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Policy Debates Should Not Appear One-Sided

88 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 March 2007 06:53PM

Robin Hanson recently proposed stores where banned products could be sold.  There are a number of excellent arguments for such a policy—an inherent right of individual liberty, the career incentive of bureaucrats to prohibit everything, legislators being just as biased as individuals.  But even so (I replied), some poor, honest, not overwhelmingly educated mother of 5 children is going to go into these stores and buy a "Dr. Snakeoil's Sulfuric Acid Drink" for her arthritis and die, leaving her orphans to weep on national television.

I was just making a simple factual observation.  Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?

On questions of simple fact (for example, whether Earthly life arose by natural selection) there's a legitimate expectation that the argument should be a one-sided battle; the facts themselves are either one way or another, and the so-called "balance of evidence" should reflect this.  Indeed, under the Bayesian definition of evidence, "strong evidence" is just that sort of evidence which we only expect to find on one side of an argument.

But there is no reason for complex actions with many consequences to exhibit this onesidedness property.  Why do people seem to want their policy debates to be one-sided?

Politics is the mind-killer.  Arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you're on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it's like stabbing your soldiers in the back.  If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you—the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary.

One should also be aware of a related failure pattern, thinking that the course of Deep Wisdom is to compromise with perfect evenness between whichever two policy positions receive the most airtime.  A policy may legitimately have lopsided costs or benefits.  If policy questions were not tilted one way or the other, we would be unable to make decisions about them.  But there is also a human tendency to deny all costs of a favored policy, or deny all benefits of a disfavored policy; and people will therefore tend to think policy tradeoffs are tilted much further than they actually are.

If you allow shops that sell otherwise banned products, some poor, honest, poorly educated mother of 5 kids is going to buy something that kills her.  This is a prediction about a factual consequence, and as a factual question it appears rather straightforward—a sane person should readily confess this to be true regardless of which stance they take on the policy issue.  You may also think that making things illegal just makes them more expensive, that regulators will abuse their power, or that her individual freedom trumps your desire to meddle with her life.  But, as a matter of simple fact, she's still going to die.

We live in an unfair universe.  Like all primates, humans have strong negative reactions to perceived unfairness; thus we find this fact stressful.  There are two popular methods of dealing with the resulting cognitive dissonance.  First, one may change one's view of the facts—deny that the unfair events took place, or edit the history to make it appear fair.  Second, one may change one's morality—deny that the events are unfair.

Some libertarians might say that if you go into a "banned products shop", passing clear warning labels that say "THINGS IN THIS STORE MAY KILL YOU", and buy something that kills you, then it's your own fault and you deserve it.  If that were a moral truth, there would be no downside to having shops that sell banned products.  It wouldn't just be a net benefit, it would be a one-sided tradeoff with no drawbacks.

Others argue that regulators can be trained to choose rationally and in harmony with consumer interests; if those were the facts of the matter then (in their moral view) there would be no downside to regulation.

Like it or not, there's a birth lottery for intelligence—though this is one of the cases where the universe's unfairness is so extreme that many people choose to deny the facts.  The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming, but even if this were to be denied, you don't choose your parental upbringing or your early schools either.

I was raised to believe that denying reality is a moral wrong.  If I were to engage in wishful optimism about how Sulfuric Acid Drink was likely to benefit me, I would be doing something that I was warned against and raised to regard as unacceptable.  Some people are born into environments—we won't discuss their genes, because that part is too unfair—where the local witch doctor tells them that it is right to have faith and wrong to be skeptical.  In all goodwill, they follow this advice and die.  Unlike you, they weren't raised to believe that people are responsible for their individual choices to follow society's lead.  Do you really think you're so smart that you would have been a proper scientific skeptic even if you'd been born in 500 C.E.?  Yes, there is a birth lottery, no matter what you believe about genes.

Saying "People who buy dangerous products deserve to get hurt!" is not tough-minded.  It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe.  Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation."  Can you imagine a politician saying that?  Neither can I.  But insofar as economists have the power to influence policy, it might help if they could think it privately—maybe even say it in journal articles, suitably dressed up in polysyllabismic obfuscationalization so the media can't quote it.

I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration.  I count it as a tragedy.  It is not always helping people, to save them from the consequences of their own actions; but I draw a moral line at capital punishment.  If you're dead, you can't learn from your mistakes.

Unfortunately the universe doesn't agree with me.  We'll see which one of us is still standing when this is over.


ADDED:  Two primary drivers of policy-one-sidedness are the affect heuristic and the just-world fallacy.

 

Part of the Politics Is the Mind-Killer subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "The Scales of Justice, the Notebook of Rationality"

Previous post: "Politics Is the Mind-Killer"

Comments (170)

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Comment author: HalFinney 03 March 2007 09:41:14PM 6 points [-]

Like much of Eliezer's writings, this is dense and full of interesting ideas, so I'll just focus on one aspect. I agree that people advocating positions should fully recognize even (or especially) facts that are detrimental to their side. People advocating deregulation need to accept that things exactly like Eliezer describes will happen.

I'm not 100% sure that in a public forum where policy is being debated, that people should feel obligated to advance arguments that work to their side's detriment. It depends on what the ground rules are (possibly implicit ones). If everyone is making a good faith attempt to provide this kind of balance in their statements, it could work well in theory. But if one side does this and the other does not, it will lead to an unbalanced presentation of the issues. Since in practice it seems that most people aren't so even-handed in their arguments, that would explain why when someone does point out a fact that benefits one side, the audience will assume he favors that side, as happened to Eliezer.

Reading the above, I get the impression that Eliezer does in fact favor regulation in this context, and if so, then the audience conclusion was correct. He was not pointing out a fact that worked to oppose his conclusion, but rather he was providing a factual point that supports and leads to his position. So this would not be the best example of this somewhat idealized view of how policy debates should be conducted.

I note that thousands of people die every year in motorcycle accidents, a death rate far higher than in most modes of transportation. However I do not support banning motorcycles, for various reasons I won't go into at this time.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 March 2007 10:51:58PM 16 points [-]

Hal, I don't favor regulation in this context - nor would I say that I really oppose it. I started my career as a libertarian, and gradually became less political as I realized that (a) my opinions would end up making no difference to policy and (b) I had other fish to fry. My current concern is simply with the rationality of the disputants, not with their issues - I think I have something new to say about rationality.

I do believe that people with IQ 120+ tend to forget about their conjugates with IQ 80- when it comes to estimating the real-world effects of policy - either by pretending they won't get hurt, or by pretending that they deserve it. But so long as their consequential predictions seem reasonable, and so long as I don't think they're changing their morality to try to pretend the universe is fair, I won't argue with them whether they support or oppose regulation.

Comment author: TGGP3 03 March 2007 11:03:38PM 5 points [-]

Nobody chooses their genes or their early environment. The choices they make are determined by those things (and some quantum coin flips). Given what we know of neuroscience how can anyone deserve anything?

Comment author: BlueAjah 12 January 2013 03:01:54PM 7 points [-]

"Nobody chooses their genes or their early environment. The choices they make are determined by those things (and some quantum coin flips)."

All true so far... but here comes the huge logical leap...

"Given what we know of neuroscience how can anyone deserve anything?"

What does neuroscience showing the cause of why bad people choose to do bad things, have to do with whether or not bad people deserve bad things to happen to them?

The idea that bad people who choose to do bad things to others deserve bad things to happen to them has never been based on an incorrect view of neuroscience, and neuroscience doesn't change that even slightly.

