Another free speech advocate bites the dust

I found out this morning that a Canadian professor named Rick Mehta was fired.  The available details on this flimsy due to confidentiality issues, but from the little the articles say, his firing is an extremely troubling sign of the times we live in.

The universities are supposed to be the quintessential institution that not just tolerates dissent but welcomes it so that ideas are constantly scrutinized.  It’s supposed to take taking a lead role in showing society that by engaging with unpopular ideas, we can squash them when they’re wrong and change our thinking when we’re wrong.  While humans and politics are susceptible to fanatical ideologies and dogmatism, the universities are meant to be apolitical and dedicated to seeking truth.  And they are failing us.

I don’t want to say there’s nothing a professor could have said that would warrant his firing.  Perhaps if he had threatened other faculty or students in some way, or if he called for violence, his firing would be justified.  But the things Rick Mehta said don’t seem remotely beyond the pale, at least based on what the articles said.  They simply seem to have gone against the orthodoxy that’s present among campuses.

  • “Multiculturalism is a scam” – it’s impossible to criticize this statement without hearing the whole context. When an Indian professor (someone who has skin in the game in supporting multicultural attitudes) says this, it’s worth hearing what he meant.
  • “Denying the wage gap” – I assume this means he denies that any wage gap is largely due to discrimination, not that there is no wage gap on average between men and women make in society. This is in line with what Freakonomics says, and the infamous Jordan Peterson – Cathy Newman interview seems support this as well.
  • “Dismissing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a vehicle for “endless apologies and compensation”” – I know nothing about this commission, but criticizing a commission seems like exactly the kind of thing an academic should be free to do.

The news article also cites his retweet of a post that said it is “statistically impossible for all Native children to have had a negative experience with residential schools.”  They cite this without mentioning that the next line of the post was “To deny this fact would be just as bad as denying the majority that did have negative experiences.”  This is either extremely sloppy or extremely dishonest on the part of the Globe and Mail: the news is supposed to inform by providing context, not remove context for the sake of pushing a point of view.

What’s even more frustrating is that if his ideas really are stupid and dangerous and problematic, it should be easy to argue against them with facts instead of with firings.

The firing of Rick Mehta shouldn’t only worry you if you think he might be even partially right on any of those counts.  It should worry you if you think if you think the orthodoxies of the university are wrong about anything.  It means they’ve lost their self-correction mechanism.  And then society suffers.

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Let’s move past democracy

I.

Sometimes an idea can be so entrenched in society, you never think to question it till you see someone else do it first.  You’re taught that it’s one of the greatest things ever when you’re in school, politicians and the media always refer to it in an overwhelmingly positive way, and it’s far superior to the alternatives that immediately come to my mind.  Then you realize that not only is the idea a mediocre idea, very few have made a serious attempt at improving on it for god knows how long.  This is how I’ve been feeling about democracy for the past few months.

This isn’t a “People are too stupid to make good decisions” rant.  It’s not a critique on corrupt politicians, Gerrymandering, voter apathy, voter ignorance, money in politics, prevailing voting systems, or any of those things.  All of those are, more or less, problems with the implementation of democracy.  I want to make a stronger statement: the very idea of having the public vote on what policies should be passed is fundamentally ridiculous and stupid.

Again, this is not an anti-populist rant.  No one should read this and think, “Yeah, there’s a ton of people who don’t agree with me and keep voting for the wrong people into office”.  I’m saying you and I, as voters, have been given tasks that we are simply not suited for.

Let’s take an issue like Syria.  During 2016 presidential debates and campaigns, candidates kept talking about whether they supported or opposed a no-fly zone over Syria.  And I kept wondering… HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW IF THIS IS A GOOD IDEA OR NOT?  How am I, or the average citizen, supposed to truly understand and weigh the military and diplomatic consequences of this decision better than the actual military strategists and foreign diplomats who are actively engaged in this?  US foreign policy is incredibly complicated.  Even if I were to read through all the news and op-ed pieces and expert opinions to weigh the arguments for and against, no ambassador or military commander or foreign policy expert would think I had any input worth listening to.  And yet our democracies essentially ask that this decision be crowdsourced.

How about raising the minimum wage – is that a good idea?  I don’t know and despite what you may have read, you don’t eitherStudy after study and meta-analysis after meta-analysis have yielded conflicting reports and hundreds of economists have both supported and opposed increases.  If even the most learned people in the field can’t make up their minds, why do so many everyday people enthusiastically support or oppose minimum wage increases?

These are just two of a thousand policy proposals that candidates make and no one reads.  Instead, we have skim arguments from trusted sources, weigh these decisions to ourselves, and then head to the ballot boxes as if we have a clue.

Decisions like this have real consequences and should be made by the people who understand and have expertise in the fields.  Can you imagine a doctor who chooses which medication to prescribe patients based on crowdsourcing?  An engineer who decides on how to build a bridge by polling people?  A lawyer who decides what the best defense for his client would be by setting up a ballot box?  The reason these don’t happen isn’t just impracticality, but because these are awful ideas.

 

II.

