Author's note: in honor of the upcoming LessOnline event, I'm sharing this one here on LessWrong rather than solely on my substack.  If you like it, you should subscribe to my substack, which you can do for free (paid subscribers see stuff a week early). I welcome discussion down below but am not currently committing to any particular level of participation myself.

Dang it, I knew I should have gone with my first instinct, and photocopied the whole book first. But then again, given that it vanished as soon as I got to the end of it, maybe my second instinct was right, and trying to do that would’ve been seen as cheating by whatever magical librarians left it for me in the first place.

It was just sitting there, on my desk, when I woke up six weeks ago. At first I thought it was an incredibly in-depth prank, or maybe like a fun puzzle that Logan had made for me as an early birthday present. But when I touched it, it glowed, and it unfolded in a way that I’m pretty sure we don’t currently have the tech for.

Took me a while to decode the text, which mostly looked like:

…but eventually I got the hang of it, thanks to the runes turning out to be English, somehow, just a weird phonetic transcription of it.

Hilariously mundanely, it turned out to be a textbook (!), for what seemed like the equivalent of seventh graders (!!), for what seemed like the equivalent of social studies (!!!), written by an educator whose name (if I managed the translation correctly) is something like “Conor Moreton”…

…in a place called (if I managed the translation correctly) something like “Agor.”

At first, I thought it was a civics textbook for the government and culture of Agor in particular, but nope—the more I read, the more it seemed like a “how stuff works” for societies in general, with a lot of claims that seemed to apply pretty straightforwardly to what I understand about cultures here on Earth.

(I’ll be honest. By the time I got to the end of it, I was stoked about the idea of living in a country where everybody was taught this stuff in seventh grade.)

I took notes, but not very rigorous ones. I wasn’t counting on the book just disappearing as soon as I finished reading the last page—

(I know, I know, not very savvy of me, I should have seen that coming. 20/20 hindsight.)

—so what follows is a somewhat patchwork review, with a lot of detail in random places and very little detail in others. Sorry. It’s as complete as I can make it. If anybody else happens to get their hands on a copy, please let me know, or at least be sure to take better notes yourself.

I. Civilization as self-restraint

The first chapter of Moreton’s book asks readers to consider the question Where does civilization come from? Why do we have it?

After all, at some point, civilization didn’t exist. Then gradually, over time, it came into being, and gradually, over time, it became more and more complex.

(Moreton goes out of his way to make clear that he’s not just talking about, like, static agrarian society, but civilizations of all kinds, including nomadic and foraging ones.)

At every step of the way, he argues, each new extra layer of civilization had to be better than what came before. Cultures aren’t quite the same as organisms, but they’re still subject to evolutionary pressure. Behaviors that don’t pay off, in some important sense, eventually die out, outcompeted by other, better-calibrated behaviors.

The book points out that what civilization even is is a question that’s up for debate, with many people using many different definitions. Moreton proposes a single, unifying principle:

Civilization is the voluntary relinquishment of technically available options. It’s a binding of the self, a deliberate shelving of choices: these are things we could do, but instead we choose not to.

At first, this felt a little backwards to me. I typically think of civilizations in terms of what they have, that baseline existence lacks—things like plumbing and vaccines and next-day delivery, movies and music and Chinese takeout. And when people talk about the differences between various civilizations they usually focus on stuff like their religion and their art and their language and so forth.

But (Moreton argues) this is sort of like confusing the symptom for the cause. Those things emerge from civilization, but they aren’t civilization itself.

(Or, to look at it another way: all of that stuff is culture, and civilization is what enables culture. You can’t build a culture together with other people unless you are mutually civil, and you can only maintain a culture together with other people to the extent that you are mutually civil.)

What makes a society civil is self-restraint. Civil-ization is the process of giving up options, adding more and more items to a blacklist of Stuff We Don’t Do Around Here. If you and another party agree to shelve an option, you have both become mutually more civilized; if one or the other of you takes that option up again, your relationship has become more savage.