Comment author: Chrysophylax 16 January 2013 10:43:51AM 2 points [-]

The point TGGP3 is making is that they didn't choose to do bad things, and so are not bad people - they're exactly like you would be if you had lived their lives. Always remember that you are not special - nobody is perfectly rational, and nobody is the main character in a story. To quote Eliezer, "You grew up in a post-World-War-Two society where 'I vas only followink orders' is something everyone knows the bad guys said. In the fifteenth century they would've called it honourable fealty." Remember that some Nazis committed atrocities, but some Nazis were ten years old in 1945. It is very difficult to be a "good person" (by your standards) when you have a completely different idea of what being good is. You are displaying a version of the fundamental attribution error - that is, you don't think of other people as being just like you and doing things for reasons you don't know about, so you can use the words "bad person" comfortably. The idea "bad people deserve bad things to happen to them" is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that there is such a thing as a bad person, which is unproven at best - even the existence of free will is debatable.

There are people who consider themselves to be bad people, but they tend to be either mentally ill or people who have not yet resolved the conflict between "I have done X" and "I think that it is wrong to do X" - that is, they have not adjusted to having become new people with different morals since they did X (which is what criminal-justice systems are meant to achieve).

Comment author: twanvl 16 January 2013 11:10:29AM 4 points [-]

The point TGGP3 is making is that they didn't choose to do bad things, and so are not bad people - they're exactly like you would be if you had lived their lives.

I can only interpret a statement like this as "they are exactly like you would be if you were exactly like them", which is of course a tautology.

The idea "bad people deserve bad things to happen to them" is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that there is such a thing as a bad person

If you first accept a definition of what is good and what is bad, then certainly there are bad people. A bad person is someone who does bad things. This is still relative to some morality, presumably that of the speaker.

Comment author: MugaSofer 16 January 2013 01:55:58PM -1 points [-]

I can only interpret a statement like this as "they are exactly like you would be if you were exactly like them", which is of course a tautology.

No. If they were, say, psycopaths, or babyeater aliens in human skins, then living their life - holding the same beliefs, experienceing the same problems - would not make you act the same way. It's a question of terminal value differences and instrumental value differences. The former must be fought, (or at most bargained with,) but the latter can be persuaded.

If you first accept a definition of what is good and what is bad, then certainly there are bad people. A bad person is someone who does bad things. This is still relative to some morality, presumably that of the speaker.

So anyone who's actions have negative consequences "deserves" Bad Things to happen to them?

Comment author: twanvl 16 January 2013 02:54:36PM 1 point [-]

So anyone who's actions have negative consequences "deserves" Bad Things to happen to them?

I am not saying that. I was only replying to the part "... is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that there is such a thing as a bad person".

Comment author: MugaSofer 18 January 2013 12:30:52PM -1 points [-]

My point is that the distinction between "Bad Person" and "Good Person" seems ... well, arbitrary. Anyone's actions can have Bad Consequences. I guess that didn't come across so well, huh?

Comment author: Peterdjones 18 January 2013 01:08:48PM *  4 points [-]

This is a flaw with (ETA: simpler versions of) consequentialism: no one can accurately predict the long range consequences of their actions. But it is unreasonable to hold someone culpable, to blame them, for what they cannot predict. So the consequentialist notion of good and bad actions doesn't translate directly into what we want from a pratical moral theory, guidance as to apportion blame and praise. This line of thinking can lead to a kind of fusion of deontology and consequentialism: we praise someone for following the rules ("as a rule, try to save a life where you can") even if the consequences were unwelcome ("The person you saved was a mass murderer");

Comment author: TheOtherDave 18 January 2013 03:55:28PM 1 point [-]

I agree that if what I want is a framework for assigning blame in a socially useful fashion, consequentialism violates many of our intuitions about reasonableness of such a framework.

So, sure, if the purpose of morality is to guide the apportionment of praise and blame, and we endorse those intuitions, then it follows that consequentialism is flawed relative to other models.

It's not clear to me that either of those premises is necessary.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 18 January 2013 04:20:54PM *  3 points [-]

There's a confusion here between consequentialistically good acts (ones that have good consequences) and consequentialistically good behaviour (acting according to your beliefs of what acts have good consequences).

People can only act according to their model of the consequences, not accoriding to the consequences themselves.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 18 January 2013 04:17:10PM 2 points [-]

A consequentialist considers the moral action to be the one that has good consequences.
But that means moral behaviour is to perform the acts that we anticipate to have good consequences.
And moral blame or praise on people is likewise assigned on the consequences of their actions as they anticipated them...

So the consequentialist assigns moral blame if it was anticipated that the person saved was a mass murderer and was likely to kill multiple times again....

Comment author: Peterdjones 18 January 2013 04:22:00PM 1 point [-]

And how do we anticipate or project, save on the basis of relatively tractable rules?

Comment author: JGWeissman 18 January 2013 04:38:52PM 3 points [-]

So the consequentialist notion of good and bad actions doesn't translate directly into what we want from a pratical moral theory, guidance as to apportion blame and praise.

What I want out of a moral theory is to know what I ought to do.

As far as blame and praise go, consequentialism with game theory tells you how to use a system of blame and praise provide good incentives for desired behavior.

Comment author: Peterdjones 18 January 2013 05:40:43PM 0 points [-]

What I want out of a moral theory is to know what I ought to do.

So you don't want to be able to understand how punishments and rewards are morally justified--why someone ought, or not, be sent to jail?

Comment author: fubarobfusco 18 January 2013 05:47:18PM 1 point [-]

What I want out of a moral theory is to know what I ought to do.

Knowledge without motivation may lend itself to akrasia. It would also be useful for a moral theory to motivate us to do what we ought to do.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 January 2013 04:50:39PM 0 points [-]

That's not a flaw in consequentialism. It's a flaw in judging other people's morality.

Consequentialists (should) generally reject the idea that anyone but themselves has moral responsibility.

Comment author: Peterdjones 18 January 2013 05:35:22PM *  0 points [-]

. It's a flaw in judging other people's morality

judging the moral worth of others actions is something a moral theory should enable one to do. It's not something you can just give up on.

Consequentialists (should) generally reject the idea that anyone but themselves has moral responsibility.

So two consequentialists would decide that each of them has moral responsibility and the other doesn't? Does that make sense? It is intended as a reductio ad absurdum of consequentialism, or as a bullet to be bitten.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 January 2013 04:22:42PM 1 point [-]

But some people take more actions that have Bad Consequences than others, don't they?

Comment author: DaFranker 18 January 2013 05:08:17PM *  2 points [-]

Yes, but even that is subject to counter-arguments and further debate, so I think the point is in trying to find something that more appropriately describes exactly what we're looking for.

After all, proportionality and other factors have to be taken into account. If Einstein takes more actions with Good Consequences and less actions with Bad Consequences than John Q. Eggfart, I don't anticipate this to be solely because John Q. Eggfart is a Bad Person with a broken morality system. I suspect Mr. Eggfart's IQ of 75 to have something to do with it.

Comment author: MugaSofer 19 January 2013 02:53:20PM 1 point [-]

If you mean that some people choose poorly or are simply unlucky, yes.

If you mean that some people are Evil and so take Evil actions, then ... well, yes, I suppose, psychopaths. But most Bad Consequences do not reflect some inherent deformity of the soul, which is all I'm saying.

Classifying people as Bad is not helpful. Classifying people as Dangerous ... is. My only objection is turning people into Evil Mutants - which the comment I originally replied to was doing. ("Bad Things are done by Bad People who deserve to be punished.")

