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scientism comments on Generalizing From One Example - Less Wrong

261 Post author: Yvain 28 April 2009 10:00PM

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Comment author: scientism 29 April 2009 03:15:19AM *  49 points [-]

Maybe I'm just cynical but I think people vastly overestimate their own goodness. Often "goodness" is just a way to dress up powerlessness. Like an overweight man might say he's "stocky" or an overweight woman might say she's "curvy," so an undesirable or shy man or woman might emphasize the upside: "I would never cheat." There's a version of the typical mind fallacy in there: a person might genuinely think they would never cheat but be extrapolating from a position where the opportunity rarely presents itself. We can all talk about how, if we were in a position of political power, we'd never succumb to bribes or cronyism because we don't have any political power. It both makes us look good and, as far as we know, it's true. I think testimony, especially when it comes to ones moral worth, is the least valuable form of data available.

Comment author: bill 29 April 2009 03:11:58PM 29 points [-]

When I've taught ethics in the past, we always discuss the Nazi era. Not because the Nazis acted unethically, but because of how everyone else acted.

For example, we read about the vans that carried Jewish prisoners that had the exhaust system designed to empty into the van. The point is not how awful that is, but that there must have been an engineer somewhere who figured out the best way to design and build such a thing. And that engineer wasn't a Nazi soldier, he or she was probably no different from anyone else at that time, with kids and a family and friends and so on. Not an evil scientist in a lab, but just a design engineer in a corporation.

One point of the discussion is that "normal" people have acted quite unethically in the past, and how can we prevent that happening to us.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 30 April 2009 05:36:10PM 9 points [-]
Comment author: Yvain 29 April 2009 08:47:25AM 1 point [-]

But we also have evidence from our past actions. For example, I have never cheated on a test or shoplifted in the past, so I assume this is true of everyone. My friends say the same thing (and I mostly believe them).

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 April 2009 07:19:27PM 17 points [-]

I'd like to say I've never cheated on a test. As a general principle, I prefer to avoid doing so. I've never copied answers from another person, but I have stored notes in my calculator for tests in which doing so was explicitly forbidden - we were told to memorize various formulas that we would have to use on the test, and not to store them in our calculators. Also, on one of those "fill in the bubble" standardized tests which are Really Important, I used extra time on one section to go back and finish a previous section, although we weren't supposed to.

So, have I cheated on a test? Well...

I take advantage of opportunities. You bend the rules. He's a dirty cheater. ;)

Comment author: Emile 29 April 2009 01:41:43PM 11 points [-]

That may apply to shoplifting, but not when you're predicting your behaviour in different situations - "I would be good even if given more power".

From Why Does Power Corrupt?:

The young revolutionary's belief is honest. There will be no betraying catch in his throat, as he explains why the tribe is doomed at the hands of the old and corrupt, unless he is given power to set things right. Not even subconsciously does he think, "And then, once I obtain power, I will strangely begin to resemble that old corrupt guard, abusing my power to increase my inclusive genetic fitness."

Comment author: scientism 29 April 2009 02:03:20PM 5 points [-]

Did you have a reason to cheat? Did your friends have a reason to cheat? (Alternatively, did they have a reason not to tell you they did? Would it have made them look especially bad compared to you?) If you're good at taking tests you'll probably never cheat, associate with people who are similarly academically gifted, and make people who aren't academically gifted embarrassed to admit their struggles. This obviously isn't a case of powerlessness though.

Imagine you are particularly bad at taking tests though. It's not obvious that cheating would be easy. I went to a particularly awful school and while I was good at taking tests, none of my friends were, and after finishing the test I would openly hand my paper to them and they'd all quickly copy down the answers. They were all fortunate to have an amoral friend and disinterested teachers. In college I knew a girl who would write notes on her thighs before going into an exam. She claimed she could get away with it because she's attractive. (She also claimed to have cheated on every exam.) To cheat on a test, you need access to answers, the ability to get away with it, etc. If these conditions aren't forthcoming, but you're not academically gifted, you might be tempted to say "I may be a C student but at least I've never cheated on a test." Should your situation change, you'd probably start peeking at the answers. (At which point you might start saying, "these sorts of tests are meaningless anyway.")