I dislike overstatement

Jan 10 JDN 2459225

I was originally planning on titling this post “I hate overstatement”, but I thought that might be itself an overstatement; then I considered leaning into the irony with something like “Overstatement is the worst thing ever”. But no, I think my point best comes across if I exemplify it, rather than present it ironically.

It’s a familiar formula: “[Widespread belief] is wrong! [Extreme alternative view] is true! [Obvious exception]. [Further qualifications]. [Revised, nuanced view that is only slightly different from the widespread belief].”

Here are some examples of the formula (these are not direct quotes but paraphrases of their general views). Note that these are all people I basically agree with, and yet I still find their overstatement annoying:

Bernie Sanders: “Capitalism is wrong! Socialism is better! Well, not authoritarian socialism like the Soviet Union. And some industries clearly function better when privatized. Scandinavian social democracy seems to be the best system.”

Richard Dawkins: “Religion is a delusion! Only atheists are rational! Well, some atheists are also pretty irrational. And most religious people are rational about most things most of the time, and don’t let their religious beliefs interfere too greatly with their overall behavior. Really, what I mean to say that is that God doesn’t exist and organized religion is often harmful.”

Black Lives Matter: “Abolish the police! All cops are bastards! Well, we obviously still need some kind of law enforcement system for dealing with major crimes; we can’t just let serial killers go free. In fact, while there are deep-seated flaws in police culture, we could solve a lot of the most serious problems with a few simple reforms like changing the rules of engagement.”

Sam Harris is particularly fond of this formula, so here is a direct quote that follows the pattern precisely:

“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”

Somehow in a single paragraph he started with the assertion “It is permissible to punish thoughtcrime with death” and managed to qualify it down to “The Afghanistan War was largely justified”. This is literally the difference between a proposition fundamentally antithetical to everything America stands for, and an utterly uncontroversial statement most Americans agree with. Harris often complains that people misrepresent his views, and to some extent this is true, but honestly I think he does this on purpose because he knows that controversy sells. There’s taking things out of context—and then there’s intentionally writing in a style that will maximize opportunities to take you out of context.

I think the idea behind overstating your case is that you can then “compromise” toward your actual view, and thereby seem more reasonable.

If there is some variable X that we want to know the true value of, and I currently believe that it is some value x1 while you believe that it is some larger value x2, and I ask you what you think, you may not want to tell me x2. Intead you might want to give some number even larger than x2 that you choose to try to make me adjust all the way into adopting your new belief.

For instance, suppose I think the probability of your view being right is p and the probability of my view being right is 1-p. But you think that the probability of your view being right is q > p and the probability of my view being right is 1-q < 1-p.

I tell you that my view is x1. Then I ask you what your view is. What answer should you give?


Well, you can expect that I’ll revise my belief to a new value px + (1-p)x1, where x is whatever answer you give me. The belief you want me to hold is qx2 + (1-q)x1. So your optimal choice is as follows:

qx2 + (1-q)x1 = px + (1-p)x1

x = x1 + q/p(x2-x1)

Since q > p, q/p > 1 and the x you report to me will be larger than your true value x2. You will overstate your case to try to get me to adjust my beliefs more. (Interestingly, if you were less confident in your own beliefs, you’d report a smaller difference. But this seems like a rare case.)

In a simple negotiation over dividing some resource (e.g. over a raise or a price), this is quite reasonable. When you’re a buyer and I’m a seller, our intentions are obvious enough: I want to sell high and you want to buy low. Indeed, the Nash Equilibrium of this game seems to be that we both make extreme offers then compromise on a reasonable offer, all the while knowing that this is exactly what we’re doing.

But when it comes to beliefs about the world, things aren’t quite so simple.

In particular, we have reasons for our beliefs. (Or at least, we’re supposed to!) And evidence isn’t linear. Even when propositions can be placed on a one-dimensional continuum in this way (and quite frankly we shoehorn far too many complex issues onto a simple “left/right” continuum!), evidence that X = x isn’t partial evidence that X = 2x. A strong argument that the speed of light is 3*108 m/s isn’t a weak argument that the speed of light is 3*109 m/s. A compelling reason to think that taxes should be over 30% isn’t even a slight reason to think that taxes should be over 90%.

To return to my specific examples: Seeing that Norway is a very prosperous country doesn’t give us reasons to like the Soviet Union. Recognizing that religion is empirically false doesn’t justify calling all religious people delusional. Reforming the police is obviously necessary, and diverting funds to other social services is surely a worthwhile goal; but law enforcement is necessary and cannot simply be abolished. And defending against the real threat of Islamist terrorism in no way requires us to institute the death penalty for thoughtcrime.

I don’t know how most people response to overstatement. Maybe it really does cause them to over-adjust their beliefs. Hyperbole is a very common rhetorical tactic, and for all I know perhaps it is effective on many people.

But personally, here is my reaction: At the very start, you stated something implausible. That has reduced your overall credibility.

If I continue reading and you then deal with various exceptions and qualifications, resulting in a more reasonable view, I do give you some credit for that; but now I am faced with a dilemma: Either (1) you were misrepresenting your view initially, or (2) you are engaging in a motte-and-bailey doctrine, trying to get me to believe the strong statement while you can only defend the weak statement. Either way I feel like you are being dishonest and manipulative. I trust you less. I am less interested in hearing whatever else you have to say. I am in fact less likely to adopt your nuanced view than I would have been if you’d simply presented it in the first place.

And that’s assuming I have the opportunity to hear your full nuanced version. If all I hear is the sound-byte overstatement, I will come away with an inaccurate assessment of your beliefs. I will have been presented with an implausible claim and evidence that doesn’t support that claim. I will reject your view out of hand, without ever actually knowing what your view truly was.

Furthermore, I know that many others who are listening are not as thoughtful as I am about seeking out detailed context, so even if I know the nuanced version I know—and I think you know—that some people are going to only hear the extreme version.

Maybe what it really comes down to is a moral question: Is this a good-faith discussion where we are trying to reach the truth together? Or is this a psychological manipulation to try to get me to believe what you believe? Am I a fellow rational agent seeking knowledge with you? Or am I a behavior machine that you want to control by pushing the right buttons?

I won’t say that overstatement is always wrong—because that would be an overstatement. But please, make an effort to avoid it whenever you can.

What’s wrong with “should”?

Nov 8 JDN 2459162

I have been a patient in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for many years now. The central premise that thoughts can influence emotions is well-founded, and the results of CBT are empirically well supported.

One of the central concepts in CBT is cognitive distortions: There are certain systematic patterns in how we tend to think, which often results in beliefs and emotions that are disproportionate with reality.

Most of the cognitive distortions CBT deals with make sense to me—and I am well aware that my mind applies them frequently: All-or-nothing, jumping to conclusions, overgeneralization, magnification and minimization, mental filtering, discounting the positive, personalization, emotional reasoning, and labeling are all clearly distorted modes of thinking that nevertheless are extremely common.

But there’s one “distortion” on CBT lists that always bothers me: “should statements”.

Listen to this definition of what is allegedly a cognitive distortion:

Another particularly damaging distortion is the tendency to make “should” statements. Should statements are statements that you make to yourself about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others, imposing a set of expectations that will likely not be met.

When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When we cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by their failure to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.

So any time we use “should”, “ought”, or “must”, we are guilty of distorted thinking? In other words, all of ethics is a cognitive distortion? The entire concept of obligation is a symptom of a mental disorder?

Different sources on CBT will define “should statements” differently, and sometimes they offer a more nuanced definition that doesn’t have such extreme implications:

Individuals thinking in ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts; or ‘musts’ have an ironclad view of how they and others ‘should’ and ‘ought’ to be. These rigid views or rules can generate feels of anger, frustration, resentment, disappointment and guilt if not followed.

Example: You don’t like playing tennis but take lessons as you feel you ‘should’, and that you ‘shouldn’t’ make so many mistakes on the court, and that your coach ‘ought to’ be stricter on you. You also feel that you ‘must’ please him by trying harder.

This is particularly problematic, I think, because of the All-or-Nothing distortion which does genuinely seem to be common among people with depression: Unless you are very clear from the start about where to draw the line, our minds will leap to saying that all statements involving the word “should” are wrong.

