Monthly Archives: June 2017

Beware The Moral Spotlight

Imagine a large theatre with a singer at center stage. A single bright spotlight illuminates this singer, and the rest of the crowded theatre is as dark as can be, given this arrangement. Morality can do the same thing in the theatre of our mind. Once one issue or choice gets a strong moral color, we can focus on it so much that we just don’t see a much larger theatre of action. This is fine when our moral sense works well. If one murder were happening in a stadium of 50,000 people, it could make sense for the Jumbotron to project it onto the big screen, and for the whole stadium to focus on it, to help them do something about it.

But our moral sense often doesn’t work well. We are so obsessed with showing off our moral feelings and inclinations, relative to being useful to a larger world, that we neglect large theatres where we could be useful, to obsess with a small circle highlighted by our moral spotlight, where we can’t actually do much. Let me give three examples.

1. Some friends were recently arguing about the motives of CEOs, relative to politicians and heads of government agencies. One person was arguing that people go into government in order to help others, but go into business to make money. Thus it is better, all else equal, for activities to be run by government. Another person argued that real business people have a wide range of motives, as do real government people. But first person pointed to official statements of purpose, claiming that governments say on paper that they are to help people, while businesses say on paper that they are to make money.

But even if business and government people do differ on average in their motives, you don’t get to elite positions in either area without paying close attention to the great many practical constraints that each area imposes. Business people must attend to customer reactions, employee moral, media coverage, etc. Government people must attend to official procedures, voter sentiment, rival factions maneuvering, etc. Elites must usually navigate such treacherous shoals successfully for decades before they are allowed to make big decisions on behalf of any organization.

Those selection pressures are what determine most behavior in both areas. If business or government is better at running activities, it is mostly because of differences in those pressures. Any remaining behavior differences due to fundamental motives being influenced by official statements of purpose must be small by comparison. While your moral spotlight might want to focus on purpose-statement-induced-motives, most of what matters is elsewhere.

2. I recently watched the documentary The Red Pill, which mostly reviewed Men’s Rights Movement arguments that I had encountered decades before in the book The Myth of Male Power. They point out that many official rules and widely held expectations, as well as many concrete typical outcomes, are unfavorable to men. Their talks and meetings have faced rude and violent interference by those who see this as undermining feminist consciousness-raising regarding areas where official rules and widely held expectations have been and to some extent continue to be unfavorable to women.

The conflict seems to come down emotionally to a perception of which sex is getting the worse deal overall. And there may in fact be some truth of that matter; maybe one sex does have a worse deal. But many seem eager to infer the existence of an entire system, e.g., “patriarchy”, designed in detail to achieve this worse-for-one-sex outcome, entrenched via the direct support of malicious people from the favored sex, and implicit support from most of the rest of that sex.

This seems to me to mostly result from a moral spotlight in overdrive. Yes one sex may have a worse deal overall. But most of the ways in which we’ve had sex-assymetric official rules and widely held expectations did not result from a conspiracy by one sex to repress the other. They were mostly reasonable responses to sex differences relevant in ancient societies. We may have failed to adapt them quickly enough to our new modern context. But many of them are still complex and difficult issues. We’d do better to roll up our sleeves and deal with each one, than to obsess over which sex has the worse overall deal.

3. When people think about changes they’d like in the world one of their first thoughts, and one they return to often, is wanting more democracy. It’s their first knee-jerk agenda for China, North Korea, ISIS, and so on. Surely with more democracy all the other problems would sort themselves out.

But in fact scholars can find few consistent difference in the outcomes of nations that depend much on their degree of democracy. Democracy doesn’t seem to cause differences in wealth, or even in most specific policies. Democracies today war a bit less, but in the past democracies warred more than others. Democracies have less political repression, and our moral spotlight finds that fact to be of endless fascination. But it is in fact a relatively small effect on nations overall.

Nations today have huge differences in outcomes, and we are starting to understand some of them. But most of them have little to do with democracy. Plausibly larger issues include urbanization, immigration, foreign trade, regulation, culture, rule of law, corruption, suppression or encouragement of family clans or religion, etc. If you want to help nations, you’ll have to look outside the moral spotlight on democracy.

