We see far too direct a correspondence between others’ actions and their inherent dispositions. We see unusual dispositions that exactly match the unusual behavior, rather than asking after real situations or imagined situations that could explain the behavior. We hypothesize mutants.
When someone actually offends us—commits an action of which we (rightly or wrongly) disapprove—then, I observe, the correspondence bias redoubles. There seems to be a very strong tendency to blame evil deeds on the Enemy’s mutant, evil disposition. Not as a moral point, but as a strict question of prior probability, we should ask what the Enemy might believe about their situation that would reduce the seeming bizarrity of their behavior. This would allow us to hypothesize a less exceptional disposition, and thereby shoulder a lesser burden of improbability.
On September 11th, 2001, nineteen Muslim males hijacked four jet airliners in a deliberately suicidal effort to hurt the United States of America. Now why do you suppose they might have done that? Because they saw the USA as a beacon of freedom to the world, but were born with a mutant disposition that made them hate freedom?
Realistically, most people don’t construct their life stories with themselves as the villains. Everyone is the hero of their own story. The Enemy’s story, as seen by the Enemy, is not going to make the Enemy look bad. If you try to construe motivations that would make the Enemy look bad, you’ll end up flat wrong about what actually goes on in the Enemy’s mind.
But politics is the mind-killer. Debate is war; arguments are soldiers. If the Enemy did have an evil disposition, that would be an argument in favor of your side. And any argument that favors your side must be supported, no matter how silly—otherwise you’re letting up the pressure somewhere on the battlefront. Everyone strives to outshine their neighbor in patriotic denunciation, and no one dares to contradict. Soon the Enemy has horns, bat wings, flaming breath, and fangs that drip corrosive venom. If you deny any aspect of this on merely factual grounds, you are arguing the Enemy’s side; you are a traitor. Very few people will understand that you aren’t defending the Enemy, just defending the truth.
If it took a mutant to do monstrous things, the history of the human species would look very different. Mutants would be rare.
Or maybe the fear is that understanding will lead to forgiveness. It’s easier to shoot down evil mutants. It is a more inspiring battle cry to scream, “Die, vicious scum!” instead of “Die, people who could have been just like me but grew up in a different environment!” You might feel guilty killing people who weren’t pure darkness.
This looks to me like the deep-seated yearning for a one-sided policy debate in which the best policy has no drawbacks. If an army is crossing the border or a lunatic is coming at you with a knife, the policy alternatives are (a) defend yourself or (b) lie down and die. If you defend yourself, you may have to kill. If you kill someone who could, in another world, have been your friend, that is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy. The other option, lying down and dying, is also a tragedy. Why must there be a non-tragic option? Who says that the best policy available must have no downside? If someone has to die, it may as well be the initiator of force, to discourage future violence and thereby minimize the total sum of death.
If the Enemy has an average disposition, and is acting from beliefs about their situation that would make violence a typically human response, then that doesn’t mean their beliefs are factually accurate. It doesn’t mean they’re justified. It means you’ll have to shoot down someone who is the hero of their own story, and in their novel the protagonist will die on page 80. That is a tragedy, but it is better than the alternative tragedy. It is the choice that every police officer makes, every day, to keep our neat little worlds from dissolving into chaos.
When you accurately estimate the Enemy’s psychology—when you know what is really in the Enemy’s mind—that knowledge won’t feel like landing a delicious punch on the opposing side. It won’t give you a warm feeling of righteous indignation. It won’t make you feel good about yourself. If your estimate makes you feel unbearably sad, you may be seeing the world as it really is. More rarely, an accurate estimate may send shivers of serious horror down your spine, as when dealing with true psychopaths, or neurologically intact people with beliefs that have utterly destroyed their sanity (Scientologists or Jesus Campers).