I think what therapists are trying to capture with this concept is something like having unrealistic expectations, or focusing too much on what could or should have happened instead of dealing with the actual situation you are in. But many seem to be unable to articulate that clearly, and instead end up asserting that entire concept of moral obligation is a cognitive distortion.

There may be a deeper error here as well: The way we study mental illness doesn’t involve enough comparison with the control group. Psychologists are accustomed to asking the question, “How do people with depression think?”; but they are not accustomed to asking the question, “How do people with depression think compared to people who don’t?” If you want to establish that A causes B, it’s not enough to show that those with B have A; you must also show that those who don’t have B also don’t have A.

This is an extreme example for illustration, but suppose someone became convinced that depression is caused by having a liver. They studied a bunch of people with depression, and found that they all had livers; hypothesis confirmed! Clearly, we need to remove the livers, and that will cure the depression.

The best example I can find of a study that actually asked that question compared nursing students and found that cognitive distortions explain about 20% of the variance in depression. This is a significant amount—but still leaves a lot unexplained. And most of the research on depression doesn’t even seem to think to compare against people without depression.

My impression is that some cognitive distortions are genuinely more common among people with depression—but not all of them. There is an ongoing controversy over what’s called the depressive realism effect, which is the finding that in at least some circumstances the beliefs of people with mild depression seem to be more accurate than the beliefs of people with no depression at all. The result is controversial both because it seems to threaten the paradigm that depression is caused by distortions, and because it seems to be very dependent on context; sometimes depression makes people more accurate in their beliefs, other times it makes them less accurate.

Overall, I am inclined to think that most people have a variety of cognitive distortions, but we only tend to notice when those distortions begin causing distress—such when are they involved in depression. Human thinking in general seems to be a muddled mess of heuristics, and the wonder is that we function as well as we do.

Does this mean that we should stop trying to remove cognitive distortions? Not at all. Distorted thinking can be harmful even if it doesn’t cause you distress: The obvious example is a fanatical religious or political belief that leads you to harm others. And indeed, recognizing and challenging cognitive distortions is a highly effective treatment for depression.

Actually I created a simple cognitive distortion worksheet based on the TEAM-CBT approach developed by David Burns that has helped me a great deal in a remarkably short time. You can download the worksheet yourself and try it out. Start with a blank page and write down as many negative thoughts as you can, and then pick 3-5 that seem particularly extreme or unlikely. Then make a copy of the cognitive distortion worksheet for each of those thoughts and follow through it step by step. Particularly do not ignore the step “This thought shows the following good things about me and my core values:”; that often feels the strangest, but it’s a critical part of what makes the TEAM-CBT approach better than conventional CBT.

So yes, we should try to challenge our cognitive distortions. But the mere fact that a thought is distressing doesn’t imply that it is wrong, and giving up on the entire concept of “should” and “ought” is throwing out a lot of babies with that bathwater.

We should be careful about labeling any thoughts that depressed people have as cognitive distortions—and “should statements” is a clear example where many psychologists have overreached in what they characterize as a distortion.

What if we cared for everyone equally?

Oct 11 JDN 2459134

Imagine for a moment a hypothetical being who was a perfect utilitarian, who truly felt at the deepest level an equal caring for all human beings—or even all life.

We often imagine that such a being would be perfectly moral, and sometimes chide ourselves for failing so utterly to live up to its ideal. Today I’d like to take a serious look at how such a being would behave, and ask whether it is really such a compelling ideal after all.

I cannot feel sadness at your grandmother’s death, for over 150,000 people die every day. By far the highest QALY lost are the deaths of children in the poorest countries, and I feel sad for them as an aggregate, but couldn’t feel particularly saddened by any individual one.

I cannot feel happiness at your wedding or the birth of your child, for 50,000 couples marry every day, and another 30,000 divorce. 350,000 children are born every day, so why should I care about yours?

My happiness does not change from hour to hour or day to day, except as a slow, steady increase over time that is occasionally interrupted briefly by sudden disasters like hurricanes or tsunamis. 2020 was the saddest year I’ve had in awhile, as for once there was strongly correlated suffering across the globe sufficient to break through the trend of steadily increasing prosperity.

Should we go out with friends for drinks or dinner or games, I’ll be ever-so-slightly happier, some barely perceptible degree, provided that there is no coincidental event which causes more than the baseline rate of global suffering that day. And I’d be just as happy to learn that someone else I’d never met went out to dinner with someone else I’d also never met.

Of course I love you, my dear: Precisely as much as I love the other eight billion people on Earth.

I hope now that you can see how flat, how bleak, how inhuman such a being’s experience would be. We might sometimes wish some respite from the roller coaster ride of our own emotional experiences, but in its place this creature feels almost nothing at all, just a vague sense of gradually increasing contentment which is occasionally interrupted by fleeting deviations from the trend.

Such a being is incapable of feeling love as we would recognize it—for a mind such as ours could not possibly feel so intensely for a billion people at once. To love all the people of the world equally, and still have anything resembling a human mind, is to love no one at all.

Perhaps we should not feel so bad that we are not such creatures, then?

Of course I do not mean to say that we should care nothing for distant strangers in foreign lands, or even that the tiny amount most people seem to care is adequate. We should care—and we should care more, and do more, than most people do.

But I do mean to say that it is possible to care too much about other people far away, an idea that probably seems obvious to some but radical to others. The human capacity for caring is not simply zero-sum—there are those who care more overall and less overall—but I do believe that it is limited: At some point you begin to sacrifice so much for those you have no attachments to that you begin to devalue your own attachments.

There is an interior optimum: We should care enough, but not too much. We should sacrifice some things, but not everything. Those closest to us should matter more than those further away—but both should matter. Where exactly to draw that line is a very difficult question, which has stumped far greater philosophers than I; but at least we can narrow the space and exclude the endpoints.

This may even make a certain space for morally justifying selfishness. Surely it does not justify total, utter selfishness with no regard for the suffering of others. But it defends self-care at the very least, and perhaps can sweep away some of the feelings of guilt we may have from being fortunate or prevailing in fair competition. Yes, much of what you have was gained by sheer luck, and even much of what you have earned, you earned by out-competing someone else nearly as deserving. But this is true of everyone, and as long as you played fair, you’ve not done wrong by doing better. There’s even good reason to think that a system which allocates its privileges by fair competition is a particularly efficient one, one which ultimately raises the prosperity of all.

If nothing else, reflecting on this has made me feel better about giving 8% of my gross income to charity instead of 20% or 50% or even 80%. And if even 8% is too much for you, try 2% or even 1%.

Why nonviolence?

Aug 16 JDN 2459078

You are no doubt aware that there are widespread protests going on right now. You may even have marched in some of them. Nearly 30 million Americans have participated in the Black Lives Matter protests, located in cities all around the country; this makes them quite likely the largest protests in American history.

The right wing is of course making much of the isolated incidents of violence that have occurred, often but not always actually provoked by the police or federal agents assigned to quell the protests. They have also made much of the property destruction caused by riots that have emerged from the protests, typically eliding the distinction between property destruction and violence. Since there has been far more property destruction than actual violence, this allows them to effectively inflate the level of violence.

In reality, the total deaths caused by these protests over two months and counting is clearly less than the number of Americans who are shot by police in an average week. And the total amount of property destruction is clearly less than the tens of billions of dollars per year that are stolen in wage theft, let alone the hundreds of billions of dollars per year that are stolen by white-collar crime. If violence and loss of property are really what you care about, these protests should not be your main concern.

Yet, I am concerned that too many on the left are too willing to accept violence. I have seen far too many people sharing and endorsing this quote:

“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

~ Stokely Carmichael

Nonviolence does work. Nonviolence did work for the civil rights movement. No, it doesn’t depend upon your opponent having a conscience—it only depends upon bystanders having a conscience. (Also, “the United States has no conscience” is only true insofar as socially constructed institutions don’t have feelings. Clearly most of the people in the United States—probably even most of the people in the US government—have a conscience!)

In fact, nonviolent protest is typically more effective than violent protest. When protesters turn to violence, they alienate the public whose support they need, and they allow the government to feel justified in responding with even more force. Campaigns of nonviolent civil resistance have been historically more effective than violent revolutions, even against authoritarian governments. On average, nonviolent protests are twice as likely to achieve their goals than violent protests.

