Punishing the good

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Should you punish people for wronging others, or for making the wrong call about wronging others?

For example:

  1. A newspaper sends me annoying emails all the time, but suppose that empirically if they didn’t behave like this, they would get markedly fewer subscribers, and may not survive. And suppose their survival is in fact worth a little annoyance for a lot of people, we all agree. Such that if I was in their position, I agree that I would send out the annoying emails. Should I resent them and unsubscribe from their paper for their antisocial behavior, or praise them and be friendly because overall I think they made the right call?
  2. Suppose Bob eats beef, which he thinks makes him feel somewhat better and so be better able to carry out his job as a diplomat negotiating issues in which tens of thousands of lives are at stake. He also thinks it is pretty bad for the cows, but worth it on net. Suppose he’s right about all of this. Five hundred years later, carnivory is illegal and hated, and historians report that Bob, while in other regards a hero, did eat beef. Should the people of 2521 think of Bob as an ambiguous figure, worthy of both pride and contempt? or should they treat him as purely a hero, who made the best choice in his circumstances?

I have one intuition that says, ‘how can you punish someone for doing the very best thing they could have done? What did you want them to do? And are you going to not punish the alternative person, who made a worse choice for the world, but didn’t harm someone in the process? Are you just going to punish everyone different amounts?’

But an argument for the other side—for punishing people for doing the right thing—is that it is needed to get the incentives straight. If Alice does $100 of harm to Bruce to provide $1000 of help to Carrie, then let’s suppose that that’s good (ignoring the potential violation of property rights, which seems like it shouldn’t be ignored ultimately). But if we let such things pass, then Alice might also do this when she guesses that is only worth $60 to Carrie, if she cares about Carrie more than Bruce. Whereas if we always punish Alice just as much as she harmed Bruce, then she will take the action exactly when she would think it worth it if it was her own welfare at stake, rather than Bruce’s. (This is just the general argument for internalizing externalities – having people pay for the costs they impose on others.)

This resolution is weirder to the extent that the punishment is in the form of social disgrace and the like. It’s one thing to charge Bob money for his harms to cows, and another to go around saying ‘Bob made the best altruistic decisions he could, and I would do the same in his place. Also I do think he’s contemptible.’

It also leaves Bob in a weird position, in which he feels fine about his decision to eat beef, but also considers himself a bit of a reprehensible baddie. Should this bother him? Should he try to reform?

I’m still inclined toward punishing such people, or alternately to think that the issue should be treated with more nuance than I have done, e.g. distinguishing punishments from others’ opinions of you, and more straightforward punishments.

Typology of blog posts that don’t always add anything clear and insightful

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

I used to think a good blog post should basically be a description of a novel insight.

To break it down more, on this view:

  1. A blog post should have a propositional claim (e.g. ‘the biggest externalities are from noise pollution’, or ‘noise pollution is a concept’ vs. expression of someone’s feelings produced by externalities, or a series of reflections on externalities). A ‘propositional claim’ here can be described straightforwardly in words, and usually conveys information (i.e. they say the world is one way instead of another way).
  2. It should be a general claim—i.e. applicable to many times and places and counterfactuals (e.g. ‘here is how tragedies of the commons work: …’ vs. ‘here is a thing that happened to me yesterday: …’)
  3. It should be a novel claim(e.g. a new reason to doubt one of the explanations put forward for the demographic transition)
  4. The claim should be described, which is to imply that the content should be:
    1. Verbal (or otherwise symbolic, e.g. a table of numbers surrounded by text would count)
    2. Explicit (saying the things it means, rather than alluding to them)
    3. Mostly concerned with conveying the relevant propositions (vs. for instance mostly concerned with affecting the reader’s mood or beliefs directly)

I probably would have agreed that the odd vignette was also a good blog post, but ideally it should be contained in some explicit discussion of what was to be learned from it. I probably wouldn’t have held my more recent Worldly Positions blog1 in high esteem.