(Oh, right: I dunno if Agor has less of a problematic history with colonization and oppression, or if they just haven’t started to feel embarrassed about it yet, but Moreton uses the word “savagery” as the opposite of “civilization” over and over without flinching. It doesn’t seem to be about delegitimizing any particular culture or group; he talks about ancient and indigenous peoples as being both civilized in some ways and savage in others just as he talks about the modern citizens of Agor, and there’s a whole chapter dedicated to the benefits of savagery, and why sensible moral people sometimes correctly choose it. He treats civilization and savagery as being the opposite ends of a spectrum, rather than being two distinct buckets; the idea is that any mutual disarmament is a step in the direction of civilization and any rearmament is a step in the direction of savagery. I couldn’t really think of another word that means the-thing-he-means that didn’t introduce other connotations; I tried out “anarchy” and “autonomy” and “lawlessness” and what-have-you and they all felt more likely to cause confusion. So I’m going to use “savagery” the same way he does, and just note that, in the original, it really actually for real did not seem to carry any racist or imperialist overtones.)

So, the book says: civilization starts with the most basic of agreements: you don’t try to kill me, and I won’t try to kill you. c.f. Sigmund Freud’s “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization”—in a state of total anarchy, there’s nothing to stop me from hitting you on the head with a rock whenever I feel like it. Once I robustly give up that option, I become more civilized than I was before—at least with respect to my relationship with you.

Or, to put it another way, this set of game actions:

is actually really quite different than this set of game actions:

II. Orbits

(I’m going to keep listing concepts/sections in order as I remember them, but honestly I’m not sure whether this section was second or whether it was like fifth or something. I didn’t start taking detailed notes until much later in the book. I also don’t think it really matters all that much—the first four or five chapters were sort of all equally foundational and felt like they didn’t really have a proper order/felt like they could have come in any order anyway.)

Moreton asks the reader to imagine a truly pre-historic situation, a fully lawless environment in which literally anything goes and there’s no larger structure in place for prevention or punishment or what-have-you.

He points out that, in this world, encountering a stranger is dangerous. They might kill you! You might kill them! Each of you might have the best of intentions but nevertheless escalate into violence anyway, through miscommunication or misunderstanding!

Absent any proto-civilizational agreements, Moreton argues that most possible interactions between strangers just straightforwardly do not happen, because one or the other party sees the other one first, and hides. Of the remainder, a lot are violent, and a lot of the rest are brief and curt one-offs where neither party ever really lets their guard down.

(To be clear, the claim isn’t that most strangers encountering one another in a prehistoric environment will attack each other, by default. Moreton acknowledges that the actual prehistoric experience probably wasn’t like that most of the time. He’s using the non-viability and non-desirability of violent encounters as a kind of reductio, saying that since violent encounters are highly unwanted, therefore the first thing that strangers will usually do is try to credibly establish mutual peaceful intent. It’s a precondition for any kind of ongoing interaction that doesn’t devolve to murder or maiming or enslavement.)

The book offers up a metaphor (with some embarrassed asterisks about how this is not quite how astrophysics works) of celestial bodies moving past each other in deep space. Most possible interactions between celestial bodies are not ongoing—they either don’t happen at all, because the two objects never come close enough to meaningfully influence one another, or they end in a flyby, or they end in a crash. It’s a very rare sort of interaction that allows for two bodies to repeatedly, continuously end up relevant to one another, the way that the sun and the planets are relevant to each other:

…but also, sort of paradoxically, most of the actual interactions that actually happen will come from such unlikely pairs.

(Because it doesn’t take all that much time for a pair of constantly-interacting objects to have more total interactions than many thousands of one-offs.)

And it’s giving up the option of hitting each other that allows for interaction in the first place—without it, the two strangers either don’t interact, or they interact in a way that wraps up pretty quickly. It’s people who don’t attack each other and keep on not attacking each other that end up interacting over and over again and eventually not being strangers anymore.

This feels absolutely true to my experience here on Earth, as well, even though most people don’t talk about it in quite those terms. If you think about it, the phrase “You don’t know what he’s capable of” is much more often a warning than a compliment—the idea of someone who might do anything, at any moment, is a scary one, not a comforting one.