The obvious solution of giving more power to the experts is called epistocracy, which means government of the knowledgeable.  It’s also got an obvious counterpoint: if you give some “experts” the power to make the decisions they want, they will just make decisions that benefit themselves.  Power corrupts, after all.  This is a fundamental pitfall of epistocracy that essentially removes it from any serious consideration.  So how do we do better?  How do we incentivize the experts and the learned to do what’s best for everyone instead of what’s best for them?

A problem with democracy is that when we vote for a party, we are effectively voting on a large number of issues, indicating both what we want as well as how to get what we want.  And I think democracy has survived and done so well because it lets the people voice what they want, not because it let them voice how to get what they want.  In fact, I would say it has survived despite conflating the two and crowdsourcing the decision on how to get people what they want.

If you take the Syria example from above, for instance, people by in large want the same thing: we want our lives unaffected by international war, we want our tax dollars to not be wasted, and we want oppressive regimes removed.  How we would prioritize these might be different but I don’t think anyone from either party wants to get attacked by ISIS, have their taxes be wasted, or see an increase in oppressive regimes in the world.

The same goes for the minimum wage question.  Everyone wants a strong economy that will allow them a comfortable standard of living while doing what they like and not having to work themselves to death.  Again, different people would prioritize things like job satisfaction, standard of living, and free time differently – and we should be able to vote on that.  But the minimum wage itself is ultimately an implementation detail, one the average person is not qualified to answer.

This tends to be less true for social policy.  Advocates and opponents of gay marriage literally want different things, as do advocates and opponents of abortion rights.  Some “field experts” may be able to provide some information that may change your mind, but there are no experts who are better qualified to answer this question than individual voters, in the way there are in economic or international policy.

So how do we separate out the two?  The key is that social policy depends on values.  Are so-called traditional family values important to you, or is egalitarianism important for you?  Economic and foreign policy depends more on beliefs.  Will establishing a no-fly zone in Syria put us in a better military and diplomatic position or a worse one?  Will raising the minimum wage lead to a stronger economy or a weaker one?

In essence, we always want the people to be able to voice their values.  But we want just the experts to voice their beliefs.  And we need to do this in a way so that no one can accuse the experts of bias or personal interest.

 

III.

Futarchy is an untested form of government that is the brainchild of economist Robin Hanson.  Its motto is “Vote values, but bet beliefs”.  It tries to address the problem through betting markets.  Betting markets, despite having orthogonal purposes, have been shown to be great aggregators of information that yield large degrees of predictive accuracy.

Here’s an (overly simplified) explanation of how such betting markets would work.  Feel free to skip down to Section IV if you don’t want the gnarly details.

Let’s say the American government wants to know if raising the minimum wage would result in some sort of success metric as defined by the American people, let’s say reduced income inequality.  A bank could offer the following assets:

  • Asset D: Pay $1 if income inequality is decreased, conditional on minimum wage being raised
  • Asset I: Pay $1 if income inequality is increased, conditional on minimum wage being raised

The price of these assets would be determined by what bettors are willing to pay.  If bettors would pay $0.70 for Asset D but only $0.30 for Asset I, this implies a consensus that if the minimum wage is increased, there is a 70% chance that income inequality will decrease.  (Think in terms of expected value if this isn’t immediately obvious: if both assets were equally priced, someone who thinks there is a 70% chance that inequality will decrease has reason to keep buying asset D until its price reaches $0.70, because that’s when E = 70%*$1 – 100%*$0.70 = 0.)

The more money people are willing to pay for Asset D than Asset I, the more confidence we have that raising the minimum wage will decrease inequality.  If the measure is passed, the investors will be appropriately rewarded; if not, all bets are cancelled and no one will have made or lost money.  And we can do this to evaluate policies individually to see what the prediction consensus is.

 

IV.

Under futarchy, voters will vote for what they want and the government will use betting markets to determine what the best policy would be.  The reason betting markets work and are hard to corrupt is that everyone can be a part of it but only knowledgeable people can expect to make money out of it.  This will lead to a world where people are truly incentivized to understand policy proposals and consequences because their own money is on the line.  The overconfident will lose their money and learn not to bet; and when the majority or self-interested corporations are on the wrong side of an issue, experts can identify this and can make even more money by correcting for this.  It ceases to matter whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re loud about your opinions or quiet about them – what matters is your correctness. I could keep writing about why this idea is so promising, despite how weird it sounds at first, but Scott Alexander has already done that here.

Because futarchy is untested, whether it ends up being far superior to modern democracy, somewhat superior, or even worse, is unknown.  But if you know what a status quo bias is, you will agree that it’s worth a shot.

How would we do a trial run?  Perhaps someone could run prediction markets for all the main government policy proposals and record what a futarchial government would have done, what the actual government did, and what the outcomes were. After a decade of this, we could compare the outcomes that resulted when the real government and futarchial governments’ decisions were the same, with the outcomes that resulted when they were different.