I now think that departures from all of these things are often good. So in the spirit of novel descriptions of explicit and general claims, I have made a typology of different combinations of these axes.

Before getting to it, I’ll explain some part of the value of each category that I think I overlooked, for anyone similar to my twenty year old self.

Worthy non-propositional-claim content

Minds have many characteristics other than propositional beliefs. For instance, they can have feelings and attitudes and intuitions and grokkings and senses. They can meditate and chop onions quickly and look on the bright side and tend to think in terms of systems. They can also have different versions of ‘beliefs’ that don’t necessarily correspond to differences in what propositions they would assent to. For instance, they can say ‘it’s good to exercise’, or they can viscerally anticipate a better future when they choose to exercise. And even among straightforward beliefs held by minds, there are many that aren’t easily expressed in words. For instance, I have an impression of what summer evenings in the garden of a lively country restaurant were like, but to convey that sense to you is an art, and probably involves saying different propositional things in the hope that your mind will fill in the same whatever-else in the gaps. So this belief doesn’t seem to live in my mind in a simple propositional form, nor easily make its way into one.

All of this suggests that the set of things that you might want to communicate to a mind is large and contains much that is not naturally propositional. 2

Minds can also take many inputs other than propositional claims. For instance, instructions and remindings and stories and music and suggestions implicit in propositional claims and body language and images. So if you want to make available a different way of being to a mind—for instance you want it to find salient the instability of the global system—then it’s not obvious that propositional claims are the best way.

Given that minds can take many non-propositional inputs, and take many non-propositional states, you should just expect that there are a lot of things to be said that aren’t naturally propositional, in form or content. You should expect messages where the payload is intended to influence a mind’s non-propositional states, and ones where the mode of communication is not propositional.

…in communicating propositional claims

There are different versions of ‘understanding’ a proposition. I like to distinguish ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ a thing — which is to say, seeing it fit into your abstract model of the world, being inclined to assent to it — and ‘realizing’ it — intuitively experiencing its truth in the world that you live in. Joe Carlsmith explores this distinction at more length, and gives an example I like:

If asked, one would agree that the people one sees on a day to day basis — on the subway, at parties, at work — all have richly detailed and complex inner lives, struggles, histories, perspectives; but this fact isn’t always present and vivid in one’s lived world; and when it becomes so, it can make an important difference to one’s ethical orientation, even if the propositions one assents to have not obviously changed.

I repeatedly have the experience of ‘already knowing’ some obvious thing that people always say for ages before ‘realizing’ it. For instance, ‘the map is not the territory’. (“Of course the map isn’t the territory. Why would it be? That would be some stupid mistake, thinking that the map was the territory. Like, what would your model of the situation even be like? That the place you live is also your own mind?”) Then at some point it actually hits me that stuff that seems to be in the world ISN’T IN THE WORLD; WHAT SEEMS LIKE THE WORLD IS MY OWN MIND’S IMAGE OF THE WORLD. For instance, long after seeming to know that ‘the map isn’t the territory’ I was astonished to realize that those things that are just boring in their basic essence, like sports statistics and home care magazines, things that seem to be fundamentally drab, are not like that at all. They gleam with just as much allure as the things I am most compelled by, from many vantage points out there—just not mine. And in such a case I say to myself, ‘Oh wow, I just realized something…huh, I guess it is that the map is not the territory…but I knew that?’. Probably reading this, you are still thinking, ‘um yes, you weren’t aware that boringness is person-dependent?’ And I was aware of that. I ‘knew’ it. And I even knew it in some intuitively available ways—for instance, just because I find Married at First Sight interesting, I did not expect my boyfriend to find it so. In particular, in approaching my boyfriend with the news that I have been watching a bunch of Married at First Sight, I viscerally did not expect ‘boyfriend sympathizes with appeal of objectively excellent show’ type observations (in fact he liked it, and I was in fact surprised). But still the boringness of other subjects is depicted to me as part of them, like being red is depicted as in the world (whereas ‘liable to reduce my hunger’ say, is I think more accurately represented by my mind as a feature of myself). And ‘realizing’ that that isn’t right changes how the world that I spend my concrete days in seems.

