Hatin’ On Farmers

Zahavi’s seminal book on animal signaling tells how certain birds look high status by forcing food down the throat of other birds, who thereby seem low status. While this “altruism” does help low status birds survive, they rightly resent it, as their status loss outweighs their food gain.

In our society, “sympathy” by high status folks for low status folks usually functions similarly — it affirms their high status while giving little net benefit to the low status. For example, the latest New Yorker reviews several books on the Roman empire, including one on the lives of ordinary Romans:

Much of what we know about the Roman emperors is based on myth and misunderstanding. But even that much can’t be said for the vast majority of their subjects, whose way of life has barely left a trace in the historical record. …

[It is] an overwhelmingly dark picture. “Invisible Romans” is full of anecdotes and quotations that speak volumes about Roman attitudes toward women, slaves, and the cheapness of life in general. … In general the lot of the ordinary Roman was no different from that of the vast majority of human beings before the modern age: powerlessness, bitterly hard work, and the constant presence of death. The thing that strikes Knapp most about Roman popular wisdom is its deep passivity in the face of these afflictions, which feels so alien to moderns and especially to Americans. The Romans, he writes, had no concept of progress … A slave might dream of manumission but hardly of abolition. For women, “there were no alternative lifestyles and aspirations either offered or considered … Even the amenities of the ‘Roman world, like the famous public baths, lose their lustre … “baths offered not only social interaction but a lack of hygiene schooling even to contemplate.” (more)

It almost seems as if this author feels it would have been better if these pathetic creatures had never existed, if not for their eventually giving rise to worthy creatures like him. So sad, he muses, that they didn’t bother to even imagine the future changes that could justify their miserable existence. He probably thinks it only a coincidence that his disgust affirms his lofty status among all the humans who have ever lived.

Sigh. The lives of ordinary folks in the Roman empire might not have been as nice as this author’s, nor as nice as yours. Yes they sometimes had pain, hunger, and sickness, but even so they were mostly lives worth living, with much love, laughter, engagement, and satisfaction. Poor folk do smile.

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  • Does the author actually think these people would have been better off not existing? Because the passage to me could as easily be read as a lament that these people missed out on lives much better than their somewhat worthwhile ones.

    And the Romans don’t exist any more, so they aren’t harmed by his looking down on them.

  • Rob

    >> So sad, he muses, that they didn’t bother to even imagine the future changes that could justify their miserable existence. He probably thinks it only a coincidence that his disgust affirms his lofty status among all the humans who have ever lived. <<

    Or maybe, suffering from the cultural past, he feels, quite the contrary, that the future can’t justify their miserable existence. Nothing supercilious in that, I hope.

  • Anonymous

    but even so they were mostly lives worth living

    And you know what? That’s the one thing you don’t get to judge.

    How much of their living conditions were voluntary? How much of their existence itself was voluntary? What evidence do you have to claim that they thought their lives were worth living, compared to never having been born?

    Status signalling interpretations are cheap, and go both ways. Claiming someone else’s conditions are worth experiencing is just as much signalling and paternalistic arrogance as claiming the opposite.

    • Anonymous, you don’t understand. The belief meme that the poor have lives that are worth living is so that the wealthy don’t have to do anything.

      If the wealthy didn’t believe the poor had lives that were worth living, then the wealthy should feel an obligation to either euthanize them, to mercifully end their lives, or to do something that would make their lives worth living, but that would mean surrendering some of their wealth.

      Ancient Roman elites did neither and poor non-elite Romans had it even worse than the poor today. That is very strong justification for the wealthy today to not do anything to improve the lives of the poor. There is simply no historical precedent for it.

      That is the whole point of Robin writing about signaling. He is trying to provide justification for todays wealthy (the ones that support him and his way of life). The wealthy don’t want to do anything to help the poor. That is why they pay people like Robin to generate rationalizations for them as to why they don’t have to, and even why they shouldn’t.

      • Anonymous

        I wasn’t claiming any of these things. My whole point was that remote declarations about what lives are worth living or not worth living are biased and arrogant.

      • Anonymous, I was agreeing with you and providing a motivation for why Robin is evaluating the life-worthyness of people he has never met, has never talked to, and never will.

        It has nothing to do with the poor, it is about Robin easing his conscience and massaging the conscience and egos of the wealthy. That is all he ever writes about. That is what today’s post is about, now necessary the wealthy are for investment beyond the next quarter.

    • Daniel

      “That’s the one thing you don’t get to judge.”