Even worse than the Carmichael quote are the memes that have been shared saying things like this: “You want to fix the system, but not use violence; so, by magic?”

Nonviolence doesn’t mean politely asking for rights. It doesn’t mean being calm and non-confrontational. It doesn’t mean waiting patiently.

Nonviolence doesn’t even mean following the law or never damaging property. Some of the most important and effective acts of nonviolent protest involved breaking laws and damaging things—Rosa Parks was breaking the law, and does the Boston Tea Party ring a bell?

Nonviolence doesn’t even mean that nobody gets hurt; it often means strategically placing your own people in harm’s way knowing that the government’s violent overreaction will stir support for your cause. It’s a kind of ethical and political judo: Instead of directly resisting your stronger opponent, you maneuver so that their own power ends up damaging them. You use the government’s repression as a weapon for your own cause.

What does nonviolence mean?

Nonviolence means you don’t hurt people.

It sounds so simple and obvious, but a lot of people still don’t seem to get it. They seem to think that our only choices are “ask nicely” or “start a civil war”. Asking nicely obviously would not be effective; only someone deeply naive could imagine otherwise. Working legally within the system can sometimes be effective, but when really deep reforms are needed urgently it is often not enough. Starting a civil war might work—it has sometimes worked in the past—but it would come at a horrendous cost, probably thousands if not millions of lives.

Fortunately, these are not our only options. We don’t have to ask nicely; we don’t even have to obey the law. We can even break things. We just need to not hurt people. That still allows for a variety of forms of protest, confrontation, civil disobedience, and direct action. Jacobin, oddly enough, gets this right.

In reality, any movement is going to have extremists who act violently. A protest movement can still be considered nonviolent as long as such incidents of violence can be kept to a minimum, and never condoned by the leaders of the movement. Thus far, Black Lives Matter has absolutely fit that description—indeed, impressively so, given the sheer scale of the protests.

Some degree of self-defense can even be consistent with nonviolence, though it must be of a very minimal sort. Wearing armor and carrying a shield is entirely consistent with nonviolence. Hitting back after you are hit is a finer line. This is morally still nonviolence as long as you use only the minimal necessary force—but politically it will only work if the public clearly knows that you are not the ones who hit first.

The ethical case for nonviolence is simple, but worth repeating: Human lives have intrinsic value. Yes, even if those human beings work willingly for a corrupt and evil system. Yes, even the average Nazi was a sentient being of intrinsic moral worth.

The only people who really deserve to die are the psychopaths at the top pulling the strings—and they are almost never the ones on the front lines getting shot or bombed. If you had a plan to kill Donald Trump, I would have no particular moral objection. I think such a plan would be very unlikely to succeed, and I would never attempt such a thing myself; but does Donald Trump deserve to die for his brazen authoritarianism, overwhelming corruption, and depraved indifference for over 160,000 dead Americans? Yes. But how does that justify killing random police officers?

Nonviolence also has another great advantage, which is that it works better when you are on the right side. The effectiveness of violence is proportional to your firepower; the effectiveness of nonviolence is proportional to your righteousness. Why in the world would you, who are righteous but have little firepower, want to use violence against an enemy that is unrighteous and has more firepower?

Nonviolent protest actually works best when your enemy is violent and repressive; it is precisely that contrast between your nonviolence and their violence that wins people to your cause. Probably the smartest thing a government could do to respond to nonviolent protests would be to sit back and calmly watch them, then make whatever was the minimal level of concessions in order to make the protests lose momentum. When you bring out the tear gas, you have basically already admitted that you are on the wrong side of history. But repressive governments don’t think that way; if they did, they would have given those same concessions before the protests even gathered steam. They imagine that by simply cracking down harder they will be able to win—but they are usually wrong.

And even if the ethical case for nonviolence means literally nothing to you, please consider the strategic case: The empirical data says quite clearly that nonviolent protest works better. In many ways, violence is the default; it’s the conflict revolution mechanism that we evolved to use, largely unmodified from the same instincts that motivate any other primate. Nonviolence is a recent invention, a high-tech solution to this ancient problem. Violence is easy; just about anyone can do it. Nonviolence is hard; it requires strategic cleverness, unwavering vigilance, and deep moral courage.

This is not to say that violence is never necessary: Against a truly totalitarian regime that is willing to murder people simply for speaking out against the government, violence may well be the only option. I certainly do not begrudge the French Resistance for using violence against the Nazis. But violence should be a last resort, not simply for ethical reasons—but also for strategic reasons.

Moral disagreement is not bad faith

Jun 7 JDN 2459008

One of the most dangerous moves to make in an argument is to accuse your opponent of bad faith. It’s a powerful, and therefore tempting, maneuver: If they don’t even really believe what they are saying, then you can safely ignore basically whatever comes out of their mouth. And part of why this is so tempting is that it is in fact occasionally true—people do sometimes misrepresent their true beliefs in various ways for various reasons. On the Internet especially, sometimes people are just trolling.

But unless you have really compelling evidence that someone is arguing in bad faith, you should assume good faith. You should assume that whatever they are asserting is what they actually believe. For if you assume bad faith and are wrong, you have just cut off any hope of civil discourse between the two of you. You have made it utterly impossible for either side to learn anything or change their mind in any way. If you assume good faith and are wrong, you may have been overly charitable; but in the end you are the one that is more likely to persuade any bystanders, not the one who was arguing in bad faith.

Furthermore, it is important to really make an effort to understand your opponent’s position as they understand it before attempting to respond to it. Far too many times, I have seen someone accused of bad faith by an opponent who simply did not understand their worldview—and did not even seem willing to try to understand their worldview.

In this post, I’m going to point out some particularly egregious examples of this phenomenon that I’ve found, all statements made by left-wing people in response to right-wing people. Why am I focusing on these? Well, for one thing, it’s as important to challenge bad arguments on your own side as it is to do so on the other side. I also think I’m more likely to be persuasive to a left-wing audience. I could find right-wing examples easily enough, but I think it would be less useful: It would be too tempting to think that this is something only the other side does.

Example 1: “Republicans Have Stopped Pretending to Care About Life”

The phrase “pro-life” means thinking that abortion is wrong. That’s all it means. It’s jargon at this point. The phrase has taken on this meaning independent of its constituent parts, just as a red herring need not be either red or a fish.

Stop accusing people of not being “truly pro-life” because they don’t adopt some other beliefs that are not related to abortion. Even if those would be advancing life in some sense (most people probably think that most things they think are good advance life in some sense!), they aren’t relevant to the concept of being “pro-life”. Moreover, being “pro-life” in the traditional conservative sense isn’t even about minimizing the harm of abortion or the abortion rate. It’s about emphasizing the moral wrongness of abortion itself, and often even criminalizing it.


I don’t think this is really so hard to understand. If someone truly, genuinely believes that abortion is murdering a child, it’s quite clear why they won’t be convinced by attempts at minimizing harm or trying to reduce the abortion rate via contraception or other social policy. Many policies are aimed at “reducing the demand for abortion”; would you want to “reduce the demand for murder”? No, you’d want murderers to be locked up. You wouldn’t care what their reasons were, and you wouldn’t be interested in using social policies to address those reasons. It’s not even hard to understand why this would be such an important issue to them, overriding almost anything else: If you thought that millions of people were murdering children you would consider that an extremely important issue too.

If you want to convince people to support Roe v. Wade, you’re going to have to change their actual belief that abortion is murder. You may even be able to convince them that they don’t really think abortion is murder—many conservatives support the death penalty for murder, but very few do so for abortion. But they clearly do think that abortion is a grave moral wrong, and you can’t simply end-run around that by calling them hypocrites because they don’t care about whatever other issue you think they should care about.

Example 2: “Stop pretending to care about human life if you support wars in the Middle East”

I had some trouble finding the exact wording of the meme I originally saw with this sentiment, but the gist of it was basically that if you support bombing Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and/or Syria, you have lost all legitimacy to claiming that you care about human life.

Say what you will about these wars (though to be honest I think what the US has done in Libya and Syria has done more good than harm), but simply supporting a war does not automatically undermine all your moral legitimacy. The kind of radical pacifism that requires us to never kill anyone ever is utterly unrealistic; the question is and has always been “Which people is it okay to kill, when and how and why?” Some wars are justified; we have to accept that.