Yes, why should you personally sacrifice to help the world? The world will reward you for taking a clear moral stance regarding whatever is in the shared moral spotlight. And it will suspect you of immorality and disloyalty if you pay too little attention to that spotlight. So why should you look elsewhere? I think you know.

Added 3 July: Bryan Caplan points out that democracy can reduce the worst excesses of totalitarian governments. I accept that point; I had in mind less extreme variations, so North Korea was a poor choice on my part.

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Intellectuals as Artists

Consider some related phenomena:

  1. Casual conversation norms say to wander across many topics, with each person staying relevant to each current topic. This functions well to test individual impressiveness. Today, academic and mass media conversations today follow similar norms, though they did this much less in the ancient world.
  2. While ancient artists and musicians tried to perfect common styles, modern artists and musicians seek more distinctive personal styles. For example, while songs were once designed to sound good when ordinary folks sang them, now songs are designed to create a unique impressive performance by one artist.
  3. Politicians often go out of their way to do “position taking” on many issues, even on issues they have little chance of influencing policy while in office. Voters prefer systems like proportional representation where voters can identify more closely with particular representatives, even if this doesn’t give voters better outcomes overall. Knowing many of a politician’s positions helps voters to identify with them.
  4. “Sophomoric” thinkers, typically college sophomores, are eager to take positions on as many common topics as possible, even if this means taking poorly consider positions. They don’t feel they are adult until they have an opinion ready for most common intellectual conversations. This is more feasible when opinions on each topic area are reduced to choices between a small number of standard “isms”, offering integrated packages of answers. Sophomoric thinkers love isms.
  5. We often try to extract “isms” out of individuals, such as my colleagues Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan. We might ask “What is the Caplanian position on X?” That is, we wonder how they would answer random questions, presuming that we can infer a coherent style from past positions that would answer all future questions, at least within some wide scope. Intellectuals who desire wider attention often go out of their way to express opinions on many topics, chosen via a distinctive personal style.

We pretend that we search only for truth, picking each specific position only via the strongest specific evidence and arguments. And in many mundane contexts that’s not a bad approximation. But in many other grander contexts we seek more to become and associate with distinctive intellectual artists. Such artists are impressive both via the wide range of topics on which they can be impressive, and via having a distinctive personal style that they can bring to bear on this range of topics.

This all makes complete sense as an impressiveness contest, but far less sense as a way for the world to jointly estimate accurate Bayesian estimates on each topic. I’m sure you can make up reasons why distinctive intellectual styles that imply positions on wide ranges of topics are really great ways to produce accuracy. But they will mostly sound like excuses to me.

Sophomoric thinkers often retain for a lifetime the random opinions they quickly generate without much thought. Yet they don’t want to just inherit their parents positions; they need to generate their own new opinions. I wonder which effect will dominate when young ems choose opinions; will they tend to adopt standard positions of prior clan members, or generate their own new individual opinions?

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Forget The Maine

I often write about situations where we say something is about X, but it is actually more than we admit about Y. In some cases, this is mostly unconscious, and most people are surprised to hear what is going on. In other cases most people kind of know it, even if they don’t tend to talk about it. So if what I’m about to tell you seems obvious, well just stop reading.

I spent the last few days touring monuments near Washington D.C. A great many of them come with the explicit message “Remember.” As if to say “Big things once happened, or nearly happened. If enough of us remember them, we can do better in the future to avoid bad things, and encourage good things.” When your choice is data vs. ignorance, you know what you are supposed to choose.

Except, if that were the goal we might do better to have big pretty places organized around categories of events, each with statistics on that type of event. The monument for wars might show stats on what kinds of wars went better. The monument for floods might show stats relating efforts to prevent floods to later consequences.

But what we actually have are monuments for particular events, and particular people. In reality, these events and people are very complex. Depending on your assumptions and perspectives, you can draw a great many contradictory lessons from them. And usually experts do in fact hold a wide range of conflicting views. Especially if we include experts from other nations, etc.

