Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations

JDN 2457548

In last week’s post I made a sharp distinction between believing in human progress and believing that colonialism was justified. To make this argument, I relied upon a moral assumption that seems to me perfectly obvious, and probably would to most ethicists as well: Moral responsibility does not inherit across generations, and people are only responsible for their individual actions.

But is in fact this principle is not uncontroversial in many circles. When I read utterly nonsensical arguments like this one from the aptly-named Race Baitr saying that White people have no role to play in the liberation of Black people apparently because our blood is somehow tainted by the crimes our ancestors, it becomes apparent to me that this principle is not obvious to everyone, and therefore is worth defending. Indeed, many applications of the concept of “White Privilege” seem to ignore this principle, speaking as though racism is not something one does or participates in, but something that one is simply by being born with less melanin. Here’s a Salon interview specifically rejecting the proposition that racism is something one does:

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

If racism isn’t something one does, then what in the world is it? It’s all well and good to talk about systems and social institutions, but ultimately systems and social institutions are made of human behaviors. If you think most White people aren’t doing enough to combat racism (which sounds about right to me!), say that—don’t make some bizarre accusation that simply by existing we are inherently racist. (Also: We? I’m only 75% White, so am I only 75% inherently racist?) And please, stop redefining the word “racism” to mean something other than what everyone uses it to mean; “White people are snakes” is in fact a racist sentiment (and yes, one I’ve actually heard–indeed, here is the late Muhammad Ali comparing all White people to rattlesnakes, and Huffington Post fawning over him for it).

Racism is clearly more common and typically worse when performed by White people against Black people—but contrary to the claims of some social justice activists the White perpetrator and Black victim are not part of the definition of racism. Similarly, sexism is more common and more severe committed by men against women, but that doesn’t mean that “men are pigs” is not a sexist statement (and don’t tell me you haven’t heard that one). I don’t have a good word for bigotry by gay people against straight people (“heterophobia”?) but it clearly does happen on occasion, and similarly cannot be defined out of existence.

I wouldn’t care so much that you make this distinction between “racism” and “racial prejudice”, except that it’s not the normal usage of the word “racism” and therefore confuses people, and also this redefinition clearly is meant to serve a political purpose that is quite insidious, namely making excuses for the most extreme and hateful prejudice as long as it’s committed by people of the appropriate color. If “White people are snakes” is not racism, then the word has no meaning.

Not all discussions of “White Privilege” are like this, of course; this article from Occupy Wall Street actually does a fairly good job of making “White Privilege” into a sensible concept, albeit still not a terribly useful one in my opinion. I think the useful concept is oppression—the problem here is not how we are treating White people, but how we are treating everyone else. What privilege gives you is the freedom to be who you are.”? Shouldn’t everyone have that?

Almost all the so-called “benefits” or “perks” associated with privilege” are actually forgone harms—they are not good things done to you, but bad things not done to you. But benefitting from racist systems doesn’t mean that everything is magically easy for us. It just means that as hard as things are, they could always be worse.” No, that is not what the word “benefit” means. The word “benefit” means you would be worse off without it—and in most cases that simply isn’t true. Many White people obviously think that it is true—which is probably a big reason why so many White people fight so hard to defend racism, you know; you’ve convinced them it is in their self-interest. But, with rare exceptions, it is not; most racial discrimination has literally zero long-run benefit. It’s just bad. Maybe if we helped people appreciate that more, they would be less resistant to fighting racism!

The only features of “privilege” that really make sense as benefits are those that occur in a state of competition—like being more likely to be hired for a job or get a loan—but one of the most important insights of economics is that competition is nonzero-sum, and fairer competition ultimately means a more efficient economy and thus more prosperity for everyone.

But okay, let’s set that aside and talk about this core question of what sort of responsibility we bear for the acts of our ancestors. Many White people clearly do feel deep shame about what their ancestors (or people the same color as their ancestors!) did hundreds of years ago. The psychological reactance to that shame may actually be what makes so many White people deny that racism even exists (or exists anymore)—though a majority of Americans of all races do believe that racism is still widespread.

We also apply some sense of moral responsibility applied to whole races quite frequently. We speak of a policy “benefiting White people” or “harming Black people” and quickly elide the distinction between harming specific people who are Black, and somehow harming “Black people” as a group. The former happens all the time—the latter is utterly nonsensical. Similarly, we speak of a “debt owed by White people to Black people” (which might actually make sense in the very narrow sense of economic reparations, because people do inherit money! They probably shouldn’t, that is literally feudalist, but in the existing system they in fact do), which makes about as much sense as a debt owed by tall people to short people. As Walter Michaels pointed out in The Trouble with Diversity (which I highly recommend), because of this bizarre sense of responsibility we are often in the habit of “apologizing for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it (indeed to whom it wasn’t done)”. It is my responsibility to condemn colonialism (which I indeed do), to fight to ensure that it never happens again; it is not my responsibility to apologize for colonialism.

This makes some sense in evolutionary terms; it’s part of the all-encompassing tribal paradigm, wherein human beings come to identify themselves with groups and treat those groups as the meaningful moral agents. It’s much easier to maintain the cohesion of a tribe against the slings and arrows (sometimes quite literal) of outrageous fortune if everyone believes that the tribe is one moral agent worthy of ultimate concern.

This concept of racial responsibility is clearly deeply ingrained in human minds, for it appears in some of our oldest texts, including the Bible: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Exodus 20:5)

Why is inheritance of moral responsibility across generations nonsensical? Any number of reasons, take your pick. The economist in me leaps to “Ancestry cannot be incentivized.” There’s no point in holding people responsible for things they can’t control, because in doing so you will not in any way alter behavior. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on moral responsibility takes it as so obvious that people are only responsible for actions they themselves did that they don’t even bother to mention it as an assumption. (Their big question is how to reconcile moral responsibility with determinism, which turns out to be not all that difficult.)

An interesting counter-argument might be that descent can be incentivized: You could use rewards and punishments applied to future generations to motivate current actions. But this is actually one of the ways that incentives clearly depart from moral responsibilities; you could incentivize me to do something by threatening to murder 1,000 children in China if I don’t, but even if it was in fact something I ought to do, it wouldn’t be those children’s fault if I didn’t do it. They wouldn’t deserve punishment for my inaction—I might, and you certainly would for using such a cruel incentive.

Moreover, there’s a problem with dynamic consistency here: Once the action is already done, what’s the sense in carrying out the punishment? This is why a moral theory of punishment can’t merely be based on deterrence—the fact that you could deter a bad action by some other less-bad action doesn’t make the less-bad action necessarily a deserved punishment, particularly if it is applied to someone who wasn’t responsible for the action you sought to deter. In any case, people aren’t thinking that we should threaten to punish future generations if people are racist today; they are feeling guilty that their ancestors were racist generations ago. That doesn’t make any sense even on this deterrence theory.

There’s another problem with trying to inherit moral responsibility: People have lots of ancestors. Some of my ancestors were most likely rapists and murderers; most were ordinary folk; a few may have been great heroes—and this is true of just about anyone anywhere. We all have bad ancestors, great ancestors, and, mostly, pretty good ancestors. 75% of my ancestors are European, but 25% are Native American; so if I am to apologize for colonialism, should I be apologizing to myself? (Only 75%, perhaps?) If you go back enough generations, literally everyone is related—and you may only have to go back about 4,000 years. That’s historical time.

Of course, we wouldn’t be different colors in the first place if there weren’t some differences in ancestry, but there is a huge amount of gene flow between different human populations. The US is a particularly mixed place; because most Black Americans are quite genetically mixed, it is about as likely that any randomly-selected Black person in the US is descended from a slaveowner as it is that any randomly-selected White person is. (Especially since there were a large number of Black slaveowners in Africa and even some in the United States.) What moral significance does this have? Basically none! That’s the whole point; your ancestors don’t define who you are.