      We can’t be certain whether or not the lives of the poor are worth living, but we must guess. There is no choice in that matter. We have the choice of saving their lives and increasing their population, giving them birth control and decreasing it, or doing something else altogether. No amount of uncertainty can remove these options. We can say anything we like about how we don’t really know about them, or even how it would be immoral to judge them, but we will make one of these three choices, and we will be implicitly judging them.

      • Anonymous

        Well, we could insist on informed consent as a requirement. That would rule out all government-based paternalism and probably the creation of minors and religious people, who, let’s face it, don’t have the capabilities to give informed consent to anything.

    • Economists rely on revealed preference. People could kill themselves, but they don’t. When threatened with death, people try hard to avoid it.

      • Anonymous

        Do a research on “punishment for suicide” or “suicide prevention” and you’ll see that your claim is false. Historically and contemporarily, suicide is effectively treated as a crime, threatened with severe punishments – both natural and supernatural but credible. And by punishments I mean suffering, not loss of good things.

        Today, governments use cheap rhetorical tricks to claim they have no hand in this, but arbitrary classification of suicidality as a mental health symptom, combined with paternalistic coercion, and the active banning of the best suicide methods (barbiturates) reveal a different ideological picture. And what happens to minors who say they want out?

        There is nothing voluntary about the “gift” of life.

      • Anonymous, these are good points but I think ultimately unconvincing.

        According to Wikipedia, there are no longer any states in the US which have any punishment for suicide or attempted suicide. As far as I know, suicide rates have not taken upward jumps in states which repealed suicide laws, nor are people regularly known to go from a region where suicide is illegal to one where it is legal in order to kill themselves.

        I get what you’re saying about suicide always being classified as a mental health symptom (a la homosexuality), but the fact is that there are many, many people for whom trying to commit suicide really


        a symptom of an underlying, non-controversial disorder.

        In general, most of your points can be summarized as “society discourages suicide”. This is true, but it looks like this discouragement is too weak to explain why suicide rate are so low…unless most people really do prefer to remain alive.

        I’d love to hear more criticism.

      • Anonymous

        Jess, even when attempted suicide weren’t punished by incarceration in a mental health institution, it’s still indirectly punished by the suffering of the dying process and the high survival rates, while the best and most reliable suicide methods, namely barbiturates, can be cheaply produced but are thoroughly and actively banned from free trade by the state.

        There are two myths here that combine to form my resentful picture:

        1) Suicide is harder than most people think. Attempting it with some vague gesture is easy. Actually ending a human life with high success probability and no suffering is a serious medical project, especially when the best methods for that project are outlawed. In Germany, roughly 1 in 800 people attempt suicide each year (children and the elderly included). Only one in 10 attempted suicides in a completed (deadly) suicide. Even correcting for people who didn’t really prepare because they didn’t really want to die, that’s an abysmal success rate. It is simply empirically wrong that you can kill yourself with high success probability. One of the most deadly unbannable suicide method, hanging, has a survival rate of over 20%, according to Geo Stone. I know of children who successfully killed themselves, but I also know of survivors of jumping, dismemberment by train, and gun shots to the head. Not pleasant. Furthermore, suicidal people are effectively prevented from donating their organs because they can’t announce their suicide, and they sometimes cause trauma and even physical harm to others in the attempted execution.

        2) Suicide methods are actively banned and people are actively harrassed for obtaining them or expressing suicidal ideation. Barbiturates are illegal to sell without prescription, and unusually not easily prescribed. Mail purchases of plastic hoods for suicide via helium has resulted in people’s private homes being invaded by FBI and other police officials. This was legal even though none of these purchasers had commited any crime. Despite the very active banning of the best methods, the status quo of reduced options is rhetorically treated as if it were natural. I have seen government officials, voters, journalists and physicians treat the issue as if they were just passive and couldn’t be obliged to be actively helping, instead of admitting that they are thoroughly active in preventing people from executing their core autonomy. Even the freaking European Court for Human Rights hasn’t seen the illogic of this, stating that the German government had no obligation to enable a terminally ill woman access to barbiturates, while ignoring that it’s the very same government that actively bans these drugs from being sold in a drug store, like you would expect in a free society.

        Finally, my suggestions:

        1) Allow people to opt-out of coercive suicide prevention. Those who want it can have it, those who don’t should be able to opt-out with a delay.

        2) Allow people to buy deadly doses of barbiturates. The stuff doesn’t cost much. If you’re concerned about fits of irrational behavior, demand a mandatory delay and offer voluntary counselling.

        3) Allow paralyzed people to be killed on demand under closely controlled circumstances.

        4) Ideally, allow suicidal people to donate their organs. If this doesn’t convince at least consequentialists, I don’t know what will.