It would be different if these were wars of genocidal extermination; I can see a case for saying that anyone who supported the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide has lost all moral legitimacy. But even then it isn’t really accurate to say that those people don’t care about human life; it’s much more accurate to say that they have assigned the group of people they want to kill to a subhuman status. Maybe you would actually get more traction by saying “They are human beings too!” rather than by accusing people of not believing in the value of human life.

And clearly these are not wars of extermination—if the US military wanted to exterminate an entire nation of people, they could do so much more efficiently than by using targeted airstrikes and conventional warfare. Remember: They have nuclear weapons. Even if you think that they wouldn’t use nukes because of fear of retaliation (Would Russia or China really retaliate using their own nukes if the US nuked Afghanistan or Iran?), it’s clear that they could have done a lot more to kill a lot more innocent people if that were actually their goal. It’s one thing to say they don’t take enough care not to kill innocent civilians—I agree with that. It’s quite another to say that they actively try to kill innocent civilians—that’s clearly not what is happening.

Example 3: “Stop pretending to be Christian if you won’t help the poor.”

This one I find a good deal more tempting: In the Bible, Jesus does spend an awful lot more words on helping the poor than he does on, well, almost anything else; and he doesn’t even once mention abortion or homosexuality. (The rest of the Bible does at least mention homosexuality, but it really doesn’t have any clear mentions of abortion.) So it really is tempting to say that anyone who doesn’t make helping the poor their number one priority can’t really be a Christian.

But the world is more complicated than that. People can truly and deeply believe some aspects of a religion while utterly rejecting others. They can do this more or less arbitrarily, in a way that may not even be logically coherent. They may even honestly believe that every single word of the Bible to be the absolute perfect truth of an absolute perfect God, and yet there are still passages you could point them to that they would have to admit they don’t believe in. (There are literally hundreds of explicit contradictions in the Bible. Many are minor—though still undermine any claim to absolute perfect truth—but some are really quite substantial. Does God forgive and forget, or does he visit revenge upon generations to come? That’s kind of a big deal! And should we be answering fools or not?) In some sense they don’t really believe that every word is true, then; but they do seem to believe in believing it.

Yes, it’s true; people can worship a penniless son of a carpenter who preached peace and charity and at the same time support cutting social welfare programs and bombing the Middle East. Such a worldview may not be entirely self-consistent; it’s certainly not the worldview that Jesus himself espoused. But it nevertheless is quite sincerely believed by many millions of people.

It may still be useful to understand the Bible in order to persuade Christians to help the poor more. There are certainly plenty of passages you can point them to where Jesus talks about how important it is to help the poor. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t seem to much like the rich, so it is fair to ask: How Christian is it for Republicans to keep cutting taxes on the rich? (I literally laughed out loud when I first saw this meme: “Celebrate Holy Week By Flogging a Banker: It’s What Jesus Would Have Done!“) But you should not accuse people of “pretending to be Christian”. They really do strongly identify themselves as Christian, and would sooner give up almost anything else about their identity. If you accuse them of pretending, all that will do is shut down the conversation.

Now, after all that, let me give one last example that doesn’t fit the trend, one example where I really do think the other side is acting in bad faith.


Example 4: “#AllLivesMatter is a lie. You don’t actually think all lives matter.”

I think this one is actually true. If you truly believed that all lives matter, you wouldn’t post the hashtag #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter protests against police brutality.

First of all, you’d probably be supporting those protests. But even if you didn’t for some reason, that isn’t how you would use the hashtag. As a genuine expression of caring, the hashtag #AllLivesMatter would only really make sense for something like Oxfam or UNICEF: Here are these human lives that are in danger and we haven’t been paying enough attention to them, and here, you can follow my hashtag and give some money to help them because all lives matter. If it were really about all lives mattering, then you’d see the hashtag pop up after a tsunami in Southeast Asia or a famine in central Africa. (For awhile I tried actually using it that way; I quickly found that it was overwhelmed by the bad faith usage and decided to give up.)

No, this hashtag really seems to be trying to use a genuinely reasonable moral norm—all lives matter—as a weapon against a political movement. We don’t see #AllLivesMatter popping up asking people to help save some lives—it’s always as a way of shouting down other people who want to save some lives. It’s a glib response that lets you turn away and ignore their pleas, without ever actually addressing the substance of what they are saying. If you really believed that all lives matter, you would not be so glib; you would want to understand how so many people are suffering and want to do something to help them. Even if you ultimately disagreed with what they were saying, you would respect them enough to listen.

The counterpart #BlueLivesMatter isn’t in bad faith, but it is disturbing in a different way: What are ‘blue lives’? People aren’t born police officers. They volunteer for that job. They can quit if want. No one can quit being Black. Working as a police officer isn’t even especially dangerous! But it’s not a bad faith argument: These people really do believe that the lives of police officers are worth more—apparently much more—than the lives of Black civilians.

I do admit, the phrasing “#BlackLivesMatter” is a bit awkward, and could be read to suggest that other lives don’t matter, but it takes about 2 minutes of talking to someone (or reading a blog by someone) who supports those protests to gather that this is not their actual view. Perhaps they should have used #BlackLivesMatterToo, but when your misconception is that easily rectified the responsibility to avoid it falls on you. (Then again, some people do seem to stoke this misconception: I was quite annoyed when a question was asked at a Democratic debate: “Do Black Lives Matter, or Do All Lives Matter?” The correct answer of course is “All lives matter, which is why I support the Black Lives Matter movement.”)

So, yes, bad faith arguments do exist, and sometimes we need to point them out. But I implore you, consider that a last resort, a nuclear option you’ll only deploy when all other avenues have been exhausted. Once you accuse someone of bad faith, you have shut down the conversation completely—preventing you, them, and anyone else who was listening from having any chance of learning or changing their mind.

How (not) to destroy an immoral market

Jul 29 JDN 2458329

In this world there are people of primitive cultures, with a population that is slowly declining, trying to survive a constant threat of violence in the aftermath of colonialism. But you already knew that, of course.

What you may not have realized is that some of these people are actively hunted by other people, slaughtered so that their remains can be sold on the black market.

I am referring of course to elephants. Maybe those weren’t the people you first had in mind?

Elephants are not human in the sense of being Homo sapiens; but as far as I am concerned, they are people in a moral sense.

Elephants take as long to mature as humans, and spend most of their childhood learning. They are born with brains only 35% of the size of their adult brains, much as we are born with brains 28% the size of our adult brains. Their encephalization quotients range from about 1.5 to 2.4, comparable to chimpanzees.

Elephants have problem-solving intelligence comparable to chimpanzees, cetaceans, and corvids. Elephants can pass the “mirror test” of self-identification and self-awareness. Individual elephants exhibit clearly distinguishable personalities. They exhibit empathy toward humans and other elephants. They can think creatively and develop new tools.

Elephants distinguish individual humans or elephants by sight or by voice, comfort each other when distressed, and above all mourn their dead. The kind of mourning behaviors elephants exhibit toward the remains of their dead family members have only been observed in humans and chimpanzees.

On a darker note, elephants also seek revenge. In response to losing loved ones to poaching or collisions with trains, elephants have orchestrated organized counter-attacks against human towns. This is not a single animal defending itself, as almost any will do; this is a coordinated act of vengeance after the fact. Once again, we have only observed similar behaviors in humans, great apes, and cetaceans.

Huffington Post backed off and said “just kidding” after asserting that elephants are people—but I won’t. Elephants are people. They do not have an advanced civilization, to be sure. But as far as I am concerned they display all the necessary minimal conditions to be granted the fundamental rights of personhood. Killing an elephant is murder.

And yet, the ivory trade continues to be profitable. Most of this is black-market activity, though it was legal in some places until very recently; China only restored their ivory trade ban this year, and Hong Kong’s ban will not take full effect until 2021. Some places are backsliding: A proposal (currently on hold) by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Trump administration would also legalize some limited forms of ivory trade.
With this in mind, I can understand why people would support the practice of ivory-burning, symbolically and publicly destroying ivory by fire so that no one can buy it. Two years ago, Kenya organized a particularly large ivory-burning that set ablaze 105 tons of elephant tusk and 1.35 tons of rhino horn.

