Monthly Archives: July 2008

Loving Loyalty

It’s not what you know but who you know.

Cynics say that when choosing associates we pretend to care about many things, but we mainly care about loyalty.  Support comes from our apparently caring more for famously-loyal dogs than for lovable-but-aloof cats:

You’d think from the numbers that cats are "man’s best friend." … [U.S.] cats outnumber dogs by more than 10 million (82 million to 72 million). And, no question, kitties have legions of fans.  But here’s the dirty little secret: Cats are more often neglected than dogs, more often relinquished to shelters than dogs and less often taken to veterinarians than dogs. …

"I hate cats" mail outnumbers the dog hate mail about 50 to 1. … Increasingly more cats are given up at shelters than their canine cousins. … An estimated 30% of those dogs who land in shelters eventually are reclaimed. Of the lost cats who find themselves in a shelter, a meager 2% to 5% are ever identified by their owners. …

Vet visits for pet cats have fallen 11% since 2001 … with more than a third of all cats never visiting a veterinarian in 2006 (compared with 17% of dogs who didn’t see a vet). … Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit funder of pet and wildlife health studies, is spending nearly three times as much on canine health initiatives as on cat health research.

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Should We Ban Physics?

Nobel laureate Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, the victim of radiation from the many fascinating glowing substances she had learned to isolate.

How could she have known?  And the answer, as far as I can tell, is that she couldn’t.  The only way she could have avoided death was by being too scared of anything new to go near it.  Would banning physics experiments have saved Curie from herself?

But far more cancer patients than just one person have been saved by radiation therapy.  And the real cost of banning physics is not just losing that one experiment – it’s losing physics.  No more Industrial Revolution.

Some of us fall, and the human species carries on, and advances; our modern world is built on the backs, and sometimes the bodies, of people who took risks.  My father is fond of saying that if the automobile were invented nowadays, the saddle industry would arrange to have it outlawed.

But what if the laws of physics had been different from what they are?  What if Curie, by isolating and purifying the glowy stuff, had caused something akin to a fission chain reaction gone critical… which, the laws of physics being different, had ignited the atmosphere or produced a strangelet?

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Touching the Old

I’m in Oxford right now, for the Global Catastrophic Risks conference.

There’s a psychological impact in walking down a street where where any given building might be older than your whole country.

Toby Ord and Anders Sandberg pointed out to me an old church tower in Oxford, that is a thousand years old.

At the risk conference I heard a talk from someone talking about what the universe will look like in 10100 years (barring intelligent modification thereof, which he didn’t consider).

The psychological impact of seeing that old church tower was greater.  I’m not defending this reaction, only admitting it.

I haven’t traveled as much as I would travel if I were free to follow my whims; I’ve never seen the Pyramids.  I don’t think I’ve ever touched anything that has endured in the world for longer than that church tower.

A thousand years…  I’ve lived less than half of 70, and sometimes it seems like a long time to me.  What would it be like, to be as old as that tower?  To have lasted through that much of the world, that much history and that much change?

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Existential Angst Factory

Followup toThe Moral Void

A widespread excuse for avoiding rationality is the widespread belief that it is "rational" to believe life is meaningless, and thus suffer existential angst.  This is one of the secondary reasons why it is worth discussing the nature of morality.  But it’s also worth attacking existential angst directly.

I suspect that most existential angst is not really existential.  I think that most of what is labeled "existential angst" comes from trying to solve the wrong problem.

Let’s say you’re trapped in an unsatisfying relationship, so you’re unhappy.  You consider going on a skiing trip, or you actually go on a skiing trip, and you’re still unhappy.  You eat some chocolate, but you’re still unhappy.  You do some volunteer work at a charity (or better yet, work the same hours professionally and donate the money, thus applying the Law of Comparative Advantage) and you’re still unhappy because you’re in an unsatisfying relationship.

So you say something like:  "Skiing is meaningless, chocolate is meaningless, charity is meaningless, life is doomed to be an endless stream of woe."  And you blame this on the universe being a mere dance of atoms, empty of meaning.  Not necessarily because of some kind of subconsciously deliberate Freudian substitution to avoid acknowledging your real problem, but because you’ve stopped hoping that your real problem is solvable.  And so, as a sheer unexplained background fact, you observe that you’re always unhappy.

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Corporate Assassins

Most people want to succeed, but most also have moral qualms about doing whatever it takes.  People with unusually strong ambitions or weak qualms, however, should be willing to do much more, even murder.  And at the top of each walk of life we expect to find a disproportionate fraction not only of high ability folks, but also of high ambition and low qualm folks. 