(It’s the Joker who doesn’t have a code and doesn’t have limits; it’s Batman who has rules.)

We depend on other people to keep their behavior within standard bounds, for good reason. Moreton introduces a term that doesn’t quite have a translation into standard English, but it basically amounts to “dealbreaker”—it’s the idea that there are behaviors which make the other person say okay, we’re done here. A civilization results when the most obvious dealbreakers are visibly and explicitly shelved, leaving individuals willing to tolerate proximity at all; it deepens as more and more subtle dealbreakers go away, and thus people lower their guard further and further and are willing to entangle themselves more and more intimately with each other.

And this is what leads to all of the visible products of civilization—the houses and hospitals and cars and books and fancy foods and pretty art and wild inventions. Most of the cool stuff that humans do is ultimately downstream of sustained interaction between people—either because:

  • Two or more humans working together are creating something that none of them could have managed to create on their own, or
  • Trade and commerce and specialization allow a lone human to spend far more of their time and effort pushing the boundaries of a single pursuit than they would be able to if they had to forage for their own food and build their own shelter and make their own clothes and so on and so forth.

…and thus, “things which preclude sustained interaction” are sort of the…bottleneck? Gatekeepers? Rate-limiting step? …of everything else. This is true for the large and obvious dealbreakers, like “this person might try to murder me,” but it’s also true for the smaller and more subtle ones, like “this person uses language that I find abhorrent.”

III. Purchasing breathing room

Okay, but what if you’re the Strongest Guy™ in that prehistoric interaction? Why would a guy who can win every fight agree not to fight, if fighting is working out so well for him?

(Why not just take all the cool stuff?)

This question is sort of analogous to “how is it that here on Earth we ultimately e.g. gave up lethal duels? Why didn’t the people for whom dueling was working stay in power forever, and keep dueling as a part of our culture forever?” At any given moment, the system has winners and losers, and winners are unlikely to be enthusiastic about change that might make them less likely to stay winners.

The book went pretty in-depth on an example of five prehistoric strangers who’ve come together around a campfire at night. There’s an uneasy peace, and they’re trying to figure out whether it’s safe to go to sleep.

Magenta was lost in the wilderness, and has basically no food and no supplies. Yellow has a little bit of a surplus; the blue couple has a little bit extra, too; and the green Jason Momoa type has lots.

(Actually, in the book, you’re Yellow; the text sort of leads you through the situation step by step and guides you through all the insights.

“Ah,” you say. “Magenta doesn’t have any supplies. Maybe Green can give them some extra?”

“Uh. These supplies are mine,” says Green. “You and the Blues have extra, too—why don’t you give Magenta some?”

“But you have more than we have,” you point out. “You could give away a third of what you have and still have more than we do.”

“Yeah, but I’m bigger. I need more food, more fabric for clothing and shelter. The loss of a third of what I have would hit me harder. Plus, I don’t see why keeping Magenta alive is my responsibility anyway.”

“Wouldn’t you want us to keep you alive, if the situation were reversed?”

“If the situation were reversed, I could take whatever I wanted from you. I am larger and stronger; you couldn’t stop me.”

“Not alone,” you say. “But if you were the kind of person who was willing to hurt and steal, then we would all be in danger from you, and the four of us would band together and kill you first.”

The idea is that, as you work your way through various possibilities, it becomes clear that so long as all options remain on the table, everyone involved ends up having to spend a lot of resources on the bottom tier of the hierarchy of needs. Magenta might end up willing to go to great lengths to acquire food and fabric and tools; Green might go to great lengths to preempt theft or collective action; Yellow and Blue might decide that Green’s potential preemptive action is itself a threat that should be pre-preempted, and so on. As long as physical attacks might come at any moment, from any direction, all five of you are stuck in an arms race of who-can-stay-awake-and-alert-the-longest, or who-can-fortify-themselves-most-effectively, or who-can-launch-the-most-devastating-sneak-attack.

It’s a Red Queen race, in other words—frantic competition just to maintain the status quo. Continuously burning resources for no actual expected gain—just the prevention of expected loss. Ongoing defense against heavily unwanted outcomes.

