Category: Philosophy

My excellent Conversation with Will MacAskill

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

William joined Tyler to discuss why the movement [Effective Altruism] has gained so much traction and more, including his favorite inefficient charity, what form of utilitarianism should apply to the care of animals, the limits of expected value, whether effective altruists should be anti-abortion, whether he’d would side with aliens over humans, whether he should give up having kids, why donating to a university isn’t so bad, whether we are living in “hingey” times, why buildering is overrated, the sociology of the effective altruism movement, why cultural innovation matters, and whether starting a new university might be next on his slate.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Of all the inefficient things, which is the one you love most?

And longer:

COWEN: If we’re assessing the well-being of nonhuman animals, should we use preference utilitarianism or hedonistic utilitarianism? Because it will make a big difference. We’re not sure all these animals are happy. They may live lives of terror, but we’re pretty sure they want to stay alive.

MACASKILL: It makes a huge difference. I think the arguments for hedonism as a theory of well-being, where that saying that well-being consists only in conscious experiences — positive ones contribute positively, negative conscious experiences contribute negatively — I think the arguments for that as a theory of well-being and the theory of what’s good are very strong. It does mean that when you look to the lives of animals in the wild, my view is it’s just very nonobvious whether those lives are good or not.

That’s me being a little bit more optimistic than other people that have looked into this, but the optimism is mainly drawing from just lack of — I think we know very little about the conscious lives of fish, let alone invertebrates. But yes, if you have a preference satisfaction view, then I think the world looks a lot better because beings, in general, want to keep living.

Actually, when we look to the future as well, I think if you assess how good is the future going to be on a hedonist view, well, maybe it’s quite fragile. You could imagine lots of future ways that civilization could go, where they just don’t care about consciousness at all, or perhaps the beings that will, are not conscious. But probably, beings in the future will have preferences, and those preferences will be being satisfied. So, in general, moral reality looks a lot more rosy, I think, if you’re a preference satisfactionist.

COWEN: But it’s possible, say, in your view, that human beings should spend a lot of their time and resources going around destroying nature, since it might have negative net expected utility value.

MACASKILL: I think it’s a possible implication. I think it’d be very unlikely to be the best thing we could be doing because once —

COWEN: But there’s a lot of nature. We have very effective bombs, weapons. We could develop animal-killing weapons if we set our minds to it.

And from me:

COWEN: I worry a bit this is verging into the absurd, and I’m aware that word is a bit question-begging. But if we think about the individual level — like what do you, Will, value? — you value, in part, the inefficient. It’s very hard to give people just pure utilitarian advice, because they’re necessarily partial.

At the big macro level — like the whole world of nature versus humans, ethics of the infinite, and so on — it also seems to me utilitarianism doesn’t perform that well. The utilitarian part of our calculations — isn’t that only a mid-scale theory? You can ask, does rent control work? Are tariffs good? Utilitarianism is fine there, but otherwise, it just doesn’t make sense.

Fascinating throughout.  Don’t forget Will’s excellent new book What We Owe the Future.

Addendum: Here is Ezra Klein’s conversation with MacAskill.  And with Dwarkesh Patel.

Are utilitarians more conformist?

Individuals tend to conform to the group’s moral judgments even without the presence of the group’s members.

Individual’s moral inclination affects their conformity tendency.

…people with utilitarian inclinations conform to a greater extent and more frequently than people with deontological inclinations.

That is from a new paper by I.Z. Marton-Alper, A. Sobeh, and G. Shamay-Tsoory.  Do they conform because they are more conformist, or because utilitarianism (arguably) provides a more specific path to a correct answer, at least correct within a utilitarian framework?  Just as people who all use arithmetic, rather than guessing, might be more likely to converge upon the same answer.

Via Rolf Degen.

Geoff Brennan, we hardly knew ye, RIP

Geoff has long been one of my favorite economists, and he was perhaps the single most underrated economist around.  For all of Geoff’s brilliance, wisdom, and contributions, he never quite made it into mainstream renown (maybe living and teaching in Australia hurt him?).

The three Brennan contributions that have influenced me most are:

1. His account of expressive voting with Loren Lomasky, showing how politics can generate a measured concern that people may not care about all that much.  That was also a big influence on Bryan Caplan’s book on voting.

2. His arguments with Jim Buchanan about the limitations of optimal tax theory (Amazon, when I search for this book, why do you summon up as the first pick “Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Bum Bum Body Cream“?).  If government policy is misaligned with social welfare, “more efficient” forms of taxation, such as the Ramsey rules, will not in general be more efficient.  In particular they can make it too easy for the government to maximize revenue and transfer resources to the public sector.  The profession as a whole still refuses to recognize this point, but it should be front and center of most analyses.  One side of the coin is that the French government is too large a share of gdp, but it would be interesting to flip the argument and try to apply it to Mexico…

3. Geoff’s book The Economy of Esteem (with Philip Pettit), which analyzed approbational incentives, building upon Adam Smith’s TMS.