After a decade of this, if this futarchial government was shown to be consistently better, maybe someone in a largely techy left-leaning libertarian city could run for office on the promise that they would base non-social policy decisions on what betting markets say to do.  Then perhaps state governments would start looking into it and eventually it could make its way to the federal level.  In the meantime, as this form of government gets more exposure, more people could bet in these markets and the process could be improved upon.

All of this sounds strange and inconceivable, I’m sure.  But if there’s a lesson to be learned from 2016, it’s that what’s strange and inconceivable is still possible.

I don’t want to criticize democracy too much here.  There’s no question that it’s a far superior alternative to fascism and monarchies.  But I think it’s far too early to call it quits in coming up with even better political systems.  Futarchy is just a solution I’ve heard of that seems promising, far more promising than epistocracy.  But I’m hoping there will be others.  Let’s move past democracy.

It’s not free speech vs social justice, it’s free speech vs everything

There seems to have emerged an unfortunate and increasing tension between advocates of free speech and advocates of social justice. Once a core liberal value, many leftists have begun associating free speech with right-wingers seeking to attack institutions, spread misinformation, and tread on the less privileged in society. Over 40% of Americans believe that free speech does more to protect the opinions of the majority than it does minority viewpoints.

To those who believe in leftist values such as equality, it’s not clear why concerns over free speech should be made a priority. What benefit is there to allowing bigots to spread their hateful ideas? Why shouldn’t we be working towards a culture where racists and sexists face consequences for voicing their views? Why not ban at least the most obviously offensive speech legally?

Take even an extreme case like Lindsay Shephard and the Laurier debacle. While it’s laughable that a student got in trouble for showing a debate that aired on public television, there’s no quick and easy answer to someone who genuinely asks: “Lindsay could have shown any debate as part of her communications class. There are trans students who face a lot of transphobia in the community and they should feel as safe in a university as any cis person. By showing a video that questioned their identity, Lindsay made it not so. Doesn’t it make sense to reprimand her and ask her to show videos that are more inclusive next time?”

If even such a far-out case can be defended as such, it’s no surprise that it can be hard to clearly and effectively lay out the case against political correctness norms and free speech bans. It’s obvious that a well-written law which prohibits advocation of the genocide or enslavement of a group of people or race would be a good thing. Social norms that prevent people from saying obviously bigoted things are similarly good things. And if these are good things, why would anyone be a free speech absolutist? Anyone who believes in the social justice cause must agree that a world in which certain restrictions on speech are placed would be better than a world in which no restrictions are placed.

The problem is that free speech is an abstract concept with abstract and harder to articulate benefits. When presented with the concrete benefits of banning hate speech, any concerns about slippery slopes appear to be overblown and outweighed. It’s not easy to present the case of why the abstract concerns can be ultimately more important, but one way is to use a form of reductio ad absurdum: show someone that if the abstract loses against the concrete in one specific case, it is equally viable to lose against the concrete in many other cases, diminishing its value altogether.

Let’s say you meet a social justice advocate who says, “Bigotry is the largest societal problem facing America today. The country has an obvious history of racism and sexism, and while things have gotten better, there is a long road ahead before true equality can be achieved. The median household income of white Americans is 70% higher than that of black Americans and the average woman makes only 80% of what the average man does. Implicit association tests reveal the biases and prejudices ordinary people have, and with the rise of Donald Trump, an increasing number of people have been empowered to express their hateful views. A look at the FBI hate crimes database reveals just how rampant anti-black, anti-women, anti-gay and anti-transgender offenses are. We need the government to pass hate crime laws and affirmative action measures, and people to be on alert for bigotry of all sizes. Anyone who opposes this, at best simply does not care about the less privileged, and at worst is a bigot seeking to protect their own privilege. It’s justifiable to not engage with these opponents: we can simply label them as bigots, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

And on the surface, this seems like a convincing argument.

But then you meet a social worker who says, “Homelessness is the biggest societal problem in America today. There are currently hundreds of thousands of people in our well-to-do country who’ve had to spend nights on the street because they have no place to go. They endure cold, hunger, and a variety of mental illnesses, while the privileged go about their day. We need the government to raise the minimum wage, pass policies that subsidize housing, fight drug addiction, and increase funding for shelters. Anyone who would oppose this must, at best simply not care enough about the homeless, and at worst hate homeless people. It’s justifiable to not engage with these opponents: we can simply label them as evil capitalists, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

Then an anti-abortion activist comes along and says, “Abortion is the most awful thing our society permits today. There are half a million to a million babies that are legally murdered in the US every single year. We need the government to pass legislation that bans this. Anyone who opposes this must, at best simply not care about murder of babies, and at worst actually support murder. It’s justifiable to engage with these ideological “pro-choice” people: we can simply label them as baby killers, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

And before long you meet an animal rights activist who says, “Our society’s treatment of animals in factory farms is the worst form of active cruelty being practiced. Animals are tightly packed together and crammed over their own waste. Chickens are debeaked while cows and pigs have their tails removed with no painkillers. Anyone who’s watched a video of factory farms knows that the magnitude of suffering imposed on these animals by people is overwhelming and unconscionable. We need the government to ban any meat that comes from these farms, and shame anyone who is willing to eat such meat in the interim. Anyone who opposes this, at best believes that animal suffering does not matter, and at worst is a sadist. It’s justifiable to not engage with these opponents: we can simply label them as inhumane, shame and de-platform them, and make the world a better place.”