“All right,” you say. “Here’s an idea. What if we agree that, no matter what, we won’t physically attack one another? No sudden blows to the head, no sneaking into each other’s camps at night and murdering people while they sleep.”

“Er, physical dominance is one of my most valuable resources,” Green objects. “It allows me to expect victory in conflicts with the rest of you. You’re asking me to give up my biggest advantage.”

“Yes, but your physical dominance also singles you out as uniquely threatening,” points out one of the Blues. “It makes you the most obvious person for the rest of us to unite against. It makes you the most likely person to die by treachery, since none of us would expect to win a direct confrontation, and therefore would not try a straightforward attack.”

Setting aside for the moment the obvious question of defection, and assuming that these people can, in fact, make and rely upon agreements, it’s clear that Yellow, the Blues, and Green all get real benefit (and likely net benefit) from relinquishing the option of violence. Sure, they’re giving up the chance to pillage resources from one another, but they’re also eliminating both the risk of being successfully pillaged and the need to make ongoing expenditures in defense against the pillaging attempts of others.

“Wait,” interrupts Magenta. “If I don’t get access to some of the resources you’re all hoarding, I’ll literally die. I’m not prepared to sign away my ability to attack you under those conditions.”

“What if we attack you first, then?” says Green. “Unless you agree?”

Magenta shrugs. “Either way, my worst-case scenario is the same—a painful death. That threat isn’t a real deterrent for me.”

Here, Moreton is showing us the shape of the overall dynamic of civilization, the verb. People choose to become more civilized when the value of the options being sacrificed is smaller, in expectation, than the value of what’s gained by the sacrifice. You (Yellow) certainly might want to steal resources from the Blues at some point, or to launch a sneak attack on Green to alleviate your fear of Green flying off the handle someday. There’s real value lost, if you shelve the option of violence.

But you definitely want to stop having to actively guard all your resources—never being able to wander far from your camp, having to build that camp in a defensible place, having to stay awake through the night or spend lots of time and energy building traps and tripwires, etc.

Magenta, on the other hand, isn’t getting enough out of the proposed deal. A ban on violence doesn’t solve Magenta’s problem, so Magenta isn’t interested.

There is still a civilizing action that would be tempting to Magenta, but it’s something like “I’ll sign your no-violence treaty if we also all agree to give up the option of letting people starve right in front of you.”

Again, it felt a little weird to me to frame “give me food and shelter” as “give up the option of not giving me food and shelter.” But Moreton argues, at least somewhat convincingly, that saying “this is not my problem” is, itself, a choice. If this were a text-based adventure, “do nothing” might be one of the options that the game offers you.

And it’s the relinquishment of that option—the option to take no altruistic action—that is the civilizing move in this case. If you preserve the don’t-help option, then you have no nonaggression treaty with Magenta, and it’s back to knives out. If you give it up, and bind yourself to the potential for obligatory rescue action, then the knives can stay sheathed.

(And whether or not you take that choice depends on whether having the knives sheathed ultimately seems better to you, or not.)

It’s important to note that Green—who was the winner under the old paradigm—is also gaining something! Green is sacrificing the power that comes from being able to win any individual fight, so that they don’t have to maintain constant vigilance against collective action. In the new order, Green’s relatively worse off, but Green might willingly choose it anyway because being just another guy in a peaceful society might well lead to a higher quality of life overall than a turbulent (and likely short-lived) stint as top dog in a violent anarchy.

Examples from fiction are always slightly sketchy, but this whole section reminded me of season 3 of The Wire (spoilers ahead).

In that season, the erudite gangster Stringer Bell, in conjunction with a former adversary, founded a sort of council-of-drug-lords called the “New Day Co-Op,” complete with catered hors d’oeuvres and Robert’s Rules of Order.

