modified 2018-11-30

Importance of faith (in progress)

From “The honest truth about dishonesty”: From the social science perspective, religion has evolved in ways that can help society counteract potentially destructive tendencies, including the tendency to be dishonest. Religion and religious rituals remind people of their obligations to be moral in various ways; recall, for example, the Jewish man with the tzitzit from chapter 2 (“Fun with the Fudge Factor”). Muslims use beads called tasbih or misbaha on which they recount the ninety-nine names of God several times a day. There’s also daily prayer and the confessional prayer (“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned”), the practice of prayaschitta in Hinduism, and countless other religious reminders that work very much as the Ten Commandments did in our experiments. [and..] Finally, I suspect that one other important characteristic for making rules is to have each rule link to a larger meaning. If the rule is set in an arbitrary way (exercise for thirty minutes, three times a week; eat two pieces of fruit and up to two thousand calories a day), the rule itself, and breaking it, is going to be relatively meaningless. But if the rules link us to other people (we are all doing this together), to some other larger purpose (this is what good people do), or to a deep belief (God’s commandments), breaking the rule is more difficult and less likely to happen. In AA, for example, everything is linked to a sense of surrender to a “higher power.”

Also discuss importance of faith for long-term thinking + strong rules, ala Cowen.

Also, many points in Haidt around this

A combination of ethical systems works best (confidence: arbitrary choice by an etihcal subjectivist)

Assuming that utilitarianism is ultimately correct. In practice, humans cannot predict the outcome of many acts, and utility is hard to calculate and compare. Many thought experiments constrain the variables to make the result clear, but in real life, we need to consider things like “weakening moral norms against murder” which can be very hard to quantify.

It is then important to have strong rights that are almost always respected, except if we are really really sure of ourselves. (So yeah, its OK to kill one guy to save a million, go ahead).

TODO: rights become meaningless if there is a ‘except..’ involved, must be almost absolute, at least normatively

There rules act as a useful heuristic, allowing us to avoid needing to drop down to utilitarian thinking in day to day life. The rules must be justified and updated based on utilitarianism however. Rules without something to justify them do not make sense (where do the rules come from in the first case).

See a similar idea by R. M Hare

To argue in this way is entirely to neglect the importance for moral philosophy of a study of moral education. Let us suppose that a fully informed archangelic act-utilitarian is thinking about how to bring up his children. He will obviously not bring them up to practise on every occasion on which they are confronted with a moral question the kind of arch angelic thinking that he himself is capable of [complete consequentialist reasoning]; if they are ordinary children, he knows that they will get it wrong. They will not have the time, or the information, or the self-mastery to avoid self-deception prompted by self-interest; this is the real, as opposed to the imagined, veil of ignorance which determines our moral principles. So he will do two things. First, he will try to implant in them a set of good general principles. I advisedly use the word ‘implant’; these are not rules of thumb, but principles which they will not be able to break without the greatest repugnance, and whose breach by others will arouse in them the highest indignation. These will be the principles they will use in their ordinary level-1 moral thinking, especially in situations of stress. Secondly, since he is not always going to be with them, and since they will have to educate their children, and indeed continue to educate themselves, he will teach them,as far as they are able, to do the kind of thinking that he has been doing himself. This thinking will have three functions. First of all, it will be used when the good general principles conflict in particular cases. If the principles have been well chosen, this will happen rarely; but it will happen. Secondly, there will be cases (even rarer) in which, though there is no conflict between general principles, there is something highly unusual about the case which prompts the question whether the general principles are really fitted to deal with it. But thirdly, and much the most important, this level-2 thinking will be used to select the general principles to be taught both to this and to succeeding generations. The general principles may change, and should change (because the environment changes). And note that, if the educator were not (as we have supposed him to be) arch angelic, we could not even assume that the best level-1 principles were imparted in the first place; perhaps they might be improved.

TODO: additionally, does utilitarianism make sense for humans at all? Maybe only sensible for policy decisions, no human can really work that way (even Singer treats his daughters better than strangers). WHY is utilitarianism best (see Haidt for musings), why not rely more on my own intuition? (inconsistancies?) What utility function? Rah.

Not prioritising growth is immoral (confidence: likely)

I agree with the need to prioritize growth over most other considerations, as discussed by Tyler Cowen here:

The Principle of Growth: “We should make political choices so as to maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, as defined by Wealth Plus

(This includes traditional measures of economic value, as would be found in gdp statistics, but also measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities)

Over time growth overwhelms everything else, since the increases in wellbeing are so huge due to compounding.