Then comes along the Evangelical Christian who wants blasphemy laws, given how making God happy is clearly the highest priority. Followed by the cardiologist who wants to ban advertisements for fast food restaurants, given the ongoing obesity and heart disease epidemics. Followed by the capitalist who wants to ban any promotion of socialist or communist ideas, given the damage caused by such regimes. Followed by so on and so on and so on.

And there’s the rub.

To try and find the optimal balance between free speech concerns and social justice concerns is to try and find a false compromise. Sam Harris describes free speech as not just another value but a master value, as “It’s the only value that allows us to reliably correct our errors – both intellectually and morally. It’s the only mechanism we have as a species to keep aligning ourselves with reality as we’ve come to understand it”. Despite its importance, social justice advocacy should not be allowed to place restrictions on free speech, any more than any of the other advocacies above. Everyone has their own ideas on what concerns should be made a priority and protecting free speech will always seem secondary to whatever that concern is. But promoting free speech norms levels the playing field as much as it can be levelled, allowing conversation to flow and maximizing our chances of creating better societies.

You may agree with some of the hypothetical arguments above and disagree with others. But if restrictions are placed on free speech, they won’t be based on the merits of the argument: they will be based on the power dynamics in society at that moment in time. The conversation on how concepts of free speech and social justice intersect would have looked very different 60 years ago. As Ken White says, “Exceptions to free speech don’t get used to help the powerless. They get used to help the powerful.”

Jordan Peterson, who has studied authoritarian regimes extensively, has said “I regard free speech as a prerequisite to a civilized society, because freedom of speech means that you can have combat with words. That’s what it means. It doesn’t mean that people can happily and gently exchange opinions. It means that we can engage in combat with words. In the battleground of ideas. And the reason that that’s acceptable, and why it’s acceptable that people’s feelings get hurt during that combat, is that the combat of ideas is far preferable to actual combat.”

When restrictions are placed on free speech, we’ve lost our non-violent self-correcting mechanism. That means when things get bad enough – and they will, because different points of view and interest are inevitable – society will have to resort to violent self-correcting mechanisms. And to a liberal, that is beyond scary because it’s no longer the good ideas that will win, but the ideas of those in power.

When in anger, quit

The culture wars will likely doom us all, but they can also be good fun.  There is one important rule to partaking in the culture wars though: if you find yourself being angry, get the hell out!

If someone is angry, they are irrational.  This is the basis behind the “Cooler heads prevail” motto.  When you’re angry, you can’t reason about things as well.  And if you can’t reason about things well, you shouldn’t be asking others to live according to your reasoning.

Take a break.  Get your life together.  Do something challenging.  Have some fun.  And after some time has passed, if you’re feeling up to it, get yourself back in.

Do I expect all the folks burning and seething with righteous anger to follow this?  No, of course not.  They’ll respond that they “know” what’s right, that their passion is a substitute for rationality.

But if you know better, you can follow this personally.  Once you’re calm, you’ll remember how irrational you were being when you were seething with rage.  Then you’ll learn to dismiss the clatter of braying asses because you know they’re in that very state you left behind.  This doesn’t mean disengaging with everyone who holds an opposing view, it means engaging only with the calm minds of those who hold an opposing view.  (If you can’t find any, it may say something about the view, but it may also just say something about you.)

I’ve thought a lot about when to apply the principle of charity and when not to.  I thought it was the greatest rule ever when I first heard it, and I assumed everyone who wasn’t following it simply hadn’t heard of it.  Being a little wiser now, I understand that not only was that not true, applying the principle in the wrong places can be an unproductive waste of time.  The question arises: how do you decide whether someone is worth engaging with?

The simple answer is to only engage with those who seem reasonable to you.  The problem is that this heuristic doesn’t universalize.  If you ask a libertarian who seems reasonable to them, you’ll get a very different answer from what a socialist would give.

A universalizable heuristic would be “Only engage with people who are calm and open to dialogue”.  Now you have an objective measure.  Now you have a valid reason to shut out certain people from discourse, not because they don’t have any good ideas, but because they’re not providing a valid way for you to interface with those ideas.

What’s your moral framework?

I.

We talk a lot about ethics and morality, even though we almost never actually use the terms ethical or moral.  We talk about who’s been good and who’s been bad, we talk about what it’s okay to do and what it’s acceptable to do, we talk about who’s been treated unfairly and who needs to get what’s coming to them, and we talk a lot about politics.  Or to give examples, here are a bunch of questions or statements that are, at least on some level, about ethics:

  • “I should not have flirted with that married girl, even if it was innocuous.”
  • “He’s an asshole for going months without returning his mom’s calls.”
  • “It was nice of her to drive all the way from across the state to see me when I had surgery.”
  • “College campuses these days are taking political correctness too far.”
  • “He only got elected president because all his voters are racist.”
  • “My coworker was super unprofessional when he made that joke in the middle of my presentation.”