(I know I have hardly explained or defended this claim that ‘realizing’ is a thing, and important, but I’m not going to do that properly here.)

All of these ‘realizations’ seem to be non-propositional. You already had some proposition, and then you get something else. I think of ‘realizing’ a proposition as acquiring a related non-proposition. To realize the proposition ‘other people have inner lives’ is to take in some non-proposition. Perhaps a spacious sense of those other minds being right there around you. If you are communicating a proposition, to have it actually realized, you want to get its non-proposition partner into the recipient’s mind also. This isn’t really right, because each proposition probably has a multitude of intuitive realizations of it, and each intuitive sense of the world could be part of appreciating a multitude of different propositions. But at any rate, communicating a proposition well, so that the other person can really make use of it, often seems to involve conveying a lot of its non-propositional brethren.

Worthy non-descriptive communication

Closely related to non-propositional content is non-descriptive communication, which I shall call ‘evocative’ communication.

I’m thinking of a few different axes as being related to descriptiveness of communication:

  • Verbalness (consisting of words, e.g. “donkeys are nice” vs. a video of a nice donkey)
  • Explicitness (saying in words the thing you mean, rather than demonstrating it or suggesting it or subtly causing it to creep into the background of the picture you are painting without naming it. E.g. “I want us to follow this protocol” vs. “Most reasonable people are following this protocol now”)
  • Neutrality (not setting out to affect the readers’ emotions except via content itself)

I think of the most vanilla communication as being explicit, verbal and neutral. And this seems pretty good for conveying propositional content. But I suspect that non-propositional content is often conveyed better through evocative communication.

(Or perhaps it is more like: communicating propositional claims explicitly with language is uniquely easy, because explicit language is basically a system we set up for communicating, and propositions are a kind of message that is uniquely well suited to it. But once we leave the set of things that are well communicated in this way, and given that there are lots of other ways to communicate things, non-descriptive forms of communication are much more likely to be helpful than they were.)

Relatedly, I think non-descriptive communication can be helpful in making the ‘realizing’ versions of propositional claims available to minds. That is, in really showing them to us. So in that way, evocative communication seems also potentially valuable for communicating propositional content well.

Worthy communication of non-propositional things descriptively

Going the opposite way—trying to communicate ineffable things in words—also seems valuable, because a) groping nearby propositionally does contribute to understanding, and b) only understanding things in ineffable ways leaves them unavailable to our reasoning faculties in important ways.

Worthy non-generality

I thought that if things were not general, then they were particularly unimportant to talk about. All things equal, isn’t it way better to understand a broad class of things better than a single thing?

Some ways this is misleading:

  • Understanding specific things is often basically a prerequisite for understanding general things. For instance, devising a general theory of circumstances under which arms races develop will be harder without specific information about the behavior of specific nations historically, to inspire or constrain your theorizing
  • Understanding specific things one after another will often automatically lead to your having an intuitive general model, through some kind of brain magic, even in cases where you would have had a hard time making an explicit model. For instance, after you have seen a thousand small disputes run their course, you might have a pretty good guess about how the current dispute will go, even if you couldn’t begin to describe a theory of argumentation for the relevant community.
  • Specific things are often broadly relevant to the specific world that you live in. For instance, exactly what happened in a particular past war might determine what current obligations should be and what sentiments are warranted, and who is owed, and what particular current parties might be expected to want or take for granted. Which is perhaps only of much interest in a narrow range of circumstances, but if they are the circumstances in which we will live for decades, it might be consistently material.

Worthy non-originality of content

On my naive model, you don’t want to repeat something that someone else said, because there is implicitly no value in the repetition—the thing has already been said, so re-saying adds nothing and seems to imply that you are either ignorant or hoping to dupe ignorant others into giving you undeserved credit.