Comment author: bio_logical 17 October 2013 06:07:50PM 0 points [-]

If you mean that some people are Evil and so take Evil actions, then ... well, yes, I suppose, psychopaths. But most Bad Consequences do not reflect some inherent deformity of the soul, which is all I'm saying.

I'd prefer to leave "the soul" out of this.

How do you know that most bad consequences don't involve sociopaths or their influence? It seems unlikely that that's not the case, to me.

Also, don't forget conformists who obey sociopaths. Franz Stangl said he felt "weak in the knees" when he was pushing gas chamber doors shut on a group of women and kids. ...But he did it anyway.

Wagner gleefully killed women and kids.

Yet, we also rightfully call Stangl an evil person, and rightfully punish him, even though he was "Just following orders." In hindsight, even his claims that the democide of over 6 million Jews and 10 million German dissidents and dissenters was solely for theft and without racist motivations, doesn't make me want to punish him less.

Comment author: Chrysophylax 30 January 2013 05:41:31PM *  0 points [-]

A bad person is someone who does bad things.

If doing "bad" things (choose your own definition) makes you a Bad Person, then everyone who has ever acted immorally is a Bad Person. Personally, I have done quite a lot of immoral things (by my own standards), as has everyone else ever. Does this make me a Bad Person? I hope not.

You are making precisely the mistake that the Politics is the Mind-Killer sequence warns against - you are seeing actions you disagree with and deciding that the actors are inherently wicked. This is a combination of correspondence bias, or the fundamental attribution error, (explaining actions in terms of enduring traits, rather than situations) and assuming that any reasonable person would agree to whatever moral standard you pick. A person is moral if they desire to follow a moral standard, irrespective of whether anyone else agrees with that standard.

Comment author: Vaniver 30 January 2013 05:55:35PM 5 points [-]

If a broken machine is a machine that doesn't work, does that mean that all machines are broken, because there was a time for each machine when it did not work?

More clearly: reading "someone who does bad things" as "someone who has ever done a bad thing" requires additional assumptions.

Comment author: smk 14 October 2013 05:02:36AM 1 point [-]

how can anyone deserve anything?

They can't. The whole idea of "deserving" is... icky. I try not to use it in figuring out my own morals, although I do sometimes use the word "deserve" in casual speech/thought. When I'm trying to be more conscientious and less casual, I don't use it.

Comment author: pdf23ds 04 March 2007 04:58:28AM 13 points [-]

TGGP, I think we have to define "deserve" relative to social consensus--a person deserves something if we aren't outraged when they get it for one reason or another. (Most people define this based on the consensus of a subset of society--people who share certain values, for instance.) Differences in the concept of "deserve" are one of the fundamental differences (if not the primary difference) between conservatism and liberalism.

Comment author: ericn 26 December 2010 05:05:49AM 7 points [-]

Do we need a definition of "deserve"? Perhaps it does not correspond to anything in reality. I would certainly argue that it doesn't correspond to anything in politics.

For instance, should we have a council that doles out things people deserve? It just seems silly.

Politics is ideally a giant cost/benefit satisficing operation. Practically, it is an agglomeration of power plays. I don't see where "deserve" fits in.

Comment author: CWG 05 March 2014 08:27:07AM 1 point [-]

A "council that doles out things people deserve" sounds like Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Michael Albert.

(Personally, it fills me with horror, but there are people who think it's a good idea.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 March 2007 05:25:25AM 19 points [-]

TGGP, if the mind were not embodied in the brain, it would be embodied in something else. You don't need neuroscience to see the problem with the naive conception of free will.

The reason I don't think idiots deserve to die is not because their genes played a role in making them idiots. Suppose it were not the genes. So what? The point is that being stupid is not the same as being malicious, or dishonest. It is simply being stupid, no more and no less. Drinking Sulfuric Acid Drink because you wishfully think it will cure your arthritis, is simply not on a moral par with deliberately burning out someone's eyes with hot pokers. No matter what you believe about the moral implications of determinism for sadistic torturers, in no fair universe would mere sloppy thinking be a capital crime. As it has always been, in this our real world.

Comment author: DSimon 10 September 2010 08:55:12PM *  4 points [-]

In no fair universe would mere sloppy thinking be a capital crime.

What about when sloppy thinking leads a person to hurt other people, i.e. a driver who accidentally kills a pedestrian while distracted by a call they thoughtlessly answered in motion?

Comment author: David_Brayton 04 March 2007 04:03:39PM 3 points [-]

I am not normally a nit pick (well, maybe I am) but this jumped out at me: an example of a fact--"whether Earthly life arose by natural selection." Because natural seletion is one of the cornerstones of modern biology, I thought I'd take a few seconds to enter this comment.

Natural selection is a biological process by which favorable traits that can be gentically inherited become more common in successive generations of a population of reproducing organisms, and unfavorable traits that can be inherited become less common. The driving force is the need to survive. So, for example, cheetahs that can run faster because of inheritable traits catch more food and tend to live so as to pass on the traits.

So, natural selection doesn't say anything about how life arose. As a factual matter, the example is a non sequitur.

You might have been thinking of "common descent". From Wikipedia: "A group of organisms is said to have common descent if they have a common ancestor. In biology, the theory of universal common descent proposes that all organisms on Earth are descended from a common ancestor or ancestral gene pool."

But, common descent doesn't say how life arose. It says that all life on Earth can be traced back to one initial set of genes/DNA. How that initial pool of chemicals became what we call life is not addressed by common descent.

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 03 November 2010 10:00:59PM *  3 points [-]

"whether Earthly life arose by natural selection" was a bad example of Eliezer's.

Natural selection does not account for how life arose, and dubitably accounts for how even the diversity of life arose*. Natural selection accounts, and only accounts, for how specified (esp. complex & specified) biological artifacts arose and are maintained.

An infinitely better example would have been "whether terrestrial life shares a common ancestor," because that is a demonstrable fact.

*This has probably mostly to do with plate tectonics carting around life forms from place to place and with genetic drift.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 04 March 2007 06:29:23PM 6 points [-]

Sorry, Brayton. I do know better, it was simply an accident of phrasing. I hadn't meant to imply that abiogenesis itself occurred by selective processes - "arose" was meant to refer to life's ascent rather than sparking.

Though, in my opinion, the very first replicator (or chemical catalytic hypercycle) should not really count as "life", because it merely happens to have the accidental property of self-replication and was not selectively optimized to this function. Thus, it properly belongs to the regime of accidental events rather than the regime of (natural) optimization.

Comment author: Alex3 05 March 2007 10:27:14AM 3 points [-]

The problem here is bias to one's own biases, I think. After all, we're all stupid some of the time, and realising this is surely a core component of the Overcoming Bias project. Robin Hanson may not think he'd ever be stupid enough to walk into the Banned Shop, but we all tend to assume we're the rational one.

You also need to consider the real-world conditions of your policy. Yes, this might be a good idea in its Platonic ideal form, but in practice, that actually doesn't tell us very much. As an argument against "regulation", I think, with a confidence value of 80, that it's worse than useless.

Why? In practice, you're not going to have "Banned Shops" with big signs on them. If enough people want to buy the banned products, and we know they do want them because their manufacturers are profitable, the rest of the retail trade will instantly start lobbying for the right to sell them, maybe on a Banned Shelf next to the eggs. That's an unrealistic example, but then it's an unrealistic proposal.

What's more likely is a case of Pareto inefficiency - if you relax, say, medicines control on the grounds that it's a step towards the ideal, the growth in ineffective, dangerous, or resistance-causing quackery is probably going to be a significant disbenefit.

Comment author: cypher197 16 March 2013 11:48:00PM 2 points [-]

I, for one, imagine that I could easily walk into the Banned Shop, given the right circumstances. All it takes is one slip up - fatigue, drunkness, or woozy medication would be sufficient - to lead to permanent death.

With that in mind, I don't think we should be planting more minefields than this reality currently has, on purpose. I like the idea of making things idiot-proof, not because I think idiots are the best thing ever, but because we're all idiots at least some of the time.

Comment author: Nornagest 17 March 2013 01:19:55AM *  1 point [-]

Certain types of content labeling might work a lot like Hanson's Banned Shop, minus the trivial inconvenience of going to a different shop: the more obvious and dire the label, the closer the approximation. Cigarettes are probably the most advanced example I can think of.

Now, cigarettes have also been extensively regulated in other ways, so we can't infer from this too well, but I think we can tentatively describe the results as mixed: it's widely understood that cigarettes stand a good chance of killing you, and smoking rates have indeed gone down since labeling laws went into effect, but it's still common. Whether or not we count this as a win probably depends on whether, and how much, we believe smokers' reasons for smoking -- or dismiss them as the dribble of a hijacked habit-formation system.

Comment author: HalFinney 05 March 2007 06:44:31PM 6 points [-]

Alex raises an interesting point: do most of us in fact assume that we would never walk into a Banned Shop? I don't necessarily assume that. I could envision going there for a medical drug which was widely available in Europe, but not yet approved by the U.S. FDA, for example. Or how about drugs that are supposed to only be available by prescription, might Banned Shops provide them to anyone who will pay? I might well choose to skip the time and money of a doctor visit to get a drug I've taken before without problems (accepting the risk that unknown to me, some subtle medical condition has arisen that now makes the drug unsafe, and a doctor would have caught it). Or for that matter, what about recreational drugs? If Banned Shops sold marijuana to anyone with a 100 IQ, I'm sure there are many list members who would partake.

Comment author: Alex3 06 March 2007 11:41:39AM 7 points [-]

It's a similar argument to my proposal of Rational Airways, an airline that asks you to sign a release when buying a ticket to the effect that you realise how tiny the risk of a terrorist attack is, and therefore are willing to travel with Rational, who do not apply any annoying security procedures.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2007 02:26:20AM 12 points [-]

Alex, a possible problem is that Rational would then attract all the terrorists who would otherwise have attacked different airlines.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2007 02:27:32AM 13 points [-]

PS: And, the risk might not be tiny if you took off all the safety precautions. But, yes, you could dispense with quite a few costly pointless ostentatious displays of effort, without changing the security risk in any significant sense.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2007 03:05:38AM 8 points [-]

James, my comment on drawing the moral line at capital punishment was addressed to the universe in general. Judicial executions count for a very small proportion of all death penalties - for example, the death penalty that you get for just being alive for longer than a century or so.

Comment author: mat33 04 October 2011 08:54:19AM -2 points [-]

"...the death penalty that you get for just being alive for longer than a century or so."

The "ethics of gods" most probably is the ethics of evolution. "Good" (in this particular sence) Universe have to be "bad" enough to allow the evolution of live, mind and [probabbly] technology. The shaw is natural selection - and the shaw must go on. Even as it includes aforementioned death penalty...

Comment author: Robin_Powell 23 April 2007 10:48:36PM 5 points [-]

The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming

Erm. 0.6-0.8 what?

-Robin

Comment author: tut 18 June 2009 09:10:39AM 1 point [-]

Probably 60-80% heredity. But that is also meaningless, because I have no idea which population it refers to.

Comment author: Celer 15 March 2011 08:58:16PM 5 points [-]

I assume he means an R or an R^2 of 0.6-0.8. Both are measures of correlation. R^2 would be the percent in the variation of one twins intelligence predicted by the intelligence of the other twin.

Comment author: Michael_Bishop 14 December 2007 05:15:00AM 2 points [-]

I realize it has little to do with the main argument of the post, but I also have issues with Eliezer's claim:

"The experimental evidence for a purely genetic component of 0.6-0.8 is overwhelming..."

Genes matter a lot. But there are a number of problems with the calculation you allude to. See Richard Nisbett's work.

Comment author: kremlin 07 May 2012 02:21:11PM 1 point [-]

what is the calculation he was alluding to? i wanted a source on that.

Comment author: Jamesofengland 27 June 2008 08:20:00AM 14 points [-]

"Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation." Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I.

--60 Minutes (5/12/96) Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.

She later expressed regret for it, after taking an awful lot of flack at the time, but this does sometimes happen.

Comment author: JDM 04 June 2013 11:33:28PM 5 points [-]

I think your point that she took a lot of flak for it is evidence for the original point. The only other reasonable responses to that could have been changing her mind on the spot, or disputing the data, and neither of those responses would have brought similar backlash on her. Conceding weak points to your arguments in politics is often looked upon as a weakness when it shouldn't be.

Comment author: vroman2 26 December 2008 03:45:07AM 5 points [-]

its unfair to caricaturize libertarians as ultra-social-darwinists saying "stupid ppl who accidently kill themselves DESERVED it". if that quote was ever literally uttered, I would tend to think it was out of exasperation at the opposing viewpoint that govt has a paramount responsibility to save its citizens from themselves to the point of ludicrous pandering.

Comment author: caiuscamargarus 02 May 2010 09:26:48PM 12 points [-]

"Everyone gets what they deserve" is the unironic (and secular) motto of a close family friend who is wealthy in Brazil, one of the countries with the greatest levels of economic inequality in the world. I have heard the sentiment echoed widely among the upper and upper middle class. Maybe it's not as extreme as that, but it is a clear expression of the idea that unfortunate people deserve their misfortune to the point that those who have the resources to help them should not bother. This sentiment also characterizes Objectivism, which is commonly (though not always) associated with libertarianism.

Comment author: cupholder 02 May 2010 09:39:06PM 3 points [-]

Sounds like our good friend the just-world fallacy.

Comment author: SRStarin 02 February 2011 01:49:21AM 1 point [-]

You misunderstand Rand's Objectivism. It's not that people who bad-luck into a bad situation deserve that situation. Nor do people who good-luck into a good situation deserve that reward. You only deserve what you work for. That is Objectivism, in a nutshell. If I make myself a useful person, I don't owe my usefulness to anyone, no matter how desperate their need. That may look like you're saying the desperate deserve their circumstances, but that is just the sort of fallacy Eliezer was writing about in the OP.

Where libertarian political theory relates to Objectivism is in the way the government often oversteps its bounds in expecting successful people to do extra work to help others out. Many libertarians are quite charitable--they just don't want the government forcing them to be so.

Comment author: shokwave 02 February 2011 02:41:14AM *  6 points [-]

You misunderstand Rand's Objectivism. It's not that people who bad-luck into a bad situation deserve that situation. Nor do people who good-luck into a good situation deserve that reward. You only deserve what you work for. That is Objectivism, in a nutshell.

You only deserve what you work for - do you get what you deserve? If you don't, then what purpose does the word "deserve" serve? If you do get what you deserve, how come the world looks like it's full of people work for something, deserve it, and don't get it?

Comment author: SRStarin 02 February 2011 02:03:54PM 4 points [-]

I'm only trying to correct the comment's incorrect assertions about objectivism and libertarianism. To address your comment, I'll start by pointing out Objectivism is a system of ethics, a set of rules for deciding how to treat other people and their stuff. It's not a religion, so it can't answer questions like "Why do some people who work hard and live right have bad luck?"