What almost no one does is talk about the moral framework they use to make these judgments.  Even philosophers who are extremely familiar with these concepts rarely seem to call them out explicitly.  But to talk about right and wrong without mentioning the framework is like talking about distance without specifying units.  If one person is talking in meters, while another is counting the number of strides it takes to walk across, and a third is timing how long it takes them to drive across, these people will be talking past one another when they try to compare values.  The disagreement between them won’t be resolved until they talk about how they were measuring and what their units are.

So what are these moral frameworks I’m talking about?  Well, there’s a bunch of them but here are the main ones:

  1. Consequentialism

Consequentialism says that the morality of an action be judged solely on its consequences.  Utilitarianism, pursuing whatever act would bring about the greatest good/happiness for the greatest number of people, is the most well-known example.

Under consequentialism, concepts such as rights and duties are important and useful heuristics, but don’t have any meaning in and of themselves.   Consequentialists tend to the bad guys in movies, because they believe that the ends justify the means.  When presented with the “Would you kill one person to save 10?” dilemma, consequentialists say yes without batting an eye and wonder why that’s even a question.

  1. Deontology

Under deontology, the morality of an action is judged based on rules or duties.  It is often contrasted with consequentialism because the action itself is more important than the consequences.  Rules like “Don’t lie” and “Be kind” are considered universal laws – so if a crazed-looking murderer, wielding an axe, asks you if you know where your friend is so he can murder him, you’re still not allowed to lie.  Also, if another friend asks you if they look good in their outfit and they don’t, you’re kind of screwed because you’re not allowed to lie or be unkind.

  1. Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics focusses on the individual’s character rather than on the consequences or the acts themselves.  The right act is what a virtuous person would do in the same circumstances.  The obvious problem with this is that everyone has a different idea on what a virtuous person would and wouldn’t do.  Philosophers have tried to clarify this somewhat by defining lists of virtues – but at the end of the day, there’s no list that can be derived from first principles and that therefore everyone will agree on.

  1. Contractualism

Contractualism is a relatively recent theory which says that what we call morality is essentially just a bunch of social contracts.  We each have contracts with each other (be kind, don’t lie, don’t steal) and with the government (pay taxes, don’t randomly free prisoners).  So acts are only “immoral” if we’re breaking one of these contracts.

  1. Religion

84% of the world identifies with some religious group, and to many of them religion is their main source of their morality.  Christians look to the Bible, Muslims to the Koran and Hadiths, Hindus to the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhists to the teachings of Buddha, and scientologists to what a dude named L. Ron Hubbard said.  In fact, the majority of religious people don’t even think it’s possible for a nonbeliever to be moral.

  1. Affect

This isn’t a real moral theory but this is pretty much how most people make moral decisions most of the time.  They look at their “internal moral compass” to see how they feel about something and then they make a mishmash of arguments from the other 5 to defend their feelings.  This is also arguably the worst way to make moral judgments because we are incredibly biased and shaped by our own experiences and knowledge.

  1. Legality

Also not a moral theory but I just wanted to call it out because often people’s reasoning is simply “It’s against the law”.  Legality correlates with morality in a good government but obviously the two aren’t one and the same.  A very salient example of this is the fact that slavery was lawful in so many societies for large periods of time.

 

II.

What’s the benefit of knowing your framework or asking others to state theirs?  Well, there’s a few.

  1. As I mentioned above, it allows us to avoid talking past one another and identify our true rejections much faster.
  2. A lot of difficult ethical dilemmas actually break down into simpler pieces once you know which lens to look through.
  3. We allow for all sorts of mischief when people are allowed to jump back and forth between the frameworks willy-nilly. People can often find a framework that defends their actions even when it’s not a framework they ordinarily use.

An easy example to show Point #1 is the subject of homosexuality.  The vast majority of those who oppose it tend to be religious because according to many religions, being gay is a sin.  If someone responds to them saying that people have a right to be with who they want, or that there are no negative consequences associated with homosexuality, this is ineffective because they are talking under a different framework.  If a consequentialist atheist wanted to persuade a devout Christian that homosexuality is not a sin, they would either need to start looking at the Bible for support or convert them away from their religion.  And if a devout Christian wanted to persuade a consequentialist atheist that it is a sin, they would either need to convert them or explain what the negative consequences of homosexuality are.

To show point #2, let’s take a few ethical dilemmas and see what each framework tells us is the right thing to do:

Dilemma 1: Coventry Blitz

When the Allies broke the Nazis’ Enigma code during WWII, one of the intercepts described a great air raid against the city of Coventry in England.  The British government decided to not act on this information because anything that was done would alert the Germans of foreknowledge and would cause them to change their code system, eliminating any future information from being retrieved.

(Side note: the assertion that the British government knew about the Coventry raid ahead of time and did nothing is actually somewhat of a conspiracy theory, but let’s just roll with it.)

Dilemma 2:

Your close friend confesses to you that she is cheating on her husband, who you are also somewhat friends with.  Not wanting to get involved, you say nothing.