But on a model where many claims are easy enough to accept, but hard to realize, things look very different. The first time someone writes down an idea, the chances of it really getting through to anyone with much of its full power are low. The typical reader needs to meet the idea repeatedly, from different angles, to start to realize it.

In a world like that, a lot of value comes from rehashing older ideas. Also in that world, rehashing isn’t the easy cashing in of someone else’s work. Writing something in a way that might really reach some people who haven’t yet been reached is its own art.

Worthy non-originality of communication

I think I also kind of imagined that once an idea had been put into the ‘public arena’ then the job was done. But another way in which unoriginality is incredibly valuable is that each person can only see such a minuscule fraction of what has ever been written or created, and they can’t even see what they can’t see, that locating particularly apt bits and sharing them with the right audience can be as valuable as writing the thing in the first place. This is curating and signal boosting. For these, you don’t even need to write anything original. But again, doing them well is not trivial. Knowing which of the cornucopia of content should be shown to someone is a hard intellectual task.

Typology

Here is my tentative four-dimensional typology of kinds of blog posts. Any blog post maps to a path from some kind of content on the left, through some kind of communication to publication on the right. Content varies on two axes: generality and propositionalness. Communication varies in evocativeness. And blog posts themselves vary in how early in this pipeline the author adds value. For instance, among posts with a general propositional idea as their content, communicated in a non-propositional way, there are ones where the author came up with the idea, ones where the author took someone else’s idea and wrote something evocative about it, and ones that are repostings of either of the above. Thus, somewhat confusingly, there are 16 (pathways from left to right) x 3 (steps per pathway) = 46 total blog post types represented here, not the 36 you might expect from the number of squares.

I include a random assortment of examples, some obscure, zooming probably required (apologies).

Blog post typology

Main updates

  1. Lots of worthy things are hard to describe in words
  2. ‘Realizing’ is a thing, and valuable, and different to understanding
  3. Details can be good
  4. Having ideas is not obviously the main place one can add value

Takeaways

  1. It’s good to write all manner of different kinds of blog posts
  2. It’s good to just take other people’s ideas and write blog posts about them, especially of different kinds than the original blog posts
  3. It’s good to just take one’s own ideas and write second or third blog posts saying exactly the same thing in different ways

Other thoughts

These different sorts of blog posts aren’t always valuable, of course. They have to be done well. Compellingly writing about something that isn’t worthy of people’s attention, or curating the wrong things can be as bad as the good versions of these things are good.

Epistemic status: overall I expect to find that this post is badly wrong in at least one way in short order, but to be sufficiently interested in other things that I don’t get around to fixing it. Another good thing about rehashing others ideas is that you can make subtle edits where they are wrong.

Notes

  1. Older posts here 
  2. I don’t want to make strong claims about exactly what counts as propositional—maybe these things are propositional in some complicated way—but hopefully I’m pointing at an axis of straightforward propositionalness versus something else, regardless. 

The ecology of conviction

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Supposing that sincerity has declined, why?

It feels natural to me that sincere enthusiasms should be rare relative to criticism and half-heartedness. But I would have thought this was born of fairly basic features of the situation, and so wouldn’t change over time.

It seems clearly easier and less socially risky to be critical of things, or non-committal, than to stand for a positive vision. It is easier to produce a valid criticism than an idea immune to valid criticism (and easier again to say, ‘this is very simplistic – the situation is subtle’). And if an idea is criticized, the critic gets to seem sophisticated, while the holder of the idea gets to seem naïve. A criticism is smaller than a positive vision, so a critic is usually not staking their reputation on their criticism as much, or claiming that it is good, in the way that the enthusiast is.

But there are also rewards for positive visions and for sincere enthusiasm that aren’t had by critics and routine doubters. So for things to change over time, you really just need the scale of these incentives to change, whether in a basic way or because the situation is changing.