So let’s come right out and say it—the 9/11 hijackers weren’t evil mutants. They did not hate freedom. They, too, were the heroes of their own stories, and they died for what they believed was right—truth, justice, and the Islamic way. If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn’t mean their beliefs were true. If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn’t mean that we have to agree that what they did was justified. If the hijackers saw themselves that way, it doesn’t mean that the passengers of United Flight 93 should have stood aside and let it happen. It does mean that in another world, if they had been raised in a different environment, those hijackers might have been police officers. And that is indeed a tragedy. Welcome to Earth.
An interesting (and in my opinion daring) point, Eliezer, although I'm not sure if it's true or not, because I'm not sure about the degree to which genetics, etc. plays a role in creating "evil mutants". After all, people who commit 9/11 type acts ARE rare. The 9/11 participants in my understanding included people with masters degrees and people with long periods of exposure to the West, and that even enjoyed Western comforts immediately prior to their act. I'm not sure if they're representative of "muslim males" as much as they're representative of people that belong to death cults. Just because they're widely admired in some parts of the world doesn't mean that they'd have many imitators. It defies most forms of "selfish gene" logic to kill onesself prior to procreating, particularly if one is a young healthy male. I do think it's possible that the actual 9/11 participants were deviant in all sorts of ways, rather than representatives of people that grow up culturally non-western and muslim rather than culturally western (muslim or not). However, I think you still make great points about the not-always-utilitarian human bias of picking a side and then supporting all of its arguments, rather than focusing on what mix of policy is actually best.
A single generation of mutation could not create an effect as specific as "die for something". Especially not frequently enough for nineteen of them to emerge closely enough to cooperate.
From what I can gather suicide bombers and the like are pretty normal people. Part of what makes normal people normal is that they're relatively easy to influence.
If you want to find something like evil mutants, try looking at those who recruit suicide bombers. On the other hand, it's probably harder to study them, and even they may not be as alien as we hope.
Well, suicide bombers are more likely to have engineering degrees than the general public. There's also some evidence that engineers are surprisingly likely to be creationists. I don't think engineers are evil mutants, but it does suggest that there are certain modes of thinking that are likely to have bad results. To repeat fairly standard speculation in this regard, engineers aren't taught critical thinking and are taught to not tolerate uncertainty. This is not a good combination.
Full disclosure: I am (almost) an engineer.
I don't think that's quite correct (uncertainty is a huge concern of engineers), although it's getting there. I would speculate as follows:
It's not that Muslim engineers have a special tendency to become jihadis. But engineers do stuff. They solve problems, they act. So when an engineer does join the jihad, they won't be half-hearted about it, and they'll probably be good at it. And in this regard, the jihad is exactly the same as all modern war: educated people who know something of physics and problem-solving always play a large role. That's my theory.
Guilty as charged:
Soldier: The government told me to. They've been elected by us, so they must be right, yeah? Everyone else is doing it - think how my friends would look down on me if I said no! I'm going to be a hero! Heroes get all the girls.
Bomber: My God told me to... can't argue with God, right? My friends are doing it - I don't want to look like a coward! Mmm, virgins. (Or other heavenly reward of choice).
Hmmm... that was originally going to be a list of differences in their viewpoints, but the more I think about it, the more similar they appear. Now I'm not sure what I think any more!
Sorry for responding so late, but do you really think that this thought:
"My people are being oppressed, primarily economically. I can see that it is mostly Americans doing this. Peaceful protest tends to get me shot at. Clearly these Americans consider their profits more important than my and my people's lives; their actions are causing our suffering and deaths, they are aware of this, yet they continue to do so. Therefore, they are deliberately killing and ravaging my people, and so it is justified for me to kill them. Also, doing so may cause them to strike out in more obvious, militaristic ways, which will weaken their economy (punishing them) and make it more obvious to my fellows that, indeed, America is an extremely evil nation that must be opposed. Better to force them out in the open than let them continue oppressing us by subterfuge. Doing this will be very difficult, and will likely cost me my life, but the organization I just joined has offered to pay a good deal of money to my surviving family when/if I do die, and given that right now they're struggling to buy food because of those fucking Americans and their economic jackassery. Therefore, it is justified and indeed Justice for me to blow up their center of commerce, even at great personal sacrifice."