So, I will assume you are saying that people who work hard in our society seem to you to systematically fail to get what they work for. To clarify my comment, objectivism says you only deserve to get what you work for from other people. That is, you don't in any way deserve to receive from others what they didn't already agree to pay you in exchange for your work.

But, some people can't find anyone to pay them to work. Some can't work at all. Some can sell their work, but can't get enough to make a living. Because of the size and complexity of our society, there are huge numbers of people who have these problems. Sometimes it's their fault--maybe they goofed off in high school or college--but often it's not. If we were cavemen, we'd kick them out of the cave and let them starve, but we're not. We have multiple safety mechanisms, also because of the size and complexity of our society, through neighbors, schools, churches, and local, state and national governments, that help most people through hard times. The fact that I'm OK with governments being in that sentence is a major reason I can't call myself a strict Objectivist, but I'm still more a libertarian than anything else, politically. I think the ideal is that no one should fall through our safety nets, but there will always be people who do, just like the mother of five in the OP.

And when everyone is having a harder time than usual, more people will fall through the safety nets.

And if your problem is with whole nations of people who seem to work hard for very little, well, I probably agree with you, and our beef is with the history of colonialism.

Comment author: jbay 15 March 2013 07:42:41PM *  3 points [-]

"To clarify my comment, objectivism says you only deserve to get what you work for from other people. That is, you don't in any way deserve to receive from others what they didn't already agree to pay you in exchange for your work."

Although it might work as a system of ethics (or not, depending on your ethics), this definitely doesn't function as a system of economics. First of all, it makes the question of wealth creation a chicken-and-egg problem: If every individual A only deserves to receive what individual B agrees to pay them for work X, how did individual B obtain the wealth to pay A in the first place?

The answer is probably that you can also work for yourself, creating wealth that did not exist without anyone paying you. So your equation, as you've expressed it, does not quite balance. You're missing a term.

Wealth creation is very much a physical thing, which makes it hard to tie to an abstract system of ethics. The wealth created by work X is the value of X; whether it's the food grown from the earth, or the watch that has been assembled from precisely cut steel, glass, and silicon. That is the wealth that is added to the pool by labour and ingenuity, regardless of how it gets distributed or who deserves to get paid for it. And that wealth remains in the system, until the watch breaks or the food spoils (or gets eaten; it's harder to calculate the value of consumed food). It might lose its value quickly, or it might remain a treasure for centuries after the death of every individual involved in the creation of that wealth, like a work of art. It might also be destroyed by random chance well before its predicted value has been exploited.

Who deserves to benefit from the wealth that was created by the work of, and paid for by, people who have been dead for generations? The question of who deserves to benefit from the labour X, and how much, becomes very tricky when the real world is taken into account...

One might argue that that is what Wills are for, but a Will is usually a transfer of wealth in exchange for no work at all. Does an individual morally deserve their inheritance, even if they didn't work at all for it?

It also gets tricky when the nature of humans as real people and not abstract entities is taken into account. People are born helpless, have finite lifespans, and their lifespans are in some way a function of their material posessions. A child is not physically capable of executing much labour, and will die without access to food and water. If children are treated as individuals, then no child deserves to live, because no child can perform the work to pay for their upbringing. Unless they are signed into a loan, but this would need to be done before they have the decision-making capacity to enter a contract.

But the mortality of people is still an issue. A human cannot physically survive zero wealth for more than a few days. So a human on the edge of poverty cannot realistically negotiate a contract either, because the party that offers them pay has infinite bargaining power. One might argue that they don't need bargaining power if there is competition between multiple individuals offering contracts, which will drive the contract toward something reasonable. But again that abstraction ignores reality -- this individual will die after a few days of no food, and even the process of competitive bidding for contracts takes time.

In this case, a person with little wealth will do work X in exchange for very little pay, much less than the value of X, and in practice just enough to keep them alive enough to continue to do X the following day. But simply because that is what they agreed to receive (due to their inability to reject the deal), does that mean that is what they morally deserve to receive?

Finally, some goods are just too difficult (computationally) to manage as contracts between individuals. The value of the resource might not even be presently known by science, although it exists (for example, the economic value of an intact ecosystem). The trespasses and exchanges might be so frequent and poorly documented that the consumption of the resource cannot be managed by legal contracts between owners and licensees (for example, the air we breathe).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 November 2009 05:36:53AM 9 points [-]
Comment author: PhilGoetz 18 February 2010 04:56:28PM 8 points [-]

I recently spoke with someone who was in favor of legalizing all drugs, who would not admit that criminalizing something reduces the frequency at which people do it.

Comment author: mattnewport 18 February 2010 06:42:35PM *  14 points [-]

Was that actually his claim or was he saying that it doesn't necessarily reduce the frequency at which people do it? Clearly the frequency of drug use has gone up since they were made illegal. Now perhaps it would have gone up faster if drug use had not been made illegal but that's rather hard to demonstrate. It's at least plausible that some of the popularity of drugs stems from their illegality as it makes them a more effective symbol of rebellion against authority for teenagers seeking to signal rebelliousness.

Claiming that criminalizing can't possibly reduce the frequency at which people do something would be a pretty ridiculous claim. Claiming that it hasn't in fact done so for drugs is quite defensible.

Comment author: AlexSchell 25 September 2012 11:20:52PM 2 points [-]

In the real world, PhilGoetz's interlocutor was almost certainly not making the sophisticated point that in some scenarios making X illegal makes it more desirable in a way that outweighs the (perhaps low) extra costs of doing X. If the person had been making this point, it would be very hard to mistake them for the kind of person PhilGoetz describes.

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 03 November 2010 10:08:57PM 14 points [-]

Portugal, anyone? There is a point when arguments need to be abandoned and experimental results embraced. The decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has seen a scant increase in drug use. QED

The same goes for policies like Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Many countries around the world have run the experiment of letting gays serve openly and there have been no ill effects.

Abandon rationalization, embrace reality.

Comment author: AlexSchell 25 September 2012 11:21:32PM 1 point [-]

The decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has seen a scant increase in drug use. QED

So you think an increase in drug use following decriminalization supports your view? And you were upvoted?

Comment author: gwern 25 September 2012 11:57:17PM *  12 points [-]

The claim of sensible consequentialist (as opposed to moralizing) drug control advocates who are in favor of the War on Drugs is that the War on Drugs, however disastrous, expensive, destructive of liberties, and perverting of justice (to whatever degree they will accept such claims - can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, etc.), is a lesser evil than the consequences of unbridled drug use. This claim is most obviously falsified by a net decrease in drug use, yes, but also falsified by a small increase which is not obviously worse than the War on Drugs since now the anti-War person can use the same argument as the pro-War person was: legalization is the lesser of two evils.

The benefits and small costs in Portugal are, at least at face value, not worse than a War. Hence, the second branch goes through: the predicted magnitude of consequences did not materialize.

Comment author: AlexSchell 27 September 2012 02:47:37PM 1 point [-]

I agree completely.

Note that PhilGoetz, following the subject of the thread, pointed out a good consequence of drug control (that is, good on its own terms) that an opponent of drug control refused to acknowledge. AndyCossyleon apparently thought that the Portugal example is a counterpoint to what PhilGoetz said, which it isn't (though as you point out it is evidence against some views held by drug control advocates). In retrospect, I should have said "rebuts PhilGoetz's point" instead of "supports your view" in the grandparent.

Comment author: thomblake 27 September 2012 04:01:25PM 1 point [-]

Funny. The response to AndyCossyleon at the time should have been a link to this post.

