illustrate the collective property notion, not the status-quo notion.

Well that clears things up then. I realize you never included the word "further", but I had to insert it in order to use your bathtub example to interpret the status quo notion in any meaningful way.

Assuming that had been your intent, the implied reductio was very much part of my point. I didn't think you would want the factory to continue dumping waste, which is why I thought your argument about "status quo" was flawed.

But since you've clarified your position, I lift that particular objection.

Having reread your comments with the context of that clarification, I now understand what you meant and I sort of agree, with caveats.

If there is no clear winner among the possible states of affairs in consideration, then it makes sense to default to the state of affairs that requires no action. And I agree that future humans have rights insofar as it isn't fair to "use up" nature in the present, leaving future generations with polluted wastelands.

However, I don't think that uncertainty about the preferences of future humans should leave us unable to make changes to the current state of nature.

messing with nature is going to be stealing it from somebody who was entitled to its being left alone.

This may be true, but if we collectively think in the present that some change is a generally good idea overall, we shouldn't maintain the status quo just because we're worried that people in the future might disagree and want nature left alone. We should guess at what their preferences will be and take that into account so that we can move forward.

Otherwise, we'd never be able to change anything about nature that we don't like.

Comment author: gwern 26 October 2009 11:24:21PM 0 points [-]

If I moved into an apartment only to discover that the only bathtub was home to koi

'A wizard has turned your bathtub into a koi pond. Is this awesome Y/N?'

(I'm sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Comment author: DanArmak 26 October 2009 11:47:15PM 0 points [-]

'An evil sorcerer has turned your home into a human's bathtub. Is this a horrible eco-disaster Y/N?'

(In keeping with the theme of preservation of nature. Although koi aren't very natural.)

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 09:22:59PM *  3 points [-]

I privilege the status quo

But what if a majority of people agrees on a change? How can we decide how large it must be to have its way? It's a troubling question for me because in political systems such decisions are usually pretty much arbitrary: why require a 70% supermajority vote and not 60% or 80%?

Unless the required supermajority is very near 100% (and has good reason to be so), I'm too afraid of the tyranny of the majority and would prefer a system where each voter actually controlled the proportion of nature that he or she is voting "for".

This is a mischaracterization of many, if not most, pregnancies.

I acknowledge this problem, but it doesn't change my conclusion.

The fact that most future people haven't been conceived yet doesn't seem meaningful to me, assuming you're not expecting species extinction next week. Does it matter who they are exactly, as long as they're people? It doesn't seem so to me.

But they're not people. They're possibilities. They do not exist.

I accept the following reasoning: the future world will contain many new people no matter what I do. I prefer a future world that's nice for them. That makes perfect sense.

The problem for me comes when people imply that ownership of parts of nature (e.g., tracts of land) should be forbidden. For instance you said,

messing with nature is going to be stealing it from somebody who was entitled to its being left alone.

I don't accept that people who don't yet even exist are entitled to a piece of nature I'm using today (if I don't own it). I don't intend to die before these future people are born, so I'll have to share with them. The more new people are born, the smaller my remaining share - even if it's a time-share or some such instead of a literal piece of the property. I'm willing to share - after all I didn't create this land, so it shouldn't be mine exclusively - but only up to some limit.

If the world population is X, and the small country of Breedia invents a molecular manufacturing technology that lets them convert all their mountains into 10X small children, I hope they won't become entitled to nine-tenths of the world's resources. I'll feel sorry for the children and I'll do everything I can to find them a place to live that's not too much at the expense of existing people, including myself. I'll also vote for anyone proposing a singleton that would prevent the neighboring country of Multiplia from doing the same thing next year.

Why do you assume that making the future a nicer place to live will also make it more crowded?

It's the nature of population that it grows until it encounters a limit - either of resources, or cultural. I hope that future humans will breed more in the presence of more resources, and less in the presence of less resources, but I don't fully trust this will happen.

Suppose the number and timing of children were limited only by the delay of nine months' pregnancy, and the costs of raising children were negligible. I expect the world population to rise rapidly and without limit in this scenario.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 26 October 2009 05:12:54AM *  3 points [-]

It's the nature of population that it grows until it encounters a limit - either of resources, or cultural. I hope that future humans will breed more in the presence of more resources, and less in the presence of less resources, but I don't fully trust this will happen.

"Either resources, or cultural" makes this claim true but meaninglessly broad, since you can say that any population that fails to expand, but has sufficient resources to do so, is stopping for "cultural" reasons. Thus, populations will keep growing until they run out of resources to expand, or else they won't. Not terribly helpful.