We thus naturally worry about finding the darkest forms of foul play at the top.  Literature is full of plausible-seeming scenarios where by leaders in government, business, and even the arts commit the most terrible crimes to get ahead.  But we tend to believe these stories more about leaders long ago or far away, and less about leaders in admirable walks of life, like religion, academia, or the arts.  Is this just wishful thinking, or is there more to it?

An interesting concrete example is corporate assassins.  We hear of assassination of leaders in crime or politics, at least far away, but less often in business.  Given how little it seems to cost to have someone killed, why don’t more corporations have their competitors’ leaders knocked off? 

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Could Anything Be Right?

Followup toWhere Recursive Justification Hits Bottom, Rebelling Within Nature

Years ago, Eliezer1999 was convinced that he knew nothing about morality.

For all he knew, morality could require the extermination of the human species; and if so he saw no virtue in taking a stand against morality, because he thought that, by definition, if he postulated that moral fact, that meant human extinction was what "should" be done.

I thought I could figure out what was right, perhaps, given enough reasoning time and enough facts, but that I currently had no information about it.  I could not trust evolution which had built me.  What foundation did that leave on which to stand?

Well, indeed Eliezer1999 was massively mistaken about the nature of morality, so far as his explicitly represented philosophy went.

But as Davidson once observed, if you believe that "beavers" live in deserts, are pure white in color, and weigh 300 pounds when adult, then you do not have any beliefs about beavers, true or false.  You must get at least some of your beliefs right, before the remaining ones can be wrong about anything.

My belief that I had no information about morality was not internally consistent.

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Disaster Bias

Today begins a conference on Global Catastrophic Risk I’m attending.  Coincidentally, Bryan Caplan recently pointed us to a new paper by Andrew Healy:

Using comprehensive data on natural disasters, government spending, and election returns, I show that voters reward disaster relief spending but not disaster prevention spending. This aspect of voter behavior creates a large distortion in the incentives that governments face, since the data show that prevention spending substantially reduces future damage. … Given mean annual prevention spending of $195 million and mean disaster damage of $16.5 billion, the regression estimates that a $1 increase in prevention spending resulted in a $8.30 decrease in disaster damage, and this estimate captures only benefits that occur in the five years from 2000-2004.

My and other conference presentation describe other disaster biases, such as not paying due attention to the very largest possible disasters, and not make extra preparations against human extinction. 

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The Gift We Give To Tomorrow

Followup toThou Art Godshatter, Joy in the Merely Real, Is Morality Given?, Rebelling Within Nature 

How, oh how, did an unloving and mindless universe, cough up minds who were capable of love?

"No mystery in that," you say, "it’s just a matter of natural selection."

But natural selection is cruel, bloody, and bloody stupid.  Even when, on the surface of things, biological organisms aren’t directly fighting each other – aren’t directly tearing at each other with claws – there’s still a deeper competition going on between the genes.  Genetic information is created when genes increase their relative frequency in the next generation – what matters for "genetic fitness" is not how many children you have, but that you have more children than others.  It is quite possible for a species to evolve to extinction, if the winning genes are playing negative-sum games.

How, oh how, could such a process create beings capable of love?

"No mystery," you say, "there is never any mystery-in-the-world; mystery is a property of questions, not answers.  A mother’s children share her genes, so the mother loves her children."

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World Welfare State

At at the city, state, or national levels we sometimes "help the poor" via initiatives to "develop" this or that region, but what we mostly have is "welfare" benefits that go directly to individuals.  After all, development funds have a poor track record, and are often diverted by corrupt officials, while direct benefits are the prototype of charity to help those less fortunate than ourselves.  At the international level, however, we mostly have "development aid", even though its track record is just as bad there.  Why don’t we give more benefits directly to the world’s poor? 

We do not need a strong world government to have a world welfare state – we just need those who want to help the poor to form to a common fund with a common system for distributing benefits.  Some minimal requirements, such as a world ID card, would be made on nations who wanted to let their citizens to get world welfare.  And a special level of international disgust could be reserved for nations that refused to let locals to get world welfare.  Yes this wouldn’t be easy, but why does no one even try? 

With a world welfare system donors would have to more directly face their choice between welfare at home and abroad.  Why don’t we first ensure everyone in the world at least gets a dollar a day, before we make sure locals don’t suffer with only basic cable channels? 

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Whither Moral Progress?

Followup toIs Morality Preference?

In the dialogue "Is Morality Preference?", Obert argues for the existence of moral progress by pointing to free speech, democracy, mass street protests against wars, the end of slavery… and we could also cite female suffrage, or the fact that burning a cat alive was once a popular entertainment… and many other things that our ancestors believed were right, but which we have come to see as wrong, or vice versa.

But Subhan points out that if your only measure of progress is to take a difference against your current state, then you can follow a random walk, and still see the appearance of inevitable progress.

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