Monthly Archives: January 2013

Here Not Be Dragons

“Here be dragons” is a phrase used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of putting dragons, sea serpents and other mythological creatures in uncharted areas of maps. (more)

Stories tend to be more interesting if they a) have characters like us, b) have extreme items, creatures, events, etc., and c) don’t seem clearly impossible. So story tellers face tradeoffs – they often try to make stories as extreme as they can without seeming impossible.

Once upon a time, a handy way to make this tradeoff was to tell stories about familiar kinds of people in far away lands. Because less was known with confidence about far away places, the “don’t seem impossible” rule constrained stories the least there. In far away places, there might plausibly be extreme animals, buildings, devices, customs, etc.

Just like parents today who conspire not to tell their kids the truth about Santa Claus, ancient travelers who visited distant places probably tended to conspire not to reveal that foreigners weren’t so strange. After all, travelers could get more approval from telling tall tales of strange things far away. And they could bond with sophisticates via winks that say “yes, you and I are smart enough to know better.” Lovers of stories, imagination, creativity, etc. who knew better probably reasoned that most people enjoy life more if they can believe in far away strangeness, and saw little harm in the exaggeration since few locals ever interacted with distant others.

Today we know too much about far away places to let ourselves set much story strangeness there. So when we want to tell strange but not impossible stories, we tend to set them in our future — the future is our go-to place for plausible strangeness. No one has actually seen the future, so no one can contradict stories about strange futures with much authority. Furthermore, lovers of imagination and creativity tend to excuse the impossibilities in such stories, because they think folks enjoy their lives better when they see anything as possible in the future.

Actually, this idea that anything will be possible in the future seems to be an axiom of faith for many. I’ve had several folks react this way to my em econ talks on this basis – how dare I forecast when we all know forecasts are impossible?

For some, believing in an anything-goes future expresses faith in human innovation and potential. For others, it says societies are too complex to be understood by simple theories. For still others, it expresses allegiance to scientific method – scientists must only say things that they can prove with theory or experiment, and if neither applies to the future scientists must stay silent about it, which in practice gives the impression that all future speculations consistent with basic science are equally valid and believable.

The big problem with anything-goes futurism is, of course, that keeps us from learning about and preparing for the actual future. If an ancient society were about to actually move en mass to a far away land, their story-inspired misconceptions about distant lands could do great harm. Alas, since our society is actually moving whole-sale and rapidly toward that supposedly anything-goes future world, our misconceptions can matter a lot.

The future will of course have some strange elements, at least to our eyes, if not to theirs. But it will be far from maximally strange. The more one learns about technology, economics, biology, etc. the fewer of our commonly-heard strange futures seem possible. No, we can’t prove much, but we can in practice learn a lot. Yes, those well-informed level-headed forecasts won’t be as creatively inspiring, won’t make for stories as fun, and may fail to affirm a faith in unlimited human potential. Our real descendants will have real limits. But they will really exist, and our actions will really matter for them.

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Ethics For A Broken World

In The Philosophical Quarterly, ethicist Peter Singer reviews Ethics for a Broken World: Imagining Philosophy After Catastrophe:

Tim Mulgan’s first clever idea was to ask how Western moral and political philosophy might look to people living fifty or a hundred years from now if, during the interim, the basic necessities for supporting life become much more difficult to obtain than they are now. Climate change is the obvious way in which this might happen. … Mulgan’s second clever idea was to present his answer to the question he had posed in the form of a series of transcripts of a class held in the broken world on the history of philosophy. …

The affluent world was, by the standards of the broken world, astonishingly wasteful. A favourite leisure activity, for instance, was ‘to drive extremely inefficient carbon-fuelled vehicles around in circles’. In those days, philosophers just ‘took it for granted that everyone can survive.’ … The lectures begin with Nozick, who is taken to represent, ‘in an exaggerated form, the preoccupations and presuppositions of his age.’ … How could an initial acquirer in a pre-affluent world ever know whether the institution of private property will affect future people for the better or for the worse? To a philosopher of the affluent age this might seem obvious, but to the class in the broken world, it does not. …