      • Anonymous

        *Sorry for the typos; I neglected to proof-read. :/

      • Actually, if you are pregnant, attempting suicide can get you charged with murder if the fetus dies, and presumably with attempted murder if the fetus lives.


        The problem with what you propose is that it gives bullies free reign to bully people until they kill themselves, and an incentive to not stop the bullying before it leads to suicide where it becomes “not a crime”. Making the lives of individuals of an ethnic group so miserable that they kill themselves also becomes “not a crime”.

      • Apparently, 90% of attempted suicides by firearm are lethal in the United States. Guns (especially shotguns, an effective gun for suicide) are easy to get in most states. Yet 75% of people attempt suicide by drugs, which has a far, far lower rate of lethality (3%). This suggests to me that most people classified as attempting suicide are not actually trying to die, and that many of those who are trying to die are not thinking rationally enough to plan in advance and research their method.

      • Douglas Knight


        Yes, suicide attempts do not involve research. Should they be classified as trying to die or trying to get attention? This is a subtle problem.

        Men attempt suicide with guns and succeed. Women attempt suicide other ways and fail. However, women with medical training (nurses, etc) attempt just as often as other women and succeed much more often. This suggests that at last some part of the mind of a suicidal woman really is trying to die. But this does not preclude the possibility that some other part of her mind is trying to do something else.

        (I think there is a similar discrepancy, though less stark, between men in the US and in other countries with less access to guns, but I’m less familiar with the numbers. Also, I’m generally skeptical of inter-country comparison of suicide, especially attempts.)

      • Anonymous

        Jess, guns can’t be as easily obtained here in Europe as in the US. But more importantly, note that a 10% chance of surviving a gun shot to your head while fully conscious is a serious cost in expected suffering. Considering that the whole point of suicide is to prevent future suffering, refraining from using this method is not a revealed preference to stay alive, but maybe just risk aversion. Also note that this doesn’t affect the lack of good suicide options for minors or severely disabled people, who never opted-in to life and clearly cannot easily opt-out. It also doesn’t refute the fact that many people believe in supernatural punishment for suicide, which means they don’t believe an opt-out of suffering exists even when good suicide methods were available. That’s not informed consent to enjoy their lives either.

        daedalus2u, your point about bullies doesn’t convince me. The accepted availability of suicide options wouldn’t change the incentive to bully much on the margin. Certainly not enough to trap people in an existence they don’t want with the threat of more suffering. It seems the point of your post was to show you’re against bullying, but we already know that and it doesn’t add to the discussion.

      • Anonymous, depression and suicidality is something that I am quite familiar with, both from personal experience and from extensive research. Being a victim of bullying is also something I am familiar with. While you may feel that legalization of suicide would not increase bullying at the margin, I am quite sure that you are wrong and misguided.

        There are effective treatments for depression. Unfortunately there is substantial stigma and so many people do not avail themselves of these treatments because doing so does increase the risk of being bullied because bullies are attracted to people in distress.

        If suicide was legal, how would health insurance companies deal with it as an alternative treatment for depression? Current best practices treatment for depression is expensive, requiring regular therapy sessions with competent practitioners as well as appropriate medication. Suicide is very cheap (for health insurance companies). If you think that health insurance companies would not try to foster suicide in their depressed clients rather than pay for best practices treatment, I have a bridge I would like to sell you.

        Allowing and rewarding suicidal individuals for donating their organs would foster decreased best practices treatment for depression. If suicide was legal, what would prevent a rich person who needed an organ transplant from searching for depressed individuals so as to incentivize them to get their organs? I could even see referral businesses starting up, matching prospective wealthy organ recipients with tissue compatible depressed (and poor) individuals, for a cut of what the depressed person’s heirs get.

      • Well, Anonymous, I could imagine that the 10% survival rate of suicide by firearms is easily explained by people who are not acting rationally enough to research their methods, but instead just happened to have a gun nearby in the heat of the moment. If so, this would suggest that very nearly everyone who wants to die rationally is able to do so in the US.

        I am also a bit skeptical that there really aren’t reliable methods available to people in Europe who are behaving rationally. Jumping from 50+ meter heights, accessing guns at legal gun ranges, skydiving, etc.

        But all that’s just speculations in the absence of more data.

        With regard to the children and the infirm: I wasn’t really arguing whether everyone is able to commit suicide if they really want to. I was arguing that the number of people who really want to is a tiny part of the population. (This would justify Robin’s claim that the poor do smile.) Of course, I was extrapolating from data about healthy adults.