If these facts do have any moral significance, it is to undermine the sense most people seem to have that there are well-defined groups called “races” that exist in reality, to which culture responds. No; races were created by culture. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: The “races” we hold most dear in the US, White and Black, are in fact the most nonsensical. “Asian” and “Native American” at least almost make sense as categories, though Chippewa are more closely related to Ainu than Ainu are to Papuans. “Latino” isn’t utterly incoherent, though it includes as much Aztec as it does Iberian. But “White” is a club one can join or be kicked out of, while “Black” is the majority of genetic diversity.

Sex is a real thing—while there are intermediate cases of course, broadly speaking humans, like most metazoa, are sexually dimorphic and come in “male” and “female” varieties. So sexism took a real phenomenon and applied cultural dynamics to it; but that’s not what happened with racism. Insofar as there was a real phenomenon, it was extremely superficial—quite literally skin deep. In that respect, race is more like class—a categorization that is itself the result of social institutions.

To be clear: Does the fact that we don’t inherit moral responsibility from our ancestors absolve us from doing anything to rectify the inequities of racism? Absolutely not. Not only is there plenty of present discrimination going on we should be fighting, there are also inherited inequities due to the way that assets and skills are passed on from one generation to the next. If my grandfather stole a painting from your grandfather and both our grandfathers are dead but I am now hanging that painting in my den, I don’t owe you an apology—but I damn well owe you a painting.

The further we become from the past discrimination the harder it gets to make reparations, but all hope is not lost; we still have the option of trying to reset everyone’s status to the same at birth and maintaining equality of opportunity from there. Of course we’ll never achieve total equality of opportunity—but we can get much closer than we presently are.

We could start by establishing an extremely high estate tax—on the order of 99%—because no one has a right to be born rich. Free public education is another good way of equalizing the distribution of “human capital” that would otherwise be concentrated in particular families, and expanding it to higher education would make it that much better. It even makes sense, at least in the short run, to establish some affirmative action policies that are race-conscious and sex-conscious, because there are so many biases in the opposite direction that sometimes you must fight bias with bias.

Actually what I think we should do in hiring, for example, is assemble a pool of applicants based on demographic quotas to ensure a representative sample, and then anonymize the applications and assess them on merit. This way we do ensure representation and reduce bias, but don’t ever end up hiring anyone other than the most qualified candidate. But nowhere should we think that this is something that White men “owe” to women or Black people; it’s something that people should do in order to correct the biases that otherwise exist in our society. Similarly with regard to sexism: Women exhibit just as much unconscious bias against other women as men do. This is not “men” hurting “women”—this is a set of unconscious biases found in almost everywhere and social structures almost everywhere that systematically discriminate against people because they are women.

Perhaps by understanding that this is not about which “team” you’re on (which tribe you’re in), but what policy we should have, we can finally make these biases disappear, or at least fade so small that they are negligible.

Believing in civilization without believing in colonialism

JDN 2457541

In a post last week I presented some of the overwhelming evidence that society has been getting better over time, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution. I focused mainly on infant mortality rates—babies not dying—but there are lots of other measures you could use as well. Despite popular belief, poverty is rapidly declining, and is now the lowest it’s ever been. War is rapidly declining. Crime is rapidly declining in First World countries, and to the best of our knowledge crime rates are stable worldwide. Public health is rapidly improving. Lifespans are getting longer. And so on, and so on. It’s not quite true to say that every indicator of human progress is on an upward trend, but the vast majority of really important indicators are.

Moreover, there is every reason to believe that this great progress is largely the result of what we call “civilization”, even Western civilization: Stable, centralized governments, strong national defense, representative democracy, free markets, openness to global trade, investment in infrastructure, science and technology, secularism, a culture that values innovation, and freedom of speech and the press. We did not get here by Marxism, nor agragrian socialism, nor primitivism, nor anarcho-capitalism. We did not get here by fascism, nor theocracy, nor monarchy. This progress was built by the center-left welfare state, “social democracy”, “modified capitalism”, the system where free, open markets are coupled with a strong democratic government to protect and steer them.

This fact is basically beyond dispute; the evidence is overwhelming. The serious debate in development economics is over which parts of the Western welfare state are most conducive to raising human well-being, and which parts of the package are more optional. And even then, some things are fairly obvious: Stable government is clearly necessary, while speaking English is clearly optional.

Yet many people are resistant to this conclusion, or even offended by it, and I think I know why: They are confusing the results of civilization with the methods by which it was established.

The results of civilization are indisputably positive: Everything I just named above, especially babies not dying.

But the methods by which civilization was established are not; indeed, some of the greatest atrocities in human history are attributable at least in part to attempts to “spread civilization” to “primitive” or “savage” people.
It is therefore vital to distinguish between the result, civilization, and the processes by which it was effected, such as colonialism and imperialism.

First, it’s important not to overstate the link between civilization and colonialism.

We tend to associate colonialism and imperialism with White people from Western European cultures conquering other people in other cultures; but in fact colonialism and imperialism are basically universal to any human culture that attains sufficient size and centralization. India engaged in colonialism, Persia engaged in imperialism, China engaged in imperialism, the Mongols were of course major imperialists, and don’t forget the Ottoman Empire; and did you realize that Tibet and Mali were at one time imperialists as well? And of course there are a whole bunch of empires you’ve probably never heard of, like the Parthians and the Ghaznavids and the Ummayyads. Even many of the people we’re accustoming to thinking of as innocent victims of colonialism were themselves imperialists—the Aztecs certainly were (they even sold people into slavery and used them for human sacrifice!), as were the Pequot, and the Iroquois may not have outright conquered anyone but were definitely at least “soft imperialists” the way that the US is today, spreading their influence around and using economic and sometimes military pressure to absorb other cultures into their own.

Of course, those were all civilizations, at least in the broadest sense of the word; but before that, it’s not that there wasn’t violence, it just wasn’t organized enough to be worthy of being called “imperialism”. The more general concept of intertribal warfare is a human universal, and some hunter-gatherer tribes actually engage in an essentially constant state of warfare we call “endemic warfare”. People have been grouping together to kill other people they perceived as different for at least as long as there have been people to do so.

This is of course not to excuse what European colonial powers did when they set up bases on other continents and exploited, enslaved, or even murdered the indigenous population. And the absolute numbers of people enslaved or killed are typically larger under European colonialism, mainly because European cultures became so powerful and conquered almost the entire world. Even if European societies were not uniquely predisposed to be violent (and I see no evidence to say that they were—humans are pretty much humans), they were more successful in their violent conquering, and so more people suffered and died. It’s also a first-mover effect: If the Ming Dynasty had supported Zheng He more in his colonial ambitions, I’d probably be writing this post in Mandarin and reflecting on why Asian cultures have engaged in so much colonial oppression.

While there is a deeply condescending paternalism (and often post-hoc rationalization of your own self-interested exploitation) involved in saying that you are conquering other people in order to civilize them, humans are also perfectly capable of committing atrocities for far less noble-sounding motives. There are holy wars such as the Crusades and ethnic genocides like in Rwanda, and the Arab slave trade was purely for profit and didn’t even have the pretense of civilizing people (not that the Atlantic slave trade was ever really about that anyway).

Indeed, I think it’s important to distinguish between colonialists who really did make some effort at civilizing the populations they conquered (like Britain, and also the Mongols actually) and those that clearly were just using that as an excuse to rape and pillage (like Spain and Portugal). This is similar to but not quite the same thing as the distinction between settler colonialism, where you send colonists to live there and build up the country, and exploitation colonialism, where you send military forces to take control of the existing population and exploit them to get their resources. Countries that experienced settler colonialism (such as the US and Australia) have fared a lot better in the long run than countries that experienced exploitation colonialism (such as Haiti and Zimbabwe).