Is of equivalent sanity to this thought:
"I'm the reincarnation of Napoleon! Hibberty flibberty jibbit!"
Do you really, truly think that the only motivations in choosing to do an attack against America (heck, picking America as the target in the first place) and picking the WTC and Pentagon as the targets of that attack, was because the attackers were Muslim while the ones being attacked were not? If so, why have they not done similarly to all non-Muslim nations? Why not attack symbols or places of power of religion, rather than economics and the military?
Certainly religion is used as a framing device and recruitment tool; it's a powerful ingroup identifier. Especially when you have people doing the same on the opposite side of your fight.
That's not so much a piece of advice as a snipe at what you perceive to be the dialectic I'm using to interpret this. It seems to me that you didn't say that to enlighten me, but to reduce my status in the eyes of what you (and I) assume is a mostly capitalist readership.
There is a problem with arguments of the form, "The leader of that group clearly doesn't 'really' believe his own rhetoric he's just saying that because it resonates with his followers." This implies that their followers actually believe that stuff, otherwise there would be no point in the leaders' saying it. But you've just admitted that there exist people who really believe that stuff, why is it so absurd for the leader to be one of those people?
You're still self-anchoring. You observe that they want to kill people, so you try to imagine under... (read more)
I agree; there may very well be the rare innately evil person, but promoting or implementing an ideology that is based on false premises that turns out to have evil consequences does not require "innate" evil. The 9/11 hijackers might very well be described as "neurologically intact people with beliefs that have utterly destroyed their sanity" but, if the beliefs they had about the state of the world were actually true (which they weren't!) then many value systems would endorse their actions.
If there were a diety that condemns unbelieve... (read more)
"Everyone is the hero of their own story." is a popular claim, and may well be true, but I don't know if any evidence for it has been carefully collected.
"The Enemy's story, as seen by the Enemy, is not going to make the Enemy look bad." Some cultures fairly reliably create people who think rap sounds bad, others fairly reliably create people who think rap sounds good. Some cultures fairly reliably create people who think sushi tastes bad, others fairly reliably create people who think sushi tastes good. Some cultures fairly reliably cr... (read more)
A great post, and one of the reasons I promote emotivism. I attribute a recent dissagreement (in which I admit I acted like a dick) to just this. The funny thing is that usually two people argue with each other, convinced the other is evil. In this case I am arguing with someone over just how scary some other people that we both don't care for are.
It appears counterproductive to use the word mutants to describe how people think of enemies. Most people can easily deny that they've done that, and therefore conclude they don't need to learn from your advice. I think if you were really trying to understand those who accept misleading stereotypes of suicide bombers, you'd see that their stereotype is more like "people who are gullible enough to be brainwashed by the Koran". People using such stereotypes should be encouraged to think about how many people believe themselves to be better than average at overcoming brainwashing.
And for those who think suicide bombers are unusual deviants, I suggest reading Robert Pape's book Dying to Win.
This post starts off talking about school shooters, but I think it could be applied to terrorists as well, although they have a movement and ideology behind them.
It is interesting that you talk about the "nineteen [who] hijacked four jet airliners in a deliberately suicidal effort to hurt the United States of America". Your article starting in this vain gave me hope. Alas, it was not to be. I have not read all of your posts nor followed all of your links so I realize I have missed many of your thoughts and probably have an incomplete picture, so take what I'll say and put it in that context. If not, then your lack of expansion of this idea to its logical conclusion that these individuals did not typify [v... (read more)
Some Dude, since when is war profitable? It can be extremely expensive, and you can't really have both sides win, yet it is often the case that both sides are eager for it.
Since there existed private military contractors, or before that, since there existed spoils of war?
An accurate estimate of anyone else’s psychology is a dubious benefit in strategic interactions that depend solely on being able to predict the actions of friend and foe.
