nothing is mere

Phenomenal consciousness is a quasiperceptual illusion: Objections and replies

The following is a long excerpt from an unpublished paper I wrote in 2012-2013, mostly before I was enmeshed in rationality-community ideas. The paper was a response to David Chalmers’ “hard problem of consciousness,” described well in “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness” and “Consciousness and its Place in Nature.

Chalmers gives various arguments for thinking that phenomenal consciousness isn’t reducible to merely physical facts. A complete reductive explanation must make it logically impossible for the reduced entity to differ in any way unless the thing you’re reducing it to also differs in some way. Chalmers argues that reductions of consciousness to physical facts can never be complete in this sense, because there is some aspect of consciousness that could in principle vary without varying any physical fact. This aspect is the first-person, subjective, phenomenal character of consciousness; what it actually feels like “from the inside” to instantiate conscious states.

I accept Chalmers’ arguments, for reasons I detail in an earlier section of the paper but won’t go into here. Rather, I agree with him that phenomenal reductionism is probably false; but Chalmers’ own position, which I call phenomenal fundamentalism (the idea that there are irreducible phenomenal states), also commits us to absurdities.

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Zombies! Zombies?” does a good job of articulating the core problem with non-interactionist fundamentalism, though I didn’t really understand this argument’s force at the time. Sean Carroll’s “Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory” dispenses with interactionist fundamentalism.

By process of elimination, I conclude that phenomenal anti-realism, or eliminativism, is probably true: phenomenal consciousness is neither reducible nor irreducible (in our universe), because it doesn’t exist.

This idea seems absurd, so I endorse it only grudgingly: it’s absurd, but less absurd than the two alternatives.

There are a number of obvious objections to the idea. While I think some of these objections are partly successful, I think on the whole they aren’t successful enough to make eliminativism a worse option than reductionism and fundamentalism. Here, I’ll try to systematically address a large number of possible objections. In the process I’ll hopefully clarify for some people what I mean by “eliminativism.”

Be warned that the following is not my standard fare. It’s very much written for an audience of professional analytic philosophers, and is pretty relentless about pursuing fine distinctions and subtle counter-arguments. I think this is warranted by the fact that eliminativism is such a strange view. Philosophers to date have reasonably complained that anti-fundamentalists like Dennett and Yudkowsky have been needlessly sloppy and imprecise. My view is that the arguments of anti-fundamentalists have exhibited less rigor than those of fundamentalists for contingent historical reasons, and this shouldn’t be taken to indicate that the underlying idea is fragile and liable to collapse under close scrutiny.

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Trump and the world order


My co-worker Eliezer Yudkowsky recently made the case on social media that Trump’s candidacy raises national security concerns qualitatively more serious than the sort you see in a normal US presidential race:

Every election, the Chicken Littles of both parties make a big deal out of how this year’s election opponent is the Worst Ever and Literally Hitler, and take every single thing their opponents do and try to make it sound as terrible as possible, and so on.

Okay, but here’s the thing. What does not happen every election cycle — and this happened months ago, not in the wake of the current bandwagon — is the entire Republican national security establishment going holy shit and repudiating the Republican candidate en masse.

Maybe I shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone already looks at the world and sees (a) a level of politics that’s theater and (b) a level of politics that’s deadly, deadly serious.

Maybe you heard that Trump said maybe we shouldn’t defend NATO countries if Russia invades. And you interpreted that as Trump expressing fed-up-ness with American military spending and our trying to defend everything in the world without getting much in return. Somebody in the newspapers seemed to be making a big deal out of it, just like they make a big deal out of Clinton emails. Clutching at their pearl necklaces and fainting about how terribly important it is that America honor its commitments to other countries, or something.


The people in the national security bureaucracy — hell, even me, even though I’m not a national security bureaucrat and have only read a handful of military history books — heard that and thought:

Holy shit.”

Members of the Washington, DC establishment who privately laugh about sexual assault and insider trading, heard that and thought: “You don’t do that.”

And I want to try to spell out why this was so terrible. But I’m not sure it will do any good for me to try to talk about that, until I can slice off and distinguish that discussion from the “that was oh such a terrible bad idea” of the pundits that you’ve already filtered out by now.

Which is a difference that might be difficult to convey. Because the news media and the pundits and certainly all the politicians pretend that, why, of course it’s all deadly serious. It’s hard to convey without me sounding like I myself think that taking bribes and grabbing genitals are not “deadly serious”. And to be clear, it’s not that all discussion of national security is on this separate serious level, because there’s lots of pearl-clutching and professional-wrestling about national security too, in the media.

In a previous thread on my Facebook wall, about the existence of expertise, Brent Dill observed that from the perspective of somebody sufficiently ignorant, maybe there doesn’t seem to be any higher expertise in the world. “Then who builds the spaceships, dammit?” I asked, and Brent Dill replied, “They just saw a TV special on how the moon landings were faked.” From your perspective and my perspective, there are these sorts of entertaining TV shows about the moon landing being faked, and then above that is Real Science, where some things are pretty darned solid despite all the frothy arguments that go on about the replication crisis.

Okay, but what if all you see is the arguments over whether the moon landing was real, and as far as you know, that’s all there is to see? You understand that the TV shows are entertainment, but you don’t realize that there’s a non-entertainment part. Or maybe you think that “did aliens build the pyramids” is real serious science and that it doesn’t get any more serious than that. The Discovery Channel isn’t going to tell you about it. If you’re sufficiently immersed in that world, maybe it’s the only world there is.

Maybe I’m assuming too much when I assume that everybody knows that politics is theater. Maybe the reason the political theater works is that people honestly don’t realize it’s all professional wrestling. That hypothesis doesn’t seem to quite fit with people’s behavior, but maybe this is one of those things I’m not likely to understand that well?

It does occur to me, though, that I might be presuming too much in supposing that other people realize that there’s a Level B in politics as well. Maybe if you grow up with the modern media, it’s easy to think that the Level A is all that exists and there is no deadly serious politics, that people clutching at their pearls and fainting is as serious as anything ever gets.

At this point the analogy to science breaks down, because in science, the Level B above the Discovery Channel is a virtuous place where you find the real pursuit of truth. The Level B in politics is not in the same way the repository of true concern for truly important things. But the Level B in Washington, DC, the issues that people take seriously unlike insider trading, is also not just sociopaths reacting to disasters that are so bad that their own personal hometown might get a nuclear missile. The Level B does contain more stuff than that. The Level B is also not the upper ranks of the Illuminati where they discuss how to keep power and worry about things so bad that they might affect their personal stock prices, because there aren’t any Illuminati and Washington, DC doesn’t work like that either. It’s not the level at which people are just trying to do their jobs, because nobody in Washington, DC is just trying to do their jobs.

But it is the level where you worry about things like the stability of the Europe-Russia border, not because a journalist is going to clutch their pearls in offense because you don’t seem concerned enough, but because you actually care about the stability of the Europe-Russia border. Yes, there are people in Washington, DC like that.

I said this in a comment elsewhere on Facebook, but I’m going to repeat it here, in case there’s people on my Facebook wall who haven’t seen it before:

My reading of history books is admittedly biased by having read about historically interesting cases. This does tend to be cases where things went very right, or more usually, very wrong. American revolution, French revolution, World War I, World War II.

Perhaps there are dozens of other cases where a country elected an impulsive, chaotic, populist leader and nothing whatsoever went wrong.

But when I think of Trump, I think of Hitler, and not in the generic sense of “Hitler” meaning “bad”. I think of the British diplomats who sent Hitler a sternly worded note on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, warning that Britain would defend Poland even though they hadn’t defended Czechoslovakia. According to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Hitler read the note himself instead of having his diplomatic corps explain it to him, and interpreted the standard diplomatic politesse as conciliatory and a go-ahead to invade Poland.

I once played a four-hour live simulation/game called the National Security Decision-Making Game, which was run by various people who were ex-whatevers. There were around 80 of us simulating just 3 different countries, with myself trying to play the Secretary of Defense of the US.

Thinking myself probably above-average intelligence for the room, I’d originally asked for a position that involved intrigue; I was given the title for Director of National Intelligence. But somebody who’d played the game before said he really wanted to be DNI, so I traded it for his Secretary of Defense position. Which I’m glad happened, because my ambitions rapidly went from world optimization to “Understand what is happening immediately around the Department of Defense.”

By the end of NSDM, I left with a suddenly increased respect for any administration that gets to the end of 4 years without nuclear weapons being used. We did not do that well in our NSDM session. I left with a greatly increased appreciation of the real skill and competence possessed by the high-level bureaucrats like the Secretary of Defense who keep everything from toppling over, and who understand what the sternly worded diplomatic notes mean.

I think that a lot of the real function of government is to keep things from toppling over like they did in our NSDM session, and that this depends on the functionaries including the President staying inside certain bounds of behavior — people who understand how the game is supposed to be played. It’s not always a good game and you may be tempted to call for blowing it up rather than letting it continue as usual. Avoid this temptation. Randomly blowing it up will not end well. It can be so, so much worse than it already is.

The system isn’t as stable as it might look when you’re just strolling along your non-melted streets year after year, without any missiles ever falling on your own hometown. I don’t even know how much work it really takes to prevent everything from falling over.

If I were to try summarize very briefly why Trump’s remarks on NATO crossed a holy shit line, it’d be along the lines of: “If you read the history books, you realize that it is really really bad to have any ambiguity about which minor powers the major powers will defend; that is how World War I and World War II both started.”

And: “In the wake of the second World War that started from that kind of ambiguity, the senior leaders in both the East and the West, enemies though they may have been, decided to learn the lesson and henceforth be more clear about which countries they’d defend. Not only did Trump blow through that, he did so in a way that indicates he has no idea of how World War I started and why this is one of the things you absolutely don’t do. He doesn’t listen to advisors. He doesn’t have advisors! God knows what other guardrails he’s going to blow through!”

Trump didn’t realize he was blowing through one of the deadly serious guardrails. And Trump is not actually stupid, he does not actually have an IQ below 100, he took economics at Wharton. So it’s fine, it’s okay, it does not make you a bad person, if you also don’t know why that was so much more terrible than everything else the media is making a fuss about. Not every citizen of America needs to read The Guns of August and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, like I did, or study a vastly larger amount of real military history, like the Republican national security bureaucracy did.

However. If you want to be in the national government, you are supposed to know that this is one of those places where you talk to one of the senior bureaucrats before deciding that it is okay to mouth off about NATO commitments, or before deciding to go ahead and invade Poland.

Even people in Washington, DC who haven’t read any history books understand that part, because most people in Washington, DC do know that politics has a deadly serious level as well as a media theater level.

What Trump said wasn’t a gaffe, it was not one of those things that you’d have to be an idiot to say in front of journalists, it was a world-threatening misstep in the real-life version of the National Security Decision-Making Game.

And now Xi Jinping is thinking about the part where Donald Trump said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?” and wondering whether China can take for granted America’s possession of nuclear weapons given that America’s electoral system seems to allow for a certain kind of President. That has already happened and cannot be undone. Even though Donald Trump doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the NSDM, the NSDM gives a fuck about him.

Like it or not, there is in Washington, DC a perceived difference between “committed sexual assault” and “violated the system guardrails that prevent World War III”. Some people in Washington, DC think sexual assault is a big joke, and other people honestly believe it is quite bad and would be just as swift to fire any abuser whether or not the journalists knew about it. But both of those kinds of people understand that the current culture in Washington, DC dictates a difference.