The worst consequences of colonialism weren’t even really anyone’s fault, actually. The reason something like 98% of all Native Americans died as a result of European colonization was not that Europeans killed them—they did kill thousands of course, and I hope it goes without saying that that’s terrible, but it was a small fraction of the total deaths. The reason such a huge number died and whole cultures were depopulated was disease, and the inability of medical technology in any culture at that time to handle such a catastrophic plague. The primary cause was therefore accidental, and not really foreseeable given the state of scientific knowledge at the time. (I therefore think it’s wrong to consider it genocide—maybe democide.) Indeed, what really would have saved these people would be if Europe had advanced even faster into industrial capitalism and modern science, or else waited to colonize until they had; and then they could have distributed vaccines and antibiotics when they arrived. (Of course, there is evidence that a few European colonists used the diseases intentionally as biological weapons, which no amount of vaccine technology would prevent—and that is indeed genocide. But again, this was a small fraction of the total deaths.)

However, even with all those caveats, I hope we can all agree that colonialism and imperialism were morally wrong. No nation has the right to invade and conquer other nations; no one has the right to enslave people; no one has the right to kill people based on their culture or ethnicity.

My point is that it is entirely possible to recognize that and still appreciate that Western civilization has dramatically improved the standard of human life over the last few centuries. It simply doesn’t follow from the fact that British government and culture were more advanced and pluralistic that British soldiers can just go around taking over other people’s countries and planting their own flag (follow the link if you need some comic relief from this dark topic). That was the moral failing of colonialism; not that they thought their society was better—for in many ways it was—but that they thought that gave them the right to terrorize, slaughter, enslave, and conquer people.

Indeed, the “justification” of colonialism is a lot like that bizarre pseudo-utilitarianism I mentioned in my post on torture, where the mere presence of some benefit is taken to justify any possible action toward achieving that benefit. No, that’s not how morality works. You can’t justify unlimited evil by any good—it has to be a greater good, as in actually greater.

So let’s suppose that you do find yourself encountering another culture which is clearly more primitive than yours; their inferior technology results in them living in poverty and having very high rates of disease and death, especially among infants and children. What, if anything, are you justified in doing to intervene to improve their condition?

One idea would be to hold to the Prime Directive: No intervention, no sir, not ever. This is clearly what Gene Roddenberry thought of imperialism, hence why he built it into the Federation’s core principles.

But does that really make sense? Even as Star Trek shows progressed, the writers kept coming up with situations where the Prime Directive really seemed like it should have an exception, and sometimes decided that the honorable crew of Enterprise or Voyager really should intervene in this more primitive society to save them from some terrible fate. And I hope I’m not committing a Fictional Evidence Fallacy when I say that if your fictional universe specifically designed not to let that happen makes that happen, well… maybe it’s something we should be considering.

What if people are dying of a terrible disease that you could easily cure? Should you really deny them access to your medicine to avoid intervening in their society?

What if the primitive culture is ruled by a horrible tyrant that you could easily depose with little or no bloodshed? Should you let him continue to rule with an iron fist?

What if the natives are engaged in slavery, or even their own brand of imperialism against other indigenous cultures? Can you fight imperialism with imperialism?

And then we have to ask, does it really matter whether their babies are being murdered by the tyrant or simply dying from malnutrition and infection? The babies are just as dead, aren’t they? Even if we say that being murdered by a tyrant is worse than dying of malnutrition, it can’t be that much worse, can it? Surely 10 babies dying of malnutrition is at least as bad as 1 baby being murdered?

But then it begins to seem like we have a duty to intervene, and moreover a duty that applies in almost every circumstance! If you are on opposite sides of the technology threshold where infant mortality drops from 30% to 1%, how can you justify not intervening?

I think the best answer here is to keep in mind the very large costs of intervention as well as the potentially large benefits. The answer sounds simple, but is actually perhaps the hardest possible answer to apply in practice: You must do a cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, you must do it well. We can’t demand perfection, but it must actually be a serious good-faith effort to predict the consequences of different intervention policies.

We know that people tend to resist most outside interventions, especially if you have the intention of toppling their leaders (even if they are indeed tyrannical). Even the simple act of offering people vaccines could be met with resistance, as the native people might think you are poisoning them or somehow trying to control them. But in general, opening contact with with gifts and trade is almost certainly going to trigger less hostility and therefore be more effective than going in guns blazing.

If you do use military force, it must be targeted at the particular leaders who are most harmful, and it must be designed to achieve swift, decisive victory with minimal collateral damage. (Basically I’m talking about just war theory.) If you really have such an advanced civilization, show it by exhibiting total technological dominance and minimizing the number of innocent people you kill. The NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya mostly got this right. The Vietnam War and Iraq War got it totally wrong.

As you change their society, you should be prepared to bear most of the cost of transition; you are, after all, much richer than they are, and also the ones responsible for effecting the transition. You should not expect to see short-term gains for your own civilization, only long-term gains once their culture has advanced to a level near your own. You can’t bear all the costs of course—transition is just painful, no matter what you do—but at least the fungible economic costs should be borne by you, not by the native population. Examples of doing this wrong include basically all the standard examples of exploitation colonialism: Africa, the Caribbean, South America. Examples of doing this right include West Germany and Japan after WW2, and South Korea after the Korean War—which is to say, the greatest economic successes in the history of the human race. This was us winning development, humanity. Do this again everywhere and we will have not only ended world hunger, but achieved global prosperity.

What happens if we apply these principles to real-world colonialism? It does not fare well. Nor should it, as we’ve already established that most if not all real-world colonialism was morally wrong.

15th and 16th century colonialism fail immediately; they offer no benefit to speak of. Europe’s technological superiority was enough to give them gunpowder but not enough to drop their infant mortality rate. Maybe life was better in 16th century Spain than it was in the Aztec Empire, but honestly not by all that much; and life in the Iroquois Confederacy was in many ways better than life in 15th century England. (Though maybe that justifies some Iroquois imperialism, at least their “soft imperialism”?)

If these principles did justify any real-world imperialism—and I am not convinced that it does—it would only be much later imperialism, like the British Empire in the 19th and 20th century. And even then, it’s not clear that the talk of “civilizing” people and “the White Man’s Burden” was much more than rationalization, an attempt to give a humanitarian justification for what were really acts of self-interested economic exploitation. Even though India and South Africa are probably better off now than they were when the British first took them over, it’s not at all clear that this was really the goal of the British government so much as a side effect, and there are a lot of things the British could have done differently that would obviously have made them better off still—you know, like not implementing the precursors to apartheid, or making India a parliamentary democracy immediately instead of starting with the Raj and only conceding to democracy after decades of protest. What actually happened doesn’t exactly look like Britain cared nothing for actually improving the lives of people in India and South Africa (they did build a lot of schools and railroads, and sought to undermine slavery and the caste system), but it also doesn’t look like that was their only goal; it was more like one goal among several which also included the strategic and economic interests of Britain. It isn’t enough that Britain was a better society or even that they made South Africa and India better societies than they were; if the goal wasn’t really about making people’s lives better where you are intervening, it’s clearly not justified intervention.

And that’s the relatively beneficent imperialism; the really horrific imperialists throughout history made only the barest pretense of spreading civilization and were clearly interested in nothing more than maximizing their own wealth and power. This is probably why we get things like the Prime Directive; we saw how bad it can get, and overreacted a little by saying that intervening in other cultures is always, always wrong, no matter what. It was only a slight overreaction—intervening in other cultures is usually wrong, and almost all historical examples of it were wrong—but it is still an overreaction. There are exceptional cases where intervening in another culture can be not only morally right but obligatory.

Indeed, one underappreciated consequence of colonialism and imperialism is that they have triggered a backlash against real good-faith efforts toward economic development. People in Africa, Asia, and Latin America see economists from the US and the UK (and most of the world’s top economists are in fact educated in the US or the UK) come in and tell them that they need to do this and that to restructure their society for greater prosperity, and they understandably ask: “Why should I trust you this time?” The last two or four or seven batches of people coming from the US and Europe to intervene in their countries exploited them or worse, so why is this time any different?