What was interesting about that arc is that most of the involved parties portrayed were straightforward competitors—often violent competitors, engaged in a constant back-and-forth struggle over turf and territory. There were little bits of civility floating around—certain unwritten rules that most of the characters abided by—but for the most part, the Baltimore of The Wire is a textbook example of a high savagery-in-the-Agori-sense culture. People lie, cheat, murder, and steal, the cops only moderately less than the criminals. Everyone is on high alert during a significant portion of their waking hours, ready to defend against sudden violence, and those who are insufficiently alert often get killed, beaten, or maimed. Attrition and turnover are high, as people die or flee; muscle is in high demand and becomes only more valuable as time goes by.

Stringer Bell’s move short-circuited the whole dynamic. The Co-Op was a mutual nonaggression treaty, and (in the romanticized world of the show) it successfully lead to an immediate and near-total disarmament, resulting in significant increases in wealth and trade among its members. Once the members of the Co-Op set aside a fraction of their sovereignty—the ability to retaliate against perceived transgressions however they see fit, without reference to any higher authority—they secured the safety and elbow room to reinvest all of the resources that had previously been burning in the Red Queen race.

IV. Lopsided possibility trees (or, the ecology metaphor)

Moreton’s book doesn’t claim that every potential option shelved results in greater possibility down the road. If someone says “will you marry me?” and you say “no,” this closes down the relationship, and often sends you out of orbit.

(Sure, maybe this opens you up to other possibilities with other people, but still.)

Similarly, if I robustly give up the option to, I dunno, say nice things about my friends, this will likely lead to fewer and less-fulfilling relationships, rather than more and more-fulfilling.

But successively shelving dealbreakers in particular will obviously encourage more (and thus, over time, more varied and interesting) interaction. Options whose presence is corrosive to connection and intimacy. Things which have the potential to drive the other person away. The less I do things that will cause people to bounce, the more potential we have for collaboration in all sorts of ways, and (crucially) collaboration begets further collaboration—not always, but in expectation.

Or, to look at it from another perspective: you can evaluate each choice you make, along the axis of “does this sort of thing drive people away? Or does it encourage people to hang around?”

(And also: which people does it drive away or attract/incentivize, because often a single action will do both.)

(There are, of course, actions which do neither. Moreton sometimes talks about those as existing on the left-right axis, where the civilizational axis is forward-backward, or approach-avoid. At a given closeness, there are many things that people may choose to do that neither increase nor decrease the wariness of others; Moreton variously refers to those choices as aesthetic choices, cultural choices, and deals (as in, the stuff you’re able to do in the absence of dealbreakers).)

Out here on Earth, I recently saw a job posting in which someone was offering $100 to anyone who could find a person who’d take $1500 to spend a day keeping a small group of 5-6 discussion participants on track, and taking notes on their discussion. The finder had to find a note-taker with a working understanding of the field of synthetic biology, so that they would be able to keep up with the conversation.

This headhunting job, which pays enough for food and cheap shelter for a day, is pretty clearly not the sort of task that you could have bartered for in 1600’s pastoral England. Something is different, now—the world is more varied and complex; there are ways to spend one’s time and energy and receive value in return that did not exist four hundred years ago.

(Heck, there are ways to spend one’s time and energy and receive value in return that did not exist ten years ago.)

Moreton’s book offers up an analogy that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Frank Herbert’s Dune. The idea, essentially, is that you can’t go into the Sahara desert and plant sequoias, even if you were somehow to set up the infrastructure necessary to water them. Barren sand just isn’t adequate ground for growing most plants. It is possible to turn a desert into a rainforest, but it can’t be done in one step. You have to plan out gradual, successive waves of change.

Since I can’t remember all of the details of Moreton’s metaphor, I’m actually just going to pull the excerpt from Dune; I think it pretty effectively makes the same point:

Downwind sides of old dunes provided the first plantation areas. The Fremen aimed first for a cycle of poverty grass with peatlike hair cilia, to intertwine, mat, and fix the dunes by depriving the wind of its big weapon: moveable grains of sand. The engineered grasses were planted first along the downwind (slipface) side of the chosen dunes that stood across the path of the prevailing westerly winds.

With the downward face anchored, the windward faces grew higher and higher and more grass was planted to keep pace. Giant sifs (long dunes with sinuous crests) of more than 1500 meters height were produced in this way, creating a wind break.