And I’m glad that cultural rule exists, because the Level A culture where everybody clutches their pearls and every gaffe indicates a life-threatening level of incompetence and everything is oh so terribly serious, is not a culture where policy-making can take place. The fact that there are quiet backroom talks with no journalists present, in which at least some people are actually concerned about the Europe-Russia border, is why the Earth hasn’t already blown up.

Again, it’s not that all discussion of national security takes place on that level, there’s lots of theater about that too, the entire Transportation Security Administration is well-known to be pure theater. But there’s also cases where somebody blows through the real actual guardrails, which is when the senior bureaucrats in your own party repudiate you.

That didn’t happen to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she made a move about suggesting a no-fly zone over Syria. Because that’s a kind of move people make sometimes in the NSDM. Some people disagreed with that as a Level B move, and maybe some of those people wrote Level A articles about how terribly wrong and serious it was; but nobody who understood that Level B existed went holy shit over it. From their standpoint the difference is clear-cut, even if it so happens that you can’t immediately perceive that difference and what Clinton did sounds maybe arguably just as bad as what Trump did. The holy shit reaction to Trump from senior national security bureaucrats, and from a lot of smart people you know who never seemed that worked up about Mitt Romney in 2012, is one cue as to what just happened. Even though you can’t tell the difference yourself and maybe shouldn’t expect to be able to tell the difference yourself. Certainly the media isn’t going to tell you about the difference, because everyone in the Level A theater has to pretend that all the professional wrestling is terribly, terribly serious.

Maybe you wish that Washington, DC culture would take sexual assault more seriously, as something deadly serious in its own right, as serious at it is possible to be — instead of some people laughing it off, some people being frankly offended, and everyone in Washington, DC tacitly understanding that this is not one of the issues that everyone has agreed to take deadly seriously even when no journalists are looking.

Maybe you look at that, and conclude that this ‘deadly serious level of politics’ thingy does not respect your own values and priorities. Maybe you conclude that the kind of political issues people are fighting over theatrically in the newspapers are, yes, every bit as vital to you as that so-called ‘deadly serious’ stuff, even if a lot of other people are treating them as entertainment.

I think you’re making a dreadful mistake. Scope is real. If you ever have to choose between voting a convicted serial abuser of children into the Presidential office — but this person otherwise seems stable and collected — versus a Presidential candidate who seems easy to provoke and who has ‘bad days’ and doesn’t listen to advisors and once said “Why do we have all these nukes if we can’t use them?”, it is deadly important that you vote for the pedophile. It isn’t physically possible to abuse enough children per day over 4 years to do as much damage as you can do with one wrong move in the National Security Decision-Making Game.

An evil but sane NSDM player is far, far less dangerous than an impulsive one who doesn’t care all that much about what the rules of NSDM are supposed to be.

That’s one reason why people at my level of national security expertise and above–and there’s a hell of a lot of headway above me on that one–went into holy shit mode over Donald Trump, on both sides of the aisle.

Programmer Michael Keenan details the circumstances under which ambiguous alliances sparked WW1 and WW2, as well as the Korean War and the Iraq-Kuwait War.

Maritime security author John-Clark Levin’s “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War” picks one example of how Trump’s temperament is likely to increase the probability of international catastrophes:

[…] Trump has pulled off a stunning victory. Transition team Chairman Chris Christie’s first task is assembling a solid national security staff, but most of the top officials who would normally serve in a Republican administration refuse to serve under Trump (many have already stated this publicly).

So instead of the smartest and ablest leaders, Trump is forced to fill essential defense and intelligence posts with hacks  —  the B-level talent whose ambition overcomes their objections, and the C-level talent whose loyalty wins them undeserved appointments. Some good people do go to work in the Trump White House, judging they’d rather be in the Situation Room than the alt-righters who’d otherwise get their jobs. Maybe, they think, they can influence Trump for the better.

By the end of Trump’s first 100 days, though, it’s clear that his lifelong leadership style will not change. First, he surrounds himself with people who flatter him and tell him whatever he wants to hear, because he is a “great loyalty freak.” Second, he can’t take criticism or dissent, and sees these as disloyalty that must be punished. Third, he has a profound insecurity that cannot tolerate advice from big minds and strong personalities. Instead, he famously said, “Always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.” Over Trump’s first years in office, these traits force more good people out of government, replaced by those willing to follow Trump blindly.

Meanwhile, just as Trump boasted during the campaign that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, he now demoralizes top military leaders, publicly denigrating their competence even as he thwarts them with meddling and micromanagement. Trump continues to alienate the CIA, just as during the campaign he ignored consensus assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies in their briefings to him, instead bizarrely insisting that the DNC hacks weren’t the work of Russia, but perhaps a “400-pound man sitting on his bed.” Under these conditions, many of the best people in the Pentagon leave, and Trump makes good on his campaign statements by firing others.

On an October afternoon in 2019, terror strikes again  —  this time, a truck bomb in Jersey City kills almost a hundred people. Trump’s first instinct  —  as it has been throughout his long and well-documented life  —  is immediate and overwhelming retaliation. Despite contemplating nuclear counterattacks during the campaign (“Somebody hits us within ISIS  —  you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?”), Trump now orders conventional punitive airstrikes on civilian areas in Raqqa, Syria. “We have no choice, people,” Trump says. Trump’s Justice Department insists that the strikes are legal, but as images of maimed children fill the airwaves, officers of conscience start retiring or resigning rather than participate in what they see as war crimes.

Then, on a sleepy summer morning in 2020, Chinese jets make simulated attack runs against the USS Ronald Reagan, operating in the South China Sea. Trump’s pride is pricked. Officials in Beijing have been bragging about how the SCS is becoming a Chinese lake. It makes him look weak. So Trump orders the jets shot down (which he has already said he would do in similar circumstances). Several Chinese airmen die. China responds by shooting down a B-1 bomber off Taiwan.

Trump orders the carrier to enter Chinese waters in a show of force to reassert American might in the region. The admirals who would have resisted such recklessness have already left or been muscled out. Chinese warships intercept, and in the tense and confused standoff, someone starts shooting. American firepower blows the smaller Chinese vessels out of the water. In minutes, DF-21 carrier-killer missiles rain down on the U.S. strike group, and when the smoke clears, the Ronald Reagan is on the bottom along with a couple thousand American sailors. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Beijing has ordered its nuclear forces to maximum alert in preparation for a first strike.

6,500 miles away in Washington, an admiral approaches President Trump as an aide unlatches the nuclear football. “Well, Mr. President. Here are your options…” […]

This particular scenario, obviously, isn’t likely; but it seems broadly in keeping with Trump’s impulsive and Jacksonian brand of militarism. Freelance policy analyst and GCRI affiliate Matthijs Maas comments on Levin’s hypothetical:

(1). The specific scenario that’s presented — a tit-for-tat with the Chinese — may be slightly exaggerated — specifically: while the Chinese might gamble with shooting down the (nonnuclear) B1 bomber, they would know that a DF-21D strike on a US carrier group would constitute an attack against US regional nuclear capabilities (viz. the US Navy doesn’t confirm or deny whether carriers carry nukes, but strategically it would be surprising if they didn’t). Given that Chinese nuclear first-strike/counterforce capabilities are by far insufficient against the US, they would be unlikely to sanction such a gamble. On the other hand, the Chinese would certainly disperse their nuclear forces to increase survivability in case of a US first strike, and this could in turn be misperceived by the US as preparation for a first strike, and… you get the picture. Let’s not take the gamble.

(2) Setting aside discussions of this specific illustration — I think the key phrase in this article, and the broader underlying argument, is ‘Uncertainty breeds danger’. This is perhaps the fundamental geopolitical insight which I’d want people to take away / keep in mind.

In short: it’s been suggested that Clinton’s bad relations with the Kremlin would lead to destabilising conflict. However, reliable antagonism may lead to outcomes that are tense, but at least predictable (and therefore ‘manageable’): both sides roughly know each others’ ‘red lines’, and trust that the other side grasps the basics of nuclear deterrence, and the magnitude of mismanaging it, and to count those risks in their decision-making. So it might be useful to note that a Clinton presidency may see a higher base rate of crises (specifically vis-a-vis Russia), as a function of her bad relationship with Putin and general hawkish tendencies — but that these crises generally will remain more ‘manageable’. (doesn’t mean it’s a good situation to be in, in terms of global catastrophic risks, but we’re considering relative cases).

(3) Conversely, even if we assume that Trump’s bravado and unpredictability may cause some countries to tread more lightly, ensuring a slightly lower base rate of crises, the stakes of these crises will be higher. By taking all guarantees off the table, his presidency would increase strategic uncertainty, creating opportunities for conflict between other powers, and making those crises that do inevitably occur massively more vulnerable to miscalculation and unintentional escalation. That doesn’t mean those cannot be managed — Consider Nixon’s ‘madman strategy’, where he once ordered a fake nuclear assault on the Soviet Union to force them to suspend their support for the Vietcong (this failed); or when another time (during the Watergate proceedings) threatening that ‘I could walk out of this room and pick up a phone, and in 20 minutes 70 million people will be dead’—but managing such bravado requires a responsible, capable, and realistic national security staff (which, as the article rightly points out, Trump will likely not suffer to have around for long).

(4) At that point — and considering how short is the chain of nuclear command, how tiny the window for decision-making, and how irreversible the command to launch –Trump’s personality traits create a dangerous situation. At worst, we’ll see a combination of (a). Trump’s (perceived) personality traits (e.g. impulsiveness; inability to back off), unchecked by (b). a sycophant national security apparatus; and tempted by (c). the availability of a new generation of ‘flexible’ nuclear weapons now being developed (e.g. hypervelocity missiles; the LRSO).

(5) Even if his sort of policy-making doesn’t lead directly to nuclear catastrophe, it will indirectly heighten the baseline global risk of such (or other) global risks. Trump’s disregard for international institutions and laws (yes — they’re boring; yes — they’re imperfect; yes–we need them), his retraction of US security guarantees, the idea that all alliances are negotiable or conditional, and his overarching zero-sum view of the world will work to increase states’ incentives to engage in arms races or realpolitik, and decrease willingness to cooperate on non-proliferation / responsible development and innovation regimes.

Trump’s warning that he’s liable to ignore Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty “if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed” — even though the treaty itself doesn’t include this as a requirement; even though Article 5 has only ever been invoked once; and even though the one time it was invoked was on behalf of the U.S., drawing NATO into Afghanistan in response to 9/11 — suggests a new regime in which international law is much softer and more ambiguous than we’ve seen in past decades. It suggests that Trump’s perspective is a novel one on which treaties as they’re understood today should be replaced with more informal arrangements, and that from his perspective the US government ought honor its word to other nations only while it happens to be favorably disposed to those nations.

That’s at least one way of understanding what Trump means when he says — in response to a question from NBC’s Katy Tur, “Do you think the Geneva Conventions are out of date?” — “I think everything’s out of date. We have a whole new world.” Without the benefit of context, I might take this to mean that Trump thinks the Geneva Conventions ought to be revised through some ratification procedure. Now, this sounds like a more sweeping statement: the threat of terrorism means that international law simply doesn’t apply anymore. Absent is any apparent insight into why the rule of law (both domestically and internationally) has serious practical value, and why some measure of forced predictability makes us more safe.

I think it’s extremely clear that this is one of the most critical issues American voters should weigh when they decide who to vote for this Tuesday.