It is different, of course; UNDP is not the East India Company, not by a longshot. Even for all their faults, the IMF isn’t the East India Company either. Indeed, while these people largely come from the same places as the imperialists, and may be descended from them, they are in fact completely different people, and moral responsibility does not inherit across generations. While the suspicion is understandable, it is ultimately unjustified; whatever happened hundreds of years ago, this time most of us really are trying to help—and it’s working.

Why it matters that torture is ineffective

JDN 2457531

Like “longest-ever-serving Speaker of the House sexually abuses teenagers” and “NSA spy program is trying to monitor the entire telephone and email system”, the news that the US government systematically tortures suspects is an egregious violation that goes to the highest levels of our government—that for some reason most Americans don’t particularly seem to care about.

The good news is that President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 banning torture domestically, reversing official policy under the Bush Administration, and then better yet in 2014 expanded the order to apply to all US interests worldwide. If this is properly enforced, perhaps our history of hypocrisy will finally be at its end. (Well, not if Trump wins…)

Yet as often seems to happen, there are two extremes in this debate and I think they’re both wrong.
The really disturbing side is “Torture works and we have to use it!” The preferred mode of argumentation for this is the “ticking time bomb scenario”, in which we have some urgent disaster to prevent (such as a nuclear bomb about to go off) and torture is the only way to stop it from happening. Surely then torture is justified? This argument may sound plausible, but as I’ll get to below, this is a lot like saying, “If aliens were attacking from outer space trying to wipe out humanity, nuclear bombs would probably be justified against them; therefore nuclear bombs are always justified and we can use them whenever we want.” If you can’t wait for my explanation, The Atlantic skewers the argument nicely.

Yet the opponents of torture have brought this sort of argument on themselves, by staking out a position so extreme as “It doesn’t matter if torture works! It’s wrong, wrong, wrong!” This kind of simplistic deontological reasoning is very appealing and intuitive to humans, because it casts the world into simple black-and-white categories. To show that this is not a strawman, here are several different people all making this same basic argument, that since torture is illegal and wrong it doesn’t matter if it works and there should be no further debate.

But the truth is, if it really were true that the only way to stop a nuclear bomb from leveling Los Angeles was to torture someone, it would be entirely justified—indeed obligatory—to torture that suspect and stop that nuclear bomb.

The problem with that argument is not just that this is not our usual scenario (though it certainly isn’t); it goes much deeper than that:

That scenario makes no sense. It wouldn’t happen.

To use the example the late Antonin Scalia used from an episode of 24 (perhaps the most egregious Fictional Evidence Fallacy ever committed), if there ever is a nuclear bomb planted in Los Angeles, that would literally be one of the worst things that ever happened in the history of the human race—literally a Holocaust in the blink of an eye. We should be prepared to cause extreme suffering and death in order to prevent it. But not only is that event (fortunately) very unlikely, torture would not help us.

Why? Because torture just doesn’t work that well.

It would be too strong to say that it doesn’t work at all; it’s possible that it could produce some valuable intelligence—though clear examples of such results are amazingly hard to come by. There are some social scientists who have found empirical results showing some effectiveness of torture, however. We can’t say with any certainty that it is completely useless. (For obvious reasons, a randomized controlled experiment in torture is wildly unethical, so none have ever been attempted.) But to justify torture it isn’t enough that it could work sometimes; it has to work vastly better than any other method we have.

And our empirical data is in fact reliable enough to show that that is not the case. Torture often produces unreliable information, as we would expect from the game theory involved—your incentive is to stop the pain, not provide accurate intel; the psychological trauma that torture causes actually distorts memory and reasoning; and as a matter of fact basically all the useful intelligence obtained in the War on Terror was obtained through humane interrogation methods. As interrogation experts agree, torture just isn’t that effective.

In principle, there are four basic cases to consider:

1. Torture is vastly more effective than the best humane interrogation methods.

2. Torture is slightly more effective than the best humane interrogation methods.

3. Torture is as effective as the best humane interrogation methods.

4. Torture is less effective than the best humane interrogation methods.

The evidence points most strongly to case 4, which would mean that torture is a no-brainer; if it doesn’t even work as well as other methods, it’s absurd to use it. You’re basically kicking puppies at that point—purely sadistic violence that accomplishes nothing. But the data isn’t clear enough for us to rule out case 3 or even case 2. There is only one case we can strictly rule out, and that is case 1.

But it was only in case 1 that torture could ever be justified!

If you’re trying to justify doing something intrinsically horrible, it’s not enough that it has some slight benefit.

People seem to have this bizarre notion that we have only two choices in morality:

Either we are strict deontologists, and wrong actions can never be justified by good outcomes ever, in which case apparently vaccines are morally wrong, because stabbing children with needles is wrong. Tto be fair, some people seem to actually believe this; but then, some people believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

Or alternatively we are the bizarre strawman concept most people seem to have of utilitarianism, under which any wrong action can be justified by even the slightest good outcome, in which case all you need to do to justify slavery is show that it would lead to a 1% increase in per-capita GDP. Sadly, there honestly do seem to be economists who believe this sort of thing. Here’s one arguing that US chattel slavery was economically efficient, and some of the more extreme arguments for why sweatshops are good can take on this character. Sweatshops may be a necessary evil for the time being, but they are still an evil.

But what utilitarianism actually says (and I consider myself some form of nuanced rule-utilitarian, though actually I sometimes call it “deontological consequentialism” to emphasize that I mean to synthesize the best parts of the two extremes) is not that the ends always justify the means, but that the ends can justify the means—that it can be morally good or even obligatory to do something intrinsically bad (like stabbing children with needles) if it is the best way to accomplish some greater good (like saving them from measles and polio). But the good actually has to be greater, and it has to be the best way to accomplish that good.

To see why this later proviso is important, consider the real-world ethical issues involved in psychology experiments. The benefits of psychology experiments are already quite large, and poised to grow as the science improves; one day the benefits of cognitive science to humanity may be even larger than the benefits of physics and biology are today. Imagine a world without mood disorders or mental illness of any kind; a world without psychopathy, where everyone is compassionate; a world where everyone is achieving their full potential for happiness and self-actualization. Cognitive science may yet make that world possible—and I haven’t even gotten into its applications in artificial intelligence.

To achieve that world, we will need a great many psychology experiments. But does that mean we can just corral people off the street and throw them into psychology experiments without their consent—or perhaps even their knowledge? That we can do whatever we want in those experiments, as long as it’s scientifically useful? No, it does not. We have ethical standards in psychology experiments for a very good reason, and while those ethical standards do slightly reduce the efficiency of the research process, the reduction is small enough that the moral choice is obviously to retain the ethics committees and accept the slight reduction in research efficiency. Yes, randomly throwing people into psychology experiments might actually be slightly better in purely scientific terms (larger and more random samples)—but it would be terrible in moral terms.

Along similar lines, even if torture works about as well or even slightly better than other methods, that’s simply not enough to justify it morally. Making a successful interrogation take 16 days instead of 17 simply wouldn’t be enough benefit to justify the psychological trauma to the suspect (and perhaps the interrogator!), the risk of harm to the falsely accused, or the violation of international human rights law. And in fact a number of terrorism suspects were waterboarded for months, so even the idea that it could shorten the interrogation is pretty implausible. If anything, torture seems to make interrogations take longer and give less reliable information—case 4.

A lot of people seem to have this impression that torture is amazingly, wildly effective, that a suspect who won’t crack after hours of humane interrogation can be tortured for just a few minutes and give you all the information you need. This is exactly what we do not find empirically; if he didn’t crack after hours of talk, he won’t crack after hours of torture. If you literally only have 30 minutes to find the nuke in Los Angeles, I’m sorry; you’re not going to find the nuke in Los Angeles. No adversarial interrogation is ever going to be completed that quickly, no matter what technique you use. Evacuate as many people to safe distances or underground shelters as you can in the time you have left.