One way this could have happened is that the internet (or even earlier change in the information economy) somehow changed the ecology of enthusiasts and doubters, pushing the incentives away from enthusiasm. e.g. The ease, convenience and anonymity of criticizing and doubting on the internet puts a given positive vision in contact with many more critics, making it basically impossible for an idea to emerge not substantially marred by doubt and teeming with uncertainties and summarizable as ‘maybe X, but I don’t know, it’s complicated’. This makes presenting positive visions less appealing, reducing the population of positive vision havers, and making them either less confident or more the kinds of people whose confidence isn’t affected by the volume of doubt other people might have about what they are saying. Which all make them even easier targets for criticism, and make confident enthusiasm for an idea increasingly correlated with being some kind of arrogant fool. Which decreases the basic respect offered by society for someone seeming to have a positive vision.

This is a very speculative story, but something like these kinds of dynamics seems plausible.

These thoughts were inspired by a conversation I had with Nick Beckstead.

In balance and flux

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Someone more familiar with ecology recently noted to me that it used to be a popular view that nature was ‘in balance’ and had some equilibrium state, that it should be returned to. Whereas the new understanding is that there was never an equilibrium state. Natural systems are always changing. Another friend who works in natural management also recently told me that their role in the past might have been trying to restore things to their ‘natural state’, but now the goal was to prepare yourself for what your ecology was becoming. A brief Googling returns this National Geographic article by Tik Root, The ‘balance of nature’ is an enduring concept. But it’s wrong. along the same lines. In fairness, they seem to be arguing against both the idea that nature is in a balance so intense that you can easily disrupt it, and the idea that nature is in a balance so sturdy that it will correct anything you do to it, which sounds plausible. But they don’t say that ecosystems are probably in some kind of intermediately sturdy balance, in many dimensions at least. They say that nature is ‘in flux’ and that the notion of balance is a misconception.

It seems to me though that there is very often equilibrium in some dimensions, even in a system that is in motion in other dimensions, and that that balance can be very important to maintain.

Some examples:

  • bicycle
  • society with citizens with a variety of demeanors, undergoing broad social change
  • human growing older, moving to Germany, and getting pregnant, while maintaining a narrow range of temperatures and blood concentrations of different chemicals

So the observation that a system is in flux seems fairly irrelevant to whether it is in equilibrium.

Any system designed to go somewhere relies on some of its parameters remaining within narrow windows. Nature isn’t designed to go somewhere, so the issue of what ‘should’ happen with it is non-obvious. But the fact that ecosystems always gradually change along some dimensions (e.g. grassland becoming forest) doesn’t seem to imply that there are not still balance in other dimensions, where they don’t change so much, and where changing is more liable to lead to very different and arguably less good states.

For instance, as a grassland gradually reforests, it might continue to have a large number of plant eating bugs, and bug-eating birds, such that the plant eating bugs would destroy the plants entirely if there were ever too many of them, but as there become more of them, the birds also flourish, and then eat them. As the forest grows, the tree-eating bugs become more common relative to the grass-eating bugs, but the rough equilibrium of plants, bugs, and birds remains. If the modern world was disrupting the reproduction of the birds, so that they were diminishing even while the bugs to eat were plentiful, threatening a bug-explosion-collapse in which the trees and grass would be destroyed by the brief insect plague, I think it would be reasonable to say that the modern world was disrupting the equilibrium, or putting nature out of balance.

The fact that your bike has been moving forward for miles doesn’t mean that leaning a foot to the left suddenly is meaningless, in systems terms.