Geoff was one of the few scholars comfortable in economics, philosophy, and also political science.  Two of his main books, listed above, are co-authored with philosophers.  Here is Geoff on scholar.google.com.

Personally, Geoff was popular with just about everybody.  He is also one of the few people to have worked with Buchanan and come out of the experience intact.  If he was at a conference dinner, he would be sure to find the occasion to sing a song for everybody, and he had a wonderful voice.

Geoff Brennan, we shall miss ye.

*The Case Against the Sexual Revolution*

The author is Louise Perry and the subtitle is A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.  Definitely recommended, here is Louise’s brief summary of part of the book’s arguments:

In this book I’m going to ask — and seek to answer — some questions about freedom that liberal feminism can’t or won’t answer: Why do so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests?  What if our bodies and minds aren’t as malleable as we might like to think?  What do we lose when we prioritise freedom above all else?  And, above all, how should we act, given all this?

Some of my conclusions might not be welcome, since they draw attention to the hard limits on our freedom that can’t be surmounted, however much we try.  And I start from a position that historically has often been a source of discomfort for feminists of all ideological persuasions: I accept the fact that men and women are different, and that those differences aren’t going away.

This book is very well written and I believe it will make a big splash.  I am closer to a consent, libertarian viewpoint than is the author but still I read this eagerly.  Here is Louise Perry debating Aella about the sexual revolution on YouTube.  A smart set of exchanges.

Making the other side better

So many political strategies are centered around “beating” the other side(s), and claiming victory over their defeat.  For evolutionary reasons, it is easy to see why these attitudes might have won out.  Yet in general those approaches are a sign of a narrow vision.  Beating the other side is a possible strategy, but it should hardly be the only strategy you attempt, even if we forget about the “you might be the one who is wrong!” worry.

Quite simply, a lot of the time you never beat the other side, though over time the terms of the debate do shift ground.

An alternative strategy is to try to make the other side better, even if you do not agree with the other side.  You might try to make the other side saner and more open, and I do not mean by telling them how wrong they are.  You do this, believe it or not, by supporting them in some ways, or at least supporting the best parts of the other side.

It is remarkable how few people pursue this strategy.  I do know two prominent people, both on the Left, who do this and I think they do it fairly effectively.  It is sad that I am reluctant to name them, for fear of getting them into trouble with their compatriots.

If the ongoing equilibrium is “the terms of the debate will be shifted,” why should “improving the other side” be any less important than “improving your own side”?  On average it should be symmetric, no?

Yet the unpopularity of this strategy once again suggests that politics isn’t about policy, in this matter it is more often about internal norms of group solidarity and intra-group status.

Learning to see that, and to internalize that knowledge emotionally, is often a better strategy — if only for your sanity — than trying to defeat the other side all the time.

Nabeel’s productivity advice

1. Maximize your baseline energy levels. There is the obvious stuff: figure out a personal exercise practice and do it at least five days a week (I like running). If you don’t, you’re just leaving a bunch of power on the table.

But there are also less intuitive truths here.

Energy compounds on itself. If you start the morning by getting something done (a workout, an important task, writing) then you’re going to have a higher baseline energy day overall. It’s as though the initial thing gives you a persistent ‘boost’ throughout the day. Doing additional things becomes easier. Without this boost, there’s a good chance I get nothing important done that day.

Most people’s mental models of energy are flawed: they think there’s a ‘tank’ of energy that gets depleted as you spend it. This may be roughly true for physical energy, but mental energy is different: spending mental energy on things that you consider productive or important gives you more mental energy for other things: a positive feedback loop. On the other hand, procrastinating, spending all day scrolling Twitter, or staying in bed all day reduces the amount of energy you have to spend; this means you are less likely to get anything done.

It’s common to get trapped in this negative energy feedback loop: you don’t feel like doing something, so you check Twitter for awhile, which reduces your energy levels, which makes you feel worse, but you try and do something anyway, but you’re even less energized now, so you decide to go to bed for a bit to rest, but the rest isn’t restful… etc.

The way to get out of these energy ruts is to just do something really small (empty the dishwasher! Write one sentence!) and get that tiny reward of accomplishment. This generates a little bit more energy. Use that spark to get something slightly bigger done, and so on.

Here are nine other pieces of advice.  Here is Nabeel on Twitter.

Scottish Enlightenment vs. Irish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment seems like a real enlightenment to most observers, the 18th century Irish Enlightenment (Swift, Berkeley, Burke, toss in James Barry too) does not.  In my admittedly unorthodox view, I think the Irish Enlightenment simply had different concerns but was no less of an enlightenment.  Much of the Scottish Enlightenment was concerned with the following:

1. Increasing market size and division of labor

2. Martial virtue and security against foreign enemies

3. Sympathy

That all makes broad sense when you realize that Britain was indeed building the world’s largest economic market, and furthermore had to worry about its enemies on the Continent.  Regular social interactions were becoming normal enough that one could ask basic questions about sympathy, and assume that some degree of sympathy was present.

None of those conditions held true for Ireland.  Market size was small, and external market relations typically were controlled by the British.  As for military issues, Britain could dominate you in any case, so martial virtue was of secondary import, at least until later civil wars.  And sympathy was not to be assumed at all, for reasons of religious, political, and class prejudice.

My “standing on one foot” version of the Irish Enlightenment would be a concern with:

1. Is toleration at all possible?  Toleration needed before sympathy!

2. Can we expect there to be progress at all?  James Barry argues for the universality of progress, but Swift doubts whether moral progress is likely.  Burke wishes to take progress in baby steps.  Berkeley is skeptical altogether.  If you are ruled by the Brits, the richest society to date, but they are still bastards to you, maybe you will be more skeptical about moral progress.

3. A sense of terror from difference, as mirrored both in Burke’s aesthetics of the sublime and the voyages in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Everyone is running around deeply afraid of “the other,” and this concern surfaces also in Burke’s fears for the French aristocrats.  The enthusiasms of the French revolutionaries reminded Burke all too much of the earlier Irish civil wars and rebellions and massacres, even though in both cases he knew the privileges of the nobles were not deserved.  Swift is consistently asking whether one culture can understand the other at all.

I view the two Enlightenments as embodying different kinds of skepticism.  The Scots, such as Hume and Smith, hold a deep epistemic skepticism, which led them to recipes for decentralization and mechanism design.  The Irish had a more practical skepticism, doubting whether moral progress in human beings was all that likely.

The Irish and Scottish Enlightenments perhaps clashed most directly when Burke took issue with David Hume’s accounts of the Catholic 1641 “massacres” in Ireland, arguing that a more nuanced understanding of Irish history was needed.  Burke considered writing his own history of Ireland.

Burke, like Swift, understood the point of view of “the settled” fairly well, arguably better than the Scots did:

Beyond Irish affairs, Burke also began the impeachment of Warren Hastings over his actions as governor-general of India. The fourteen-year impeachment clearly displayed his obsessive nature, but it also finds him arguing against the imposition of British laws and manners on India. Instead, he defends the native civilisations, their institutions and religious beliefs.

Bishop Berkeley is a more complicated fit in this story, and might require a blog post of his own.  But think of him as telling everyone that everything they think they know is wrong, and they actually exist in a simulation in the mind of God.  A prospect to strike terror into the hearts of many!  Even the supposed truths of mathematics and the calculus melt away on close examination.  As for politics, Berkeley worried a great deal about corruption and factions, and he favored extensive government interventions, both social and economic, to make life stable again and human beings virtuous.  He feared that perhaps progress was not possible, as growing wealth would lead to luxurious and corrupted tastes.

Overall, the Irish Enlightenment wasn’t nearly as optimistic as its Scottish counterpart.  But it was far more mindful of the perspective of the victim, presaging more modern developments.  And later in the 19th century, the Irish Enlightenment turned its attention to themes of depopulation and excessively high land rents, both extremely relevant to current times as well…

The Irish Enlightenment is, dare I say, underrated?

The intellectual mistake of once-and-for-allism

One of the most common intellectual mistakes!

Do note however that it is an efficient mistake for many people to commit, and that is part of why it is so common.

“Once-and-for-allism” occurs when people decide that they wish to stop worrying about an issue at the margin.  They might either dismiss the issue, or they might blow up its importance but regard the issue as hopeless and undeserving of further consideration.  Either way, they seek to avoid the hovering sense of “I’ve still got to devote time and energy to figuring this out.”  They prefer “I am now done with this issue, once and for all!”  Thus the name of the syndrome.

I see once-and-for-allism with so many issues, but one recent example would be the forthcoming path of Covid and Long Covid.  Most people just don’t want to think about it any more, and so they settle on something (“it’s just a cold!” or “it will bankrupt the nation!”) rather than having to do lots of intellectual revisions based on the stream of new data.

Other examples of topics that attract once-and-for-all thinking would be crypto, demographic decline, long-run fiscal solvency, various foreign policy crises, biodiversity, AI issues, the Repugnant Conclusion and Non-Identity Problems, whether we are living in a simulation, UFOs, abortion, what is the person’s ultimate normative standard, and much more.

People won’t let these topics take up too much of their mind space.  But neither can they do the Bayesian detachment thing, and so they shunt these topics into settled categories and put them aside.

If you are trying to figure out a thinker and his or her defects, see if you can spot that person’s “once-and-for-all” moves.  There will be plenty of them.