Dilemma 3:

Your cousin is broke and you believe he will commit suicide if he doesn’t find a job soon.  You are the vice president at a public company and your department is hiring, so you pass his resume to one of your reports and offer a “suggestion” that he be hired.

 

Framework Coventry Blitz Cheating Family ties
Consequentialism Depends on:

Lives lost/ruined at Coventry

Lives lost/ruined if Allies lost the war

Probability that helping at Coventry will cause the Allies to lose the war

 

Depends on:

Will the husband find out anyway?

Are there kids who will face a broken home?

 

Depends on:

Likelihood of him getting another job

Likelihood of him committing suicide

How bad of an employee he would be

 

Deontology Immoral: the government has a duty to save its citizens Immoral: you have a duty to inform someone they are being wronged Immoral: your professional life should be separate from your personal life
Virtue ethics Immoral: a virtuous government would not idly stand by Immoral: a virtuous person would not idly stand by Immoral: a virtuous person would find other ways to help
Contractualism Immoral: the government is bound to act when it knows its citizens are in danger Moral: you are bound to not say anything to the husband Immoral: you are breaking your contract with society
Religion Whatever your religion says Whatever your religion says Whatever your religion says
Affect Whatever you think Whatever you think Whatever you think
Legality Whatever the government thinks Whatever the government thinks Whatever the government thinks

 

Obviously this breakdown doesn’t just “solve” all moral dilemmas and give you the answer.  This is true for consequentialism in particular: once you start trying to figure out “the good” and then “the greater good” and then the “greater greater good” and so on, it’s often nonobvious what the right thing to do is.  But at least if you’ve agreed to adhere to consequentialism, you recognize that your answer comes down to prediction and then doing the math to weigh the positive consequences against the negative.  Any concept of “sacred values” just go out the window.

Deontology makes things easy because it pretty much says ignore the greater good.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why most people follow deontology – they see how hard it is to predict and weigh considerations, so they just follow basic rules and keep following them even when they produce disastrous consequences.

My answers to what virtue ethics would say are debatable, because someone else may say a virtuous person would act the opposite way.  But if two people adhere to virtue ethics and face a disagreement, they can essentially say they just have different conceptions of a virtuous person and any discussion of consequences and duties would be irrelevant.

Contractualism can also provide different answers depending on who you believe we have social contracts with and which contracts are most important.  If you’re set on contractualism, you can narrow your focus to just figuring that part out.

If you’re religious, you can just look to what your religion says is the right thing to do or talk to your religious authorities for guidance.  Affect and legality clarify nothing: you feel what you feel and what is legal is legal.

 

III.

So what moral framework should you use?  That depends.  If you’re religious, you will likely just follow what your religion prescribes.  If your sole goal is to feel better about yourself, the answer would be to follow your affect.  If your sole goal is to stay out of prison, the answer would be to do what’s legal.

But none of those are moral from a humanist standpoint.  If you’re looking for the secular “right thing to do”, you should at least look at the first 4: consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics and contractualism.  Each framework offers a different lens we can look at the problem through, and the more lenses we look through the clearer the picture we get.

But what moral framework should you use when the different frameworks say to do different things?  Well, consequentialism of course!  But why, you ask.  Because while deontology, virtue ethics, and contractualism are very useful heuristics that shouldn’t be abandoned, consequentialism is what aims to produce the best outcomes and outcomes are what we care about.  This seems tautological but I think rules like “Don’t steal” or “Be a virtuous person” or “Honor your contracts” only matter, or even came about, because they produce good consequences.  If someone said that a deontological rule was “Never touch your nose”, or that a virtuous person was someone who never brushes their teeth unless they repeatedly flip a coin till it lands heads three times in a row, you would ask why – and you would only accept if they could show the consequential effect.  I encourage those interested in learning more to read through Scott Alexander’s Consequentialism FAQ.

That said, I’m less interested in selling people on consequentialism and more interested in just informing people of meta-ethics so they can clarify their thoughts better, both to themselves and to each other.  There are many (pointless in retrospect) debates I’ve had where I eventually realized that the crux of the disagreement was just that I’m a secular consequentialist and the other person is not.  Now disagreements between me and them are easy.  “You’re right that [it’s unfair / it’s within their rights / they are neglecting their duties],” I might say.  “But I just care about the outcome.”

Hour-long heated discussion averted; back to making fart jokes.

Criticizing the left

I live and work in very leftist areas and have very leftist friends, so when political discussions come up, I tend to encounter distasteful leftist ideas far more than I do distasteful rightist ideas.  So I’m writing this up as a summary of what I think are the two main issues of the left.

Before I begin, any criticism I make of the left needs to be prefaced with acknowledgment that the right probably deserves more.  On balance, I would take a liberal government over a conservative one today – but I worry that leaving the left uncriticized will result in future liberal choices to be as bad as the conservative ones.  I also want to note that I agree 100% with what I think is the fundamental value of the left, which is equality and the betterment of everyone.