        But, it does seem overwhelmingly clear to me that children should not get to choose suicide. (Not only are they are not competent enough to judge for themselves, the fact that they would choose suicide with so much potential happy life ahead of them is strong evidence that they are acting irrationally.)

        Thanks very much for the thoughtful discussion.

        Douglas, I appreciate that factoid on nurses.

      • Re: gender and suicide and fantasy of rescue – more women in India commit suicide than men, and most of them do it with lethal chemicals that are not available here. Similar story in China. That, coupled with higher rate (female and overall) of doctor and veterinarian suicides, seems to suggest a method preference distinct from pure desire for failure.

        One important point here is that the very prohibition of suicide (that we “rescue” folks who try to die) is that IT ENCOURAGES PEOPLE WHO DON’T WANT TO DIE TO ATTEMPT SUICIDE in hopes of rescue. If there were a legal, reliable way to commit suicide, the signalling value of a suicide attempt by other means would plummet; and if it were our policy NOT to “rescue” suicide attempters, the incentive would be even further reduced. In this way, the suicide prohibition harms even people who don’t want to die by making a dangerous suicide attempt an attractive course of action.

        Happy to see the point about us being allowed to donate our organs in the course of our suicides raised! Allowing suicides to donate our organs would end the organ shortage, full stop. It’s a major harm that we can’t do so.

      • Jess, there is nothing irrational about wanting to be dead when you are depressed. That holds for adults, it also holds for children. That is what depression is; a state that produces sufficient psychic pain that you would rather be dead than continue to experience it.

        Depression also produces a stupefaction which makes it extremely difficult to do anything. That stupefaction is what prevents most depressed people from killing themselves and why the initial treatment period is always the most dangerous. Effective treatment can relieve the stupefaction before it relieves the psychic pain, so people who still want to kill themselves suddenly find they have the energy to do so. This effect occurs for all effective treatments for depression; all antidepressants (not just SSRIs) and talk therapy.

        A higher rate of suicide attempts in females is interesting. My hypothesis is that depression is an evolved feature to act as an aversive state between the normal “at rest” state and the necessary euphoria of near death metabolic stress. When you are running from a bear, you need to induce euphoria so you can happily run until you drop dead from exhaustion (or until the bear catches you).

        Females also have to cope with the metabolic stress of lactation. That produces psychosis so as to shed metabolic load via infanticide. That is what is happening in postpartum depression, that is the metabolic state of metabolic stress before the more severe metabolic stress that causes infanticide.

      • Anonymous

        That is what depression is; a state that produces sufficient psychic pain that you would rather be dead than continue to experience it.

        In other words, they should have good and easy options to kill themselves, so that their unbearable psychic pain can be prevented, or at least made voluntary. And no one else has to lose their autonomy.

        If suicide was legal, how would health insurance companies deal with it as an alternative treatment for depression?

        Solution: Make psychotherapy insurance voluntary. If people want that to be insured, they have to find an insurance who has a history of reliable payments for the depressed. I neither want therapy insurance nor am I interested in paying for the therapy of others. I wish them well, but their emotions are their responsibility, not mine.

      • Anonymous

        If suicide was legal, what would prevent a rich person who needed an organ transplant from searching for depressed individuals so as to incentivize them to get their organs?

        The consent of those who own the organs.

        I could even see referral businesses starting up, matching prospective wealthy organ recipients with tissue compatible depressed (and poor) individuals, for a cut of what the depressed person’s heirs get.

        Good idea. If it’s consensual, I’m all for it. If you’re concerned about the coercive effects of poverty, tax the (very) rich and give it to the (very) poor instead of destroying everybody’s liberties.

        But, it does seem overwhelmingly clear to me that children should not get to choose suicide.

        Jess, I understand your arguments, but whatever happened to no means no? Children aren’t slaves. You can’t guarantee a child anything, let alone future happiness. Can you look a child in the eye and promise them they will never experience, say, the agony of buring alive, or physical violence, or social ostracision, or a tediousness of work that outweighs all the pleasure and entertainment in their lives? You can convince children, but even that is somewhat deceitful.

        Thank you indeed for the thoughtful discussion.

      • Anonymous

        One last thought on the suffering of children: At the very least we should research safe and reliable germ-line interventions to reduce their capacity for pain significantly. If we force them to endure all the risks and harms of life without consent, that is the very least we owe to them.

      • When you say “we” are you including yourself?

        How much are you willing to pay to “research safe and reliable germ-line interventions to reduce their capacity for pain significantly”?

        If that is the least that “we” should do, presumably you are already doing it or funding someone else to do it.