When the barrier dunes reached sufficient height, the windward faces were planted with tougher sword grasses. Then came deeper plantings—ephemerals (chenopods, pigweeds, and amaranth to begin), then scotch broom, low lupine, vine eucalyptus, dwarf tamarisk, shore pine—then the true desert growths: candelilla, saguaro, and barrel cactus. Where it would grow, they introduced camel sage, onion grass, gobi feather grass, wild alfalfa, burrow bush, sand verbena, evening primrose, incense bush, smoke tree, cresote bush.

They turned then to the necessary animal life—burrowing creatures to reopen the soil and aerate it: kit fox, kangaroo mouse, desert hare, sand terrapin…and the predators to keep them in check: desert hawk, dwarf owl, eagle and desert owl; and insects to fill the niches these couldn’t reach: scorpion, centipede, trapdoor spider, the biting wasp and the wormfly, and the desert bat to keep watch on those.

Now came the crucial test: date palms, cotton, melons, coffee, medicinals—more than 200 selected food plant types to test and adapt.

At the outset, what you have is desert sand—loose and infertile, with no nutrients. Only the very hardiest of plants can survive in it.

But if you grow enough of those plants, then as they die and decompose, they (slightly) enrich the sand, allowing for a new generation of (slightly) less hardy and more complex plants to come in and do the same.

It takes time, and many successive generations, to slowly enrich the soil and create the conditions for the next wave of complexity to be laid down.

Analogously, a social compact of “we won’t kill each other” is not particularly fertile. It doesn’t provide the necessary nutrients for much in the way of interaction. But it does give you enough of a base of trust for trade, maybe—occasional and wary, with both parties keeping one hand on their knives.

If trade goes well on a few separate occasions, then that lays the groundwork for maybe eventually sharing bread together one time, before parting. And if that goes well, then maybe one day both parties camp together by the same fire and swap stories on into the night. And then perhaps the two parties ask each other to carry messages or make deliveries (which takes more enduring trust than simply swapping value for value right then and there, on the spot).

And now maybe one of the traders is willing to bring the other trader back to his village—but not before the other trader takes off that hat, because that hat carries a particularly offensive connotation in the village, and we don’t do that around here. Sorry, I know it’s an imposition—in exchange, when I visit your village, I’m willing to leave my shoes behind. I know that wearing shoes within the borders is seen as an insult among your people.

Moreton argues that it takes a long time, and lots of interaction, for people to build up successive layers of mutual disarmament, setting aside smaller and more subtle dealbreakers to open up the possibility of more complex and interesting deals. It starts with “I’m pretty sure this guy is not going to try to kill me in the next five minutes,” but it takes more than that to be willing to e.g. go into business with someone, or marry someone, and it’s in those long-term relationships that most of the possibility lies.

(Since there are just straightforwardly more things (and more interesting things) that you can accomplish if you’ve got 30 years to work with someone, than if you’ve got 30 seconds. But there are correspondingly more dealbreakers for a potential 30-year partnership than there are for a glancing 30-second interaction. In order to get access to those 30 years, there have to be a lot more things you’re willing to reliably not-do. c.f. the reasonably plausible-sounding claim that many women will go for a bad boy for a one-night stand but will not seriously consider the bad boy as a potential spouse.)

And this is how the complexity gets laid down. Early sacrifices fertilize the ground for later sacrifices, until eventually you’re so deep into interaction-space and the sacrifices are so small and specific that they don’t even feel like “sacrifices” anymore. Instead, they’re just the terms of negotiation—you want me to do X, and in return you’ll do Y, and in the meantime we both agree not to Z or B or M.

(“You want to see the kind of research we’ve got going on in our lab? Fine, but first you have to sign an NDA [giving up the otherwise-available option of talking about what you see inside].”)

V. The evolutionary metaphor

Okay, but hang on: I’ve signed NDAs, but nobody’s ever actually asked me to shelve my ability to murder people with rocks, or spit bigoted epithets, or whatever.