But as economist, when I first learned about ivory-burning, it seemed like a really, really bad idea.

Why? Supply and demand. By destroying supply, you have just raised the market price of ivory. You have therefore increased the market incentives for poaching elephants and rhinos.

Yet it turns out I was wrong about this, as were many other economists. I looked at the empirical research, and changed my mind substantially. Ivory-burning is not such a bad idea after all.

Here was my reasoning before: If I want to reduce the incentives to produce something, what do I need to do? Lower the price. How do I do that? I need to increase the supply. Economists have made several proposals for how to do that, and until I looked at the data I would have expected them to work; but they haven’t.

The best way to increase supply is to create synthetic ivory that is cheap and very difficult to tell apart from the real thing. This has been done, but it didn’t work. For some reason, sellers try to hide the expensive real ivory in with the cheap synthetic ivory. I admit I actually have trouble understanding this; if you can’t sell it at full price, why even bother with the illegal real ivory? Maybe their customers have methods of distinguishing the two that the regulators don’t? If so, why aren’t the regulators using those methods? Another concern with increasing the supply of ivory is that it might reduce the stigma of consuming ivory, thereby also increasing the demand.

A similar problem has arisen with so-called “ghost ivory”; for obvious reasons, existing ivory products were excluded from the ban imposed in 1947, lest the government be forced to confiscate millions of billiard balls and thousands of pianos. Yet poachers have learned ways to hide new, illegal ivory and sell it as old, legal ivory.

Another proposal was to organize “sustainable ivory harvesting”, which based on past experience with similar regulations is unlikely to be enforceable. Moreover, this is not like sustainable wood harvesting, where our only concern is environmental. I for one care about the welfare of individual elephants, and I don’t think they would want to be “harvested”, sustainably or otherwise.
There is one way of doing “sustainable harvesting” that might not be so bad for the elephants, which would be to set up a protected colony of elephants, help them to increase their population, and then when elephants die of natural causes, take only the tusks and sell those as ivory, stamped with an official seal as “humanely and sustainably produced”. Even then, elephants are among a handful of species that would be offended by us taking their ancestors’ remains. But if it worked, it could save many elephant lives. The bigger problem is how expensive such a project would be, and how long it would take to show any benefit; elephant lifespans are about half as long as ours, (except in zoos, where their mortality rate is much higher!) so a policy that might conceivably solve a problem in 30 to 40 years doesn’t really sound so great. More detailed theoretical and empirical analysis has made this clear: you just can’t get ivory fast enough to meet existing demand this way.

In any case, China’s ban on all ivory trade had an immediate effect at dropping the price of ivory, which synthetic ivory did not. Before that, strengthened regulations in the US (particularly in New York and California) had been effective at reducing ivory sales. The CITES treaty in 1989 that banned most international ivory trade was followed by an immediate increase in elephant populations.

The most effective response to ivory trade is an absolutely categorical ban with no loopholes. To fight “ghost ivory”, we should remove exceptions for old ivory, offering buybacks for any antiques with a verifiable pedigree and a brief period of no-penalty surrender for anything with no such records. The only legal ivory must be for medical and scientific purposes, and its sourcing records must be absolutely impeccable—just as we do with human remains.

Even synthetic ivory must also be banned, at least if it’s convincing enough that real ivory could be hidden in it. You can make something you call “synthetic ivory” that serves a similar consumer function, but it must be different enough that it can be easily verified at customs inspections.

We must give no quarter to poachers; Kenya was right to impose a life sentence for aggravated poaching. The Tanzanian proposal to “shoot to kill” was too extreme; summary execution is never acceptable. But if indeed someone currently has a weapons pointed at an elephant and refuses to drop it, I consider it justifiable to shoot them, just as I would if that weapon were aimed at a human.

The need for a categorical ban is what makes the current US proposal dangerous. The particular exceptions it carves out are not all that large, but the fact that it carves out exceptions at all makes enforcement much more difficult. To his credit, Trump himself doesn’t seem very keen on the proposal, which may mean that it is dead in the water. I don’t get to say this often, but so far Trump seems to be making the right choice on this one.

Though the economic theory predicted otherwise, the empirical data is actually quite clear: The most effective way to save elephants from poaching is an absolutely categorical ban on ivory.

Ivory-burning is a signal of commitment to such a ban. Any ivory we find being sold, we will burn. Whoever was trying to sell it will lose their entire investment. Find more, and we will burn that too.

The inherent atrocity of “border security”

Jun 24 JDN 2458294

By now you are probably aware of the fact that a new “zero tolerance” border security policy under the Trump administration has resulted in 2,000 children being forcibly separated from their parents by US government agents. If you weren’t, here are a variety of different sources all telling the same basic story of large-scale state violence and terror.

Make no mistake: This is an atrocity. The United Nations has explicitly condemned this human rights violation—to which Trump responded by making an unprecedented threat of withdrawing unilaterally from the UN Human Rights Council.

#ThisIsNotNormal, and Trump was everything we feared—everything we warned—he would be: Corrupt, incompetent, cruel, and authoritarian.

Yet Trump’s border policy differs mainly in degree, not kind, from existing US border policy. There is much more continuity here than most of us would like to admit.

The Trump administration has dramatically increased “interior removals”, the most obviously cruel acts, where ICE agents break into the houses of people living in the US and take them away. Don’t let the cold language fool you; this is literally people with guns breaking into your home and kidnapping members of your family. This is characteristic of totalitarian governments, not liberal democracies.

And yet, the Obama administration actually holds the record for most deportations (though only because they included “at-border deportations” which other administrations did not). A major policy change by George W. Bush started this whole process of detaining people at the border instead of releasing them and requiring them to return for later court dates.

I could keep going back; US border enforcement has gotten more and more aggressive as time goes on. US border security staffing has quintupled since just 1990. There was a time when the United States was a land of opportunity that welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”; but that time is long past.

And this, in itself, is a human rights violation. Indeed, I am convinced that border security itself is inherently a human rights violation, always and everywhere; future generations will not praise us for being more restrained than Trump’s abject and intentional cruelty, but condemn us for acting under the same basic moral framework that justified it.

There is an imaginary line in the sand just a hundred miles south of where I sit now. On one side of the line, a typical family makes $66,000 per year. On the other side, a typical family makes only $20,000. On one side of the line, life expectancy is 81 years; on the other, 77. This means that over their lifetime, someone on this side of the line can expect to make over one million dollars more than they would if they had lived on the other side. Step across this line, get a million dollars; it sounds ridiculous, but it’s an empirical fact.

This would be bizarre enough by itself; but now consider that on that line there are fences, guard towers, and soldiers who will keep you from crossing it. If you have appropriate papers, you can cross; but if you don’t, they will arrest and detain you, potentially for months. This is not how we treat you if you are carrying contraband or have a criminal record. This is how we treat you if you don’t have a passport.

How can we possibly reconcile this with the principles of liberal democracy? Philosophers have tried, to be sure. Yet they invariably rely upon some notion that the people who want to cross our border are coming from another country where they were already granted basic human rights and democratic representation—which is almost never the case. People who come here from the UK or the Netherlands or generally have the proper visas. Even people who come here from China usually have visas—though China is by no means a liberal democracy. It’s people who come here from Haiti and Nicaragua who don’t—and these are some of the most corrupt and impoverished nations in the world.

As I said in an earlier post, I was not offended that Trump characterized countries like Haiti and Syria as “shitholes”. By any objective standard, that is accurate; these countries are terrible, terrible places to live. No, what offends me is that he thinks this gives us a right to turn these people away, as though the horrible conditions of their country somehow “rub off” on them and make them less worthy as human beings. On the contrary, we have a word for people who come from “shithole” countries seeking help, and that word is “refugee”.

Under international law, “refugee” has a very specific legal meaning, under which most immigrants do not qualify. But in a broader moral sense, almost every immigrant is a refugee. People don’t uproot themselves and travel thousands of miles on a whim. They are coming here because conditions in their home country are so bad that they simply cannot tolerate them anymore, and they come to us desperately seeking our help. They aren’t asking for handouts of free money—illegal immigrants are a net gain for our fiscal system, paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are looking for jobs, and willing to accept much lower wages than the workers already here—because those wages are still dramatically higher than what they had where they came from.

