Monthly Archives: October 2007

Fake Justification

Many Christians who’ve stopped really believing now insist that they revere the Bible as a source of ethical advice.  The standard atheist reply is given by Sam Harris:  "You and I both know that it would take us five minutes to produce a book that offers a more coherent and compassionate morality than the Bible does."  Similarly, one may try to insist that the Bible is valuable as a literary work.  Then why not revere Lord of the Rings, a vastly superior literary work?  And despite the standard criticisms of Tolkien’s morality, Lord of the Rings is at least superior to the Bible as a source of ethics.  So why don’t people wear little rings around their neck, instead of crosses?  Even Harry Potter is superior to the Bible, both as a work of literary art and as moral philosophy.  If I really wanted to be cruel, I would compare the Bible to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series.

"How can you justify buying a $1 million gem-studded laptop," you ask your friend, "when so many people have no laptops at all?"  And your friend says, "But think of the employment that this will provide – to the laptop maker, the laptop maker’s advertising agency – and then they’ll buy meals and haircuts – it will stimulate the economy and eventually many people will get their own laptops."  But it would be even more efficient to buy 5,000 OLPC laptops, thus providing employment to the OLPC manufacturers and giving out laptops directly.

I’ve touched before on the failure to look for third alternatives.  But this is not really motivated stopping.  Calling it "motivated stopping" would imply that there was a search carried out in the first place.

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A Terrifying Halloween Costume

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After the jump, you can see me dressed up as something so horrifyingly dreadful that it surpasses the comprehension of a mortal human mind.

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What Wisdom Tradition?

Russ Roberts wrote

I happen to believe that concealed handguns do deter crime and allowing concealed handguns is a good thing. … But what’s clear to me is that my belief in the virtues of allowing concealed hand guns has little to do with the empirical evidence. And I would argue that the opponents are really in the same boat.

I then asked:

If Russ relies little on data to draw his conclusions, then on what does he rely?  … Can’t we say the same thing about theory, that we mainly just search for theory arguments to support preconceived conclusions?  … Either you should believe that truth-correlated data or theory has substantially influenced your belief, or you should retain only a very weak belief. 

Russ has responded:

When scholars can run hundreds of multivariate regressions at very low cost, it easy to convince yourself that the results that confirm your prior beliefs are the "right" results.  The Pragmatists … believed that the rationalism of Descartes had a dangerous element of hubris. … Your grandmother is right. She believes in certain things. When you ask her to justify her beliefs she shrugs and says she can’t. … Norms of behavior that survive, survive because they’re effective even when no one understands why.

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Random vs. Certain Death

Here is a moral puzzle in the spirit of Eliezer’s Torture vs. Dust Specks post.  It is directed to free market admirers.

A company has 100 employees.  It has the opportunity to make $1 billion but only if a task gets completed.  There are two ways of completing the task.

(1)  A specific employee, named John, must die.
(2)  Three of the 100 employees will be randomly chosen and killed.

The company can’t force its employees to take any actions, but it can bribe them.  John will not accept any amount of money to give up his life with certainty.  But all 100 employees would gladly risk a 3% chance of death in return for $5 million.  Consequently, the company intends to pay each employee $5 million and complete the task using option (2).

Now imagine that you are a government regulator who has the power to change what will happen.  You can:

(A) Forbid the company from completing the task.
(B)  Not interfere.
(C)  Force the company, and John, to complete the task by using method (1).  You could then force the company to give $5 million to each employee.

Assume that all 100 employees are exactly alike except that only John can complete the task by himself.  What should you do?  Does it matter if John was randomlly chosen right before the game started?

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Who Told You Moral Questions Would be Easy?

In addition to (allegedly) scope insensitivity and "motivated continuation," I would like to suggest that the incredibly active discussion on the torture vs. specks post is also driven in part by a bias toward, well, toward closure; a bias toward determinate answers: a bias toward decision procedures that are supposed to yield an answer in every case, and one that can be implemented by humans in the world in which we live and with the biological and social pressures that we face.

That’s the wonderful thing about the kinds of utilitarian intuitions that tell us, deep in our brains, that we can aggregate a lot of pain and pleasure of different kinds among different people and come up with some kind of scalar representing the net sum of "utility" to be compared to some other scalar for some other pattern of events in some possible world; the scalars to be compared to determine which world is morally better, and to which world our efforts should be directed. Those intuitions always generate a rationalizable answer.

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A Case Study of Motivated Continuation

I am not wholly unsympathetic to the many commenters in Torture vs. Dust Specks who argued that it is preferable to inflict dust specks upon the eyes of 3^^^3 (amazingly huge but finite number of) people, rather than torture one person for 50 years.  If you think that a dust speck is simply of no account unless it has other side effects – if you literally do not prefer zero dust specks to one dust speck – then your position is consistent.  (Though I suspect that many speckers would have expressed a preference if they hadn’t known about the dilemma’s sting.)

So I’m on board with the commenters who chose TORTURE, and I can understand the commenters who chose SPECKS.

But some of you said the question was meaningless; or that all morality was arbitrary and subjective; or that you needed more information before you could decide; or you talked about some other confusing aspect of the problem; and then you didn’t go on to state a preference.

Sorry.  I can’t back you on that one.