Like, maybe way back when I was a little kid, somebody might have gently taken a pencil from my hands and told me “we don’t stab people” or whatever, but it’s not as if I’ve ever had to sign a contract or make a public promise not to do X or Y or Z, in order for people to be willing to associate with me? …I just sort of don’t, and never have, and furthermore it seems like everybody already expects me to don’t. It’s pretty rare that someone reacts to me as if I genuinely might, and needs to be soothed and reassured that I don’t consider stabbing people (or whatever) a readily available option.

(I can think of a couple of examples, but not many.)

So where exactly is the relinquishment?

Moreton says that I inherited it, in the same way that I inherited my genetic makeup from my parents. He claims that there’s a list of things-we-don’t-do-around-here that accumulated over time, that unlock and underpin the particular strengths of my home culture, and that it was handed down to me, and that most of it is static and unchanging and we don’t even think about it because our minds are never given a reason to go there. It’s just around the edges that items are being added or subtracted from the list.

For instance, feral children (those raised in abusive captivity or who survive early abandonment in the wild) quite often masturbate freely and frequently, without any sense that this is something they shouldn’t do, contra modern Western society where the option “just go for it” has been thoroughly shelved. My own child, who is just under a year old, frequently uses objects to stimulate the inside of their mouth, which surprised me at first because my brain insisted that wasn’t what the object was “for.”

I set a 60 second timer and jotted down a few top-of-mind things that I don’t do, that I generally don’t think about not-doing, that I very easily could do but which feel, viscerally, like they’re not really in my option space (in part because, if I were to do them, they would likely be dealbreakers for some of my relationships, either personal or professional):

  • Vocalize my inner monologue in a loud stream-of-consciousness soliloquy
  • Pick up bugs off the ground and eat them
  • Stand very close to people and grab their hair or clothes so that I can examine them more closely and at length
  • Take and use others’ clothes, shoes, pens, computers, cars, etc. as if they were my own
  • Physically break or throw away items which displease me (the microwave in the staff room)
  • Empty my bladder into my pants or into nearby trash cans
  • Openly criticize the people around me, in the moment and on the spot, for what I perceive to be their flaws and failings
  • Steal food or toys from babies and children who are too small to object

…and lo, none of the people I associate with do any of those things, either (at least not visibly).

Moreton argues that the lists of stuff-we-don’t-do-around-here are going to be 99.9% identical between members of the same culture, just like my DNA is 99.9% identical to the DNA of other humans. Yes, there is disagreement and negotiation taking place, with people self-assorting into various groups and subcultures based on which non-universal dealbreakers those groups make a point of shelving…

(e.g. whether you refrain from using words like “faggot” and “bitch”)

…but that negotiation is taking place atop a vast set of identical, already-agreed-upon no-nos, just as mutation and evolution are taking place atop an already working and universal genome.

(This next bit gets a little abstract. Sorry—again, this was a textbook, and I’m zipping through its concepts at lightspeed; my guess is that seventh graders in Agor would’ve spent a month or more working through this chapter, including a bunch of activities and quizzes and practice exercises that I’m not recreating here.)

This (Moreton argues) is how it has to be, because of how complex machinery works. There’s a vaguely anthropic, you-find-yourself-in-this-situation-because-if-the-situation-were-radically-different-you-wouldn’t-be-there-to-observe-it sort of thing going on.

The key point is that the laying-down of new layers of cultural complexity has to happen in tandem. Individuals do not become more civilized all by themselves; civilization is a property of relationships. You can go into a secret shrine and make a private blood oath that you’ll never ever X or Y or Z, but unless someone else knows that you’ve shelved X, Y, and Z, and believes it, and finds the question of whether-or-not you’d do those things relevant to their decisions about whether and how to interact with you, the oath itself doesn’t matter.

(This is why it’s silly to feel hurt if you’re walking down a dark sidewalk at night and a woman crosses the street to avoid passing you—buddy, it doesn’t matter if you’re not the sort of person who would ever grope a woman, she can’t know that. She’s only willing to share unpopulated night sidewalks with people who have reliably and visibly set aside the “harass women” option, and you can’t credibly signal that in twelve seconds (and shouldn’t try). Just let her solve the problem and don’t take it personally.)