Much more importantly, you argue abstract resources, not "nature" - the two are quite different. Even if we grant you your assumption that future populations will use any existing resources to increase population, "nature preservation" generally deals with preventing people from converting non-population sustaining resources - squirrels, waterfalls, purple mountain's majesty - into population sustaining resources - hot-dogs, hydroelectric plants, and coal mines.

Thus, preserving nature should limit population growth while making life more pleasant for existing populations. Within your own framework, this sounds like a win-win.

Comment author: DanArmak 26 October 2009 08:27:23PM 0 points [-]

Nature preservation isn't once and for all. We can't really influence future generations not to use the nature we preserved as non-renewable resources, except culturally.

With time, many kinds of resources dwindle, while technology improvements increase the potential value of unused resources. Future generations may want those resources more than we do today.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 28 October 2009 08:11:53PM 1 point [-]

We can't really influence future generations not to use the nature we preserved as non-renewable resources, except culturally.

This isn't really, um, true. We can pass laws, and laws help create and maintain a very powerful status quo. Cultural methods also matter, and cannot be arbitrarily excepted.

But this is all irrelevant to my actual point. Preserving nature means fewer baby-producing resources and more pleasure-producing resources for however long that preservation lasts. If we preserve now, then, ceteris paribus, we expect slower population growth and more happiness vs. if we commercialized that nature now. The fact that preservation is not forever is wholly irrelevant; however long it lasts, it generates a better world than had it not lasted that long, within your own concept of "better."

Comment author: DanArmak 28 October 2009 11:38:27PM 1 point [-]

You're presenting the wrong alternatives. It's not preserving nature vs. letting others harvest resources they will use in part to make babies. Rather, it's preserving nature vs. harvesting it for myself and using those resources for whatever I want (which does not include babies).

The argument of the OP (and others) which I originally answered, was that nature should be a sort of trust, and should not be exploited by this generation. That morally, we should leave it no worse than we found it for future generations. Hence my argument that I can't trust future generations.

Preservation is great if we can enjoy the preserved nature as parks, etc.(*) But preservation purely for the sake of preservation isn't so great, and that was my point originally.

(*) On the market the value of nature as "resources" is clearly higher, in large part because the incentives and responsibilities are all set up wrong. It follows that we can economically harvest all the resources we want and use the profits to set up parks, preserves, etc. which would be tailored to human enjoyment and so much more pleasant for most people than really wild nature.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 October 2009 09:42:54PM 1 point [-]

Suppose the number and timing of children were limited only by the delay of nine months' pregnancy, and the costs of raising children were negligible. I expect the world population to rise rapidly and without limit in this scenario.

I would need to know much more about what you consider to be the "costs" of raising children (as they are presently) to address this scenario. For instance, if they still take nine months from conception to birth, do they also still take the same number of years from birth to adulthood? Parental attention per childhood is a cost, and one that you don't get to scale up for greater numbers of children indefinitely without fiddling with time.

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 10:09:26PM 2 points [-]

I meant all the costs which come down to money. Parents would also be free to choose to pay for babysitters (or TVs, or nanny AIs) to reduce parenting time if they wish.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 October 2009 10:13:32PM 1 point [-]

It's not at all obvious to me that, even if monetary cost per child approached zero, people would have all the children it was biologically feasible to have, specifically because of the bottleneck on parental attention (but also because many people don't want children, or want a smaller number for some non-money-related reason). I don't think a majority of choices about family size have much to do with money at all.

Comment author: DanArmak 25 October 2009 10:30:22PM 3 points [-]

people would have all the children it was biologically feasible to have

I didn't say that. I merely think that the (world average) birthrates would be well above sustainment level. Three children per family on average would be more than enough for a population explosion.

many people don't want children, or want a smaller number for some non-money-related reason

Unfortunately, if we have a future of many generations of biological humanity without significant resource constraints, memetic selection will make sure most people do want many children. This must happen as long as some people want many children and can teach most of their children to want the same.

Comment author: Zachary_Kurtz 05 November 2009 02:44:03AM 1 point [-]

See and I would say the exact opposite. Modern terms, at least since the 1960s hippie revolution, people care more about nature, and particular with modern green revolution spurred on by global warming scares.

At least, we're doing a better job than we were pre1959.

That's not to say that only hippies can connect to nature, but they were indeed important in this shift.

Comment author: Utilitarian 08 November 2009 02:51:09AM 0 points [-]

I like all of the responses to the value-of-nature arguments you give in your second paragraph. However, as a hedonistic utilitarian, I would disagree with your claim that nature has value apart from its value to organisms with experiences. And I think we have a obligation to change nature in order to avert the massive amounts of wild-animal suffering that it contains, even if doing so would render it "unnatural" in some ways.