This is why the “ticking time-bomb” scenario is so ridiculous (and so insidious); that’s simply not how interrogation works. The best methods we have for “rapid” interrogation of hostile suspects take hours or even days, and they are humane—building trust and rapport is the most important step. The goal is to get the suspect to want to give you accurate information.

For the purposes of the thought experiment, okay, you can stipulate that it would work (this is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does). But now all you’ve done is made the thought experiment more distant from the real-world moral question. The closest real-world examples we’ve ever had involved individual crimes, probably too small to justify the torture (as bad as a murdered child is, think about what you’re doing if you let the police torture people). But by the time the terrorism to be prevented is large enough to really be sufficient justification, it (1) hasn’t happened in the real world and (2) surely involves terrorists who are sufficiently ideologically committed that they’ll be able to resist the torture. If such a situation arises, of course we should try to get information from the suspects—but what we try should be our best methods, the ones that work most consistently, not the ones that “feel right” and maybe happen to work on occasion.

Indeed, the best explanation I have for why people use torture at all, given its horrible effects and mediocre effectiveness at best is that it feels right.

When someone does something terrible (such as an act of terrorism), we rightfully reduce our moral valuation of them relative to everyone else. If you are even tempted to deny this, suppose a terrorist and a random civilian are both inside a burning building and you only have time to save one. Of course you save the civilian and not the terrorist. And that’s still true even if you know that once the terrorist was rescued he’d go to prison and never be a threat to anyone else. He’s just not worth as much.

In the most extreme circumstances, a person can be so terrible that their moral valuation should be effectively zero: If the only person in a burning building is Stalin, I’m not sure you should save him even if you easily could. But it is a grave moral mistake to think that a person’s moral valuation should ever go negative, yet I think this is something that people do when confronted with someone they truly hate. The federal agents torturing those terrorists didn’t merely think of them as worthless—they thought of them as having negative worth. They felt it was a positive good to harm them. But this is fundamentally wrong; no sentient being has negative worth. Some may be so terrible as to have essentially zero worth; and we are often justified in causing harm to some in order to save others. It would have been entirely justified to kill Stalin (as a matter of fact he died of heart disease and old age), to remove the continued threat he posed; but to torture him would not have made the world a better place, and actually might well have made it worse.

Yet I can see how psychologically it could be useful to have a mechanism in our brains that makes us hate someone so much we view them as having negative worth. It makes it a lot easier to harm them when necessary, makes us feel a lot better about ourselves when we do. The idea that any act of homicide is a tragedy but some of them are necessary tragedies is a lot harder to deal with than the idea that some people are just so evil that killing or even torturing them is intrinsically good. But some of the worst things human beings have ever done ultimately came from that place in our brains—and torture is one of them.

What can we do to make the world a better place?

JDN 2457475

There are an awful lot of big problems in the world: war, poverty, oppression, disease, terrorism, crime… I could go on for awhile, but I think you get the idea. Solving or even mitigating these huge global problems could improve or even save the lives of millions of people.

But precisely because these problems are so big, they can also make us feel powerless. What can one person, or even a hundred people, do against problems on this scale?

The answer is quite simple: Do your share.

No one person can solve any of these problems—not even someone like Bill Gates, though he for one at least can have a significant impact on poverty and disease because he is so spectacularly mind-bogglingly rich; the Gates Foundation has a huge impact because it has as much wealth as the annual budget of the NIH.

But all of us together can have an enormous impact. This post today is about helping you see just how cheap and easy it would be to end world hunger and cure poverty-related diseases, if we simply got enough people to contribute.

The Against Malaria Foundation releases annual reports for all their regular donors. I recently got a report that my donations personally account for 1/100,000 of their total assets. That’s terrible. The global population is 7 billion people; in the First World alone it’s over 1 billion. I am the 0.01%, at least when it comes to donations to the Against Malaria Foundation.

I’ve given them only $850. Their total assets are only $80 million. They shouldn’t have $80 million—they should have $80 billion. So, please, if you do nothing else as a result of this post, go make a donation to the Against Malaria Foundation. I am entirely serious; if you think you might forget or change your mind, do it right now. Even a dollar would be worth it. If everyone in the First World gave $1, they would get 12 times as much as they currently have.

GiveWell is an excellent source for other places you should donate; they rate charities around the world for their cost-effectiveness in the only way worth doing: Lives saved per dollar donated. They don’t just naively look at what percentage goes to administrative costs; they look at how everything is being spent and how many children have their diseases cured.

Until the end of April, UNICEF is offering an astonishing five times matching funds—meaning that if you donate $10, a full $50 goes to UNICEF projects. I have really mixed feelings about donors that offer matching funds (So what you’re saying is, you won’t give if we don’t?), but when they are being offered, use them.

All those charities are focused on immediate poverty reduction; if you’re looking for somewhere to give that fights Existential Risk, I highly recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists—one of the few Existential Risk organizations that uses evidence-based projections and recognizes that nuclear weapons and climate change are the threats we need to worry about.

And let’s not be too anthropocentrist; there are a lot of other sentient beings on this planet, and Animal Charity Evaluator can help you find which charities will best improve the lives of other animals.

I’ve just listed a whole bunch of ways you can give money—and that probably is the best thing for you to give; your time is probably most efficiently used working in your own profession whatever that may be—but there are other ways you can contribute as well.

One simple but important change you can make, if you haven’t already, is to become vegetarian. Even aside from the horrific treatment of animals in industrial farming, you don’t have to believe that animals deserve rights to understand that meat is murder. Meat production is a larger contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, so everyone becoming vegetarian would have a larger impact against climate change than taking literally every car and truck in the world off the road. Since the world population is less than 10 billion, meat is 18% of greenhouse emissions and the IPCC projects that climate change will kill between 10 and 100 million people over the next century, every 500 to 5000 new vegetarians saves a life.

You can move your money from a bank to a credit union, as even the worst credit unions are generally better than the best for-profit banks, and the worst for-profit banks are very, very bad. The actual transition can be fairly inconvenient, but a good credit union will provide you with all the same services, and most credit unions link their networks and have online banking, so for example I can still deposit and withdraw from my University of Michigan Credit Union account while in California.

Another thing you can do is reduce your consumption of sweatshop products in favor of products manufactured under fair labor standards. This is harder than it sounds; it can be very difficult to tell what a company’s true labor conditions are like, as the worst companies work very hard to hide them (now, if they worked half as hard to improve them… it reminds me of how many students seem willing to do twice as much work to cheat as they would to simply learn the material in the first place).

You should not simply stop buying products that say “Made in China”; in fact, this could be counterproductive. We want products to be made in China; we need products to be made in China. What we have to do is improve labor standards in China, so that products made in China are like products made in Japan or Korea—skilled workers with high-paying jobs in high-tech factories. Presumably it doesn’t bother you when something says “Made in Switzerland” or “Made in the UK”, because you know their labor standards are at least as high as our own; that’s where I’d like to get with “Made in China”.

The simplest way to do this is of course to buy Fair Trade products, particularly coffee and chocolate. But most products are not available Fair Trade (there are no Fair Trade computers, and only loose analogues for clothing and shoes).

Moreover, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; companies that have done terrible things in the past may still be the best companies to support, because there are no alternatives that are any better. In order to incentivize improvement, we must buy from the least of all evils for awhile until the new competitive pressure makes non-evil corporations viable. With this in mind, the Fair Labor Association may not be wrong to endorse companies like Adidas and Apple, even though they surely have substantial room to improve. Similarly, few companies on the Ethisphere list are spotless, but they probably are genuinely better than their competitors. (Well, those that have competitors; Hasbro is on there. Name a well-known board game, and odds are it’s made by a Hasbro subsidiary: they own Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, and Wizards of the Coast. Wikipedia has their own category, Hasbro subsidiaries. Maybe they’ve been trying to tell us something with all those versions of Monopoly?)