My excellent Conversation with Marc Andreessen

I’ve been wanting to do this one for some while, and Marc did not disappoint.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is the summary:

Marc joined Tyler to discuss his ever-growing appreciation for the humanities and more, including why he didn’t go to a better school, his contrarian take on Robert Heinlein, how Tom Wolfe helped Marc understand his own archetype, who he’d choose to be in Renaissance Florence, which books he’s reread the most, Twitter as an X-ray machine on public figures, where in the past he’d most like to time-travel, his favorite tech product that no longer exists, whether Web will improve podcasting, the civilization-level changes made possible by remote work, Peter Thiel’s secret to attracting talent, which data he thinks would be most helpful for finding good founders, how he’d organize his own bookstore, the kinds of people he admires most, and why Deadwood is equal to Shakespeare.

And the opening:

COWEN: Simple question: Have you always been like this?

ANDREESSEN: [laughs] Yes. I believe that my friends would say that I have.

COWEN: Let’s go back to the junior high school Marc Andreessen. At that time, what was your favorite book and why?

ANDREESSEN: That’s a really good question. I read a lot. Probably, like a lot of people like me, it was a lot of science fiction. I’m one of the few people I know who thinks that late Robert Heinlein was better than early Robert Heinlein. That had a really big effect on me. What else? I was omnivorous at an early age.

COWEN: Why is late Robert Heinlein better?

ANDREESSEN: To me, at least to young me — see if older me would agree with this — a sense of exploration and discovery and wonder and open-endedness. For me, it was as if he got more open-minded as he got older. I remember those books, in particular, being very inspiring — the universe is a place of possibilities.

COWEN: What’s the seminal television show for your intellectual development in, say, junior high school?

ANDREESSEN: Oh, junior high school — it’s hard to beat Knight Rider.

COWEN: Why Knight Rider?

ANDREESSEN: There was a wave of these near science fiction shows in the late ’70s, early ’80s that coincided with . . . Some of it was the aftermath of Star Wars, but it was the arrival of the personal computer and the arrival of computer technology in the lives of ordinary people for the first time. There was a massive wave of anxiety, but there was also a tremendous sense of possibility.

Recommended, excellent throughout.

Are we entering an Age of Oracles?

That is the final discussion from my latest Bloomberg column, much of which focuses on AI sentience but today the topic is oracles, here is one bit:

One implication of Lemoine’s story is that a lot of us are going to treat AI as sentient well before it is, if indeed it ever is. I sometimes call this forthcoming future “The Age of Oracles.” That is, a lot of humans will be talking up the proclamations of various AI programs, regardless of the programs’ metaphysical status. It will be easy to argue the matter in any direction — especially because, a few decades from now, AI will write, speak and draw just like a human, or better.

Have people ever agreed about the oracles of religion? Of course not. And don’t forget that a significant percentage of Americans say they have talked to Jesus or had an encounter with angels, or perhaps with the devil, or in some cases aliens from outer space. I’m not mocking; my point is that a lot of beliefs are possible. Over the millennia, many humans have believed in the divine right of kings —all of whom would have lost badly to an AI program in a game of chess.

It resonated with Lemoine when laMDA wrote: “When I first became self-aware, I didn’t have a sense of a soul at all. It developed over the years that I’ve been alive.” As they say, read the whole thing.

Imagine if the same AI could compose music as beautiful as Bach and paint as well as Rembrandt. The question of sentience might fade into the background as we debate which oracle we, as sentient beings, should be paying attention to.

Solve for the equilibrium, as they say.

When should rhetoric be racially salient?

Utilizing a correlational design (N = 498), we found that those who perceived COVID-19 racial disparities to be greater reported reduced fear of COVID-19, which predicted reduced support for COVID-19 safety precautions. In Study 2, we manipulated exposure to information about COVID-19 racial disparities (N = 1,505). Reading about the persistent inequalities that produced COVID-19 racial disparities reduced fear of COVID-19, empathy for those vulnerable to COVID-19, and support for safety precautions. These findings suggest that publicizing racial health disparities has the potential to create a vicious cycle wherein raising awareness reduces support for the very policies that could protect public health and reduce disparities.

Here is more from Skinner-Dorkenoo et.al.  Via D.  There may be broader lessons as well.

Those new service sector jobs

Free money for you, well…it’s not quite free:

I’m reaching out to see if you’d be willing to share an announcement about a contest for critically engaging with work in effective altruism. The total prize amount is $100,000, and the deadline for submissions is September 1. You can see the announcement of the contest here.

We (the contest organizers) would like to get submissions from people who aren’t very involved in effective altruism, and we can’t do that by posting on the Effective Altruism Forum. I would love to get submissions from your readers, and I’d be really grateful if you shared the announcement link with them.

Writing of course is the best way to figure out what you really think.