      • Anonymous

        How much are you willing to pay to “research safe and reliable germ-line interventions to reduce their capacity for pain significantly”?

        I don’t know of any charity fund that does this, with the specific goal of reducing suffering as a heritable variable, but if there was, and it was trustworthy, I’d definitely donate.

  • Anon,

    There’s a timely Szasz article relating to your concerns: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/columns/the-therapeutic-state/imprisoning-innocents/

    “On February 11 KTLA TV in Los Angeles reported that little Jack Dorman, a 6-year-old child in San Pedro, California, ‘was pulled out of his elementary school classroom after he sketched a drawing of zombies and stick figures and wrote that he wanted to die.’ Against the express wishes of his mother, he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital.”

    “After 48 hours, little Jack was allowed to go home. Not surprisingly, he now has a bona fide mental illness, ‘school phobia’: ‘He’s afraid they are going to take him away again,’ says his mother.”

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for this link, Dain. That’s exactly what I was talking about.

  • Sympathy conveys disrespect and low status and does nothing good.

    So to be truly respectful of slaves, slavery abolitionists should have stopped advocating for abolition (what with their colorful stories of whipping and rape) and started advocating for slave owners to breed their slaves more, because slaves still smile.

    • So to be truly respectful of slaves, slavery abolitionists should have stopped advocating for abolition

      I think the difference here is that the original author is talking about people who can no longer be helped. Alternative altruistic explanations (‘he is talking about Roman slaves so he can convince people to help modern slaves’) are weak. Often, it’s hard to distinguish signaling from true altruisim, but I think Robin is convincing here.

      and started advocating for slave owners to breed their slaves more, because slaves still smile.

      I don’t think Robin would disagree with this, assuming one could not abolish slavery altogether.

      • lemmy caution

        “assuming one could not abolish slavery altogether.”

        I think Robin is in favor of assuming that you could not abolish slavery altogether too. At least for emulated humans.

      • Wonks Anonymous

        If there is no minimum wage, restriction on “evicting” ems, etc, then slavery is unnecessary. He has pushed the view that we should not view ems as a threat because we can both fit within a system of law. At times his downplaying of future conflict is of a Straussian bent, motivated by the threat posed by discussion of conflict rather than the genuine probability of conflict.

  • koto

    There is a phrase in historiography which sums up this sort of ignorant retrospective dismissal of past societies: “the enormous condescension of posterity.” Linked to this trope is our widespread, usually implicit belief that we live in the most enlightened, moral, and sane social formation in the history of humanity. Pick and pry at the value judgements most people make in their claims about history and you will almost always find this belief lying in wait.

    Of course, I am sure in our case it is different, and we truly are the best. How delightful to find that, for the first time in the tens and hundreds of thousands of years of modern human history, humans have finally learnt how live properly! Thank God we have dispensed with the barbaric, inhumane, ignorant customs of our poor foolish forebears. We are indeed much too lucky! If only they could have benefitted from our wisdom.

    Of course, I am sure our high command of rational knowledge and technology means that the various flies in our ointment are but minor foot-notes to our otherwise glorious culture. I am sure we should not question the selfish, short-sighted individualism which drives our culture of consuming cheap mass-produced goods and cripples and fractures what remain of our communities. Nor the narrative breakdown and political paralysis of our liberal democracies. Nor the depression and anomie sprung up in the dismantling of traditional social structures and traditional frameworks for the interpretation of the world. Nor the drug abuse, depression, suicide, violence and various other manifestations of despair and hatred which permeate our lives and the lives of our children. Nor of course the ever-mounting wave of environmental despoilation threatening the world with total ecological collapse. I am sure that while these features of our modern world may seem a tad concerning, they are really not problems at all, but golden proof of our enlightenment and progress.

    I must admit, I speak with tongue somewhat in cheek. That said, I do wonder what those who come after us will say of our lives – if that is we manage to leave them a world from which they might be able to do so.

    Will they look back at us, living in our concrete cities, locked up at night in little cells, sitting alone for hours on end staring blankly into hypnotic glowing screens, and by day walking through the teeming crowds, alone again, as steel machines roar back and forth, each carrying more of us, alone, will they look back and say: Now there were people who knew the right way to live!

    Or perhaps they will shake their heads and mourn for the lives wasted in this age, a time in which they might well say that people reasoned themselves into insanity, and cut themselves away from their environments, and cut themselves away from their homes, and cut themselves away from one another, and covered the world with cold concrete and mute buildings, and spent their lives searching, searching, searching, their hearts rent with anger and pain, not realising that they were looking for something, not realising even that something had been lost.