I’m not very happy with the current state of labor standards reporting (much less labor standards enforcement), so I don’t want to recommend any of these sources too highly. But if you are considering buying from one of three companies and only one of them is endorsed by the Fair Labor Association, it couldn’t hurt to buy from that one instead of the others.

Buying from ethical companies will generally be more expensive—but rarely prohibitively so, and this is part of how we use price signals to incentivize better behavior. For about a year, BP gasoline was clearly cheaper than other gasoline, because nobody wanted to buy from BP and they were forced to sell at a discount after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Their profits tanked as a result. That’s the kind of outcome we want—preferably for a longer period of time.

I suppose you could also save money by buying cheaper products and then donate the difference, and in the short run this would actually be most cost-effective for global utility; but (1) nobody really does that; people who buy Fair Trade also tend to donate more, maybe just because they are more generous in general, and (2) in the long run what we actually want is more ethical businesses, not a system where businesses exploit everyone and then we rely upon private charity to compensate us for our exploitation. For similar reasons, philanthropy is a stopgap—and a much-needed one—but not a solution.

Of course, you can vote. And don’t just vote in the big name elections like President of the United States. Your personal impact may actually be larger from voting in legislatures and even local elections and ballot proposals. Certainly your probability of being a deciding vote is far larger, though this is compensated by the smaller effect of the resulting policies. Most US states have a website where you can look up any upcoming ballots you’ll be eligible to vote on, so you can plan out your decisions well in advance.

You may even want to consider running for office at the local level, though I realize this is a very large commitment. But most local officials run uncontested, which means there is no real democracy at work there at all.

Finally, you can contribute in some small way to making the world a better place simply by spreading the word, as I hope I’m doing right now.

Is America uniquely… mean?

JDN 2457454

I read this article yesterday which I found both very resonant and very disturbing: At least among First World countries, the United States really does seem uniquely, for lack of a better word, mean.

The formal psychological terminology is social dominance orientation; the political science term is authoritarianism. In economics, we notice the difference due to its effect on income inequality. But all of these concepts are capturing part of a deeper underlying reality that in the age of Trump I am finding increasingly hard to deny. The best predictor of support for Trump is authoritarianism.

Of course I’ve already talked about our enormous military budget; but then Tennessee had to make their official state rifle a 50-caliber weapon capable of destroying light tanks. There is something especially dominant, aggressive, and violent about American culture.

We are certainly not unique in the world as a whole—actually I think the amount of social dominance orientation, authoritarianism, and inequality in the US is fairly similar to the world average. We are unique in our gun ownership, but our military spending proportional to GDP is not particularly high by world standards—we’re just an extremely rich country. But in all these respects we are a unique outlier among First World countries; in many ways we resemble a rich authoritarian petrostate like Qatar rather than a European social democracy like France or the UK. (At least we’re not Saudi Arabia?)

More than other First World cultures, Americans believe in hierarchy; they believe that someone should be on top and other people should be on the bottom. More than that, they believe that people “like us” should be on top and people “not like us” should be on the bottom, however that is defined—often in terms of race or religion, but not necessarily.

Indeed, one of the things I find most baffling about this is that it is often more important to people that others be held down than that they themselves be lifted up. This is the only way I can make sense of the fact that people who have watched their wages be drained into the pockets of billionaires for a generation can think that the most important things to do right now are block out illegal immigrants and deport Muslims.

It seems to be that people become convinced that their own status, whatever it may be, is deserved: If they are rich, it is obviously because they are so brilliant and hard-working (something Trump clearly believes about himself, being a textbook example of Narcissistic Personality Disorder); if they are poor, it is obviously because they are so incompetent and lazy. Thus, being lifted up doesn’t make sense; why would you give me things I don’t deserve?

But then when they see people who are different from them, they know automatically that those people must be by definition inferior, as all who are Not of Our Tribe are by definition inferior. And therefore, any of them who are rich gained their position through corruption or injustice, and all of them who are poor deserve their fate for being so inferior. Thus, it is most vital to ensure that these Not of Our Tribe are held down from reaching high positions they so obviously do not deserve.

I’m fairly sure that most of this happens at a very deep unconscious level; it calls upon ancient evolutionary instincts to love our own tribe, to serve the alpha male, to fear and hate those of other tribes. These instincts may well have served us 200,000 years ago (then again, they may just have been the best our brains could manage at the time); but they are becoming a dangerous liability today.

As E.O. Wilson put it: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

Yet this cannot be a complete explanation, for there is variation in these attitudes. A purely instinctual theory should say that all human cultures have this to an essentially equal degree; but I started this post by pointing out that the United States appears to have a particularly large amount relative to Europe.

So, there must be something in the cultures or institutions of different nations that makes them either enhance or suppress this instinctual tribalism. There must be something that Europe is doing right, the US is doing wrong, and Saudi Arabia is doing very, very wrong.
Well, the obvious one that sticks out at me is religion. It seems fairly obvious to me that Sweden is less religious than the US, which is less religious than Saudi Arabia.

Data does back me up on this. Religiosity isn’t easy to measure, but we have methods of doing so. If we ask people in various countries if religion is very important in their lives, the percentage of people who say yes gives us an indication of how religious that country is.

In Saudi Arabia, 93% say yes. In the United States, 65% say yes. In Sweden, only 17% say yes.

Religiosity tends to be highest in the poorest countries, but the US is an outlier, far too rich for our religion (or too religious for our wealth).

Religiosity also tends to be highest in countries with high inequality—this time, the US fits right in.

The link between religion and inequality is quite clear. It’s harder to say which way the causation runs. Perhaps high inequality makes people cling more to religion as a comfort, and getting rid of religion would only mean taking that comfort away. Or, perhaps religion actually makes people believe more in social dominance, and thus is part of what keeps that high inequality in place. It could also be a feedback loop, in which higher inequality leads to higher religiosity which leads to higher inequality.

That said, I think we actually have some evidence that causality runs from religion to inequality, rather than the other way around. The secularization of France took place around the same time as the French Revolution that overthrew the existing economic system and replaced it with one that had substantially less inequality. Iran’s government became substantially more based on religion in the latter half of the 20th century, and their inequality soared thereafter.

Above all, Donald Trump dominates the evangelical vote, which makes absolutely no sense if religion is a comfort against inequality—but perfect sense if religion solidifies the tendency of people to think in terms of hierarchy and authoritarianism.

This also makes sense in terms of the content of religion, especially Abrahamaic religion; read the Bible and the Qur’an, and you will see that their primary goal seems to be to convince you that some people, namely people who believe in this book, are just better than other people, and we should be in charge because God says so. (And you wouldn’t try to argue with God, would you?) They really make no particular effort to convince you that God actually exists; they spend all their argumentative effort on what God wants you to do and who God wants you to put in charge—and for some strange reason it always seems to be the same guys who are writing down “God’s words” in the book! What a coincidence!

If religion is indeed the problem, or a large part of the problem, what can we do about it? That’s the most difficult part. We’ve been making absolutely conclusive rational arguments against religion since literally 300 years before Jesus was even born (there has never been a time in human history in which it was rational for an educated person to believe in Christianity or Islam, for the religions did not come into existence until well after the arguments to refute them were well-known!), and the empirical evidence against theism has only gotten stronger ever since; so that clearly isn’t enough.

I think what we really need to do at this point is confront the moral monopoly that religion has asserted for itself. The “Moral Majority” was neither, but its name still sort of makes sense to us because we so strongly associate being moral with being religious. We use terms like “Christian” and “generous” almost interchangeably. And whenever you get into a debate about religion, shortly after you have thoroughly demolished any shred of empirical credibility religion still had left, you can basically guarantee that the response will be: “But without God, how can you know right from wrong?”