In Proposition XXXVII of Part IV of the Ethics, Benedict Spinoza asserts that the good that every man who follows after virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this Desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater. After proving his claim, Spinoza observes that the law against killing animals is based more on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason... (read more)
What do you mean by "evil"?
I've come to think that way years ago, and am happy to read such a clear exposition on the point.
What's ironic is that the first time the issue actually called my attention was while reading the famous How to Win Friends and Influence People. Now, the book is about winning, not truth, and the point of the chapter was saying to people "If I were in your position, I would have done the same thing" as a strategy to win their sympathy. Functional and teleological friend-winning strategy, sure. But when afterward Carnegie made the point that saying th... (read more)
It seems to me that us readers and commenters of such a blog as this one might in fact have genuinely evil mutants as enemies.
This interview with notorious lawyer Jacques Verges in Spiegel deals with the question of evil in a very thought provoking way.... (read more)
Another problem with seeing enemies as innately evil is that it lets us off the hook as to our own capacity for evil (so elegantly demonstrated by the Milgram experiments, although I hope I would do better).
I've lost count of how many times I've heard that Hitler or Stalin or whoever was "just evil," or that the holocaust was the result of some essentially German negative personality trait, or that child abusers of various kinds are "just monsters."
To the extent that these statements mean only "Boo Stalin!" or "Boo paedophiles!" I guess they're not so bad, but I think people actually believe them as propositions to some extent. Certainly, if movies are any guide, the bad guys are usually pure evil - for no readily apparent reason, they just love pain and want to blow up the world.
Which is a big problem, because it leads you to be naive about your own propensity. An acquaintance of mine knew a rapist, through work. This rapist was not a slavering beast, he was an ordinary guy (maybe with some nasty explicit or implicit beliefs about women) until he got drunk and raped somebody. I really don't want to say "it could have been me," and I honestly don't think it could have. But I doubt he thought, say a year before, that it could have been him.
Eliezer, terrorists may not be evil mutants, but I'm pretty sure they do hate freedom. Islam translates to "submission to God", and if you look at the history of radical Islam, you'll see that their main opposition has been to freedom and liberalism all along. It all got started with a Muslim university student in the fifties who got disgusted with American immorality, and decided that Islam needed to stand against it, so he tried to overthrow the Egyptian government and establish an Islamic state. It failed, and he and his followers came to believe that it failed because Islam was being corrupted by Western freedoms and immorality.
They might not be evil, but their value structure is incompatible with ours.
Here's something that Muslim university student wrote:
Qutb hates "liberal" freedom, but he considers it internal slavery to animal desires, and it correlates with external slavery to a human hierarchy. Whereas knowledge of Islam humanizes you, and a shared knowledge of Islam allows people to live without dictators, because order comes from an impersonal source - shariah law - rather than the whim of a governing class.
Qutb definitely values a form of freedom, but says it can't exist unless you have Islam first.
The person who originally claimed that "they hate us for our freedom" was probably referring to a Western, enlightenment notion, called by that name.
The thing that the Muslim university student praises and calls freedom is apparently an Islamic religious idea, corresponding very roughly to the sort of freedom a recovering addict craves from his addictions.
If the words were tabooed, then you would probably see the coherence of both points of view, and I think, could fairly assert that Islamists really do "hate our freedoms" in a sense, so long as you don't allow this approximation to carry more than its fair burden of explanatory weight (as certain former POTUSs have done).
I agree with the post; and I think it would be more applicable to us here on LW if we extend it to cover "stupid" as well as "evil". We see "stupid" and "evil" as not being very different; and we get the same shot of righteous adrenaline from putting down a stupid comment as from putting down an evildoer.
People who work with Steve Jobs said in the 1990s that he assigned everyone a "bozo bit"; and if they disagreed with him a few times, he set their bozo bit to 1, and ignored or derided everything they said... (read more)
Thank you so much! I really like this thread, because I've been arguing with people for years about it, and people just don't get it. ;) It's a really interesting topic, as well, trying to think from the bad guy's perspective. Thank you, again.