Of course, that does potentially mean they are competing with local low-wage workers, doesn’t it? Yes—but not as much as you might think. There is only a very weak relationship between higher immigration and lower wages (some studies find none at all!), even at the largest plausible estimates, the gain in welfare for the immigrants is dramatically higher than the loss in welfare for the low-wage workers who are already here. It’s not even a question of valuing them equally; as long as you value an immigrant at least one tenth as much as a native-born citizen, the equation comes out favoring more immigration.

This is for two reasons: One, most native-born workers already are unwilling to do the jobs that most immigrants do, such as picking fruit and laying masonry; and two, increased spending by immigrants boosts the local economy enough to compensate for any job losses.

 

But even aside from the economic impacts, what is the moral case for border security?

I have heard many people argue that “It’s our home, we should be able to decide who lives here.” First of all, there are some major differences between letting someone live in your home and letting someone come into your country. I’m not saying we should allow immigrants to force themselves into people’s homes, only that we shouldn’t arrest them when they try cross the border.

But even if I were to accept the analogy, if someone were fleeing oppression by an authoritarian government and asked to live in my home, I would let them. I would help hide them from the government if they were trying to escape persecution. I would even be willing to house people simply trying to escape poverty, as long as it were part of a well-organized program designed to ensure that everyone actually gets helped and the burden on homeowners and renters was not too great. I wouldn’t simply let homeless people come live here, because that creates all sorts of coordination problems (I can only fit so many, and how do I prioritize which ones?); but I’d absolutely participate in a program that coordinates placement of homeless families in apartments provided by volunteers. (In fact, maybe I should try to petition for such a program, as Southern California has a huge homelessness rate due to our ridiculous housing prices.)

Many people seem to fear that immigrants will bring crime, but actually they reduce crime rates. It’s really kind of astonishing how much less crime immigrants commit than locals. My hypothesis is that immigrants are a self-selected sample; the kind of person willing to move thousands of miles isn’t the kind of person who commits a lot of crimes.
I understand wanting to keep out terrorists and drug smugglers, but there are already plenty of terrorists and drug smugglers here in the US; if we are unwilling to set up border security between California and Nevada, I don’t see why we should be setting it up between California and Baja California. But okay, fine, we can keep the customs agents who inspect your belongings when you cross the border. If someone doesn’t have proper documentation, we can even detain and interrogate them—for a few hours, not a few months. The goal should be to detect dangerous criminals and nothing else. Once we are confident that you have not committed any felonies, we should let you through—frankly, we should give you a green card. We should only be willing to detain someone at the border for the same reasons we would be willing to detain a citizen who already lives here—that is, probable cause for an actual crime. (And no, you don’t get to count “illegal border crossing” as a crime, because that’s begging the question. By the same logic I could justify detaining people for jaywalking.)

A lot of people argue that restricting immigration is necessary to “preserve local culture”; but I’m not even sure that this is a goal sufficiently important to justify arresting and detaining people, and in any case, that’s really not how culture works. Culture is not advanced by purism and stagnation, but by openness and cross-pollination. From anime to pizza, many of our most valued cultural traditions would not exist without interaction across cultural boundaries. Introducing more Spanish speakers into the US may make us start saying no problemo and vamonos, but it’s not going to destroy liberal democracy. If you value culture, you should value interactions across different societies.

Most importantly, think about what you are trying to justify. Even if we stop doing Trump’s most extreme acts of cruelty, we are still talking about using military force to stop people from crossing an imaginary line. ICE basically treats people the same way the SS did. “Papers, please” isn’t something we associate with free societies—it’s characteristic of totalitarianism. We are so accustomed to border security (or so ignorant of its details) that we don’t see it for the atrocity it so obviously is.

National borders function something very much like feudal privilege. We have our “birthright”, which grants us all sorts of benefits and special privileges—literally tripling our incomes and extending our lives. We did nothing to earn this privilege. If anything, we show ourselves to be less deserving (e.g. by committing more crimes). And we use the government to defend our privilege by force.

Are people born on the other side of the line less human? Are they less morally worthy? On what grounds do we point guns at them and lock them away for the “crime” of wanting to live here?

What Trump is doing right now is horrific. But it is not that much more horrific than what we were already doing. My hope is that this will finally open our eyes to the horrors that we had been participating in all along.

What we could, what we should, and what we must

May 27 JDN 2458266

In one of the most famous essays in all of ethical philosophy, Peter Singer famously argued that we are morally obligated to give so much to charity that we would effectively reduce ourselves to poverty only slightly better than what our donations sought to prevent. His argument is a surprisingly convincing one, especially for such a radical proposition. Indeed, one of the core activities of the Effective Altruism movement has basically been finding ways to moderate Singer’s argument without giving up on its core principles, because it’s so obvious both that we ought to do much more to help people around the world and that there’s no way we’re ever going to do what that argument actually asks of us.

The most cost-effective charities in the world can save a human life for an average cost of under $4,000. The maneuver that Singer basically makes is quite simple: If you know that you could save someone’s life for $4,000, you have $4,000 to spend, and instead you spend that $4,000 on something else, aren’t you saying that whatever you did spend it on was more important than saving that person’s life? And is that really something you believe?

But if you think a little more carefully, it becomes clear that things are not quite so simple. You aren’t being paid $4,000 to kill someone, first of all. If you were willing to accept $4,000 as sufficient payment to commit a murder, you would be, quite simply, a monster. Implicitly the “infinite identical psychopath” of neoclassical rational agent models would be willing to do such a thing, but very few actual human beings—even actual psychopaths—are that callous.

Obviously, we must refrain from murdering people, even for amounts far in excess of $4,000. If you were offered the chance to murder someone for $4 billion dollars, I can understand why you would be tempted to do such a thing. Think of what you could do with all that money! Not only would you and everyone in your immediate family be independently wealthy for life, you could donate billions of dollars to charity and save as much as a million lives. What’s one life for a million? Even then, I have a strong intuition that you shouldn’t commit this murder—but I have never been able to find a compelling moral argument for why. The best I’ve been able to come up with a sort of Kantian notion: What if everyone did this?

Since the most plausible scenario is that the $4 billion comes from existing wealth, all those murders would simply be transferring wealth around, from unknown sources. If you stipulate where the wealth comes from, the dilemma can change quite a bit.

Suppose for example the $4 billion is confiscated from Bashar Al-Assad. That would be in itself a good thing, lessening the power of a genocidal tyrant. So we need to add that to the positive side of the ledger. It is probably worth killing one innocent person just to undermine Al-Assad’s power; indeed, the US Air Force certainly seems to think so, as they average more than one civilian fatality every day in airstrikes.

Now suppose the wealth was extracted by clever financial machinations that took just a few dollars out of every bank account in America. This would be in itself a bad thing, but perhaps not a terrible thing, especially since we’re planning on giving most of it to UNICEF. Those people should have given it anyway, right? This sounds like a pretty good movie, actually; a cyberpunk Robin Hood basically.

Next, suppose it was obtained by stealing the life savings of a million poor people in Africa. Now the method of obtaining the money is so terrible that it’s not clear that funneling it through UNICEF would compensate, even if you didn’t have to murder someone to get it.

Finally, suppose that the wealth is actually created anew—not printed money from the Federal Reserve, but some new technology that will increase the world’s wealth by billions of dollars yet requires the death of an innocent person to create. In this scenario, the murder has become something more like the inherent risk in human subjects biomedical research, and actually seems justifiable. And indeed, that fits with the Kantian answer, for if we all had the chance to kill one person in order to create something that would increase the wealth of the world by $4 billion, we could turn this planet into a post-scarcity utopia within a generation for fewer deaths than are currently caused by diabetes.

Anyway, my point here is that the detailed context of a decision actually matters a great deal. We can’t simply abstract away from everything else in the world and ask whether the money is worth the life.

When we consider this broader context with regard to the world’s most cost-effective charities, it becomes apparent that a small proportion of very dedicated people giving huge proportions of their income to charity is not the kind of world we want to see.