Also, there are more people ‘in the future’ than in the present. This conclusion depends on what discount rate you use: If you discount heavily, you should concentrate less on growth and more on the present. If you discount less (Parfit) you should concentrate on growth, to the detriment of current lives. (For example, discounting at 5% means a death today is worth 131 in 100 years, but 39 billion in 500 years, which would justify sacrificing many earths in 500 years to save one life today, which feels wrong).

Additionally, it may be hard for people to truly care about future lives, we might need some concept of ‘faith’ for people to be able to stick to their choices.

Current political systems are short-term focused, maybe something like Futarchy which shifts incentives to be more long-term could be better.

TODO: add, importance of being careful not to reduce people’s motivation to be productive in this case. eg. British people now comfortable and soft, no longer need to strive to succeed. Disincentivised from continuing to work harder as they reach higher tax bands, able to survive even if they do no work. Victorian hunger is lost. Need to balance this with charity, caring for those who cannot care for themselves, insurance against hard times, etc.

Tension between collectivism and personal liberty

If people are making contributions to collective pot, they feel justified in judging or changing others’ behaviours.

One example is obesity or smoking in the UK. Because I am taxed for the NHS, any increase in the average cost of healthcare results in an increase in my taxes. Other people’s behaviour now has an externality in the form of raising taxes for everyone

Whereas before, I did not care if people smoked in their homes or drank to excess, I am now hurt by that behaviour. It becomes justified to both criticise the behaviour, and attempt to limit it. Whereas before the consequences of their behaviour were internal, they are now inflicted on society as a whole.

This changes the incentives, and could make it more likely at the margin for people to oppose immigration of the very poor, if they believe they will be net recipients of tax money. We could allow free immigration with no benefits allowed, but this is politically unlikely.

Bastiat says beautifully:

si la Loi se bornait à faire respecter toutes les Personnes, toutes les Libertés, toutes les Propriétés, si elle n’était que l’organisation du Droit individuel de légitime défense, l’obstacle, le frein, le châtiment opposé à toutes les oppressions, à toutes les spoliations, croit-on que nous nous disputerions beaucoup, entre citoyens, à propos du suffrage plus ou moins universel ? Croit-on qu’il mettrait en question le plus grand des biens, la paix publique ? Croit-on que les classes exclues n’attendraient pas paisiblement leur tour ? Croit-on que les classes admises seraient très-jalouses de leur privilége ? Et n’est-il pas clair que l’intérêt étant identique et commun, les uns agiraient, sans grand inconvénient, pour les autres ?

Indeed, all politics is caused by squabbling between groups, each trying to get benefits for itself. If there were no rent to extract, there would be no squabbling.

In the UK the government gives money to bus companies to subsidise low traffic routes that would otherwise be unprofitable. This is ridiculous. If it is not profitable to run a bus line, because not enough people are using it, then we should not tax people to prop that line up. All this does is waste money and resources.

Of course, someone will respond to this with a cry of ‘but think of the poor old woman who can no longer afford the bus’ (well, she can take the bus for free, maybe the poor middle age man instead). This is a common complaint, and stems from failing to clearly define what your goal is. If your final goal is to provide bus routes to people who live in lightly populated areas, then sure, do that. But if your goal is actually to help poor people, maybe consider giving them money directly, instead of giving it to a prive bus company instead?

Discount rates are strange (confidence: musings)

(in progress) What time-discounting rate is the correct one, and how would we justify any discount rate? As mentioned above, a 5% discount rate means that we would be happy to sacrifice 39 billion lives in 500 years to save a single life today. However a 0% discount rate means we need to focus almost entirely on future lives to the detriment of present ones, since they vastly outnumber us.

As well as time discounting, we often see people use relationship-wise discounting as well. They care more for family, tribe, country, species. It is a strong enough part of the human psyche that it shapes our moral intuitions strongly, yet its conclusions go against utilitarianism on the surface.

For example, people would not find it morally reprehensible if a parent says that given the choice they would let one thousand people die to save their child, yet this does not maximise utility (assume that nobody would know about the act to avoid factors like ‘weakening the child-parent bond’ on the utilitarian side).

With future lives, the possibility that they may never occur can justify discounting their utility, for out-group lives there seems to be no obvious justification.