But monuments usually show little of this wide range of interpretations. Instead, the basic context usually gives visitors a pretty good idea of preferred interpretations. So the monument itself doesn’t have to belabor the point – just a few choice quotes and items selected for presentation in particular contexts are enough. Treating the monument respectfully can then function as a way to signal one’s respect for these usual interpretations.

If monuments gave explicit ideological sermons, visitors who disagreed might try to refute the arguments given. Out loud, on the spot. And many others would have a plausible reason to not want to go there. But if there are only a bunch of artifacts in a beautiful setting, a reminder that people died, and an exhortation to “remember”, what can anyone rebut, and what excuse is there not to go? Even though going there will be on average interpreted as support for the usual interpretation.

For example, Arlington National Cemetery prominently displays the mast of The Maine, a ship sunk in 1898 in Havana harbor. The Spanish were blamed, “Remember the Maine” became a battle cry, and the U.S. had an excuse to start the Spanish-American war. Though today it seems more likely that the explosion was accidental.

A world intent on not forgetting and learning from key data might have a monument to events that start wars, and present stats on the fraction of wars that were started on fake pretexts. And perhaps summarize key arguments on the causes of wars and ways to prevent wars. But in our world there are mainly monuments that, in a pretty, solemn, and patriotic context, remind visitors that people died, and that others uttered the phrase “Remember the Maine.” Damn Spaniards ..

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A Tangled Task Future

Imagine that you want to untangle a pile of cables. It wasn’t tangled on purpose; tangling just resulted naturally from how these cables were used. You’d probably look for the least tangled cable in the least tangled part of the pile, and start to work there. In this post I will argue that, in a nutshell, this is how we are slowly automating our world of work: we are un- and re-tangling it.

This has many implications, including for the long-term future of human-like creatures in a competitive world. But first we have a bit of explaining to do. Continue reading "A Tangled Task Future" »

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A Call To Adventure

I turn 58 soon, and I’m starting to realize that I may not live long enough to finish many of my great life projects. So I want to try to tempt younger folks to continue them. Hence this call to adventure.

One way to create meaning for your life is join a grand project. Or start a new one. A project that is both obviously important, and that might also bring you personal glory, if you were to made a noticeable contribution to it.

Yes, most don’t seek meaning this way. But many of our favorite fictional characters do. If you are one of the few who find grand adventures irresistibly romantic, then this post is for you. I call you to adventure.

Two great adventures actually, in this post. Both seem important, and in the ballpark of doable, at least for the right sort of person.

ADVENTURE ONE: The first adventure is to remake collective decision-making via decision markets (a.k.a. futarchy). Much of the pain and loss in the world results from bad decisions by key organizations, such as firms, clubs, cities, and nations. Some of these bad decisions result because actors with the wrong mix of values hold too much power. But most result from our not aggregating info well; people who could have or did know better were not enticed enough to share what they know. Or others didn’t believe them.

We actually know of a family of simple robust mechanisms that typically do much better at aggregating info. And we have a rough idea of how organizations could use such mechanisms. We even had a large academic literature testing and elaborating these mechanisms, resulting in a big pile of designs, theorems, software, computer simulations, lab tests, and field tests. We don’t need more of these, at least for now.

What we need is concrete evolution within real organizations. Like most good abstract ideas, what this innovation most needs are efforts to work out variations that can fit well in particular existing organization contexts. That is, design and try out variations that can avoid the several practical obstacles that we know about, and help identify more such obstacles to work on.

This adventure less needs intellectuals, and more sharp folks willing to get their hands dirty dealing with the complexities of real organizations, and with enough pull to get real organizations near them to try new and disruptive methods.

Since these mechanisms have great potential in a wide range of organizations, we first need to create versions that are seen to work reliably over a substantial time in concrete contexts where substantial value is at stake. With such a concrete track record, we can then push to get related versions tried in related contexts. Eventually such diffusion could result in better collective decision making worldwide, for many kinds of organizations and decisions.

And you might have been one of the few brave far-sighted heroes who made it happen.