The idea that utilitarianism leads to extremely demanding obligations to help those in great need was counter-intuitive in the affluent world, but is not in the broken world. So too was the view that it would be wrong for a sheriff to hang one innocent person if that is the only way to save several innocent people from being killed by rioters. … Those same utilitarians who said that we have extremely demanding obligations to the poor could also have pointed out that we have extremely demanding obligations to those who will exist in future. … In the broken world, liberty is not as highly valued as it was in the affluent world. Broken world people regret that affluent people were free to join ‘cults’ that denied climate change. …

The final lecture poses a challenge to affluent democracy on the grounds that, since governments make decisions that affect future generations, no democracy really has the consent of the governed, or of a majority. (more)

Since I also forecast a non-affluent future, I am also interested in how the morals and politics of non-affluent descendants will differ from ours. But I find the above pretty laughable as futurism. As described in this review, this book presents the morality and politics of future folk as overwhelmingly focused on what their ancestors (us) should have been doing for them, namely lots more.

But we have known lots of poor cultures around the world and through history, and their morality and politics has almost never focused on complaining that their ancestors did too little to help them. Most politics and morality has instead been focused on how people alive who interact often should treat each other. Which makes a lot of functional sense.

Wars have consistently caused vast destruction of resources could have gone to building roads, cities, canals, irrigation, etc. And most ancestors severely neglected innovation. Most everywhere in the globe, had ancestors prevented more wars and encouraged more innovation, their descendants would be richer. But almost no one complains about that today. Most discussion today of ancestors celebrates relative wins that suggest some of us are better than others of us, and to lament our ancestors’ backwardness, so we can feel superior by comparison.

The morality of our non-affluent descendants will likely also focus mostly on how they should treat each other, not on how we treated them. To the extent that they talk about us at all, they’ll mostly mention wins that suggest that some of them are better than others of them, and ways in which we seem backward, making them seem forward by comparison. And morality will probably return to be more like that of traditional farmers, relative to that of we rich forager-feeling industrialists of today.

It is a standard truism that discussion of the future is mostly a veiled discussion of today, especially on who today should be criticized or celebrated. The book Ethics for a Broken World seems an especially transparent example of this trend. It is almost all about which of us to blame, and almost none about actual future folk.

Added 11a: Here and here are similar but ungated reviews.

Added 1:30p: Interestingly, in Christianity the main bad guy is Satan, who supposedly obeys God, but not Adam and Eve, who disobeyed. If there were ever ancestors who should be blamed it would be Adam and Eve, but oddly Christians almost never complain about them, preferring to save their harsh words for Satan.

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Middle-Age Is Near

Tali Sharot says we are optimistic because we under-respond to bad news, an effect weakest for the middle-aged, explaining why they are more pessimistic:

People of all age groups changed their beliefs more in response to good news, and they discounted bad news. Even more surprising was the finding that kids and elderly people both showed more of a bias than college students. …

From about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s. (Middle-age crisis, anyone?) Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. …

Andrew Oswald … controlled for people being born in better times, marital status, education, employment status, income: The age pattern persisted. Even more surprising, the pattern held strong even though Oswald did not control for physical health. … Oswald tested half a million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. …

While women reach the bottom of the happiness barrel at 38.6 years on average, men reach it more than a decade later — at 52.9 years [but 44.5 in the U.S.] … Americans have been growing less happy since 1900. In Europe, however, happiness has been increasing steadily since 1950, after 50 years of decline. (more)

OK, but that just pushes the question back: why do middle-aged folks respond the most to bad news? An obvious functional explanation comes to my mind: In the tradeoff between (near) beliefs that support good personal decisions and (far) beliefs that present a good image to others, personal decisions matter more for the middle-aged. In general, good personal decisions matter more for those who who are more dominant, more in the productive prime of their life, and more past the early ages where long term bonds are formed, and before elderly dependence on others.

This explains the later male unhappiness peak, the US/Europe trends matching their rising/falling world dominance, and also why pretty people are more selfish and conformist. After all, happy is far, and conformity is near.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant issues that have not appeared in recent posts.

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