What is perhaps most baffling about this concept of morality so commonplace in our culture is that not only is the command of a higher authority that rewards and punishes you not the highest level of moral development—it is literally the lowest. Of the six stages of moral thinking Kohlberg documented in children, the reward and punishment orientation exemplified by the Bible and the Qur’an is the very first. I think many of these people really truly haven’t gotten past level 1, which is why when you start trying to explain how you base your moral judgments on universal principles of justice and consequences (level 6) they don’t seem to have any idea what you’re talking about.

Perhaps this is a task for our education system (philosophy classes in middle school?), perhaps we need something more drastic than that, or perhaps it is enough that we keep speaking about it in public. But somehow we need to break up the monopoly that religion has on moral concepts, so that people no longer feel ashamed to say that something is morally wrong without being able to cite a particular passage from a particular book from the Iron Age. Perhaps once we can finally make people realize that morality does not depend on religion, we can finally free them from the grip of religion—and therefore from the grip of authoritarianism and social dominance.

If this is right, then the reason America is so mean is that we are so Christian—and people need to realize that this is not a paradoxical statement.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

JDN 2457348
When this post officially goes live, it will have been one full week since I launched my Patreon, on which I’ve already received enough support to be more than halfway to my first funding goal. After this post, I will be far enough ahead in posting that I can release every post one full week ahead of time for my Patreon patrons (can I just call them Patreons?).

It’s actually fitting that today’s topic is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for Patreon is a great example of how real human beings can find solutions to this problem even if infinite identical psychopaths could not.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the most fundamental problem in game theory—arguably the reason game theory is worth bothering with in the first place. There is a standard story that people generally tell to set up the dilemma, but honestly I find that they obscure more than they illuminate. You can find it in the Wikipedia article if you’re interested.

The basic idea of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that there are many times in life when you have a choice: You can do the nice thing and cooperate, which costs you something, but benefits the other person more; or you can do the selfish thing and defect, which benefits you but harms the other person more.

The game can basically be defined as four possibilities: If you both cooperate, you each get 1 point. If you both defect, you each get 0 points. If you cooperate when the other player defects, you lose 1 point while the other player gets 2 points. If you defect when the other player cooperates, you get 2 points while the other player loses 1 point.

P2 Cooperate P2 Defect
P1 Cooperate +1, +1 -1, +2
P2 Defect +2, -1 0, 0

These games are nonzero-sum, meaning that the total amount of benefit or harm incurred is not constant; it depends upon what players choose to do. In my example, the total benefit varies from +2 (both cooperate) to +1 (one cooperates, one defects) to 0 (both defect).

The answer which is “neat, plausible, and wrong” (to use Mencken’s oft-misquoted turn of phrase) is to reason this way: If the other player cooperates, I can get +1 if I cooperate, or +2 if I defect. So I should defect. If the other player defects, I can get -1 if I cooperate, or 0 if I defect. So I should defect. In either case I defect, therefore I should always defect.

The problem with this argument is that your behavior affects the other player. You can’t simply hold their behavior fixed when making your choice. If you always defect, the other player has no incentive to cooperate, so you both always defect and get 0. But if you credibly promise to cooperate every time they also cooperate, you create an incentive to cooperate that can get you both +1 instead.

If there were a fixed amount of benefit, the game would be zero-sum, and cooperation would always be damaging yourself. In zero-sum games, the assumption that acting selfishly maximizes your payoffs is correct; we could still debate whether it’s necessarily more rational (I don’t think it’s always irrational to harm yourself to benefit someone else an equal amount), but it definitely is what maximizes your money.

But in nonzero-sum games, that assumption no longer holds; we can both end up better off by cooperating than we would have been if we had both defected.
Below is a very simple zero-sum game (notice how indeed in each outcome, the payoffs sum to zero; any zero-sum game can be written so that this is so, hence the name):

Player 2 cooperates Player 2 defects
Player 1 cooperates 0, 0 -1, +1
Player 1 defects +1, -1 0, 0

In that game, there really is no reason for you to cooperate; you make yourself no better off if they cooperate, and you give them a strong incentive to defect and make you worse off. But that game is not a Prisoner’s Dilemma, even though it may look superficially similar.

The real world, however, is full of variations on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This sort of situation is fundamental to our experience; it probably happens to you multiple times every single day.
When you finish eating at a restaurant, you could pay the bill (cooperate) or you could dine and dash (defect). When you are waiting in line, you could quietly take your place in the queue (cooperate) or you could cut ahead of people (defect). If you’re married, you could stay faithful to your spouse (cooperate) or you could cheat on them (defect). You could pay more for the shoes made in the USA (cooperate), or buy the cheap shoes that were made in a sweatshop (defect). You could pay more to buy a more fuel-efficient car (cooperate), or buy that cheap gas-guzzler even though you know how much it pollutes (defect). Most of us cooperate most of the time, but occasionally are tempted into defecting.

The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is honestly not much of a dilemma. A lot of neoclassical economists really struggle with it; their model of rational behavior is so narrow that it keeps putting out the result that they are supposed to always defect, but they know that this results in a bad outcome. More recently we’ve done experiments and we find that very few people actually behave that way (though typically neoclassical economists do), and also that people end up making more money in these experimental games than they would if they behaved as neoclassical economics says would be optimal.

Let me repeat that: People make more money than they would if they acted according to what’s supposed to be optimal according to neoclassical economists. I think that’s why it feels like such a paradox to them; their twin ideals of infinite identical psychopaths and maximizing the money you make have shown themselves to be at odds with one another.

But in fact, it’s really not that paradoxical: Rationality doesn’t mean being maximally selfish at every opportunity. It also doesn’t mean maximizing the money you make, but even if it did, it still wouldn’t mean being maximally selfish.

We have tested experimentally what sort of strategy is most effective at making the most money in the Prisoner’s Dilemma; basically we make a bunch of competing computer programs to play the game against one another for points, and tally up the points. When we do that, the winner is almost always a remarkably simple strategy, called “Tit for Tat”. If your opponent cooperated last time, cooperate. If your opponent defected last time, defect. Reward cooperation, punish defection.

In more complex cases (such as allowing for random errors in behavior), some subtle variations on that strategy turn out to be better, but are still basically focused around rewarding cooperation and punishing defection.
This probably seems quite intuitive, yes? It may even be the strategy that it occurred to you to try when you first learned about the game. This strategy comes naturally to humans, not because it is actually obvious as a mathematical result (the obvious mathematical result is the neoclassical one that turns out to be wrong), but because it is effective—human beings evolved to think this way because it gave us the ability to form stable cooperative coalitions. This is what gives us our enormous evolutionary advantage over just about everything else; we have transcended the limitations of a single individual and now work together in much larger groups. E.O. Wilson likes to call us “eusocial”, a term formally applied only to a very narrow range of species such as ants and bees (and for some reason, naked mole rats); but I don’t think this is actually strong enough, because human beings are social in a way that even ants are not. We cooperate on the scale of millions of individuals, who are basically unrelated genetically (or very distantly related). That is what makes us the species who eradicate viruses and land robots on other planets. Much more so than intelligence per se, the human superpower is cooperation.

Indeed, it is not a great exaggeration to say that morality exists as a concept in the human mind because cooperation is optimal in many nonzero-sum games such as these. If the world were zero-sum, morality wouldn’t work; the immoral action would always make you better off, and the bad guys would always win. We probably would never even have evolved to think in moral terms, because any individual or species that started to go that direction would be rapidly outcompeted by those that remained steadfastly selfish.

The Cognitive Science of Morality Part II: Molly Crockett

JDN 2457140 EDT 20:16.

This weekend has been very busy for me, so this post is going to be shorter than most—which is probably a good thing anyway, since my posts tend to run a bit long.