Are Musk’s Mars spaceship problems problems?

Elon Musk is planning to start a colony on Mars. Jason Torchinsky proposed some improvements to Musk’s proposed spaceship design, but some commenters on social media questioned Torchinsky’s proposals. I’ve reproduced these comments below, so that I can link to them more easily.

Amateur rocket engineer Evan Daniel writes:

1) I’m not sure how luxurious the actual craft will be. It should clearly be more luxurious than Apollo, to keep the passengers sane. But it being more spartan than Elon was talking about, especially early, seems likely.

2) Elon clearly likes the simplicity of only one upper stage hull design. The cargo, passenger, and fuel versions share a hull. This makes a great deal of sense for version one to me. Adding a second, third, or fourth major ship type is for later.

2a) If the author is keen on their hab module thing, they might as well go all the way to a cycler, which plenty of other people have talked about. I’m confused by them not mentioning this along with the L1 garage idea, given that it should further save propellant.

3) That means you don’t actually want to shrink the passenger ship. Sure you could build everything, first stage and fuel stages included, to a smaller scale… but the large scale is part of why it will be cheap per passenger or per pound. So “more spartan” translates as “more passengers” or “more cargo on board”, not “smaller ship”.

3a) That combined with number 2 might mean that open space is weirdly cheaper than you’d think. I’d have to investigate in more detail (aka break out the spreadsheets) to be sure. I’m not certain on this. (Mass for stuff is definitely still as pricey as you think, but the passenger version might have “too much volume” because the fuel-carrying version needs it for tanks and they share a hull.)

4) On-orbit transfer of people is complicated. Propellant transfer is far less so. The ITS as proposed is actually a very conservative design in some ways; these changes are less so. In particular they cost development money in an attempt to save operating costs, while making operations more complex. This seems misguided, given that SpaceX is probably short on funds for development (relatively speaking). Before you call for making operations more complex, think hard about the F9H schedule slips (while noting that F9H should be cheaper per pound launched than F9).

Anyway, I definitely don’t have enough info to say who is right. But I definitely know enough to think these proposed changes are not obviously a good thing. Especially the parts that advocate for more complex development and operations in an attempt to reduce operating costs. I’ll put my money on the SpaceX crew mostly knowing what they’re talking about in this case. (I’d also put money on the ITS having meaningful changes from this before its first passenger-carrying Mars flight, but I suspect they won’t be the ones listed here.)

Or, more simply: the author didn’t pay enough attention to the most relevant slide of all:


The dominant cost of the flight to Mars is the ship that goes to Mars. Not the stage to launch it, not the other launches to fuel it. The dominant cost of that ship is the development and construction cost. If your “cost saving” measures are saving elsewhere by making that budget item bigger, you’re probably doing it wrong.

James Tillman writes:

Well, one difficulty with the proposed “space only” module is that you cannot aerobrake with it. The proposed Muskian solution is to aerobrake as you’re entering the Mars atmosphere, and decrease overall fuel requirements thus for going from Earth to Mars; you can also aerobrake when entering Earth’s atmosphere, and decrease fuel requirements for going from Mars to Earth. So that’s a big cost. This solution will require fuel for braking while going Earth to Mars, and Mars to Earth, for both the hab and the lander.

Someone raises this point in the comments, and [Torchinsky] says, “throw an aerobraking shell on it,” but I’m not sure it’s that simple. An inflatable structure designed for zero g–which is the whole attraction of the concept–wouldn’t work well aerobraking, I’d guess.

The second difficulty is re fuel requirements. Decreasing aerobraking means that you’ll need more fuel for the Mars to Earth rendevous, and that makes me wonder if the smaller ship will have difficulty getting enough fuel through in-situ methane generation to both launch from Mars, push the larger structure to Earth, then brake the larger structure and itself so they’re in orbit. So you’re dealing with potentially (absolutely) increased fuel requirements, unless you can cut the mass by enough, while you’re also decreasing the amount of fuel you bring from the Martian surface.

Oh, re the concern with difficulty landing the ship on Mars–Mars dust storms are extremely weak (least accurate part of The Martian), compared to earth storms, so that would be no problem.

Suggestion re launching the tanker before the crewed ship–this has been raised, I think Musk has said they might do this, unsure of advantages and disadvantages.

Of course I’d need to do the math to really know anything about this.

And mathematician Jonathan Lee adds:

The Soyuz is lighter than the Apollo capsules because the Orbital and instrument modules did not have to be recovered successfully; they burned up on Earth entry. It’s an approach that’s useful when you do not need everything.

The object of the ITS is to, well, get one’s ass to Mars. The galleys, toilets etc. (which are not actually the main mass drivers but let us not have mere facts get in the way) need to get down onto the surface, at least until the crew have built out a bunch of extra infrastructure. This needs to go there. Fuel on Mars is pretty explicitly not precious; the entire architecture is based around solar driving electrolysis and Sabatier reactions to make fuel. You actually want the lander to have enough delta-V to push the entire Mars – Earth return stack back to Earth. Scale is actually important here. They are ultimately not trying to get minimum cost flags-and-footprints. They are trying to build an architecture that reliably moves 200-500 tonnes of stuff to Mars. That is the point. To get enough mass there that you can build a self sustaining colony in a place colder, dryer and with less atmosphere than Antarctica. They need the mass moved.

Oh, winds. Ha. Yeah, so the atmosphere on Mars is about 1% the density of that of Earth. Wind forces go like the square of velocity, so you can convert Mars winds to Earth winds by dividing velocity by 10. The highest wind speeds that I can find reported for Mars are about 90mph (solid hurricane territory). So the dynamic pressures are about that of a 10mph wind on Earth. So, no, wind is not a problem.

The in-transit model being proposed cannot aerobrake, cannot even pretend to provide radiation protection, and means that now you need to have orbital assembly at both Mars and Earth on every launch. Oh, and have those docked connections take the not-inconsiderable forces of the injection burns each way.

I asked aerospace engineer Lloyd Strohl III to review this post, and he affirmed that Daniel and Lee’s comments here look correct.

Ditch the word “hypocrite”

I try to watch out for inconsistencies in my beliefs (and between my actions and my stated beliefs and goals). Yet I’m not a fan of criticizing people for things like “hypocrisy.”

It’s obviously a personal attack, and personal attacks obviously make people defensive, and defensiveness is obviously boring and terrible. But I have four other concerns with attacking people for their inconsistencies:

1. It’s too meta. Proving that someone said “p” and “not-p” is a great way to conclusively defeat them in a debate. No matter what your audience believes about p, they’ll agree with you about the laws of logic; and by not entering the fray, you get to appear impartial and objective.

But the fray matters — or if it doesn’t matter, why are we talking about p in the first place?

“You said !” is an amazing argument that works no matter what the facts are. For that reason, it’s an amazing argument that tells us nothing about the world, aside from ad-hominem facts about the claimant’s character.

If someone is saying both “p” and “not p,” then at least one of those views is false. If you know which of those views is false, why not just attack the false view? If you don’t know which of those views is false, why not talk that over and try to figure it out? If figuring it out matters less than scoring points against Ms. Placeholder, then it’s possible that neither is worth your time.

2. Charges of hypocrisy discourage updating and nuance. The easiest way to look consistent over time is to assert simple blanket statements and then refuse to change your mind about them. Better yet, say nothing substantive at all.

It’s sometimes important to publicly evaluate others’ character. In a presidential debate, for example, “ad hominem” is not always a fallacy. We’re trying to assess which person is more trustworthy and competent, not just which one is more correct; the personal virtues and vices of the candidates matter.

Yet even in this context, “Senator Placeholder is wrong on taxes” is much more useful than “Senator Placeholder is inconsistent on taxes.” Debate the latter, and the candidates and their audience only learn new things about a particular senator’s record, not about taxes; and Placeholder’s immediate incentive is to obfuscate her views or make them as simple and unchanging as possible, rather than to improve or defend them.

3. In the case of groups, charges of hypocrisy discourage intellectual diversity. This is one of the problems I have with the “motte and bailey” idea: by attacking groups for “strategically equivocating” between a more defensible view (the “motte”) and a less defensible one (the “bailey”), we neglect the more common case where some people honestly have less defensible versions of their friends’ views.

By attacking the hypocrisy rather than attacking the false view, we again focus the debate on people’s faults and vices. In this way, the motte/bailey accusation increases the number of debates that are about how generally “good” or “bad” a group is, to the exclusion of mundane empirical questions.

The motte/bailey charge can be useful when a particular individual explicitly states both the motte and the bailey, though even then it’s a charge best reserved for friends and not enemies. But when two different individuals can be accused of Emergent Hypocrisy merely for associating with each other, it becomes a lot harder to associate with anyone who doesn’t share all your views.

4. Ambitious goal-setting and self-improvement can look like behavioral hypocrisy. Accusing someone of hypocrisy because their deeds don’t live up to the moral principles they endorse encourages people to have low, easily-met standards.

We’re already risk-averse, and the charge of hypocrisy makes risk-taking even riskier, especially for groups. Trying to build a community that exemplifies certain virtues often requires that you talk quite a bit about those virtues. But then you risk looking like you already think you have those virtues.

Even if your community is a standard deviation above most groups in the virtue of Temperance, the mere fact that you’ve endorsed Temperance means that any small misstep by anyone in your group can be used to charge you with hypocrisy or hubris. And hypocrisy and hubris are approximately people’s favorite things to accuse each other of. Easier, then, to steer clear of endorsing good ideas too loudly.


Related links

Library of Scott Alexandria

I’ve said before that my favorite blog — and the one that’s shifted my views in the most varied and consequential ways — is Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. Scott has written a lot of good stuff, and it can be hard to know where to begin; so I’ve listed below what I think are the best pieces for new readers to start with. This includes older writing, e.g., from Less Wrong.

The list should make the most sense to people who start from the top and read through it in order, though skipping around is encouraged too — many of the posts are self-contained. The list isn’t chronological. Instead, I’ve tried to order things by a mix of “where do I think most people should start reading?” plus “sorting related posts together.” If stuff doesn’t make sense, you may want to Google terms or read background material in Rationality: From AI to Zombies.

This is a work in progress; you’re invited to suggest things you’d add, remove, or shuffle around.


I. Rationality and Rationalization
○   Blue- and Yellow-Tinted Choices
○   The Apologist and the Revolutionary
○   Historical Realism
○   Simultaneously Right and Wrong
○   You May Already Be A Sinner
○   Beware the Man of One Study
○   Debunked and Well-Refuted
○   How to Not Lose an Argument
○   The Least Convenient Possible World
○   Bayes for Schizophrenics: Reasoning in Delusional Disorders
○   Generalizing from One Example
○   Typical Mind and Politics

II. Probabilism
○   Confidence Levels Inside and Outside an Argument
○   Schizophrenia and Geomagnetic Storms
○   Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale
○   Arguments from My Opponent Believes Something
○   Statistical Literacy Among Doctors Now Lower Than Chance
○   Techniques for Probability Estimates
○   On First Looking into Chapman’s “Pop Bayesianism”
○   Utilitarianism for Engineers
○   If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing with Made-Up Statistics
○   Marijuana: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Are You a Solar Deity?
○   The “Spot the Fakes” Test
○   Epistemic Learned Helplessness

III. Science and Doubt
○   Google Correlate Does Not Imply Google Causation
○   Stop Confounding Yourself! Stop Confounding Yourself!
○   Effects of Vertical Acceleration on Wrongness
○   90% Of All Claims About The Problems With Medical Studies Are Wrong
○   Prisons are Built with Bricks of Law and Brothels with Bricks of Religion, But That Doesn’t Prove a Causal Relationship
○   Noisy Poll Results and the Reptilian Muslim Climatologists from Mars
○   Two Dark Side Statistics Papers
○   Alcoholics Anonymous: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   The Control Group Is Out Of Control
○   The Cowpox of Doubt
○   The Skeptic’s Trilemma
○   If You Can’t Make Predictions, You’re Still in a Crisis

IV. Medicine, Therapy, and Human Enhancement
○   Scientific Freud
○   Sleep – Now by Prescription
○   In Defense of Psych Treatment for Attempted Suicide
○   Who By Very Slow Decay
○   Medicine, As Not Seen on TV
○   Searching for One-Sided Tradeoffs
○   Do Life Hacks Ever Reach Fixation?
○   Polyamory is Boring
○   Can You Condition Yourself?
○   Wirehead Gods on Lotus Thrones
○   Don’t Fear the Filter
○   Transhumanist Fables

V. Introduction to Game Theory
○   Backward Reasoning Over Decision Trees
○   Nash Equilibria and Schelling Points
○   Introduction to Prisoners’ Dilemma
○   Real-World Solutions to Prisoners’ Dilemmas
○   Interlude for Behavioral Economics
○   What is Signaling, Really?
○   Bargaining and Auctions
○   Imperfect Voting Systems
○   Game Theory as a Dark Art

VI. Promises and Principles
○   Beware Trivial Inconveniences
○   Time and Effort Discounting
○   Applied Picoeconomics
○   Schelling Fences on Slippery Slopes
○   Democracy is the Worst Form of Government Except for All the Others Except Possibly Futarchy
○   Eight Short Studies on Excuses
○   Revenge as Charitable Act
○   Would Your Real Preferences Please Stand Up?
○   Are Wireheads Happy?
○   Guilt: Another Gift Nobody Wants

VII. Cognition and Association
○   Diseased Thinking: Dissolving Questions about Disease
○   The Noncentral Fallacy — The Worst Argument in the World?
○   The Power of Positivist Thinking
○   When Truth Isn’t Enough
○   Ambijectivity
○   The Blue-Minimizing Robot
○   Basics of Animal Reinforcement
○   Wanting vs. Liking Revisited
○   Physical and Mental Behavior
○   Trivers on Self-Deception
○   Ego-Syntonic Thoughts and Values
○   Approving Reinforces Low-Effort Behaviors
○   To What Degree Do We Have Goals?
○   The Limits of Introspection
○   Secrets of the Eliminati
○   Tendencies in Reflective Equilibrium
○   Hansonian Optimism

VIII. Doing Good
○   Newtonian Ethics
○   Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others…
○   The Economics of Art and the Art of Economics
○   A Modest Proposal
○   The Life Issue
○   What if Drone Warfare Had Come First?
○   Nefarious Nefazodone and Flashy Rare Side-Effects
○   The Consequentialism FAQ
○   Doing Your Good Deed for the Day
○   I Myself Am A Scientismist
○   Whose Utilitarianism?
○   Book Review: After Virtue
○   Read History of Philosophy Backwards
○   Virtue Ethics: Not Practically Useful Either
○   Last Thoughts on Virtue Ethics
○   Proving Too Much

IX. Liberty
○   The Non-Libertarian FAQ (aka Why I Hate Your Freedom)
○   A Blessing in Disguise, Albeit a Very Good Disguise
○   Basic Income Guarantees
○   Book Review: The Nurture Assumption
○   The Death of Wages is Sin
○   Thank You For Doing Something Ambiguously Between Smoking And Not Smoking
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Facebook (Part 1 of ∞)
○   The Life Cycle of Medical Ideas
○   Vote on Values, Outsource Beliefs
○   A Something Sort of Like Left-Libertarian-ist Manifesto
○   Plutocracy Isn’t About Money
○   Against Tulip Subsidies
○   SlateStarCodex Gives a Graduation Speech

X. Progress
○   Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism
○   A Signaling Theory of Class x Politics Interaction
○   Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell
○   A Thrive/Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum
○   We Wrestle Not With Flesh And Blood, But Against Powers And Principalities
○   Poor Folks Do Smile… For Now
○   Apart from Better Sanitation and Medicine and Education and Irrigation and Public Health and Roads and Public Order, What Has Modernity Done for Us?
○   The Wisdom of the Ancients
○   Can Atheists Appreciate Chesterton?
○   Holocaust Good for You, Research Finds, But Frequent Taunting Causes Cancer in Rats
○   Public Awareness Campaigns
○   Social Psychology is a Flamethrower
○   Nature is Not a Slate. It’s a Series of Levers.
○   The Anti-Reactionary FAQ
○   The Poor You Will Always Have With You
○   Proposed Biological Explanations for Historical Trends in Crime
○   Society is Fixed, Biology is Mutable

XI. Social Justice
○   Practically-a-Book Review: Dying to be Free
○   Drug Testing Welfare Users is a Sham, But Not for the Reasons You Think
○   The Meditation on Creepiness
○   The Meditation on Superweapons
○   The Meditation on the War on Applause Lights
○   The Meditation on Superweapons and Bingo
○   An Analysis of the Formalist Account of Power Relations in Democratic Societies
○   Arguments About Male Violence Prove Too Much
○   Social Justice for the Highly-Demanding-of-Rigor
○   Against Bravery Debates
○   All Debates Are Bravery Debates
○   A Comment I Posted on “What Would JT Do?”
○   We Are All MsScribe
○   The Spirit of the First Amendment
○   A Response to Apophemi on Triggers
○   Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media: False Rape Accusations
○   In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization

XII. Politicization
○   Right is the New Left
○   Weak Men are Superweapons
○   You Kant Dismiss Universalizability
○   I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup
○   Five Case Studies on Politicization
○   Black People Less Likely
○   Nydwracu’s Fnords
○   All in All, Another Brick in the Motte
○   Ethnic Tension and Meaningless Arguments
○   Race and Justice: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
○   Framing for Light Instead of Heat
○   The Wonderful Thing About Triggers
○   Fearful Symmetry
○   Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism

XIII. Competition and Cooperation
○   Galactic Core
○   Book Review: The Two-Income Trap
○   Just for Stealing a Mouthful of Bread
○   Meditations on Moloch
○   Misperceptions on Moloch
○   The Invisible Nation — Reconciling Utilitarianism and Contractualism
○   Freedom on the Centralized Web
○   Book Review: Singer on Marx
○   Does Class Warfare Have a Free Rider Problem?
○   Book Review: Red Plenty




If you liked these posts and want more, I suggest browsing the Slate Star Codex archives.

Revenge of the Meat People!

Back in November, I argued (in Inhuman Altruism) that rationalists should try to reduce their meat consumption. Here, I’ll update that argument a bit and lay out some of my background assumptions.

I was surprised at the time by the popularity of responses on LessWrong like Manfred’s

Unfortunately for cows, I think there is an approximately 0% chance that hurting cows is (according to my values) just as bad as hurting humans. It’s still bad – but its badness is some quite smaller number that is a function of my upbringing, cows’ cognitive differences from me, and the lack of overriding game theoretic concerns as far as I can tell.

and maxikov’s

I’m actually pretty much OK with animal suffering. I generally don’t empathize all that much, but there a lot of even completely selfish reasons to be nice to humans, whereas it’s not really the case for animals.

My primary audience was rationalists who terminally care about reducing suffering across the board — but I’ll admit I thought most LessWrong users would fit that description. I didn’t expect to see a lot of people appealing to their self-interest or their upbringing. Since it’s possible to pursue altruistic projects for selfish reasons (e.g., attempting to reduce existential risk to get a chance at living longer), I’ll clarify that my arguments are directed at people who do care about how much joy and suffering there is in the world — care rather a lot.

The most detailed defense of meat-eating was Katja Grace’s When should an effective altruist be vegetarian? Katja’s argument is that egalitarians should eat frugally and give as much money as they can to high-impact charities, rather than concerning themselves with the much smaller amounts of direct harm their dietary choices cause.

Paul Christiano made similar points in his blog comments: if you would spend more money sustaining a vegan diet than sustaining a carniferous diet, the best utilitarian option would be for you to remain a meat-eater and donate the difference.

Most people aren’t living maximally frugally and giving the exactly optimal amount to charity (yet). But the point generalizes: If you personally find that you can psychologically use the plight of animals to either (a) motivate yourself to become a vegan for an extra year or (b) motivate yourself to give hundreds of extra dollars to a worthy cause, but not both, then you should almost certainly choose (b).

My argument did assume that veganism is a special “bonus” giving opportunity, a way to do a startling amount of good without drawing resources from (or adding resources to) your other altruistic endeavors. The above considerations made me shift from feeling maybe 80% confident that most rationalists should forsake meat, to feeling maybe 70% confident.

To give more weight than that to Katja’s argument, there are two questions I’d need answered:


1. How many people are choosing between philanthropy and veganism?

Some found the term “veg*nism” (short for “veganism or/and vegetarianism”) confusing in my previous post, so I’ll switch here to speaking of meat-abstainers as “plant people” and meat-eaters as “meat people.” I’m pretty confident that the discourse would be improved by more B-movie horror dialogue.

Plant people have proven that their mindset can prevent a lot of suffering. And I don’t see any obvious signs that EAs’ plantpersonhood diminishes their EAness. To compete, Katja’s meat-person argument needs to actually motivate people to do more good. “P > Q > R” isn’t a good argument against Q if rejecting Q just causes people to regress to R (rather than advance to P).

What I want to see here are anecdotes of EAs who have had actual success trying “pay the cost of veganism in money” (or similar), to prove this is a psychologically realistic alternative and not just a way of rationalizing the status quo.

(I’m similarly curious to see if people can have real success with my idea of donating $1 to the Humane League after every meal where you eat an animal. Patrick LaVictoire has tried out this ritual, which he calls “beefminding“. (Edit 9/11: Patrick clarifies, “I did coin ‘beefminding’, but I use it to refer to tracking my meat + egg* consumption on Beeminder, and trying to slowly bend the curve by changing my default eating habits. I don’t make offsetting donations. What I’m doing is just a combination of quantified self and Reducetarianism.”))

If I “keep fixed how much of my budget I spend on myself and how much I spend on altruism,” Katja writes, plant-people-ism looks like a very ineffective form of philanthropy. But I don’t think most people spend an optimal amount on altruistic causes, and I don’t think most people who spend a suboptimal amount altruistically ought to set a hard upper limit on how much they’re willing to give. Instead, I suspect most people should set a lower limit and then ratchet that limit upward over time, or supplement it opportunistically. (This is the idea behind Chaos Altruism.)

If you’re already giving everything to efficient charities except what you need to survive, or if you can’t help but conceptualize your altruistic sentiment as a fixed resource that veganism would deplete, then I think Katja’s reasoning is relevant to your decision. Otherwise, I think veganism is a good choice, and you should even consider combining it with Katja’s method, giving up meat and doubling the cost of your switch to veganism (with the extra money going to an effective charity). We suboptimal givers should take whatever excuse we can find to do better.

Katja warns that if you become a plant person even though it’s not the perfectly optimal choice, “you risk spending your life doing suboptimal things every time a suboptimal altruistic opportunity has a chance to steal resources from what would be your personal purse.” But if the choice really is between a suboptimal altruistic act and an even less optimal personal purchase, I say: mission accomplished! Relatively minor improvements in global utility aren’t bad ideas just because they’re minor.