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 27 September 2012 10:19:12PM *  4 points [-]

AlexSchell, "scant" is essentially a negative, much like "scarce(ly)" or "hardly" or "negligible/y". Rewriting: "The decriminalization of drugs in Portugal has scarcely seen an increase in drug use." I'd argue that these sentences mean the same thing, and that together, they mean something different from "The decriminalization ... has seen a small increase ..." which is what you seem to have interpreted my statement as, though not completely illegitimately.

Comment author: Solarian 28 September 2012 12:20:00AM 0 points [-]

I would still read that as an increase. "Scant," "scarcely," etc., all mean "an amount so small it is negligible." But that's still an increase. 1 + 99^99 isn't 99^99. I understand what is trying to be said in the argument concerning decriminalization, but strictly-speaking, that is an increase in drug use.

Comment author: Sewing-Machine 26 September 2012 12:20:08AM 5 points [-]

There is something fishy about the words "legalize" and "decriminalize." Buying, selling, making and consuming wine are legal activities in Portugal. Not marijuana.

Comment author: Mekong 26 August 2010 07:48:33PM 0 points [-]

Just wanted to say thanks for a very thoughtful article. I've burned through a great deal of time, wondering about the morality (or immorality) of the "arguments are soldiers" mindset.

Comment author: ErnstMuller 15 April 2011 07:57:40PM 0 points [-]

The point of banned goods is not that they are banned because of the hazards for the people alone who buy them but for everyone else also. Sulphuric acid for example is easily usable as a weapon especially in concentrated form. (It grows very hot if it touches water. And it is very acidic. So, by using a simple acid proof squirt gun one can do serious damage.)

And, that's not really all: Suppose I could go into such a shop, proof that I'm sufficiently intelligent to handle dangerous stuff without being a danger for myself and buy a) a PCR machine b) a flu virus genome sequence c) a HIV genome sequence d) some assorted chemicals e) some literature about virology f) lungs tissue cell cultures g) some pigs/monkeys to test it

and wipe out Japans population just for the sake of it? (Contagious like flu and deadly as AIDS. It would take some months or even years to clone it but it would be manageable.)

Well, Japan wouldn't actually a sensible target for that. To much risk of travelers spreading the virus worldwide. Choose your own isolated country to test.

I sleep better in my bed each night because I know it is not that easy to get really dangerous stuff in Shops.

Comment author: guineapig 28 April 2011 03:25:19PM 2 points [-]

Madagascar, obviously.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 28 April 2011 03:41:46PM *  6 points [-]

Most of the goods you mention aren't restricted at all. I don't need any special permits to buy a PCR machine or anything necessary to run it for example.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 26 September 2011 09:26:41AM *  3 points [-]

Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation." Can you imagine a politician saying that? Neither can I.

I can imagine it, but I can't say that I can remember it in a similar case. The "if it saves just one life...." arguments have always struck me as idiotic, but apparently there is a large market for it. Is it really the case that so many people think that way? If so, we're screwed.

Identifying and acknowledging trade offs is step one to intellectual honesty. It's fairly rare. The more telling aspect in an argument is when people simply ignore the costs when they are pointed out to them, and refuse to address the trade off.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 September 2011 09:32:58AM 1 point [-]

Alicorn already told you about how to do quotations.

Comment author: taelor 30 September 2011 09:39:44AM 4 points [-]

Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation."

Interestingly, I independently came to a similar conclusion regarding drug legalization a few days ago, which I expressed during a class discussion on the topic. Out of about forty people in the class, one person other than me seemed to respond positively to this, everyone else (including people who were in favor of legalization) seemed to ignore it.

Comment author: mat33 04 October 2011 09:35:10AM 1 point [-]

"But there is no reason for complex actions with many consequences to exhibit this onesidedness property. Why do people seem to want their policy debates to be one-sided?"

We do like to vote, you know. We do like to see other people vote. We do expect to see some kind of propagand, some kind of pitch to cast our votes in some certain way. We tend to feel fooled, than we don't see that, what we do expect to see in the right place. No, it isn't reserved exclusively for the politic issues.

"I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration. I count it as a tragedy."

These tragedies are the way of evolution, the greatest cost of evolution, probably. And - yes, any sentient being would like to take the progress of it's spices in it's hands, paws, tentacles, whatever. And - no, we aren't really "there". We are very, very close. But not there, yet.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 December 2011 06:02:17PM 1 point [-]

I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration.

Others disagree.

Comment author: thomblake 27 December 2011 06:43:57PM 2 points [-]

Well yes, I think the post assumed most others seem to disagree. That's why the point was worth making.

Comment author: CornellEngr2008 02 January 2012 11:34:31PM *  7 points [-]

I was just making a simple factual observation. Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?

I've noticed that Argument by Innuendo is unfortunately common, at least in in-person discussions. Basically, the arguer makes statements that seem to point to some conclusion or another, but stops a few steps short of actually drawing a conclusion, leaving the listener to draw the conclusion themselves. When I've caught myself doing this and ask myself why, there are a few reasons that come up, including:

  • I'm testing my audience's intelligence in a somewhat subtle and mean way.
  • I'm throwing ideas out there that I know are more than one or two inferential steps away, and seeing if my audience has heard of them, is curious enough to ask about them, or neither and just proceeds as if I didn't say anything.
  • I want to escape the criticism of the conclusion I'm suggesting, and by making someone else connect the last few dots, I can redirect the criticism towards them instead, or at least deflect it from myself by denying that that was the conclusion that I was suggesting (even if it was).

Needless to say, this is pretty manipulative, and a generally Bad Thing. But people have sort of been conditioned to fall into the trap of Argument by Innuendo - to not look stupid (or "slow"), they want to try to figure out what you're getting at as quickly as possible instead of asking you, and then argue against it (possibly by innuendo themselves so they can make you look stupid if you don't get it right away). Of course, this makes it extremely easy to argue past each other without realizing it, and might leave one side bewildered at the reaction that their innocent-seeming statement of fact has provoked. I think that this has simply become part of how we reason in real-time in-person discussions.

(To test this claim, try asking "so what?" or "what's the conclusion you're getting at?" when you notice this happening. Note the facial expressions and tone you get in response. In my experience, either the arguer treats you as stupid to ask for clarification on such an "obvious" point, or they squirm in discomfort as their forced to state explicitly the conclusion that they were trying to avoid criticism for proposing, and may weasel into an entirely different position altogether that isn't at all supported by their statements.)

So, I'd venture to say that that's what's going on here - your audience heard your factual observation, interpreted it as laden with a point to be made, and projected that conclusion back onto you, all in the blink of an eye.

Comment author: NickRetallack 20 July 2013 06:42:38PM 1 point [-]

I think it's a good thing to do this. It is analogous to science.

If you're a good reasoner and you encounter evidence that conflicts with one of your beliefs, you update that belief.

Likewise, if you want to update someone else's belief, you can present evidence that conflicts with it in hopes they will be a good reasoner and update their belief.

This would not be so effective if you just told them your conclusion flat out, because that would look like just another belief you are trying to force upon them.

Comment author: Document 03 August 2013 05:48:15AM 0 points [-]

Possibly related: When Truth Isn't Enough.

Comment author: keddaw 18 April 2012 02:47:23PM 2 points [-]

Do you really think you're so smart that you would have been a proper scientific skeptic even if you'd been born in 500 C.E.?

Yes. "But your genes would be different." Then it wouldn't be me. "Okay, same genes, but no scientific education." Then it wouldn't be me.