My first problem with the left is a lack of concern for understanding or caring about conservatives or conservative ideas.  Take the abortion issue: while 59% of American women believe that abortion is morally wrong and only 23% believe it should be legal after the first trimester, the pro-life position is often framed as one rooted in misogyny, where men simply want to control women’s bodies.  This is such an obvious strawman and displays a total lack of charity for their opponents’ obvious concerns of not legalizing a form of murder.

Similarly, concerns about terrorism are caricaturized as pure Islamophobia, concerns about immigration are caricaturized as pure xenophobia, and concerns about gun control are caricaturized as pure gun nuttery.

To take a step back, any observer of American politics needs to understand that there are essentially two distinct worlds that are both culturally and geographically separate.  The two have different values and put their trust in different institutions and groups.

The American right is extremely distrustful of government and mainstream media: I don’t think this is warranted but it’s obvious why a reasonable person could believe this.  Both the government and the for-profit media companies are highly influenced by money and the elite, so a claim that they should be distrusted is not shocking.  It’s totally plausible to imagine a country like America where half the population is being hoodwinked by the power-hungry elites, and it is up to independent media to report the real truth.  Once you accept this premise, much of the right’s concerns make total sense: of course we should be worried about Hillary Clinton’s uranium deals and her connections to Seth Rich and Pizzagate and all the rest; and once these stories break out, of course the elites are going to use their media to deny that all of this is true and it’s all pure conspiracy theorizing.

To be clear, I don’t think any of these are true: I’m simply making the point that from the point of view of any individual, it’s non-obvious who is trustworthy and who is not, and most people just fall back to who the people around them trust or who they were raised to trust.  For the left, this is the mainstream media; for the right, it is organizations like Fox News and people like Rush Limbaugh.  Any leftist who shakes their head at a rightist for their crazy beliefs without understanding this is lying to themselves that they wouldn’t be the exact same way in their shoes.

My second problem with the left is an appeal to authoritarianism, and an unwillingness to engage with complex ideas by attacking free speech.  On college campuses, it feels the need to erupt in violence to stop trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, rises to make Charles Murray and his ideas unintentionally famous again, attacks principled progressives like Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis, and charges a teaching assistant who shows a debate that aired on public television with sexual violence.  In Silicon Valley, it labels someone who repeatedly states they are in favor of diversity  as anti-diversity and falsely claims they said women are unfit to work in tech in order to fire them. Furthermore, all who disagree are tarred as far right or alt-right.

All of this unwarranted aggression is not only destructive, it’s self-defeating.  If everyone is called a racist or a sexist or a right wing nut, suddenly those groups don’t look as bad as people’s in eyes.

The lack of nuance damages the conversation for unpopular groups.  Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) are a group that provide support for those who are trying to leave the faith.  They are a minority within a minority, a group with heightened security concerns as apostasy is punishable by death.  Yet with the idea that criticism of an ideology can be equated with racism, EXMNA find themselves with few political allies on the left.

All of this criticism of the left can be, ironically, summarized as stop being like conservatives.  Conservatives often like simplicity: terrorism stems from the Middle East because of Islam; poor people just need to work hard and they can lead decent lives too; if black people stopped committing so many crimes, they would be in much better situations.  And liberals provide a much needed nuance: America’s foreign policy has been destructive in the Middle East; the capitalistic system isn’t entirely fair and neither is life; and historical racism has placed the black community in a terrible situation that is still being reinforced by modern day racism.  So why does the left simplify all flaws with conservatives and conservative policies as “They’re bad and not worth engaging”?

The Wrong Choice

I.

There’s a lot of terms in English (and probably all languages) that are used to mean closely related, yet vastly different, things.  This can be annoying – language is arguably one of the most important tools humans ever developed, if not the most important, because it’s what lets us communicate with each other and transfer our thoughts and experiences.  Ambiguity is a crack in that tool that results in people not understanding each other.  When the terms are close enough, people can go entire conversations without realizing they are talking about different things.  Worse, using the same term can confuse a person’s own internal thoughts, as they haven’t clearly defined it to themselves.  Even worse, entire political arguments can derive out of different people holding different meanings for the term.  One of those terms is the term “wrong choice”.

 

II.

Let’s start easy with a quick hypothetical.  I make a bet with you that the coin I’m about to flip will land on heads.  If I’m right, you give me $10; if I’m wrong and it lands on tails, I’ll give you $1000.  Unless you have strong feelings against gambling or you really can’t afford to lose that $10, the “right choice” here is to accept my bet.  You have a 50% chance of winning $1000 and a 50% chance of losing $10 – with an expected value of $495, it’d be silly of you not to take it.

If the coin landed heads, you might say that in hindsight you made the wrong decision – based on the outcome, the correct thing would have been to pass.  But it was absolutely the correct decision until the moment the flip occurred.

This holds very true in other casino games like Blackjack and Poker.  The players who are masters at these games know to differentiate between decisions which are correct in outcome and decisions which are correct in choice.  There are probability tables for these games that outline what decisions are correct in choice, and someone who is solely interested in maximizing profit should always follow what they say.  They may feel disheartened all the times it leads them astray – where they folded their hand when they could have actually won.  But this is because at the end of the day, what we really care about is the outcome.