I could see this being a bad idea if getting into the habit of giving ineffectively depletes your will to give effectively. Perhaps most rationalists would find it exhausting or dispiriting to give in a completely ad-hoc way, without maintaining some close link to the ideal of effective altruism. (I find it psychologically easier to redirect my “triggered giving” to highly effective causes, which is the better option in any case; perhaps some people will likewise find it easier to adopt Katja’s approach than to transform into a plant person.)

It would be nice if there were some rule of thumb we could use to decide when a suboptimal giving activity is so minor as to lack moral force (even for opportunistic Chaos Altruists). If you notice a bug in your psychology that makes it easier for you to become a plant person than to become an optimally frugal eater (and optimal giver), why is that any different from volunteering at a soup kitchen to acquire warm fuzzies? Why is it EA-compatible to encourage rationalists to replace the time they spend eating meat with time spent eating plants, but not EA-compatible to encourage rationalists to replace the time they spend on Reddit with time spent at soup kitchens?

Part of the answer is simply that becoming a plant person is much more effective than regularly volunteering at soup kitchens (even though it’s still not comparable to highly efficient charities). But I don’t think that’s the whole story.


2. Should we try to do more “ordinary” nice things?

Suppose some altruistic rationalists are in a position to do more good for the world by optimizing for frugality, or by ethically offsetting especially harmful actions. I’d still worry that there’s something important we’re giving up, especially in the latter case — “mundane decency,” “ordinary niceness,” or something along those lines.

I think of this ordinary niceness thing as important for virtue cultivation, for community-building, and for general signaling purposes. By “ordinary niceness” I don’t mean deferring to conventional/mainstream morality in the absence of supporting arguments. I do mean privileging useful deontological heuristics like “don’t use violence or coercion on others, even if it feels in the moment like a utilitarian net positive.”

If we aren’t relying on cultural conventions, then I’m not sure what basis we should use for agreeing on community standards of ordinary niceness. One thought experiment I sometimes use for this purpose is: “How easy is it for me to imagine that a society twice as virtuous as present-day society would find [action] cartoonishly evil?”

I can imagine a more enlightened society responding to many of our mistakes with exasperation and disappointment, but I  have a hard time imagining that they’d react with abject horror and disbelief to the discovery that consumers contributed in indirect ways to global warming — or failed to volunteer at soup kitchens. I have a much easier time imagining the “did human beings really do that?!” response to the enslavement and torture of of legions of non-human minds for the sake of modestly improving the quality of sandwiches.

I don’t want to be Thomas Jefferson. I don’t want to be “that guy who was totally kind and smart enough to do the right thing, but lacked the will to part ways with the norms of his time even when plenty of friends and arguments were successfully showing him the way.”

I’m not even sure I want to be the utilitarian Thomas Jefferson, the counterfactual Jefferson who gives his money to the very best causes and believes that giving up his slaves would impact his wealth in a way that actually reduces the world’s expected utilitarian value.

am something like a utiltiarian, so I have to accept the arguments of the hypothetical utilitarian slaveholder (and of Katja) in principle. But in practice I’m skeptical that an actual human being will achieve more utilitarian outcomes by reasoning in that fashion.

I’m especially skeptical that an 18th-century community of effective altruists would have been spiritually undamaged by shrugging its shoulders at slaveholding members. Plausibly you don’t kick out all the slaveholders; but you do apply some social pressure to try to get them to change their ways. Because ditching ordinary niceness corrodes something important about individuals and about groups — even, perhaps, in contexts where “ordinary niceness” is extraordinary.

… I think. I don’t have a good general theory for when we should and shouldn’t adopt universal prohibitions against corrosive “utilitarian” acts. And in our case, there may be countervailing “ordinary niceness” heuristics: the norm of being inclusive to people with eating disorders and other medical conditions, the norm of letting altruists have private lives, etc.


Whatever the right theory looks like, I don’t think it will depend on our stereotypes of rationalist excellence. If it seems high-value to be a community of bizarrely kind people, even though “bizarre kindness” clashes with a lot of people’s assumptions about rationalists or about the life of the mind, even though the kindness in question is more culturally associated with Hindus and hippies than with futurists and analytic philosophers, then… just be bizarrely kind. Clash happens.

I might be talked out of this view. Paul raises the point that there are advantages to doubling down on our public image (and self-image) as unconventional altruists:

I would rather EA be associated with an unusual and cost-effective thing than a common and ineffective thing. The two are attractive to different audiences, but one audience seems more worth attracting.

On the other hand, I’d expect conventional kindness and non-specialization to improve a community’s ability to resist internal strife and external attacks. And plant people are common and unexceptional enough that eating fewer animals probably wouldn’t make vegetarianism or veganism one of our more salient characteristics in anyone’s eyes.

At the same time, plantpersonhood could help us do a nontrivial amount of extra object-level good for the world, if it doesn’t trade off against our other altruistic activities. And I think it could help us develop a stronger identity (both individually and communally) as people who are trying to become exemplars of morality and kindness in many different aspects of their life, not just in our careers or philanthropic decisions.

My biggest hesitation, returning to Katja’s calculations… is that there really is something odd about putting so much time and effort into getting effective altruists to do something suboptimal.

It’s an unresolved empirical question whether Chaos Altruism is actually a useful mindset, even for people to whom it comes naturally. Perhaps Order Altruism and the “just do the optimal thing, dammit” mindset is strictly better for everyone. Perhaps it yields larger successes, or fails more gracefully. Or perhaps rationalists naturally find systematicity and consistency more motivating; and perhaps the impact of meat-eating is too small to warrant a deontological prohibition.

More anecdotes and survey data would be very useful here!

[Epistemic status: I’m no longer confident of this post’s conclusion. I’ll say why in a follow-up post.]

Putting love into words

We’re not very good at love yet. Some of the most textured and complex pleasures people experience happen in physically and emotionally intimate relationships — i.e., in the kinds of relationships that occasion some of our most spectacular tragedies and failures.

One reason we’re bad at love is that we lack a language, a culture, and an ingrained habit of honesty. The more we hide from others, the more we hide from ourselves. The more we hide from ourselves, the more confused and conflicted we become about our own wishes. And that in turn makes it harder to communicate in the future; and the cycle cycles on.

Why, then, are we so closed off to one another in the first place?

Lots of reasons. But one that strikes me as especially easy to fix is that we lack the vocabulary to express a lot of our desires and experiences. No words often means no awareness: no awareness of our current state, and no awareness of the alternative possibilities out there.

Selecting better terminology isn’t a hair-splitting exercise in intellectual masturbation, much as I adore intellectual masturbation. Done right, it’s a technology for enriching our emotional lives. Clear thinking can be an aid to deep feeling, and vice versa. If we want to be happier, want to make wiser decisions, we have to be able to talk about this stuff.

Below, I’ll list a few distinctions that I’ve found useful to explicitly mark in my own words and thoughts. I encourage you to play with them, test them, see which ones you like, and expand and improve on them all.


1. Love vs. amory

Amory” is the name I use for being in a romantic or sexual relationship, and for all the little thoughts and deeds that make up those relationships. This idea is more specific than “love”, in some useful ways. It’s possible to love a platonic (or Platonic) friend, or a good sandwich, or oneself; but that’s not amory.

It’s also more inclusive than “love” in some useful ways. “But do you love your partner?” is a question I’ve seen people struggle with, because it mixes together questions about your present levels and varieties of affection, the social roles you see you relationship as fitting into, and your long-term feelings and relationship goals. Those might be important questions to answer, but it’s also nice to be able to just say that you interact with someone in physically or romantically intimate ways, without wading into those larger questions. And I find “it’s amory” less awkward and stilted than “it’s a romantic / sexual relationship.”

What do we call the people in an amorous relationship? “Partner” isn’t ideal, because it usually suggests a fairly serious relationship. And other terms (“boyfriend,” “lover,” “fuckpuppet,” “relata”…) are too gendered or otherwise specific.

My suggestion is to adopt the new term “amor“, borrowed from Latin for this targeted use. An amor is anyone you’re in a sexual or romantic relationship with. Where a “relationship” is a significant pattern of affinity and cooperation between some specific set of people. And a “romantic” relationship is one that’s characterized by communal acts, a presumption of very warm mutual feelings of caring, and behavior intended to produce mutual desire, pleasure, or intimacy associated with or analogous to sexual desire, pleasure, or intimacy. And a “sexual” relationship is one involving mutual arousal and willful stimulation of erogenous zones, especially…

… OK, that’s probably enough definition-mongering. But note that these are still vague definitions. Calling someone your “amor” (which sounds enough like the French amour that they’ll probably get the basic gist) doesn’t specify whether the relationship is sexual, romantic, physical, intellectual, serious, short-term, exclusive, primary, same-sex, with a boy, with a girl, with someone nonbinary, etc. It’s just… someone you have an existing non-platonic connection with. Self-labeling can be essentialist and restricting, but it doesn’t have to be.

Is this love? Are they my girlfriend? Am I straight? The rush to always have ready answers to questions about your identity, your desires, and the nature of your relationships is damaging because it assumes there’s always a clear answer to such questions; it assumes the answer can’t change on a regular basis; it punishes amors for disagreeing slightly on how to classify their relationship; and it discourages people from patiently waiting until they’ve gathered enough information about themselves to really know where they’re at. This is why the terms I recommend here are still pretty nebulous — but nebulous in specific, carefully chosen ways. Rather than giving up on the project of language and communication, or settling for what we have, we should try to make our language vague in the ways that mirror real human uncertainty and ambiguity, while getting rid of sources of obscurity that serve no good purpose.


2. Preference vs. behavior

Our language is terrible at distinguishing the things we want from the things we actually do. How many people are presently in their ideal relationship type? Most people’s amorous inner lives are greater than the sum of their relationships to date. And this is particularly important to recognize if we want to improve the fit between people’s preferences and their circumstances.

A useful example: Polyamory is a generic identity term, a giant tent-umbrella for people who prefer to have many concurrent romantic and sexual relationships, and for people actually engaged in such relationships. But we lack an easy way to distinguish those two subcategories, which is especially confusing when people’s preferences and relationship types change in different ways. I’ll call the first group of polyamors “polyphiles”, and the second group “multamors”. So:

Multamory is the act of being in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with more than one person over the same period of time. Multamory is opposed to unamory (a relationship with only one person) and anamory (being in no romantic and/or sexual relationships). Romantic anamory is being single. Sexual anamory is not having sex. Voluntary short-term sexual anamory is sexual abstinence (or continence); voluntary long-term sexual anamory is celibacy.

Polyphilia is a preference for having multiple simultaneous mid-to-long-term romantic and/or sexual partners. Polyphilia is opposed to monophilia (a preference for one partner) and aphilia (a preference for having no partners). We can distinguish romantic polyphilia from sexual polyphilia, and do the same for monophilia.

(… And I promise I’m not just promoting these terms because they avoid mixing Latin and Greek roots. I PROMISE.)



3. Preference vs. orientation

One’s orientation is the set of sex- and gender-related properties that one is romantically or sexually attracted to. “Attraction” here might mean sexual arousal, or intensely involving aesthetic appreciation, or a deep-seated desire to interact with persons who tend to belong to the category in question.