In an earlier post I discussed the Weinberg Cognitive Science Conference and my favorite speaker in the lineup, Joshua Greene. After a brief interlude from Capybara Day, it’s now time to talk about my second-favorite speaker, Molly Crockett. (Is it just me, or does the name “Molly” somehow seem incongruous with a person of such prestige?)

Molly Crockett is a neuroeconomist, though you’d never hear her say that. She doesn’t think of herself as an economist at all, but purely as a neuroscientist. I suspect this is because when she hears the word “economist” she thinks of only mainstream neoclassical economists, and she doesn’t want to be associated with such things.

Still, what she studies is clearly neuroeconomics—I in fact first learned of her work by reading the textbook Neuroeconomics, though I really got interested in her work after watching her TED Talk. It’s one of the better TED talks (they put out so many of them now that the quality is mixed at best); she talks about news reporting on neuroscience, how it is invariably ridiculous and sensationalist. This is particularly frustrating because of how amazing and important neuroscience actually is.

I could almost forgive the sensationalism if they were talking about something that’s actually fantastically boring, like, say, tax codes, or financial regulations. Of course, even then there is the Oliver Effect: You can hide a lot of evil by putting it in something boring. But Dodd-Frank is 2300 pages long; I read an earlier draft that was only (“only”) 600 pages, and it literally contained a three-page section explaining how to define the word “bank”. (Assuming direct proportionality, I would infer that there is now a twelve-page section defining the word “bank”. Hopefully not?) It doesn’t get a whole lot more snoozeworthy than that. So if you must be a bit sensationalist in order to get people to see why eliminating margin requirements and the swaps pushout rule are terrible, terrible ideas, so be it.

But neuroscience is not boring, and so sensationalism only means that news outlets are making up exciting things that aren’t true instead of saying the actually true things that are incredibly exciting.

Here, let me express without sensationalism what Molly Crockett does for a living: Molly Crockett experimentally determines how psychoactive drugs modulate moral judgments. The effects she observes are small, but they are real; and since these experiments are done using small doses for a short period of time, if these effects scale up they could be profound. This is the basic research component—when it comes to technological fruition it will be literally A Clockwork Orange. But it may be A Clockwork Orange in the best possible way: It could be, at last, a medical cure for psychopathy, a pill to make us not just happier or healthier, but better. We are not there yet by any means, but this is clearly the first step: Molly Crockett is to A Clockwork Orange roughly as Michael Faraday is to the Internet.

In one of the experiments she talked about at the conference, Crockett found that serotonin reuptake inhibitors enhance harm aversion. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are very commonly used drugs—you are likely familiar with one called Prozac. So basically what this study means is that Prozac makes people more averse to causing pain in themselves or others. It doesn’t necessarily make them more altruistic, let alone more ethical; but it does make them more averse to causing pain. (To see the difference, imagine a 19th-century field surgeon dealing with a wounded soldier; there is no anesthetic, but an amputation must be made. Sometimes being ethical requires causing pain.)

The experiment is actually what Crockett calls “the honest Milgram Experiment“; under Milgram, the experimenters told their subjects they would be causing shocks, but no actual shocks were administered. Under Crockett, the shocks are absolutely 100% real (though they are restricted to a much lower voltage of course). People are given competing offers that contain an amount of money and a number of shocks to be delivered, either to you or to the other subject. They decide how much it’s worth to them to bear the shocks—or to make someone else bear them. It’s a classic willingness-to-pay paradigm, applied to the Milgram Experiment.

What Crockett found did not surprise me, nor do I expect it will surprise you if you imagine yourself in the same place; but it would totally knock the socks off of any neoclassical economist. People are much more willing to bear shocks for money than they are to give shocks for money. They are what Crockett terms hyper-altruistic; I would say that they are exhibiting an apparent solidarity coefficient greater than 1. They seem to be valuing others more than they value themselves.

Normally I’d say that this makes no sense at all—why would you value some random stranger more than yourself? Equally perhaps, and obviously only a psychopath would value them not at all; but more? And there’s no way you can actually live this way in your daily life; you’d give away all your possessions and perhaps even starve yourself to death. (I guess maybe Jesus lived that way.) But Crockett came up with a model that explains it pretty well: We are morally risk-averse. If we knew we were dealing with someone very strong who had no trouble dealing with shocks, we’d be willing to shock them a fairly large amount. But we might actually be dealing with someone very vulnerable who would suffer greatly; and we don’t want to take that chance.

I think there’s some truth to that. But her model leaves something else out that I think is quite important: We are also averse to unfairness. We don’t like the idea of raising one person while lowering another. (Obviously not so averse as to never do it—we do it all the time—but without a compelling reason we consider it morally unjustified.) So if the two subjects are in roughly the same condition (being two undergrads at Oxford, they probably are), then helping one while hurting the other is likely to create inequality where none previously existed. But if you hurt yourself in order to help yourself, no such inequality is created; all you do is raise yourself up, provided that you do believe that the money is good enough to be worth the shocks. It’s actually quite Rawslian; lifting one person up while not affecting the other is exactly the sort of inequality you’re allowed to create according to the Difference Principle.

There’s also the fact that the subjects can’t communicate; I think if I could make a deal to share the money afterward, I’d feel better about shocking someone more in order to get us both more money. So perhaps with communication people would actually be willing to shock others more. (And the sensation headline would of course be: “Talking makes people hurt each other.”)

But all of these ideas are things that could be tested in future experiments! And maybe I’ll do those experiments someday, or Crockett, or one of her students. And with clever experimental paradigms we might find out all sorts of things about how the human mind works, how moral intuitions are structured, and ultimately how chemical interventions can actually change human moral behavior. The potential for both good and evil is so huge, it’s both wondrous and terrifying—but can you deny that it is exciting?

And that’s not even getting into the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science, which undermines all concepts of afterlife and theistic religion. I already talked about it before—as the sort of thing that I sort of wish I could say when I introduce myself as a cognitive scientist—but I think it bears repeating.

As Patricia Churchland said on the Colbert Report: Colbert asked, “Are you saying I have no soul?” and she answered, “Yes.” I actually prefer Daniel Dennett’s formulation: “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.”

We don’t have a magical, supernatural soul (whatever that means); we don’t have an immortal soul that will rise into Heaven or be reincarnated in someone else. But we do have something worth preserving: We have minds that are capable of consciousness. We love and hate, exalt and suffer, remember and imagine, understand and wonder. And yes, we are born and we die. Once the unique electrochemical pattern that defines your consciousness is sufficiently degraded, you are gone. Nothing remains of what you were—except perhaps the memories of others, or things you have created. But even this legacy is unlikely to last forever. One day it is likely that all of us—and everything we know, and everything we have built, from the Great Pyramids to Hamlet to Beethoven’s Ninth to Principia Mathematica to the US Interstate Highway System—will be gone. I don’t have any consolation to offer you on that point; I can’t promise you that anything will survive a thousand years, much less a million. There is a chance—even a chance that at some point in the distant future, whatever humanity has become will find a way to reverse the entropic decay of the universe itself—but nothing remotely like a guarantee. In all probability you, and I, and all of this will be gone someday, and that is absolutely terrifying.

But it is also undeniably true. The fundamental link between the mind and the brain is one of the basic facts of cognitive science; indeed I like to call it The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science. We know specifically which kinds of brain damage will make you unable to form memories, comprehend language, speak language (a totally different area), see, hear, smell, feel anger, integrate emotions with logic… do I need to go on? Everything that you are is done by your brain—because you are your brain.

Now why can’t the science journalists write about that? Instead we get “The Simple Trick That Can Boost Your Confidence Immediately” and “When it Comes to Picking Art, Men & Women Just Don’t See Eye to Eye.” HuffPo is particularly awful of course; the New York Times is better, but still hardly as good as one might like. They keep trying to find ways to make it exciting—but so rarely seem to grasp how exciting it already is.