If I actually gave so much that I equalized my marginal utility of wealth to that of a child dying of malaria in Ghana, I would have to donate over 95% of my income—and well before that point, I would be homeless and impoverished. This actually seems penny-wise and pound-foolish even from the perspective of total altruism: If I stop paying rent, it gets a lot harder for me to finish my doctorate and become a development economist. And even if I never donated another dollar, the world would be much better off with one more good development economist than with even another $23,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation. Once you factor in the higher income I’ll have (and proportionately higher donations I’ll make), it’s obviously the wrong decision for me to give 95% of $25,000 today rather than 10% of $70,000 every year for the next 20 years after I graduate.

But the optimal amount for me to donate from that perspective is whatever the maximum would be that I could give without jeopardizing my education and career prospects. This is almost certainly more than I am presently giving. Exactly how much more is actually not all that apparent: It’s not enough to say that I need to be able to pay rent, eat three meals a day, and own a laptop that’s good enough for programming and statistical analysis. There’s also a certain amount that I need for leisure, to keep myself at optimal cognitive functioning for the next several years. Do I need that specific video game, that specific movie? Surely not—but if I go the next ten years without ever watching another movie or playing another video game, I’m probably going to be in trouble psychologically. But what exactly is the minimum amount to keep me functioning well? And how much should I be willing to spend attending conferences? Those can be important career-building activities, but they can also be expensive wastes of time.

Singer acts as though jeopardizing your career prospects is no big deal, but this is clearly wrong: The harm isn’t just to your own well-being, but also to your productivity and earning power that could have allowed you to donate more later. You are a human capital asset, and you are right to invest in yourself. Exactly how much you should invest in yourself is a much harder question.
Such calculations are extremely difficult to do. There are all sorts of variables I simply don’t know, and don’t have any clear way of finding out. It’s not a good sign for an ethical theory when even someone with years of education and expertise on specifically that topic still can’t figure out the answer. Ethics is supposed to be something we can apply to everyone.

So I think it’s most helpful to think in those terms: What could we apply to everyone? What standard of donation would be high enough if we could get everyone on board?

World poverty is rapidly declining. The direct poverty gap at the UN poverty line of $1.90 per day is now only $80 billion. Realistically, we couldn’t simply close that gap precisely (there would also be all sorts of perverse incentives if we tried to do it that way). But the standard estimate that it would take about $300 billion per year in well-targeted spending to eliminate world hunger is looking very good.

How much would each person, just those in the middle class or above within the US or the EU, have to give in order to raise this much?
89% of US income is received by the top 60% of households (who I would say are unambiguously “middle class or above”). Income inequality is not as extreme within the EU, so the proportion of income received by the top 60% seems to be more like 75%.

89% of US GDP plus 75% of EU GDP is all together about $29 trillion per year. This means that in order to raise $300 billion, each person in the middle class or above would need to donate just over one percent of their income.

Not 95%. Not 25%. Not even 10%. Just 1%. That would be enough.

Of course, more is generally better—at least until you start jeopardizing your career prospects. So by all means, give 2% or 5% or even 10%. But I really don’t think it’s helpful to make people feel guilty about not giving 95% when all we really needed was for everyone to give 1%.

There is an important difference between what we could do, what we should do, and what we must do.

What we must do are moral obligations so strong they are essentially inviolable: We must not murder people. There may be extreme circumstances where exceptions can be made (such as collateral damage in war), and we can always come up with hypothetical scenarios that would justify almost anything, but for the vast majority of people the vast majority of time, these ethical rules are absolutely binding.

What we should do are moral obligations that are strong enough to be marks against your character if you break them, but not so absolutely binding that you have to be a monster not to follow them. This is where I put donating at least 1% of your income. (This is also where I put being vegetarian, but perhaps that is a topic for another time.) You really ought to do it, and you are doing something wrongful if you don’t—but most people don’t, and you are not a terrible person if you don’t.

This latter category is in part socially constructed, based on the norms people actually follow. Today, slavery is obviously a grave crime, and to be a human trafficker who participates in it you must be a psychopath. But two hundred years ago, things were somewhat different: Slavery was still wrong, yes, but it was quite possible to be an ordinary person who was generally an upstanding citizen in most respects and yet still own slaves. I would still condemn people who owned slaves back then, but not nearly as forcefully as I would condemn someone who owned slaves today. Two hundred years from now, perhaps vegetarianism will move up a category: The norm will be that everyone eats only plants, and someone who went out of their way to kill and eat a pig would have to be a psychopath. Eating meat is already wrong today—but it will be more wrong in the future. I’d say the same about donating 1% of your income, but actually I’m hoping that by two hundred years from now there will be no more poverty left to eradicate, and donation will no longer be necessary.

Finally, there is what we could do—supererogatory, even heroic actions of self-sacrifice that would make the world a better place, but cannot be reasonably expected of us. This is where donating 95% or even 25% of your income would fall. Yes, absolutely, that would help more people than donating 1%; but you don’t owe the world that much. It’s not wrong for you to contribute less than this. You don’t need to feel guilty for not giving this much.

But I do want to make you feel guilty if you don’t give at least 1%. Don’t tell me you can’t. You can. If your income is $30,000 per year, that’s $300 per year. If you needed that much for a car repair, or dental work, or fixing your roof, you’d find a way to come up with it. No one in the First World middle class is that liquidity-constrained. It is true that half of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency, but I frankly don’t believe it. (I believe it for the bottom 25% or so, who are actually poor; but not half of Americans.) If you have even one credit card that’s not maxed out, you can do this—and frankly even if a card is maxed out, you can probably call them and get them to raise your limit. There is something you could cut out of your spending that would allow you to get back 1% of your annual income. I don’t know what it is, necessarily: Restaurants? Entertainment? Clothes? But I’m not asking you to give a third of your income—I’m asking you to give one penny out of every dollar.

I give considerably more than that; my current donation target is 8% and I’m planning on raising it to 10% or more once I get a high-paying job. I live on a grad student salary which is less than the median personal income in the US. So I know it can be done. But I am very intentionally not asking you to give this much; that would be above and beyond the call of duty. I’m only asking you to give 1%.

No, this isn’t like Watergate. It’s worse.

May 21, JDN 2457895

Make no mistake: This a historic moment. This may be the greatest corruption scandal in the history of the United States. Donald Trump has fired the director of the FBI in order to block an investigation—and he said so himself.

It has become cliche to compare scandals to Watergate—to the point where we even stick the suffix “-gate” on things to indicate scandals. “Gamergate”, “Climategate”, and so on. So any comparison to Watergate is bound to draw some raised eyebrows.

But just as it’s not Godwin’s Law when you’re really talking about fascism and genocide, it’s not the “-gate” cliche when we are talking about a corruption scandal that goes all the way up to the President of the United States. And The Atlantic is right: this isn’t Watergate; it’s worse.

First of all, let’s talk about the crime of which Trump is accused. Nixon was accused of orchestrating burglary and fraud. These are not minor offenses, to be sure. But they are ordinary criminal offenses, felonies at worst. Trump is accused of fundamental Constitutional violations (particularly the First Amendment and the Emoluments Clause), and above all, Trump is accused of treason. This is the highest crime recognized by the Constitution of the United States. It is the only crime with a specifically listed Constitutional punishment—and that punishment is execution.

Donald Trump is being investigated not for stealing something or concealing information, but for colluding with foreign powers in the attempt to undermine American democracy. Is he guilty? I don’t know; that’s why we’re investigating. But let me say this: If he isn’t guilty of something, it’s quite baffling that he would fight so hard to stop the investigation.

Speaking of which: Trump’s intervention to stop Comey is much more direct, and much more sudden, than anything Nixon did to stop the Watergate investigations. Nixon of course tried to stonewall the investigations, but he did so subtly, cautiously, always trying to at least appear like he valued due process and rule of law. Trump made no such efforts, openly threatening Comey personally on Twitter and publicly declaring on national television that he had fired him to block the investigation.