Such attraction comes in different levels and kinds of intensity (how attracted one is to a given range of individuals), scope (how large is the range of individuals the attraction applies to), context-dependency (how much the attraction varies with independent factors; how predictable it is given only the variables under consideration), and consistency (how much the attraction naturally or inevitably oscillates, including natural duration, how soon and how rapidly the attraction diminishes after its onset).

Preference is not orientation. My orientation is the universe of sensations (and interpretations of sensations) that viscerally entice and delight me, while my preference is what I actually want to have happen. I can be oriented toward (i.e., sensuously enjoy) chocolate ice cream, but choose not to indulge; or I can be oriented away from (i.e., dislike) chocolate ice cream, but choose to have some anyway — say, to win an ice-cream-eating contest.

Sexual orientation is what sex or gender one is sexually attracted to. Sexual attraction involves the kind of arousal we associate with sex, but it doesn’t need to involve a preference to actually have sex with the person one is attracted to. One can desire to fantasize about sex without wishing to go out and have the sex in question in the real world, for instance.

Romantic orientation is what sex or gender one is romantically attracted to. This is a much vaguer concept, encompassing the sorts of people one ‘crushes’ on, the sorts of people one enjoys dating and flirting with, the sorts of people one has especially emotionally intimate or intense friendships with, etc.

Orientation may be directed toward a primary sexual characteristic, or a secondary sexual characteristic, or any gendered physical or psychological characteristic. Gendering is partly culturally (and subculturally and individually) relative, and historically contingent, so there is no fixed set of universal characteristics that exhaust sexual or romantic orientation. What distinguishes ‘genders’ from other ways of categorizing people is just that they tend to be related in some (perhaps roundabout) fashion to the biological distinction between male and female.

Thus what will qualify as an ‘orientation’ from the perspective of one culture (e.g., a preference for people who wear long hair, dresses, and make-up) may instead qualify as a general kink in another. For some people, this will be a reason to collapse the whole idea of orientations, kinks, etc. into some larger categories, like ‘sexual turn-ons’ and ‘romantic turn-ons’.


4. Quantity

All the other confusions are amplified by the fact that our language is insensitive to quantitative difference. The Kinsey scale translates the heterosexual / homosexual dichotomy into a spectrum, which many people find useful. But it’s not clear what the scale is quantifying, which sucks a lot of the value out of it. For instance, it doesn’t distinguish weak but constant desire from intense but intermittent desire; nor does it clearly distinguish behavior, preference, and orientation.

I mentioned above that vagueness can be more useful than precision when you’re uncertain, or when there are risks associated with communicating too much too fast. Equally, we should have the ability to be precise when it is useful to clearly and concisely define ourselves to others. Language should be vague, and non-vague, in exactly the ways that people are most likely to need.

Returning to the example of polyamory, a scale that acknowledges degrees of personal preference might look like:

  1. Strong Polyphile: Only willing to be in relationships that involve, or seek to involve, three or more people.

  2. Moderate Polyphile: Significantly prefers multamorous relationships, but open to unamorous relationships too, possibly even ‘closed’ ones.

  3. Weak Polyphile: Open to multamory or unamory, but slightly prefers multamory.

  4. Ambiphile: Equally open to multamory or unamory, with no preference for either.

  5. Weak Monophile: Open to either, but slightly prefers unamory.

  6. Moderate Monophile: Significantly prefers unamory, but open to ‘open’ or polyamorous relationships.

  7. Strong Monophile: Only willing to be in two-person relationships.

There are lots of other variables of human experience and behavior that would be quite easy to sum up in a few words: your relationship status at different times (e.g., ‘I’m a past-multamor’ or ‘I’m a recent-multamor’ vs. ‘I’m a present-multamor’), exactly how many people you’re in a relationship with (biamory, triamory…) or would like to be in a relationship with (diphilia, triphilia…), where you fall on various spectra from sexual to asexual or romantic to aromantic, how curious you are about a certain behavior or relationship type, how much masculinity or femininity (of various kinds) you prefer in your partners, etc.

We could carve up these concepts more finely, but I find that these distinctions are the ones I end up needing the most often. If we were categorizing food tastes rather than relationship tastes, we’d say that an ice cream orientation amounts to craving and/or enjoying the taste of ice cream, an ice cream preference amounts to an all-things-considered desire to eat ice cream when given a chance, and ice cream amory is a diet of routinely eating ice cream.

But since ice cream isn’t the psychosocial clusterfuck that interpersonal affection is, and since there’s less at stake if you fail to clearly communicate or understand your mental states about ice cream, I’d expect that there’s more discursive low-hanging love fruit than low-hanging ice cream fruit out there.

Should we stop punching nerds?

In a December 14 comment on his blog, Scott Aaronson confessed that the idea that he gains privilege from being a man feels ‘alien to his lived experience’. Generalizing from his own story, Aaronson suggested that it makes more sense to think of shy nerdy males as a disprivileged group than as a privileged one, because such men are unusually likely to be socially isolated and stigmatized, and to suffer from mental health problems.

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year. […]

Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.” At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself.

The two main responses have been Laurie Penny’s “On nerd entitlement” and Amanda Marcotte’s “MIT professor explains: The real oppression is having to learn to talk to people.” These led to a rejoinder from Scott Alexander (“Untitled“) and a follow-up by Aaronson (“What I believe“). My impression is that each response in this chain has at least partly misunderstood the preceding arguments, but I’ll do my best to summarize the state of the debate without making the same mistake, borrowing liberally from others’ comments.


1. Does feminist rhetoric bear some of the blame?

Nick Tarleton responds to Scott Aaronson’s anecdote:

Scott attributes his problems entirely(?) to feminism. I’ve had similar (milder) bad experiences, but it’s really not clear to me in retrospect how much to attribute them to gender/sex-specific cultural stuff rather than general social anxiety and fear of imposing. Within gender/sex-specific cultural stuff, it’s really not clear how much to attribute to feminism rather than not-really-feminist (patriarchal, or Victorian reversed-stupidity-patriarchal) background ideas about male sexuality being aggressive, women not wanting sex, women needing protection, and the like. (Which feminism has a complicated relationship with — most feminists would disavow those ideas, but in my experience a lot of feminist rhetoric still trades on them, out of convenience or just because they’re embedded in the ways we have of thinking and talking about gender issues and better ways haven’t propagated.)

And Alexander writes:

Laurie Penny has an easy answer to any claims that any of this is feminists’ fault: “Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for ‘shy, nerdy men’. Patriarchy is to blame for that.”

I say: why can’t it be both? […]

Pick any attempt to shame people into conforming with gender roles, and you’ll find self-identified feminists leading the way. Transgender people? Feminists led the effort to stigmatize them and often still do. Discrimination against sex workers? Led by feminists. Against kinky people? Feminists again. People who have too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex? Feminists are among the jeering crowd, telling them they’re self-objectifying or reinforcing the patriarchy or whatever else they want to say. Male victims of domestic violence? It’s feminists fighting against acknowledging and helping them.

Yes, many feminists have been on both sides of these issues, and there have been good feminists tirelessly working against the bad feminists. Indeed, right now there are feminists who are telling the other feminists to lay off the nerd-shaming. My girlfriend is one of them. But that’s kind of my point. There are feminists on both sides of a lot of issues, including the important ones.

Alexander is right that “Whether or not a form of cruelty is decreed to be patriarchy doesn’t tell us how many feminists are among the people twisting the knife.”, and he’s right that people who accuse nerds of misogyny often appeal in the same breath to ableist, classist, lookist, fat-shaming, and heteronormative (!) language. Being a feminist doesn’t mean you can never be cruel to people, or never misrepresent them. Consider the way Marcotte elects to summarize Aaronson’s disclosure of his many-year struggle with mental illness:

Translation: Unwilling to actually do the work required to address my social anxiety—much less actually improve my game—I decided that it would be easier to indulge a conspiracy theory where all the women in the world, led by evil feminists, are teaching each other not to fuck me. Because bitches, yo.

Marcotte adds, “I’m not a doctor, but I can imagine that it’s nearly impossible to help someone who is more interested in blaming his testicles, feminism, women generally, or the world for his mental health problems than to actually settle down and get to work at getting better.” Or, as Ozy Frantz of Thing of Thing puts it: “how dare those mentally ill people go about having distorted and inaccurate thoughts”.

Penny’s piece too ignores the possibility that feminist discourse norms are causing any harm. Sarah Constantin of Otium responds in a Facebook comment:

So, there are women nerds who make feminism their identity. The author [Penny] is one of them. And I think you do that if nerd culture treats you badly and feminist culture treats you well. But feminist culture doesn’t treat everyone well. Sometimes it’s *full* of anti-nerd contempt.

I’m unusual in this respect, but I’m much more offended and bothered by people who don’t like how my brain works than by people who don’t like what’s between my legs. I’m more wary of feminists who I suspect of wanting to mock my personal quirks and hobble my professional success than I am of sexism in STEM. I see comments on anti-SV articles like “this is what happens when you give autistic people money and power” and I get mad. I take it personally. A lot more personally than I take insults to women. Maybe it’s not fair of me, but that’s how my emotional calculus stacks up.

Scott Aaronson is right that there is a particular kind of damage that is inflicted ONLY on men and boys [eta: and queer women/girls] who want to do right by women and do not want to be “creeps”.

In general, there is a kind of damage that is inflicted ONLY upon the morally scrupulous. If you really want to be good, the demands of altruistic or self-sacrificing goodness can be paralyzing. The extreme case of this is scrupulosity as a symptom of OCD. This is a kind of pain that simply does not affect people whose personal standards are more relaxed. […]

What actually happens is that a highly scrupulous person reads a bunch of things that seem to put moral obligations on him, with the implication that the correct amount of moral obligation is always “more,” and *never* finds any piece of feminist writing that explicitly says “this is enough, you can stop here” because there aren’t that many people period who understand that obsessive moral paralysis is a problem. And so you get Scott Aaronson and many others like him (including some women!)

What we need is people talking about the problem of obsessive moral paralysis. “Yes, you *do* have some moral obligations, but they are finite and attainable. Here are realistic examples of people acting acceptably. Here are real-world examples of good men. You can be good without being a martyr.”

Wesley Fenza of Living within Reason adds:

There is a lot to like about this piece. Penny correctly points out that women have an extra layer of marginalization on top of what Aaronson went through, and that Aaronson didn’t account for that in his comment.

However, I think the thing that rubbed me wrong about Penny’s piece is that she didn’t offer any account of the role that feminism played in Aaronson’s tortured adolescence, which is an experience unique to the privileged, and which Penny didn’t acknowledge at all. […]

Penny claims the mantle of feminism, yet she refuses to acknowledge the role that her movement played in Aaronson’s tragic story. She demands that Aaronson, as a nerdy white man, be “held to account” for the lack of women in STEM, yet refuses his call that feminism be held to account for its at-worst abusive and at-best unkind rhetoric toward people deemed “privileged.”

The thesis of Penny’s piece is that as a nerdy woman, she went through all of the hell that Aaronson did, plus extra because she’s a woman. I think if she wanted to make that claim, she should have some kind of argument that Aaronson’s unique pain somehow doesn’t count or is somehow lesser than the pain of being a woman. I don’t find that obvious, and I don’t think she even attempted to make a case for it.

I think, as feminist advocates, we are obligated to recognize the darker side of our community and its potential to cause real-world harm. Aaronson’s piece was a real, raw testimonial documenting some of that harm. Penny’s piece just seemed like she was trying to handwave it away. She was compassionate, but she ultimately didn’t seem like she was listening.

I tend to recognize this because it’s a problem I have often — when someone tells me about an issue they have, I try to relate it to my own experience. On the one hand, a measure of that is how empathy/sympathy works. But on the other hand, I have a tendency to ignore the differences that make the other person’s pain and loss unique. I feel like that may be what’s going on here.

Chana Messinger raises the possibility that the harm inflicted on some scrupulous people could be “an unfortunate but necessary side effect of spreading the right messages to everyone else”. To know whether that’s so, we’ll need to investigate how common a problem this is, and whether there are easy ways to avoid it. At this stage, however, relatively few people have acknowledged that this is a concern. I certainly wasn’t aware of it until recently, and I’m now having to rethink how I talk about moral issues.



2. Are nerds oppressed? How bad do they have it?

Alexander argues:

I know there are a couple different definitions of what exactly structural oppression is, but however you define it, I feel like people who are at much higher risk of being bullied throughout school, are portrayed by the media as disgusting and ridiculous, have a much higher risk of mental disorders, and are constantly told by mainstream society that they’re ugly and defective kind of counts. If nerdiness is defined as intelligence plus poor social skills, then it is at least as heritable as other things people are willing to count as structural oppression like homosexuality (heritability of social skills, heritability of IQ, heritability of homosexuality)[.]

The three main objections I’ve heard to this line of reasoning are that (1) the shaming and bullying nerds experience is relatively minor, (2) nerds are privileged, and (3) anti-nerd sentiment is really some combination of lookism, ableism, etc.

3 strikes me as a reasonable (though not conclusively demonstrated) position, and is still consistent with points like Frantz’s:

it is amazing how laurie penny can write this entire article without mentioning that neurodiversity is a form of oppression????

“Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t suffer, which, I know, totally blows.” except that a lot of shy nerdy men are suffering because… they lack privilege… on at least one axis

Intersectionality also suggests that anti-nerd sentiment won’t perfectly reduce to its constituent parts. ‘Nerd’ could be a composite like ‘Chinese-American lesbian’ or ‘poor transgender Muslim’, but third-wave feminist theory denies that the social significance of ‘poor transgender Muslim’ is just a conjunction of the significance of ‘poor person’, ‘transgender person’, and ‘Muslim’.

Alexander gives a good response to 2, pointing out that being Jewish (for example) can simultaneously result in being privileged and oppressed. 1 seems like an open empirical question, provided we can agree on a threshold level of harm that is required for something to qualify as ‘oppression’, ‘discrimination’, etc.

Alternatively, one might object that the ‘structures’ Alexander points to are cognitive and cultural, but not institutional. Perhaps there isn’t enough economic, legal, and political restriction on nerds for them to qualify as ‘oppressed’ in the relevant sense. (And perhaps the same is true of Jews in 21st-century America, and we should think of Jews in that context as ‘historically oppressed’ but not actively oppressed? One man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.)

Of course, it could turn out that ‘shy nerds’ suffer as a group from a distinct flavor of oppression even if ‘shy male nerds’ don’t. And Messinger adds in correspondence: “However strong or weak the case for nerd oppression, the case for nerd oppression by feminists is an order of magnitude or two weaker.”

But ‘oppressed’ is in the end just a word. What’s the substantive question under debate?

If some categories of suffering are unusually intense, widespread, and preventable, it makes sense to adopt the heuristic ‘allocate more attention and sympathy to those categories’. This is the schematic reasoning behind treating triggers as qualitatively more important than aversions, or treating racism as qualitatively more important than run-of-the-mill bullying. (At least, it’s the good reasoning. There may be worse reasons on hand, such as medical essentialism and outgroup antipathy.)

However, these heuristics require some policing, or they’ll degrade in effectiveness. Once everyone agrees that ‘triggers’ demand respect, people without PTSD symptoms have an incentive to expand the ‘trigger’ concept to fit their most intense preferences. Once everyone agrees that ‘oppressed groups’ get special consideration, disadvantaged people outside conventional axes of oppression have an incentive to expand the idea of ‘oppression’. This is inevitable, even if no one is being evil. Thus we need to take into account the upkeep cost of preserving these categories’ meanings when we decide whether they’re useful.

Many people intuit that we should have different norms in Europe and the Anglophone world about when it’s OK to belittle white people as a group, versus when it’s OK to belittle black people. The former is “punching up,” the latter “punching down.” Without a clear sense of whether geeks are ‘above’ or ‘below’ us, this heuristic short-circuits here; so the practical import of this debate is how strongly we should endorse a norm ‘don’t pick on shy geeky men as a group’.

Even if geeks aren’t oppressed and their problems are much smaller than those of women, black people, LGBT people, etc., their suffering is still real, and there are probably good ways to reduce it. I don’t know what the best solution here is, but trigger warnings and carefully-labeled safe spaces may be useful for people who want to avoid discussing various forms of feminism. For public spaces, perhaps we need a new concept of ‘punching straight ahead’, and new norms for when that’s OK. I generally prefer to err on the side of niceness, but I understand the arguments for being a loud gadfly, and I don’t know of a practical way to keep memes of wrath from outcompeting pacific memes.

Alexander, however, worries that even raising the issue of punching up vs. down is a red herring. He accuses feminists of misrepresenting Scott Aaronson’s ‘my suffering is real and matters’ as ‘my suffering is the most real and most important kind of suffering’:

If you look through Marcotte’s work, you find this same phrasing quite often. “Some antifeminist guy is ranting at me about how men are the ones who are really oppressed because of the draft” (source). […] But Aaronson is admitting about a hundred times that he recognizes the importance of the ways women are oppressed. The “is really oppressed” isn’t taken from him, it’s assumed by Marcotte. Her obvious worldview is – since privilege and oppression are a completely one dimensional axis, for Aaronson to claim that there is anything whatsoever that has ever been bad for men must be interpreted as a claim that they are the ones who are really oppressed and therefore women are not the ones who are really oppressed and therefore nothing whatsoever has ever been bad for women.

Alexander blames this on “Insane Moon Logic”. I find it likelier that different people, Alexander included, are just focusing on different aspects of Aaronson’s comment, to fit them into different narratives. Aaronson doesn’t deny that women are disadvantaged in various ways, but he, not Marcotte or Penny, is the person who raised the issue of whether geeks are more disprivileged than women. It shouldn’t surprise us that some eyebrows would be raised at lines like:

[1] Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’—my privilege!—is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.

[2] But I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me “privileged”—that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes—is completely alien to your way of seeing things.

[3] My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

[4] As I see it, whenever these nerdy males pull themselves out of the ditch the world has tossed them into, while still maintaining enlightened liberal beliefs, including in the inviolable rights of every woman and man, they don’t deserve blame for whatever feminist shortcomings they might still have. They deserve medals at the White House.

1 appears to deny the existence of male privilege; 2 suggests that nerdy men may be “one of society’s least privileged classes”; 3 calls being a heterosexual man a “curse”; and 4 can easily be read as demanding cookies (“medals”, even) for insecure men who don’t actively reject women’s rights, no matter how glaring their “feminist shortcomings”.

Aaronson has since explained that he does believe in male privilege, and he has walked back claim 2 to just “the problem of the nerdy ‘heterosexual male’ is surely one of the worst social problems today that you can’t even acknowledge as being a problem” (emphasis added). Still, a feminist could reasonably worry that Aaronson is vacillating between a motte (‘nerds suffer too!’ or ‘there exists at least one person who was harmed by feminist rhetoric!’) and a bailey (‘nerds have it worse than all or most other groups’, or ‘pointing out problems with nerd culture is immoral’).

I hate the ‘motte’/’bailey’ framing — it encourages people to assume malice, even when we should be looking into the possibility that our conversation partner has made a mistake, or has updated their beliefs, or consists of multiple dissenting factions. But if you’re going to use the motte/bailey idea to accuse your enemies of deceit (or Moon Logic), be sure you spend at least as much time testing how readily it applies to your own side.

I don’t know whether Aaronson stands by his younger self’s belief that he would have been better off as a non-white non-heterosexual non-male. As Tarn Somervell Fletcher notes:

I’ve seen plenty of responses that seemed to have completely taken on board everything he’s [Aaronson’s] said, and just think that he’s misjudged how bad it is for some people. When you’re comparing two people’s oppression, or suffering etc. (which is a terrible terribly unproductive idea but everyone seems determined to do it anyway), the default is that both people are going to discount (or, fail to count?) the others’ experience.

I agree with Aaronson’s statement, “This whole affair makes me despair of the power of language to convey human reality” (only I came in pre-despairing). Since people are extremely bad at simulating others’ life experiences, Aaronson is likely to misunderstand how bad women, black people, trans people, etc. have it. (This is of course consistent with acknowledging the psychological importance of Aaronson’s feeling that he had it worse than everyone else.) For the same reason, a black lesbian social butterfly would be likely to misunderstand how bad Aaronson has it. If we only rely on who has the most eloquent anecdotes, rather than on reliable population-wide quality-of-life measures, we aren’t going to get very far with these discussions.

And perhaps it isn’t worth the effort, if it’s possible for us to come up with norms of discourse that work OK even when we don’t all start with perfectly accurate beliefs about people’s demographics and relative levels of privilege. Even if punching up is justifiable in principle, we may not want to come in swinging when there’s a chance we’re misappraising the situation.


Further reading

Which charity does the most good?

What can you do that would have the best chance of making the world a better place? As Scott Siskind puts the question:

Most donors say they want to “help people”. If that’s true, they should try to distribute their resources to help people as much as possible. Most people don’t.

In the “Buy A Brushstroke” campaign, eleven thousand British donors gave a total of £550,000 to keep the famous painting “Blue Rigi” in a UK museum. If they had given that £550,000 to buy better sanitation systems in African villages instead, the latest statistics suggest it would have saved the lives of about one thousand two hundred people from disease. Each individual $50 donation could have given a year of normal life back to a Third Worlder afflicted with a disabling condition like blindness or limb deformity.

Most of those 11,000 donors genuinely wanted to help people by preserving access to the original canvas of a beautiful painting. And most of those 11,000 donors, if you asked, would say that a thousand people’s lives are more important than a beautiful painting, original or no. But these people didn’t have the proper mental habits to realize that was the choice before them, and so a beautiful painting remains in a British museum and somewhere in the Third World a thousand people are dead. […]

It is important to be rational about charity for the same reason it is important to be rational about Arctic exploration: it requires the same awareness of opportunity costs and the same hard-headed commitment to investigating efficient use of resources, and it may well be a matter of life and death.

Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell notes (in this video) that it isn’t easy to spot an ineffective charity. Many popular charities are “not even failing to do good, but doing harm”. At the same time, the positive difference you can make with a carefully targeted, empirically vetted charitable donation is extraordinary. Philosopher William MacAskill voices his excitement:

Imagine you’re walking down the street and see a building on fire. You run in, kick the door down—smoke billowing—you run in and save a young child. That would be a pretty amazing day in your life: That’s a day that would stay with you forever. Who wouldn’t want to have that experience? But the most effective charities can save a life for $4,000, so many of us are lucky enough that we can save a life every year through our donations. When you’re able to achieve so much at such low cost to yourself…why wouldn’t you do that? The only reason not to is that you’re stuck in the status quo, where giving away so much of your income seems a little bit odd.