As much as such a thing as 'me' exists then it comes with all the knowledge and skills I have gained either through genetics, training or learning. Otherwise it isn't 'me'.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 18 April 2012 03:08:36PM 2 points [-]

So who was that person who started learning the skills that you now have?

Comment author: keddaw 19 April 2012 01:03:47PM 1 point [-]

Well, the person who started typing this reply was someone incredibly similar, but not identical, to the person who finished (neither of who are the present me). It was a person who shared genes, who had an almost identical memory of childhood and education, who shares virtually all my goals, interests and dreams and is more like me than any other person that has ever lived. However, that person was not the me who exists now.

Extrapolate that backwards, becoming less and less like current me over time and you get an idea of who started learning the skills I currently have.

It's not my fault if people have a broken view of what/who they actually are.

Comment author: asparisi 19 April 2012 01:38:00PM *  8 points [-]

Shouldn't that answer then result in a "Invalid Question" to the original "Would you be a proper scientific skeptic if you were born in 500 CE?" question?

I mean, what you are saying here is that it isn't possible for you to have been born in 500 C.E., that you are a product of your genetics and environment and cannot be separated from those conditions that resulted in you. So the answer isn't "Yes" it is "That isn't a valid question."

I'm not saying I agree, especially since I think the initial question can be rephrased as "Given the population of humans born in 500 C.E. and the historical realities of the era, do you believe that any person born in this era could have been a proper scientific skeptic and given that, do you believe that you would have developed into one had your initial conditions been otherwise identical, or at least highly similar?" Making it personal (Would you be...) is just a way of conferring the weight of the statement, as it is assumed that the readers of LW all have brains capable of modelling hypothetical scenarios, even if those scenarios don't (or can't even in principle) match reality.

The question isn't asking if it is ACTUALLY possible for you to have been born in 500 CE, it is asking you to model the reality of someone in the first person as born in 500 CE and, taking into account what you know of the era, ask if you really think that someone with otherwise equivalent initial starting conditions would have grown into a proper scientific skeptic.

It's also shorter to just bring in the personal hypothetical, which helps.

Comment author: keddaw 19 April 2012 05:11:59PM 0 points [-]

Correct. I made the jump of me appearing as is in 530CE as opposed to 'baby me' since I do not in any logical sense think that baby me is me. So yes, the question is invalid (in my view) but I tried to make it valid by altering the question without explicitly saying I was doing so (i.e. "If you were to pop into existence in 530 CE would you be a scientific skeptic?")

Comment author: TheOtherDave 19 April 2012 02:09:35PM 4 points [-]

Nor, by your reasoning, could it possibly ever be your fault, since my current view of what I am has causes in the past, and you didn't exist in the past. By the same reasoning, nothing else could possibly ever be your fault, except possibly for what you are doing in the instant that I blame you for it... not that it matters for practical purposes, since by the time I got around to implementing consequences of that, you would no longer exist.

That strikes me as even more broken a view than the one you wish for it to replace... it destroys one of the major functions we use the notion of "a person" to perform.

Comment author: Ezra 23 June 2012 09:10:17AM *  2 points [-]

I was surprised and pleased to discover that the rock band Switchfoot have a song about the terrible cost to oneself of treating one's arguments as soldiers. It's called "The Sound in My Mouth". (Youtube link, with incorrect lyrics below it; better ones can be found at the bottom of this fansite page)

It focuses on the social costs rather than the truth-finding costs, but it's still well ahead of where I usually expect to find music.

Comment author: TheNuszAbides 04 July 2013 05:52:11PM 0 points [-]

to save those who would bother to trouble themselves as i just did... the trouble, the second link is for the album Oh! Gravity but "The Sound in My Mouth" is on the Oh! EP.

Comment author: roryokane 21 September 2012 06:17:14AM *  1 point [-]

Alternate title: “debates should acknowledge tradeoffs”. I think that mnemonic is more helpful.

Longer summary: “Debates should acknowledge tradeoffs. Don’t rationalize away apparent good points for the other side; it’s okay and normal for the other side to have some good points. Presumably, those points just won’t be strong enough in total to overwhelm yours in total. (Also, acknowledging tradeoffs is easier if you don’t think of the debate in terms of ‘your side’ and ‘their side’.)”

Comment author: robertskmiles 15 October 2012 06:09:12PM *  7 points [-]

An implicit assumption of this article which deserves to be made explicit:

"All negative effects of buying things from the banned store accrue to the individual who chose to purchase from the banned store"

In practical terms this would not be the case. If I buy Sulphuric Acid Drink from the store and discover acid is unhealthy and die, that's one thing. If I buy Homoeopathic Brake Pads for my car and discover they do not cause a level of deceleration greater than placebo, and in the course of this discovery run over a random pedestrian, that's morally a different thing.

The goal of regulation is not just to protect us from ourselves, but to protect us from each other.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 15 October 2012 07:06:38PM 1 point [-]

"All negative effects of buying things from the banned store accrue to the individual who chose to purchase from the banned store"

Or, the individual who chooses to purchase from the banned store is able to compensate others for any negative effects.

Comment author: cypher197 17 March 2013 12:05:47AM 3 points [-]

Unfortunately we have not yet discovered a remedy by which court systems can sacrifice the life of a guilty party to bring back a victim party from the dead.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 17 March 2013 06:30:14AM 0 points [-]

No, but several historical cultures and a few current ones legitimize the notion of blood money as restitution to a victim's kin.

Comment author: cypher197 23 March 2013 11:01:39PM 2 points [-]

No amount of money can raise the dead. It's still more efficient to prevent people from dying in the first place.

All people are idiots at least some of the time. I don't accept the usage of Homeopathic Brake Pads as a legitimate decision, even if the person using them has $1 billion USD with which to compensate the innocent pedestrians killed by a speeding car. I'll accept the risk of occasional accident, but my life is worth more to me than the satisfaction some "alternative vehicle control systems" nut gets from doing something stupid.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 24 March 2013 07:01:48PM 5 points [-]

"Homeopathic brake pads" are a reductio-ad-absurdum of the actual proposal, though — which has to do with products that are not certified, tested, or guaranteed in the manner that you're used to.

There are lots of levels of (un)reliability between Homeopathic (works 0% of the time) and NHTSA-Certified (works 99.99% of the time). For instance, there might be Cheap-Ass Brake Pads, which work 99.95% of the time at 10% of the cost of NHTSA-Certified; or Kitchen Sponge Brake Pads, which work 90% of the time at 0.05% of the cost.

We do not have the option of requiring everyone to only do things that impose no danger to others. So if someone chooses to use a product that is incrementally more dangerous to others — whether because this lets them save money by buying Cheap-Ass Brake Pads; or because it's just more exciting to drive a Hummer than a Dodge minivan — how do we respond?

Comment author: cypher197 12 April 2013 09:24:49AM 1 point [-]

how do we respond?

Well, as a society, at some point we set a cut-off and make a law about it. Thus some items are banned while others are not, and some items are taxed and have warnings on them instead of an outright ban.

And it's not just low intelligence that's a risk. People can be influenced by advertising, social pressure, information saturation, et cetera. Let's suppose we do open this banned goods shop. Are we going to make each and every customer fill out an essay question detailing exactly how they understand these items to be dangerous? I don't mean check a box or sign a paper, because that's like clicking "I Agree" on a EULA or a security warning, and we've all seen how well that's worked out for casual users in the computer realm, even though we constantly bombard them with messages not to do exactly the things that get them in trouble.

Is it Paternalist arrogance when the system administrator makes it impossible to download and open .exe attachments in Microsoft Outlook? Clearly, there are cases where system administrators are paternalist and arrogant; on the other hand, there are a great many cases where users trash their machines. The system administrator has a much better knowledge about safely operating the computer; the user knows more about what work they need to get done. These things are issues of balance, but I'm not ready to throw out top-down bans on dangerous-to-self products.

Comment author: Huma 04 November 2012 12:38:59AM 1 point [-]

I think it is useful here to distinguish politics as a consequence of morality from politics as a agreed set of methods of public decision-making. With the first politics, or politics(A), yes, one has to present all facts as they are regardless of whether they favor one’s stance IF one is to believe there is a moral duty to be rational. In a world where humans all share that particular view on morality, there won’t be a need for the second kind of politics, or politics(B). Because, in that world, the set of methods for rational decision making suffice as the method for public decision making.

But what if some of us do not share that particular view? I, for example, could believe one’s utmost moral duty is to conserve all forms of life, and, regardless of whether I am rational, I would present a view biased towards the outcome favored by my moral code. In that case, my bias is not the result of lack of rationality but one of my morality.

I agree with Eliezer that politics(B) is not an ideal place for rationality but I think it was never meant as such. I think(meaning my opinion) the democratic political system is envisioned to be an arena not of rationality but of morality. As such, it shouldn’t really matter how an issue is presented. Rational arguments appeal to rational voters. It was not a flaw of the system that some voters are irrational and someone presents an irrational argument to appeal to them.

Comment author: NickRetallack 20 July 2013 06:57:30PM *  1 point [-]

Debates can easily appear one-sided, for each side. For example, some people believe that if you follow a particular conduct in life, you will go to heaven. To these people, any policy decision that results in sending less people to heaven is a tragedy. But to people who don't believe in heaven, this downside does not exist.

This is not just an arbitrary example. This shows up all the time in US politics. Until people can agree on whether or not heaven exists, how can any of these debates not seem one-sided?

Comment author: NickRetallack 20 July 2013 11:33:35PM -3 points [-]

There is so much wrong with this example that I don't know where to start.

You make up a hypothetical person who dies because she doesn't heed an explicit warning that says "if you do this, you will die". Then you make several ridiculous claims about this hypothetical person:

1) You claim this event will happen, with absolute certainty. 2) You claim this event occurs because this individual has low intelligence, and that it is unfair because a person does not choose to be born intelligent. 3) You claim this event is a tragedy.

I disagree with all of these, and I will challenge them individually. But first, the meta-claim of this argument is that I am supposed to consider compromises that I don't even believe in. Why would I ever do that? Suppose that the downside of a policy decision is "less people will go to heaven". If you are not religious, this sounds like a ridiculous nonsensical downside, and thus no downside at all. And where do you draw the line on perceived downsides anyway? Do you allow people to just make up metaphysical superstitious downsides, and then proceed to weigh those as well? Because that seems like a waste of time to me. Perhaps you do weigh those possibilities, but you assign them so low a probability that they effectively disappear, but clearly your opponent doesn't assign the same probabilities to them as you do. So you have to take the argument to the place where the real disagreements occur. Which leads me to these three claims.

1) You claim this event will happen, with absolute certainty.

1 is not a probability. Besides, the original article mentions safeguards that should reduce the probability that this event ever happens. The type of safeguards depend on your hypothetical person, of course. Lets say your hypothetical person is drunk. The clerk could give a breathalyzer test. Maybe your hypothetical person isn't aware of the warnings. The clerk could read them off at the checkout. Maybe the person doesn't listen or understand. The clerk could quiz them on the content he just read to ensure it sinks in.

But then, I guess the real point of the article is that the hypothetical person doesn't believe the warnings, which brings us to:

2) You claim this event occurs because this individual has low intelligence, and that it is unfair because a person does not choose to be born intelligent.

Receiving a warning explicitly stating "if you do this, you will die" is hardly a mental puzzle. Is this really even a measure of intelligence? This seems like a stretch.

Bleach is sold at normal stores, without any restrictions. If you drink it, you could die. Many people have heard this warning. Do people disbelieve it? Do they risk testing the hypothesis on theirself? Why would anyone risk death like this? I am genuinely curious as to how this can be related to intelligence. Someone please explain this to me.

Generally if someone drinks bleach, it is because they believed the warning and wanted to die. Is this a tragedy? Should we ban bleach? This brings me to:

3) You claim this event is a tragedy.

Is it really?

People are hardly a valuable resource right now. In fact, there are either too many of us, or there will be soon. If one person dies, everyone else gets more space and resources. It's kind of like your article on dust specs vs torture, except that a suicidal person selects theirself, rather than being randomly selected. Unless you apply some argument about determinism and say that a person doesn't choose to be born suicidal (or choose to lead a life whose circumstances would lead anyone to be suicidal, etc).

Should a person be allowed to commit suicide? If we prevent them from doing so, are we infringing on their rights? Or are they infringing on their own rights? I don't really know. I do know and love some amazing people who have committed suicide, and I wish I could have prevented them. This is a real complication to this issue for me, because I value different people differently: I'd gladly allow many people I've never met to die if it would save one person I love. But I understand that other people don't value the same people I do, so this feeling is not easy to transfer into general policies.

Is evolution not fair? If we decide to prop up every unfit individual and prevent every suicide, genetic evolution becomes severely neutered. We can't really adapt to our environment if we don't let it select from us. Thus it would be to our genetic benefit to allow people to die, as it would eventually select out whatever genes caused them to do this. But then, some safety nets seem reasonable. We wouldn't consider banning glasses in order to select for better vision. We need to strike some sort of balance here though, and not waste too many resources propping up individuals who will only multiply their cost to everyone with future generations of their genes and memes. I think that, currently, the point at which this balance is set is when it simply costs too much cash to keep someone alive, though we will gladly provide all people with a certain amount of food and shelter. The specific amount provided is under constant debate.

So, are we obligated to protect every random individual ever born? Is it a tragedy if anyone dies? I think that's debatable. It isn't a definite downside. In fact, it could even be an upside.

Comment author: Become_Stronger 05 October 2013 12:23:35AM 0 points [-]

I'd like to point out that the statistical value of human life is used by economists for calculations such as Eliezer mentions, so at some point someone has managed to do the math.

Comment author: AshwinV 07 February 2014 05:39:59AM 2 points [-]

"I was just making a simple factual observation. Why did some people think it was an argument in favor of regulation?"

A (tiny) note of dissonance here. As noted earlier, any knowledge/understanding naturally constrains anticipation. Wont it naturally follow that a factual observation shall naturally concentrate the probability density in favour of one side of the debate (assuming, of course, that the debate is viewed as having only two possible outcomes, even if each outcome is very broad and contains many variants).

In this particular example, if the object of the debate is to decide whether maximum gain (or benefit, or however else it is to be called) can be gained from regulation, then the point about Dr. Snakeoil's sulphuric acid being harmful to a (very real) section of the population, certainly implies an argument in favour of one side, even if not made with that intention.

I realise of course that this is an honest attempt to understand the problem and discuss it thoroughly before proposing a solution/ coming to a decision, but is there truly a way to be 100% neutral? Especially when in reality, most facts do have consequences that usually point to one side or another (even if the debate is much balanced in the eyes of the public).

What (if any) can be the "litmus test" to distinguish between a factual consideration and a clearly formed opinion? And are there shades of grey in between?

Comment author: Colombi 20 February 2014 05:21:04AM 0 points [-]

An interesting perspective to take. Bravo!