But perhaps what makes the Trump-Comey affair most terrifying is how the supposedly “mainstream” Republican Party has reacted. The Republicans of Nixon had some honor left in them; several resigned rather than follow Nixon’s illegal orders, and dozens of Republicans in Congress supported the investigations and called for Nixon’s impeachment. Apparently that honor is gone now, as GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham have expressed support for the President’s corrupt and illegal actions citing no principle other than party loyalty. If we needed any more proof that the Republican Party of the United States is no longer a mainstream political party, this is it. They don’t believe in democracy or rule of law anymore. They believe in winning at any cost, loyalty at any price. They have become a radical far-right organization—indeed, if they continue down this road of supporting the President in undermining the freedom of the press and consolidating his own power, I think it is fair to call them literally neo-fascist.

We are about to see whether American institutions can withstand such an onslaught, whether liberty and justice can prevail against corruption and tyranny. So far, there have been reasons to be optimistic: In particular, the judicial branch has proudly and bravely held the line, blocking Trump’s travel ban (multiple times), resisting his order to undermine sanctuary cities, and standing up to direct criticisms and even threats from the President himself. Our system of checks and balances is being challenged, but so far it is holding up against that challenge. We will find out soon enough whether the American system truly is robust enough to survive.

Belief in belief, and why it’s important

Oct 30, JDN 2457692

In my previous post on ridiculous beliefs, I passed briefly over this sentence:

“People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.”

Today I’d like to talk about the fact that “to profess” is a very important phrase in that sentence. Part of understanding ridiculous beliefs, I think, is understanding that many, if not most, of them are not actually proper beliefs. They are what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”, and has elsewhere been referred to as “anomalous belief”. They are not beliefs in the ordinary sense that we would line up with the other beliefs in our worldview and use them to anticipate experiences and motivate actions. They are something else, lone islands of belief that are not weaved into our worldview. But all the same they are invested with importance, often moral or even ultimate importance; this one belief may not make any sense with everyone else, but you must believe it, because it is a vital part of your identity and your tribe. To abandon it would not simply be mistaken; it would be heresy, it would be treason.

How do I know this? Mainly because nobody has tried to stone me to death lately.

The Bible is quite explicit about at least a dozen reasons I am supposed to be executed forthwith; you likely share many of them: Heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, nonbelief, sodomy, fornication, covetousness, taking God’s name in vain, eating shellfish (though I don’t anymore!), wearing mixed fiber, shaving, working on the Sabbath, making images of things, and my personal favorite, not stoning other people for committing such crimes (as we call it in game theory, a second-order punishment).

Yet I have met many people who profess to be “Bible-believing Christians”, and even may oppose some of these activities (chiefly sodomy, blasphemy, and nonbelief) on the grounds that they are against what the Bible says—and yet not one has tried to arrange my execution, nor have I ever seriously feared that they might.

Is this because we live in a secular society? Well, yes—but not simply that. It isn’t just that these people are afraid of being punished by our secular government should they murder me for my sins; they believe that it is morally wrong to murder me, and would rarely even consider the option. Someone could point them to the passage in Leviticus (20:16, as it turns out) that explicitly says I should be executed, and it would not change their behavior toward me.

On first glance this is quite baffling. If I thought you were about to drink a glass of water that contained cyanide, I would stop you, by force if necessary. So if they truly believe that I am going to be sent to Hell—infinitely worse than cyanide—then shouldn’t they be willing to use any means necessary to stop that from happening? And wouldn’t this be all the more true if they believe that they themselves will go to Hell should they fail to punish me?

If these “Bible-believing Christians” truly believed in Hell the way that I believe in cyanide—that is, as proper beliefs which anticipate experience and motivate action—then they would in fact try to force my conversion or execute me, and in doing so would believe that they are doing right. This used to be quite common in many Christian societies (most infamously in the Salem Witch Trials), and still is disturbingly common in many Muslim societies—ISIS doesn’t just throw gay men off rooftops and stone them as a weird idiosyncrasy; it is written in the Hadith that they’re supposed to. Nor is this sort of thing confined to terrorist groups; the “legitimate” government of Saudi Arabia routinely beheads atheists or imprisons homosexuals (though has a very capricious enforcement system, likely so that the monarchy can trump up charges to justify executing whomever they choose). Beheading people because the book said so is what your behavior would look like if you honestly believed, as a proper belief, that the Qur’an or the Bible or whatever holy book actually contained the ultimate truth of the universe. The great irony of calling religion people’s “deeply-held belief” is that it is in almost all circumstances the exact opposite—it is their most weakly held belief, the one that they could most easily sacrifice without changing their behavior.

Yet perhaps we can’t even say that to people, because they will get equally defensive and insist that they really do hold this very important anomalous belief, and how dare you accuse them otherwise. Because one of the beliefs they really do hold, as a proper belief, and a rather deeply-held one, is that you must always profess to believe your religion and defend your belief in it, and if anyone catches you not believing it that’s a horrible, horrible thing. So even though it’s obvious to everyone—probably even to you—that your behavior looks nothing like what it would if you actually believed in this book, you must say that you do, scream that you do if necessary, for no one must ever, ever find out that it is not a proper belief.

Another common trick is to try to convince people that their beliefs do affect their behavior, even when they plainly don’t. We typically use the words “religious” and “moral” almost interchangeably, when they are at best orthogonal and arguably even opposed. Part of why so many people seem to hold so rigidly to their belief-in-belief is that they think that morality cannot be justified without recourse to religion; so even though on some level they know religion doesn’t make sense, they are afraid to admit it, because they think that means admitting that morality doesn’t make sense. If you are even tempted by this inference, I present to you the entire history of ethical philosophy. Divine Command theory has been a minority view among philosophers for centuries.

Indeed, it is precisely because your moral beliefs are not based on your religion that you feel a need to resort to that defense of your religion. If you simply believed religion as a proper belief, you would base your moral beliefs on your religion, sure enough; but you’d also defend your religion in a fundamentally different way, not as something you’re supposed to believe, not as a belief that makes you a good person, but as something that is just actually true. (And indeed, many fanatics actually do defend their beliefs in those terms.) No one ever uses the argument that if we stop believing in chairs we’ll all become murderers, because chairs are actually there. We don’t believe in belief in chairs; we believe in chairs.

And really, if such a belief were completely isolated, it would not be a problem; it would just be this weird thing you say you believe that everyone really knows you don’t and it doesn’t affect how you behave, but okay, whatever. The problem is that it’s never quite isolated from your proper beliefs; it does affect some things—and in particular it can offer a kind of “support” for other real, proper beliefs that you do have, support which is now immune to rational criticism.

For example, as I already mentioned: Most of these “Bible-believing Christians” do, in fact, morally oppose homosexuality, and say that their reason for doing so is based on the Bible. This cannot literally be true, because if they actually believed the Bible they wouldn’t want gay marriage taken off the books, they’d want a mass pogrom of 4-10% of the population (depending how you count), on a par with the Holocaust. Fortunately their proper belief that genocide is wrong is overriding. But they have no such overriding belief supporting the moral permissibility of homosexuality or the personal liberty of marriage rights, so the very tenuous link to their belief-in-belief in the Bible is sufficient to tilt their actual behavior.

Similarly, if the people I meet who say they think maybe 9/11 was an inside job by our government really believed that, they would most likely be trying to organize a violent revolution; any government willing to murder 3,000 of its own citizens in a false flag operation is one that must be overturned and can probably only be overturned by force. At the very least, they would flee the country. If they lived in a country where the government is actually like that, like Zimbabwe or North Korea, they wouldn’t fear being dismissed as conspiracy theorists, they’d fear being captured and executed. The very fact that you live within the United States and exercise your free speech rights here says pretty strongly that you don’t actually believe our government is that evil. But they wouldn’t be so outspoken about their conspiracy theories if they didn’t at least believe in believing them.

I also have to wonder how many of our politicians who lean on the Constitution as their source of authority have actually read the Constitution, as it says a number of rather explicit things against, oh, say, the establishment of religion (First Amendment) or searches and arrests without warrants (Fourth Amendment) that they don’t much seem to care about. Some are better about this than others; Rand Paul, for instance, actually takes the Constitution pretty seriously (and is frequently found arguing against things like warrantless searches as a result!), but Ted Cruz for example says he has spent decades “defending the Constitution”, despite saying things like “America is a Christian nation” that directly violate the First Amendment. Cruz doesn’t really seem to believe in the Constitution; but maybe he believes in believing the Constitution. (It’s also quite possible he’s just lying to manipulate voters.)