GiveWell is the top organization investigating the impact charities have upon the most disadvantaged people in the world. If you want to be confident you’re really improving the world in a concrete way, really saving lives, it’s hard to do better than following GiveWell’s new annual giving recommendations (updated December 2014). The new recommendations are that each $100 you give to charity over the next 4 months break down as follows:

$60 – Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)

$12 – GiveDirectly

$12 – Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)

$10 – GiveWell

$6 – Deworm the World Initiative (DtWI)

(The $10 to GiveWell is an operating expenses donation GiveWell is requesting separately. I’m including it in the breakdown on the assumption that if you trust GiveWell’s expertise enough to base your decisions on their research, you probably also want to support GiveWell’s ability to keep those recommendations up to date.)

The above breakdown is intended to minimize the risk that, say, AMF keeps getting swamped with donations long after it’s reached its yearly target, while donors neglect DtWI. GiveWell’s goal is that AMF receive $5 million from individual donors over the next 4 months; GiveDirectly between $1 million and $25 million; SCI $1 million; and DtWI between $500,000 and $1 million. If everyone donates in the above proportion, then every top-effectiveness charity will be equally likely to hit its minimum target.

If you want to follow this breakdown exactly, go to and select “Grants to recommended charities (90%) and unrestricted (10)%” under “How should we use your gift?”. If you’d rather just donate to one organization and not split it up in this way, GiveWell suggests giving to the Against Malaria Foundation; you can do so by setting “How should we use your gift?” to “Grants to recommended charities” and writing under Comments “all to AMF”.

Edit 12/31: More specifically, Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell writes:

For donors who have a high degree of trust in and alignment with GiveWell, we recommend unrestricted gifts to GiveWell. For donors who want to support our work because they value it but are otherwise primarily interested in supporting charities based on neutral recommendations, strong evidence, etc., we recommend giving 10% of their donation to GiveWell.

What do these charities do?


GiveWell staff make a site visit to a charitable organization in western India.

AMF, GiveDirectly, SCI, and DtWI all focus on combating poverty and disease in poor regions of Africa and Asia. This isn’t an arbitrary choice; your dollar can go orders of magnitude farther in the developing world than in developed nations. Dylan Matthews of Vox writes:

GiveWell actually looked into a number of US charities, like the Nurse-Family Partnership program for infants, the KIPP chain of charter schools, and the HOPE job-training program. It found that all were highly effective, but far more cost intensive than the best foreign charities. KIPP and the Nurse-Family Partnership cost over $10,000 per child served, while deworming programs like SCI’s and Deworm the World’s generally cost about $0.50 per child treated.

AMF distributes insecticide-treated bed nets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries. This prevents transmission of malaria by mosquito bite, reducing child mortality and anemia and improving developmental outcomes. (General information on insecticide-treated nets.)

GiveDirectly makes secure cash payments to poor households they’ve vetted in Kenya and Uganda. Recipients may then use this money however they wish. This generally results in improved food security and investments with high rates of return. Direct cash transfers are a good way to avoid the common mistake of trying to micromanage the lives of people in the developing world. Impoverished individuals usually have much more robust and fine-grained knowledge of their own needs than any philanthropic organization or donor does, and they have clearer incentives to make sure every penny gets used wisely. (General information on cash transfers.)

SCI works with governments in sub-Saharan Africa to distribute deworming pills to schoolchildren, improving nutrition and developmental outcomes. DtWI does similar deworming work in India, Kenya, and Vietnam, with more focus on improving existing programs than on creating and scaling up programs. (General information on deworming.)

How do these charities compare to each other?

GiveWell publishes its evidence and reasoning process publicly so others can examine it in as much detail as they’d like and identify points of disagreement. That gives you a chance to deviate from GiveWell’s recommendations in an informed way, if you disagree with GiveWell about the tradeoffs involved. To summarize GiveWell’s take:

  • Cost-effectiveness: GiveDirectly is probably the least cost-effective, in spite of transferring 87 to 90 cents per dollar donated directly into the hands of poor individuals. This is because it still appears to be cheaper to cure the worst widespread diseases than to directly alleviate the poverty of otherwise healthy people. AMF and SCI are maybe 5-10 times as effective as GiveDirectly, and DtWI may be twice as effective as SCI.
  • Strength of supporting evidence: We can be relatively confident GiveDirectly is having the impact it intends to. The case for AMF is weaker, and the case for SCI is weaker still. DtWI has the weakest case, because its political focus places it more causal steps away from its goal. On the other hand, DtWI’s transparency and self-monitoring is much better than SCI’s, so there’s more likelihood we’ll notice in the future if DtWI has gone wrong than if SCI has.
  • History of rolling out more program: GiveDirectly and SCI have a strong track record. AMF and DtWI have an adequate track record.
  • Room for more funding: GiveDirectly is scaling up amazingly well, and could continue to make use of tens of millions more dollars this year. AMF has had difficulty finding enough places to distribute bed nets to use its funds effectively; however, it now appears to have fixed that problem and has a lot more room for funding it can use to leverage more distribution deals. DtWI and SCI have relatively little room for funding.

In their personal charitable donations, GiveWell staff generally followed the above recommendations, though several staffers gave substantially more to GiveDirectly (to reward its transparency and self-monitoring, and to be sure of having a positive impact), and less to the deworming charities. Other people who have explained how they’re factoring in GiveWell’s new recommendations include philosopher Richard Chappell, blogger Unit of Caring, consultant Chris Smith, and economist Robert Wiblin.

What are other contenders for the best causes out there?

If you’re interested in credible but less thoroughly vetted efforts to combat global poverty, you may want to look at GiveWell’s second tier of promising charities:

Following GiveWell’s recommendations is probably the best way to measurably improve the lives of human beings who are suffering and dying today. However, the same evidence-based approach should allow us to identify relatively effective and ineffective causes in the developed world too. GiveWell is in the early stages of looking for the most urgent and tractable projects in U.S. policy, and one of their top contenders is prison reform. If you live in the U.S. and are more interested in local issues, you may want to follow the work of:

On the other hand, there are some local, activism-oriented charities that may have a much larger impact than any I’ve listed so far — charities focused on non-human animal welfare. If you aren’t just worried about human suffering, you may want to give to:

  • The Humane League, a top-notch animal welfare nonprofit that discourages factory farming through outreach and advertising. They attempt to test the efficacy of their methods at Humane League Labs.

Another excellent way to try to outdo GiveWell’s recommended charities is to help fund scientific research into the life-saving innovations of the future. Historically, scientific and technological progress has had a vastly larger effect on human welfare than any philanthropy has, and this is another major area the Open Philanthropy Project hopes to investigate in the future. For now, the main scientific institute I can recommend donating to is:

  • The Future of Humanity Institute,  an Oxford-based research center that investigates social and technological changes that may impact our future as a species, as well as the effects of systematic uncertainty and bias on our attempts to predict such developments.

If there are interesting developments over the next year, I’ll update this advice December 2015. For now, the main organizations I recommend giving to are GiveWell and its top charities (donation page), the Humane League (donation page), or the Future of Humanity Institute (donation page), in increasing order of ‘uncertainty about the organization’s real effects’ and ‘probability of having a large positive impact’.

Edit 12/28: GiveWell has updated their donation page to include a “Grants to recommended charities (90%) and unrestricted (10)%” option. I’ve modified my above advice to make use of that new option. I’ve also started a birthday fundraiser to give to the charities I covered above.

Rejigger triggers?

From tumblr:

The reason why people on tumblr over-use the concept of “trigger” rather than just “thing I don’t like” or “thing that makes me angry” or “thing that makes me sad” is that, literally, in the political/fandom part of tumblr culture are required to establish your right not to read a thing, and you only have rights if you can establish that you’re on the bad end of an axis of oppression. Hence, co-opting the language of mental illness: trigger.

i.e. trigger warning culture is a rational response to an environment in which media consumption is mandatory. It’s not hypersensitivity so much as the only way to function.

There is a secondary thing, which is, here we are all oppressed, which ties into the feeling that you only have rights if you can establish that you’re at the bad end of an axis of oppression, but I’m not sure I can totally articulate that thing.

The idea that oppression confers legitimacy does seem to be ascendant, and not just on tumblr. Hostile political debates these days often turn into arguments about which side is the injured party, with both claiming to be unfairly caricatured or oppressed. This is pretty bad if it displaces a substantive exchange of ideas, though it may be hard to fix in a society that’s correcting for bias against oppressed groups. The cure isn’t necessarily worse than the disease, though that’s a question worth looking into, as is the question of whether people can learn to see through false claims of grievance.

On the other hand, I don’t think ‘I will (mostly) disregard your non-triggering aversions’ implies ‘you only have rights to the extent you’re oppressed’. I think the deeper problem is that social interaction between strangers and acquaintances is increasingly taking place in massive common spaces, on public websites.

If we’re trapped in the same common space (e.g., because we have a lot of overlapping interests or friends), an increase in your right to freely say what you want to say inevitably means a decrease in my right to avoid hearing things I don’t want to hear. Increasing my right to only hear what I want to will likewise decrease your right to speak freely; at the very least, you’ll need to add content warnings to the things you write, which puts an increasing workload on writers’ plates as the list of reader aversions they need to keep track of grows longer. (Blogging and social media platforms also make things much more difficult, by forcing trigger warnings and content to compete for space at the start of posts.)

I don’t know of any easy, principled way to solve this problem. Readers can download software that blocks or highlights posts/websites using specific words, such as Tumblr Savior and FB Purity. Writers can adopt content warnings for the most common and most harmful trigger and aversions out there, or the ones that are too vague to be caught by word/phrase blockers.

But vague rules are hard to follow. So it’s understandable that people would gravitate toward a black-and-white ‘trigger’ v. ‘non-trigger’ dichotomy in the hope that the scientific authority and naturalness of a medical category would simplify the problem of deciding when the reader’s right-to-not-hear outweighs the writer’s right-to-speak-freely. And it’s equally understandable that people who don’t have ‘triggers’ in the strictest sense, but are still being harmed in a big way by certain things people say (or ways people say them), will want to piggyback off that heuristic once it exists.

‘Only include content warnings for triggers’ doesn’t work, because ‘trigger’ isn’t a natural kind and people mean different things by it. Give some groups an incentive to broaden the term and others an incentive to narrow it, and language will diverge even more. ‘I’ll only factor medical information into my decisions about how to be nice to people’ is rarely the right approach.

‘Always include content warnings for triggers’ doesn’t work either. There are simply too many things people are triggered by.

If we want rules that are easy to follow in extreme cases while remaining context-sensitive in mild cases, we’ll probably need some combination of

‘Here are the canonical content warnings that everyone should use in public spaces: [A], [B], [C]…’


‘If you have specific reason to think other information will harm part of your audience, the nice thing to do is to have a private conversation with some of those audience members and consider adding more content warnings. If it’s causing a lot of harm to a lot of your audience, adding content warnings transitions from “morally praiseworthy” to “morally obligatory”.’

The ambiguity and context-sensitivity of the second rule is made up for by the very clear and easy-to-follow first rule. Of course, I only provided a schema. The whole point of the first rule is to actually give concrete advice (especially for cases where you don’t know much about your audience). That project requires, if you’re going to do it right, that we collect base rate information on different aversions and triggers, find a not-terrible way of ranking them by ‘suffering caused’, and find a consensus threshold for ‘how much suffering it’s OK for a random content generator to cause in public spaces’.

That wouldn’t obviate the need for safe spaces where the content is more carefully controlled, but it would hopefully make movies, books, social media, etc. safe and enjoyable for nearly everyone, without requiring people to just stop talking about painful topics.