To me, it simply comes down to one thing: belief.
If you absolutely believe something, then no matter how implausible it may seem to others with other beliefs, to you, in your mind, it is evident truth, and that therefore is your reality, and anyone who thinks otherwise will often be irritatingly stupid to you.
People with absolute beliefs that just require faith can pretty much rationalise anything to fit them, and are amazingly good at ignoring obvious flaws in their beliefs, and at seeing any, even tiny, counter argument, as being 'evil' and taking the ot... (read more)
I agree with most of the points in this article, but yet it underestimates a fundamental difference between two ways of disagreeing.
Take the typical political debate about "raising taxes on the wealthy to give social help to the poor" vs "giving tax cuts and reducing social help". People can disagree on that topic for two completely different set of reasons.
People can disagree on that topic because, even if they share a more-or-less common utility function, in which having people dying of cold in the street is valued very negatively, they have different expectations about what each policy will do. Some will say that raising taxes on the wealthy and giving the money to the poor will improve the living conditions of the poor, without hurting much the wealthy, and will be good for the economy since it'll increase the demand in construction/good factory/... which is the true motor of economy. Some will say that raising the taxes on the wealthy and giving the money to the poor will lower the incentive for the rich to invest in the economy, and for the poor to find themselves a job, and will at the end damage the whole economy and makes everyone poorer on the long run... (read more)
The Jesus Camp link is broken. Does anyone have an alternative? I don't know what Eliezer is referencing there.
This post needs to be air-dropped over the world's ten largest metropolitan areas. Actually, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality needs to be air-dropped, with translations where necessary, because it contains the same truths but is more entertaining. I think the same arguements apply to labeling your enemies as insane mutants, which is a somewhat gentler, more politically correct way of demonizing them. We tend to assume that the enemy is insane because we could not imagine doing such a thing, and are therefore Surprised by Reality. It might make sense to update our idea of "sanity."
Ever since I read this post, I've been trying to be as charitable as possible to my opponents, but it's been an uphill battle because emotions flare up quickly.
I recently discovered a nice psychological trick that happens to work on me, which helps me argue more sanely. As soon as I get angry or emotional, I catch myself, look straight at the other person, and repeat in my mind, I want you to prosper. I want you to be happy. I want you to live a fulfilling life. (This is true, for any and all people who disagree with me.)
Personally, I find it easier than trying to fight negativity with more negativity ("You're a Bad Person for thinking your opponent is a bad person; why is this such a horrible argument?"). Explicitly reminding myself that I'm on Team Humanity, not Team Political Party, explicitly reminding myself that the point of this arguing is to find a better way to help people, is usually enough to help me zoom out and erase negative feelings.
This hasn't been extensively tested, but it seems like it would fit the mindset of many people here. It worked on an Objectivist who said he would rather have people in Rwanda and Somalia starve to death than live like "... (read more)
I will just pop in here to say that I used to be this huge snob who would look down at people my age who said that Ender's Game is one of their favorite books. I was like "Clearly, they have not read any fancy literature since middle school. Silly noobs!"
And then I read the book again and I realized that actually that book is super-important because it basically captures the contents of this article in a book for children when most books for children are all about taking out the evil bad guy and sorta imply that violence is no big deal.
Great post of course.
Maybe I'm missing something, but shouldn't it read: "Mutants would not be rare." ? Many monstrous things happened in human history, so if only mutants could do evil deeds, there would have to be a lot of them. Furthermore, mutants are rare, so no need for the subjunctive "would".
Well only at the uppermost level. i.e. most evil people are unaware that they are evil. They misconstrue their own motivations. So if you construe motivations which make the Enemy look bad, ... (read more)
Does anyone know of any psychological studies showing it is actually the case that people regard their enemies as evil, rather than misguided?
Agreed that the 9/11 hijackers see themselves as the heroes of their own story. But about “hating freedom”, they very likely thought that: