My Conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar

This was a really good one, here is the text and audio.  The opening:

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.

Here is one excerpt proper:

COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?

MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.

And:

COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?

MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?

COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?

MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.

COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.

Try this part too:

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.

First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And also, from me:

COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?

Definitely recommended.

Comments

Living Longer: What if science can extend the life of the body but not the mind? Indeed, many who study dementia believe that there isn't an epidemic of dementia, it's just the result of so many more people living longer it appears to be an epidemic. I mention this because the super-wealthy are investing billions in longevity. Perhaps uploading the mind to a computer is the only realistic path to longevity. Of course, it would have to be done before the onset of dementia, which would require the super-wealthy who wish to achieve everlasting life to make a rather difficult decision. Would one who chooses that path be diagnosed as having dementia?

The super-wealthy haven't been investing billions into longevity. Ellison has been the highest profile donator and has given a total of hundreds of millions to medical research in general since 1998 but only a small percentage of that would have gone to longevity research. Last year, Bill Gates donated $50 million to Alzheimer's research.

The super-wealthy across the globe are investing enormous sums just on the technology of mind uploading. How would one know how much? Google mind uploading. Here's one article (Forbes) on longevity investing: https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulirving/2018/11/01/longevity-innovators-investing-in-the-growing-longevity-market/#1f7545aa4f87 Google longevity investment for many more. So-called tech is doing more than simply perfecting advertising. As for tech's future, here's an excellent piece by Derek Thomson on where tech goes from here now that tech has completed the relatively easy quest of conquering media: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/01/is-the-age-of-tech-over/580504/

The Forbes article said nothing about the super wealthy investing or how much is being invested in longevity. So far the amount has been very small, but I'm sure that it is increasing.

Altruism is good at any level. But it should not be tax deductible.

Also it should be unknown or at least not intentionally known. It isn't altruism if you only do it to get "atta boy"s.

"I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them."

Was the term "looksism" invented by a New Yorker scribe or by a GMU economist?

The term can be nominated on 16 Jan 2019 for "words to be avoided for the rest of the year".

MacFarquhar's use of the term in the quote above suggests grave difficulty on the parts of cosmopolitan provinicials to account for subjectivity and individualism: or how else might we marvel at the novelty of "being outside a person, looking at them".

FAR TOO MUCH valorization of "empathy" is subjective states have to be repudiated thus.

Are subjectivity and individualism becoming socially invalid?

I thought it was "lookism."

Looks like "looksism", from both TC's and LM's usage, but neither looks likely as neologism.

Cf. "Journalism: the practice of corrupting language to engender slovenly thought about contemporary circumstance".

MacFarquhar also gets points for having humiliated Noam Chomsky (by quoting the loathsome toad accurately).

"MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us."

Sounds like the orange man.

I did not open this topic, but it only "sounds like the orange man" if you filter your sources very carefully.

Christie asserts that Trump has a "revolving door of deeply flawed individuals — amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons — who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for, sometimes seemingly without so much as a background check via Google or Wikipedia."

I mean seriously, if you are going to take MacFarquhar seriously, take your definition of virtue seriously. (Seriously x 3)

I do not take MacFarquhar seriously at all. Obvious pleasant surprise is the high quality of many who he does hire. He may be erratic, but he sure hires pretty good folks around him. (Haley for President)

20+ of Trump's cronies ended up with felony records. Manafort and Flynn aren't exactly "pretty good folks", more like traitors to the United States of America. And let's pretend nepotism isn't also happening.

Good interview. On the subject of lying to patients with dementia, however, I suspect she has little first hand experience. At some point, it just avoids painful cognitive dissonance on the part of the sufferer while allowing the caretaker to maintain their own sanity.

Tyler needs to talk less.

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

is talkism toxic?

My first reaction reading the part of the interview reproduced above was to ask whether Cowen was interviewing MacFarquhar or was Cowen interviewing Cowen. Cowen is an excellent interviewer, so I am not sure why this interview seems like Cowen talking to himself. Is Cowen trying to make a point by reproducing this part of the interview? Anyway, is the quest for living longer pointless because those who do will suffer dementia (i.e., it's possible for the body to live longer but not the mind).

I listened to the audio version and quite liked it, though I admit that this time I got distracted by some multitasking, missed pieces of it. There are strengths and weaknesses to podcasting as a medium. It is capable of high-bandwidth communication, but that can sometimes be fragile in the listener environment.

I was struck by that as well, but after reading the transcript it seems to have been an anomalous exchange.

He's displaying masculine dominance of the conversation. Snowflakes on the loony left need to stop being offended at men acting like men.

If one of the key traits of extreme altruists is duty, I think you could be both a committer of genocide, a soldier on a battle-field, and an extreme altruists. Perhaps not at the same time, but during different phases of one's life. Absolutely.

He and Putin, that former judo champion, should meet in the Octogon.

President Captain Bolsonaro would prevwil. Brazil has killed many communist spies.

"Could the same person be both..."

And instead of opposites, suppose they reinforce each other. In the Watchman graphic novel (spoilers), the "smartest man in the world" decides that to save the world, he has to slaughter 8 million innocent people. It's his duty and he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him for it.

Common enough in activists in the real world. To prevent or stop X (climate change, save the snail darter) we HAVE TO do Y, just ignore, hide or down play the sometimes devastating consequences.

Just like Thanos, kill half the universe so the other half can live.

Naomi Klein wrote a book called This Changes Everything a few years back making pretty much that exact argument. IE, the threat of climate change made the transition from capitalism to socialism imperative, because only through 'control' of resources could we reign in carbon emissions and forcibly transition the economy to renewable energy sources. Of course, she's not really an environmentalist, more of just a reflexive dingbat leftist, but nonetheless, she is not a fever dream of paranoid right wingers.

Think of any environmental alarm as a fire bell. Anyone may walk up and ring the bell, because they fear harm, because they wish to help others, because they seek power, or are running a grift.

But none of that really matters. The only thing that matters is whether there is a fire.

Really?

You should ask an honest Liberal in Ontario (if there are any) whether their environmental efforts actually made any difference in the long run. They seemed to pave the way for their political irrelevance and the systematic dismantling of their implementations by the next government with full support of the electorate.

There are many examples of this, and the global warming initiatives are rife with this stuff. The situation in France right now is another example.

Competence matters. This is a very complex problem.

That's a really bad answer, ignoring "the fire" to shotgun proposed solutions from your political opponents. Actually you didn't name any concrete proposals, did you? Just the *people* you don't like?

Excellent and true to form.

What a strange comment. Complete non-sequitur. Incoherent.

That's part of his modus operandi.

heh, pretending "incoherence" after two people got it and replied with understanding ... is not the best look.

Actually, those two people both disagreed with you, so....keep digging, I guess.

Are metaphors just difficult for you?

derek got the metaphor, but basically said bad people ring the bell. GoT got the metaphor and shared his parallel metaphor (which I accept as metaphor) that some people are tryin' to climb the ladder. Some, certainly. As in Joe McCarthy, below.

I mean, I don't really mind this ankle-biting but I consider it more a waste of time than a challenge.

It was a dumb metaphor, as derek pointed out, plus it wasn't really a reply to my comment about Ms. Klein so much as it was an obfuscation, and to top it off, you drew entirely the wrong conclusion from your own metaphor, so nice job on failing in pretty much every way possible here.

So, are you going to dispute that for any cause there might be some people who are selflessly committed, and others who are shameful grifters?

That is all the metaphor says. But I suppose anybody around the "all my enemies are bad" can't grasp that.

Note that I didn't mean to pick on environmentalism, though, you know. The problem is shared across the political spectrum. For instance, how many innocent lives did Joe McCarthy destroy to "rid" the US of communism? At some point altruism crosses the line and becomes simply fanaticism.

Oh, sure. Joe was definitely ringing the fire bell.

These excerpts don't sell it, Tyler. Just sayin'....

The real question is not buying what Prof. Cowen is selling, but whether you wish to donate to enjoy further such Conversations.

Trolling this blog so consistently is evidence of my very healthy mental state.

I agree. TC is talking, not listening. The excerpts are uncomfortable to read. At least, unless you have all of his books as well as several pictures of him on your wall.

yeah, if this is the highlights ...

"A couple adopts two children in distress. But then they think: what if I can only save one, and if I try to save both the likely outcome is that I can save neither?"

Oh, umm, no, they don't think that at all. Do they?

And then there's the utopian urge, "If I can save children who are unrelated to me, wouldn't still more children be saved if everyone was not merely given the choice to do so, but required by law to do so"?

But then there are so many good Darwinian reasons why people might be hardwired to prefer their own children over those of strangers, and therefore it's to be expected that many will do just that. Which perhaps brings us back to yesterday's debate, about the need to deter difficult-to-prove crimes with unrmittingly harsh punishments.

And thus the unfortunate tendency of utopias to turn into their opposite, and for extreme altruism to morph into a nasty, moralizing judgementalism. Or worse.

Kobayashi Maru >> The Trolley Problem

Star Trek taught us that a true hero never accepts no win scenarios.

Thanks for the discussion of stayers vs leavers; this really resonates with me. The phenomenon of moving once seems to me often driven by the desire to "find one's people," which I can testify is an incredibly satisfying thing when you do it successfully. You grow up somewhere that doesn't have a lot of people who are interested in what you're interested in, and/or philosophically aligned with you, and/or desirous of living the way you want to live-- the nerd in a small town is a cliched example of this but there are many others-- and due to the greater mobility we now have, you're far more likely than in the past to be able to go to a place where there *are* a lot of those people. And then living there massively increases your life satisfaction but makes it much harder to even consider moving for some other reason, because it becomes so hard to imagine a good life without "your people". And "your people" in this instance may often have just the same sort of structure of tight social relations, gossip, mutual aid, etc that you would see in a traditional small-town setting, e.g. it is a commonplace that for techies Silicon Valley is a small town. So when someone like Rod Dreher writes about how alienating and inhumane modern city life is and how it's missing the old social bonds that made for a rich and fulfilling life for traditionalist small-town residents, he's missing the ways in which people find those bonds in a modern city setting, and find bonds that they like much more than they'd ever have liked the unchosen bonds of the traditional setting.

It is an interesting point. Mark 3:20 "One time Jesus entered a house, and the crowds began to gather again. Soon he and his disciples couldn't even find time to eat." I think grandeur to Darwin and to Cervantes went past ecological diversity and into the realm of reciprocal altruism. The "your people" argument is certainly a central myth propagated by no one in particular that says, those cobwebs you feel when you try to reconcile the happiness of McDonalds and Wall Street, and the truck drivers and workers at Wal-Mart, that little deficit will be silenced. And, how we fight to silence that speck.

This was great and it got me thinking, how about a conversation with Noam Chomsky?

Hi professor Cowen,
Thank you for this fascinating conversation.
On "If everyone’s response to a bad job or a bad home was to leave, then nothing is fixed.":
There's a French saying that maybe Larissa MacFarquhar doesn't know, but that might very well capture part of the spirit about her next book
"Si tous les dégoûtés s'en vont, il n'y a que les dégoûtants qui restent."

yeet verily
rebranding diagnosis as diagnostic code was
a great leap forward for memezombies

See, at a first pass, I would have supposed that the momentary discomfort-betraying pause that precedes the hearty "Isn't that wonderful!" when you're being told about someone who was moved to donate a kidney to a stranger, stems less from hostility to the thought of helping others and more from a suspicion of asceticism. I will prove I don't need the comforts of this treacherous material world by lying exposed on this rock until I am close to death = I care not if you violate my body by removing my "spare" kidney? "The material world is evil" tends to be a non-starter for most of us.

"COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist?"

Ayn Rand might ask, 'How could he not?'

So, I'll be the one to tell you guys .. this is not legit, does not actually appear in the transcript.

Interview is an hour. Whew. At a few too many points it is about TC, but TC wouldn't be TC without a high BMI ego. He asks her about the extreme altruists personality (specifically about whether they are Neurotics or not {as if 1) she's qualified to determine that and 2) that that personality (big 5) aspect is stable over a person's universe of contexts} which is similar to his IQ discussions. Perhaps he's moved on from IQ to the Big 5 as having some existential meaning. I rant. Turns out she, some time ago, wrote about the DSM. I guess that makes her competent to judge psychological traits. I found it odd that he asked her about looksism until I saw how she appeared in the interview. Enlightenment. (be sure to check out both the panoramic photo and her close up) One odd thing she said (she's 51) is that she has learned that location (distance or broadly, relatedness) matters for most but much less so for extreme altruists. Which I found interesting: I've always found people's high concern for the minor local problems and low concern for major distant problems to be illogical and morally unjustifiable. She claims to be a student of philosophy but has only just recently come to see this paradox? Very odd - the classical philosophers have talked about this for millennia. Overall: Good job. I learned something.

I had no idea who that woman was, but I found that interview very, very interesting and now I like her. Thanks for that.

I'm fine with the New Yorker's dispensing with the narrative convention of physical description - that actually accords with a trend in children's literature, maybe New Yorker readers and children have like sensitivities - IF I never have to look at another of those *hilarious* pallidly-tinted caricatures on the cover.

Great guest. I found the bit towards the end about people that stay (rather than relocating for work) quite interesting.

I thought parts were superficial. For example, MacFarquhar said that privacy has been eviscerated in the era of social media. Does she know what "eviscerated" means?

Overall, I thought she was interesting but wish there was more follow up.

She was delightful, compelling, right. Best Conversation in a long time. Her answers convey her interest in, and her honoring of, how people really are.

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