Casino games are an easy example because in the long run, a person who follows what is correct in choice will end up being correct in outcome.  In many, many individual instances, the two will differ –yet in the majority of cases, they will be the same.  Since players can play over and over and over, the benefits of playing according to the correct probabilistic models become evident.

But in real life, you don’t get that many tries – you often just get one.

 

III.

Here’s another hypothetical.  You and your friend want to throw a barbecue one Saturday afternoon and you invite a bunch of people ahead of time.  On the night before, the forecast shows an 80% chance of rain on Saturday but only a 20% chance on Sunday.  You want to reschedule for Sunday but your friend says you worry too much and you should just keep the Saturday date.

Now if you push hard to end up rescheduling and it ends up not raining on Saturday, you will feel cheated.  Indeed, one wouldn’t blame you for being downright angry if it ended up raining on Sunday instead.  Whereas if you decide to give in and it ends up not raining on Saturday, your friend may gloat over how you worried too much and that it was a good thing they talked you down from rescheduling.

Both of these happen because again, we judge whether our choices were correct in outcome.  If your goal is to not get wet and your friend group is largely indifferent to which day the barbecue happens, you are correct to want to reschedule and your friend is incorrect to want to stay the course.  If you were going to have 100 barbecues like this and always rescheduled, you would end up having 20 bad barbecues; but if you always did nothing, you would end up having 80 of them.

Of course, this is hard to remember when you are getting drenched on a 20% P.O.P day or looking outside on a clear sunny 80% P.O.P day wishing you hadn’t rescheduled.

 

IV.

It bothered me a lot after the 2016 election when people started saying that Nate Silver was wrong.  The man had repeatedly called out that Trump had a significant chance of winning, and likened the idea of calling Hillary’s win a foregone conclusion to saying that not dying from a game of Russian Roulette was a foregone conclusion.  Indeed, after he got called a wizard for his “accurate predictions” in the 2012 election, Nate called out in his book that “getting every state right was a stroke of luck” and that his “chance of going fifty-for-fifty were only about 20 percent”.

In the end, Nate and his team at FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary a 71.4% chance of winning the 2016 election.  She lost and he got heat for “being wrong”.  This makes exactly as much sense as someone getting heat for saying there’s a 66.7% chance of a particular dice roll showing a 3 or higher, and having a 1 come up.

To be fair, I also can’t claim that he was right.  Nate can’t know if his estimated probability was right.  It’s not as simple as a coin toss where we intuitively known that the odds of heads vs. tails is 50-50.  It’s not like weather forecasting, which we know through historical data to be quite accurate.  The National Weather Service has hundreds of locations each day that it can test out.  The FiveThirtyEight team gets one election to test out their model every 4 years.  Presumably, they make updates in between, which means they don’t even get to test the same model repeatedly.  This leads one to ask: how do we know if the model is even right?  If they always say there’s a 30% outcome in an election, one could argue that no one can ever prove them wrong and they are failing the criteria of falsifiability.

There’s no good answer to this.  If I am overly trusting of the FiveThirtyEight team, it’s because their methodology makes sense, because they have shown historical success via predictions, and because they seem comfortable discussing their uncertainty and mistakes.  Probabilistic statements inherently fail the falsifiability criterion – indeed, this is one of the criticisms of the criterion.  So this is as good as its going to get.

 

 

V.

We often make statements like “I am 80% certain” without thinking much about what it means.  We have an intuitive sense of what it means but if it were an honest statement, it would imply the following:

  1. If I make 100 such statements, I would expect around 80 of them to be true and 20 of them to be false.
  2. If someone offered to give me some amount (say $10) if I was right but I had to give them more than four times that amount (> $40) if I was wrong, that would be a bad bet to take. But If I had to give them less than four times that amount if I was wrong, it would be a good bet to take.

In reality, people who say they are 99% confident are wrong 20% of the time, and people who say there is only a 1 in a million chance they are wrong are wrong 5% of the time.  This highlights the problem of overconfidence but it also highlights a lack of awareness on what these statements practically mean.

Some people (like Scott Alexander) put genuine effort into calibrating themselves, which I applaud.  I’ve never done this myself but I would love to live in a world where it’s a norm for politicians and pundits and journalists to do this, so the public always has a historical record we can use to see who is trustworthy and who isn’t.  This would also save us from being drawn by the overconfidence that is so inviting about these personalities.

Scott Adams, who created the Dilbert comic strips, predicted that Trumps’ odds of winning were 98%.  He had no real methodology other than that he thought the Democrats were bullies and that Hillary was a candidate who was turning Americans against each other while Trump was seeking to unite America.  He was correct in outcome and has drawn praise.  Yet, there is no question that he was completely incorrect in choice to say this.

As long as we confuse being correct in outcome and being in choice, people who make bad predictions like Scott Adams will be praised whenever they get one right, while people like Nate Silver or Scott Alexander who diligently state their uncertainties and evaluate their accuracies will be wrongly criticized.