Some flavors of consequentialism try to include this concept [read more about fun flavors of consequentialism]

add notes on public policy, ie Keynes “all dead in the long run” (Yes, we will all be dead in the long run, but hey, our kids won’t. Thank god our ancestors did not entirely sacrifice future growth for immediate gain, we would have a far lower standard of living if so) also, notes from Tyler about how conservatives and liberals have their priorities backwards when you consider discounting

Adam Smith: That wisdom which contrived the system of human affections … seems to have judged that the interest of the great society of mankind would be best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it, which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding. “Now that’s Durkheimian utilitarianism. It’s utilitarianism done by somebody who understands human groupishness.” haidt

Eating meat is immoral (confidence: likely)

Eating meat is likely wrong. I believe animals are capable of suffering.

I think most people also believe this, but do not confront the question. For example, most people would presumably prefer a painless method of killing cows were used over a drawn out pain-inducing one, showing that they believe cows do suffer.

When discussing this issue, people often mention the ‘logic of the larder’ argument: that if we stopped eating meat, the number of animals would diminish, thereby reducing the number of farmed animal lives lived, which would be bad. “To help animals”, they say, “you should eat them” (

I would argue that the majority of farm animals actually have utility negative lives, so eliminating future farm animal lives is intrinsically good.

Even if you do not believe this, my goal here is not to increase the overall number of cows in the world. My goal is to maximize utility. The argument assumes a false dichotomy whereby you can choose to either raise animals and eat them, or simply throw away all of those resources.

Realistically if we eliminated farmed animals, those freed up resources would be used to provide value to humans in other ways (they could be used to feed, water and house human vegetarians for example). In our current world there is a set of externalities (torture, pollution) that is not priced into the cost of meat. If they were, we might see: * a huge drop in meat consumption * a drop in the cost of foods, water and land currently consumed by those animals * destruction of businesses that do intensive factory farming * creation of businesses that raise very happy animals and kill them in mostly painless ways * far more investment into cultured meat (that would suddenly become profitable), and meat alternatives

I don’t think that the number of cows is an integral part of most people’s utility function, so keeping a few in zoos should be fine. Removing meat from the diet of humans might be a small utility hit, but surely balanced by the advantages.

Eating eggs is also immoral (confidence: likely)

Producing eggs requires chickens, the male chickens will be killed. The egg laying chickens will be killed when their laying rate slows. Even assuming free-range chickens, the conditions are not excellent, although probably positive-utility (at least in the UK, where the laws are strict).

Lying to children about Father Christmas is naughty (confidence: highly likely)

I have not found a good reason to tell my daughter that Father Christmas is a real person.

Common arguments include:

It is a tradition

Sure, and we may still play the game of hanging the sock and getting presents on Christmas morning, but I see no reason to claim that Santa is real. I enjoy Christmas in general, despite not thinking that Jesus was the son of god, after all.

It gives a sense of wonder to the child

There are other, better ways to achieve this, using things that are actually true. Our world is interesting enough that we do not need to invent things to instill wonder in small children.

It encourages good behavior

Unsure if true, most of the year. Maybe more so around Christmas. I see no reason you could not use a different threat though (be good or your parents will not buy you presents). Additionally I would prefer to use more positive methods to encourage good behavior.

It helps children understand the concept of lying

I would say that generally, it is wrong for parents to lie to their children in the first place. It seems that most children recover from the lie, but why do it in the first place? Beyond this, surely a better way to show children that people lie, is to let them be exposed to a conspiracy of most adults trying to get them to believe in an imaginary man with super powers who will give them nice stuff if they believe in him. I imagine that this will be an excellent lesson.

The child will tell the other children

Maybe. It is not my responsibility to cover for lies made by strangers to their children.

Free will does not exist (confidence: highly likely)

Human minds follow the same physical laws as any other matter, therefore human thought processes are deterministic and theoretically predictable. In practice, the mechanisms are complicated enough that we cannot do so. From the inside, it feels like there is free will, but if you reset a brain to the same state, it would always make the same decision.

Assuming we do not have free well, whence moral responsibility?

I am unsure if there needs to be free-will for someone to be held responsible. Pragmatically, morality is enforced through social pressure, punishment, rewards. We should continue using these, since they do affect people’s future behaviour. Assuming a creature who was made unable to learn, it would be pointless to punish it if it does something wrong, but it could still be considered morally responsible for its actions. We should quarantine it to prevent it from causing issues in future.

I think that this view is widely held, and most arguments about free-will come from scemantics.