ADVENTURE TWO: The second adventure is to figure out real typical human motives in typical familiar situations. You might think we humans would have figured this out long ago. But as Kevin Simler and I argue in our new book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we seem to be quite mistaken about our basic motives in many familiar situations.

Kevin and I don’t claim that our usual stated motives aren’t part of the answer, only that they are much less than we like to think. We also don’t claim to have locked down the correct answer in all these situations. We instead offer plausible enough alternatives to suggest that the many puzzles with our usual stories are due to more than random noise. There really are systematic hidden motives behind our behaviors, motives substantially different from the ones we claim.

A good strategy for uncovering real typical human motives is to triangulate the many puzzles in our stated motives across a wide range of areas of human behavior. In each area specialists tend to think that the usual stated motive deserves to be given a strong prior, and they rarely think we’ve acquired enough “extraordinary evidence” to support the “extraordinary claims” that our usual stated motives are wrong. And if you only ever look at evidence in a narrow area, it can be hard to escape this trap.

The solution is expect substantial correlations between our motives in different areas. Look for hidden motive explanations of behaviors that can simultaneously account for puzzles in a wide range of areas, using only a few key assumptions. By insisting on a high ratio of apparently different puzzles explained to new supporting assumptions made, you can keep yourself disciplined enough not to be fooled by randomness.

This strategy is most effective when executed over a lifetime. The more different areas that you understand well enough to see the key puzzles and usual claims, the better you can triangulate their puzzles to find common explanations. And the more areas that you have learned so far, the easier it becomes to learn new areas; areas and methods used to study them tend to have many things in common.

This adventure needs more intellectual heroes. While these heroes may focus for a time on studying particular areas, over the long run their priority is to learn and triangulate many areas. They seek simple coherent accounts that explain diverse areas of human behavior. To figure out what the hell most humans are actually up to most of the time. Which we do not actually know now. And which would enable better policy; today policy reform efforts are often wasted due to mistaken assumptions about actual motives.

Wouldn’t someone who took a lifetime to help work that out be a hero of the highest order?

Come, adventures await. For the few, the brave, the determined, the insightful. Might that be you?

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Conformity Excuses

From a distance it seems hard to explain a lot of human behavior without presuming that we humans have strong desires to conform to the behaviors of others. But when we look at our conscious thoughts and motivations regarding our specific behaviors, we find almost no conformity pressures. We are only rarely aware that we do anything, or avoid doing other things, because we want to conform.

The obvious explanation is that we make many excuses for our conformity – we make up other mostly-false explanations for why we like the same things that others like, and dislike other things. And since we do a lot of conforming, there must be a lot of bias here. So we can uncover and understand a lot of our biases if we can identify and understand these excuses. Here are a few possibilities that come to mind. I expect there are many others.

I picked my likes first, my group second. We like to point out that we are okay with liking many things that many others in the world don’t like. Yes, the people around us tend to like those same things, but that isn’t us conforming to those social neighbors, because we picked the things we like first, and then picked those people around us as a consequence. Or so we say. But we conform far more to our neighbors than can plausibly be explained by our limited selection power.

I just couldn’t be happy elsewhere. We tend to tell ourselves that we couldn’t be happy in a different profession, city, or culture, in part to excuse our reluctance to deviate from the standard practices of such things. We’d actually adjust fine to much larger moves than we are willing to consider.

I actually like small differences. We notice that we don’t like to come to a party in the exact same dress as someone else. We also want different home decorations and garden layouts, and we don’t want to be reading the exact same book as everyone else at the moment. We then extrapolate and think we don’t mind being arbitrarily different.

In future, this will be more popular. We are often okay with doing something different today because we imagine that it will become much more popular later. Then we can be celebrated for being one of the first to like it. If we were sure that few would ever like it, we’d be much less willing to like it now.

Second tier folks aren’t remotely as good. While we personally can tell the difference between someone who is very bad and someone who is very good, we usually just don’t have the discernment to tell the difference in quality between the most popular folks and second tier folks who are much less popular. But we tell ourselves that we can tell the difference, to justify our strong emphasis on those most popular folks.

Unpopular things are objectively defective. We probably make many specific excuses about unpopular things, to justify our neglect of them.

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