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Double Or Nothing Lawsuits, Ten Years On

Ten years ago today I posted a short essay on what I still think is a great idea:

Let people risk their lawsuits, double or nothing. … You would write out a simple complaint, including who hurt you when and how, and then take this complaint to the official lawsuit randomizing office, who would then randomly declare it worthless (50% chance) or double it (50% chance). If your suit were doubled, and you took it to court and won, so that the court said your neighbor caused you $X in damages, they would really owe you twice $X. And if you gambled and lost your neighbor would get a record of this, to defend against your trying to sue again over the same complaint. More generally, you could keep doubling your suit … Double or nothing suits should create legal incentives for people to avoid hurting others by small amounts, as well as by large amounts. … Also, I’d let the person being sued also risk the suit, double or nothing, as long as they showed they were good for the maximum damage amount.

Ten years later, the main change I’d make is to require a maximum damage declaration, with perhaps a fee proportional to that max damage, and let the accused party put money into a pot which also gets doubled if the suit is doubled. So if someone claimed you hurt them by up to $50, you could deposit $50 and then if the suit doubled you’d have $100 ready to pay if needed. And since you’d have proven your ability to pay, you could double the suit if you liked.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else made a similar suggestion, but I haven’t seen any such, nor any interest in my suggestion. The few reactions I have heard have been surprisingly (to me) negative – people don’t seem to want law to discourage small harms. But if so, why do we want law to discourage large harms?

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Torture vs. Dust Specks

"What’s the worst that can happen?" goes the optimistic saying.  It’s probably a bad question to ask anyone with a creative imagination.  Let’s consider the problem on an individual level: it’s not really the worst that can happen, but would nonetheless be fairly bad, if you were horribly tortured for a number of years.  This is one of the worse things that can realistically happen to one person in today’s world.

What’s the least bad, bad thing that can happen?  Well, suppose a dust speck floated into your eye and irritated it just a little, for a fraction of a second, barely enough to make you notice before you blink and wipe away the dust speck.

For our next ingredient, we need a large number.  Let’s use 3^^^3, written in Knuth’s up-arrow notation:

  • 3^3 = 27.
  • 3^^3 = (3^(3^3)) = 3^27 = 7625597484987.
  • 3^^^3 = (3^^(3^^3)) = 3^^7625597484987 = (3^(3^(3^(… 7625597484987 times …)))).

3^^^3 is an exponential tower of 3s which is 7,625,597,484,987 layers tall.  You start with 1; raise 3 to the power of 1 to get 3; raise 3 to the power of 3 to get 27; raise 3 to the power of 27 to get 7625597484987; raise 3 to the power of 7625597484987 to get a number much larger than the number of atoms in the universe, but which could still be written down in base 10, on 100 square kilometers of paper; then raise 3 to that power; and continue until you’ve exponentiated 7625597484987 times.  That’s 3^^^3.  It’s the smallest simple inconceivably huge number I know.

Now here’s the moral dilemma.  If neither event is going to happen to you personally, but you still had to choose one or the other:

Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes?

I think the answer is obvious.  How about you?

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College Choice Futures

Students choosing a college consider many issues, but especially:  "Which college is best for my future?"  Someone asked me if we could make decision markets to advise this decision.  (A decision market estimates an outcome given a choice.) 

The choices are nicely distinct, as is the choice time.  We could bet conditional on whether you start in a certain season to attend a certain college (perhaps also in a certain school of that college).  We could also consider the choice of not attending college at all.  (Breaking this condition into parts might be trickier though.)

Of course students would have to post info on themselves for bettors to consider, perhaps anonymized to protect their privacy.  And to make sure we could pay off bets, we would need students to report later on their success.  Perhaps as the price for advice on their college choice, students would pay a fee, which would later be refunded with generous interest, if the student reported as promised on their success.  (All bets could be conditional on this later report.) 

OK, but what outcome(s) would count as "success"?  Income is an obvious choice, but you might have to wait ten or twenty years, until well after college, grad school, and medical internships, to see clear income results.  One might find a way to rate immediate post-college outcomes in terms of future income potential, but this seems tricky.

If we waited long enough we might rate "fame" or "accomplishment", such as awards or media citations, but many judgment calls would be needed to make these comparable.  We could look at whether the student married and how many kids they had when, but it is not clear how important this consideration weighs on students choosing a college.

P.S.  Most bettors would probably prefer to bet on bundles of students, such as all females from New England attending Stanford.  This is quite feasible.  Next week: helping colleges pick students.

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Motivated Stopping and Motivated Continuation

Followup to:  The Third Alternative, The Meditation on Curiosity

While I disagree with some views of the Fast and Frugal crowd – IMO they make a few too many lemons into lemonade – it also seems to me that they tend to develop the most psychologically realistic models of any school of decision theory.  Most experiments present the subjects with options, and the subject chooses an option, and that’s the experimental result.  The frugalists realized that in real life, you have to generate your options, and they studied how subjects did that.

Likewise, although many experiments present evidence on a silver platter, in real life you have to gather evidence, which may be costly, and at some point decide that you have enough evidence to stop and choose.  When you’re buying a house, you don’t get exactly 10 houses to choose from, and you aren’t led on a guided tour of all of them before you’re allowed to decide anything.  You look at one house, and another, and compare them to each other; you adjust your aspirations – reconsider how much you really need to be close to your workplace and how much you’re really willing to pay; you decide which house to look at next; and at some point you decide that you’ve seen enough houses, and choose.

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