What is going on in the world?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Here’s a list of alternative high level narratives about what is importantly going on in the world—the central plot, as it were—for the purpose of thinking about what role in a plot to take:

  • The US is falling apart rapidly (on the scale of years), as evident in US politics departing from sanity and honor, sharp polarization, violent civil unrest, hopeless pandemic responses, ensuing economic catastrophe, one in a thousand Americans dying by infectious disease in 2020, and the abiding popularity of Trump in spite of it all.
  • Western civilization is declining on the scale of half a century, as evidenced by its inability to build things it used to be able to build, and the ceasing of apparent economic acceleration toward a singularity.
  • AI agents will control the future, and which ones we create is the only thing about our time that will matter in the long run. Major subplots:
    • ‘Aligned’ AI is necessary for a non-doom outcome, and hard.
    • Arms races worsen things a lot.
    • The order of technologies matters a lot / who gets things first matters a lot, and many groups will develop or do things as a matter of local incentives, with no regard for the larger consequences.
    • Seeing more clearly what’s going on ahead of time helps all efforts, especially in the very unclear and speculative circumstances (e.g. this has a decent chance of replacing subplots here with truer ones, moving large sections of AI-risk effort to better endeavors).
    • The main task is finding levers that can be pulled at all.
    • Bringing in people with energy to pull levers is where it’s at.
  • Institutions could be way better across the board, and these are key to large numbers of people positively interacting, which is critical to the bounty of our times. Improvement could make a big difference to swathes of endeavors, and well-picked improvements would make a difference to endeavors that matter.
  • Most people are suffering or drastically undershooting their potential, for tractable reasons.
  • Most human effort is being wasted on endeavors with no abiding value.
  • If we take anthropic reasoning and our observations about space seriously, we appear very likely to be in a ‘Great Filter’, which appears likely to kill us (and unlikely to be AI).
  • Everyone is going to die, the way things stand.
  • Most of the resources ever available are in space, not subject to property rights, and in danger of being ultimately had by the most effective stuff-grabbers. This could begin fairly soon in historical terms.
  • Nothing we do matters for any of several reasons (moral non-realism, infinite ethics, living in a simulation, being a Boltzmann brain, ..?)
  • There are vast quantum worlds that we are not considering in any of our dealings.
  • There is a strong chance that we live in a simulation, making the relevance of each of our actions different from that which we assume.
  • There is reason to think that acausal trade should be a major factor in what we do, long term, and we are not focusing on it much and ill prepared.
  • Expected utility theory is the basis of our best understanding of how best to behave, and there is reason to think that it does not represent what we want. Namely, Pascal’s mugging, or the option of destroying the world with all but one in a trillion chance for a proportionately greater utopia, etc.
  • Consciousness is a substantial component of what we care about, and we not only don’t understand it, but are frequently convinced that it is impossible to understand satisfactorily. At the same time, we are on the verge of creating things that are very likely conscious, and so being able to affect the set of conscious experiences in the world tremendously. Very little attention is being given to doing this well.
  • We have weapons that could destroy civilization immediately, which are under the control of various not-perfectly-reliable people. We don’t have a strong guarantee of this not going badly.
  • Biotechnology is advancing rapidly, and threatens to put extremely dangerous tools in the hands of personal labs, possibly bringing about a ‘vulnerable world’ scenario.
  • Technology keeps advancing, and we may be in a vulnerable world scenario.
  • The world is utterly full of un-internalized externalities and they are wrecking everything.
  • There are lots of things to do in the world, we can only do a minuscule fraction, and we are hardly systematically evaluating them at all. Meanwhile massive well-intentioned efforts are going into doing things that are probably much less good than they could be.
  • AI is powerful force for good, and if it doesn’t pose an existential risk, the earlier we make progress on it, the faster we can move to a world of unprecedented awesomeness, health and prosperity.
  • There are risks to the future of humanity (‘existential risks’), and vastly more is at stake in these than in anything else going on (if we also include catastrophic trajectory changes). Meanwhile the world’s thinking and responsiveness to these risks is incredibly minor and they are taken unseriously.
  • The world is controlled by governments, and really awesome governance seems to be scarce and terrible governance common. Yet we probably have a lot of academic theorizing on governance institutions, and a single excellent government based on scalable principles might have influence beyond its own state.
  • The world is hiding, immobilized and wasted by a raging pandemic.

It’s a draft. What should I add? (If, in life, you’ve chosen among ways to improve the world, is there a simple story within which your choices make particular sense?)