And in order for two (or more) individuals to lay down a new layer of agreements, they have to already have all of the necessary prerequisite agreements in common. You and I can’t agree that we’re not going to make irrelevant personal attacks during our debate until we’ve already agreed on all of the other things that need to be true for us to be willing to debate each other in the first place (such that “ad hominem, y/n?” is even a question that needs to be answered).

Or, to put it another way: you don’t get Amazon same-day delivery until you’ve already got Amazon, and you don’t get Amazon until you’ve already got the internet, and you don’t get the internet until you’ve already got some computers, and on and on through the chain of innovations, each of which is unlocked by some new element of voluntary self-restraint.

The complex social machinery that lies just beneath the surface of the current round of mutation and experimentation has to be universal and dependable. It’s the same constraint as in genetic evolution:

If gene B relies on gene A in order to work, then gene A has to already be useful on its own, and rise to near-universality in the gene pool on its own, before gene B can become useful enough to confer a fitness advantage, and be selected-for, and take over.

Then, once gene B is universal, you can get a variant of gene A (let’s call it A*) that relies on gene B, and then if that rises to universality you can get a gene C that relies on A*+B, and then a B* that relies on C (and thus also A*+B) until the whole machine would fall apart if you remove a single piece.

But it all has to happen incrementally. Evolution never looks ahead—evolution would never start promoting gene B in preparation for gene A maybe becoming universal later. Evolution is the simple historical fact that the next generation has more of the genes of whichever organisms have more children.

Complex biological machinery like eyes or wings doesn’t appear all at once. You don’t get X-Men mutants who are born with genes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G all mutated in an interlocking and beneficial fashion that creates a brand-new, fully realized organ or sense or power.

(And even if you did, via some one-in-a-trillion coincidence, as soon as that mutant had kids with another, regular human, all of that genetic machinery would be scrambled and scattered and would never reassemble again.)

The same, Moreton argues, is true for the complex social machinery that e.g. allows people to ask anonymous strangers over the internet for help with their weird recruitment task. A small cluster of people might rapidly lay down a bunch of new layers of civilization, and develop a subculture, the same way that a small breeding population might rapidly accumulate mutations and start to look very different.

But as soon as an individual from that subculture reintegrates with the main population, that stack is going to collapse, and at best they’ll be able to preserve one or two weird quirks. It’s like taking a highly specialized purebred dog and mating it with a mutt—not only will you not get a dog that looks like a purebred, but even mating two of those offspring together is extremely unlikely to ever get you back to the pure breed.

(At least, in cases where the defining characteristics of the breed aren’t controlled by a single gene.)

Anything that is genuinely complicated—any new norm or behavior or institution that depends on four or five other social norms all working reliably—is not going to happen unless those four or five other things are universal in that part of the social network, or at least close enough that you can get universality by filtering people out.

And those underlying things aren’t going to become universal unless each of them pulls its own weight in the social ecosystem, with value in excess of their cost.

This is (part of) why you can’t just randomly transplant proven and successful ways-of-being between cultures like Japan and the United States—any one isolated Cool Norm™ in one culture is going to have its roots in all sorts of things that the other culture lacks. You can’t just pick it up something like “five-year-olds taking public transportation in the city by themselves” and bring it over here any more than you can just copy a starfish’s regenerative powers into a bloodhound. Most of the social machinery that makes it work is buried under the surface, hidden in the background, taken for granted.

Which (to bring it back around) is why it doesn’t feel to me like I’ve relinquished very many readily available options, and am refraining from using very many useable weapons. The no-no behaviors are there, within reach, but I’ve got a culturally-induced blind spot around them. I’ve been so thoroughly trained to not-do them that I forget that they exist. I don’t notice how crucially dependent all of my personal and professional relationships are, on my not-eating-live-bugs-off-the-ground habit, because eating live bugs off the ground isn’t a behavior that ever comes to mind, for most of us.

(With some caveats.)

And sure, maybe on reflection not-eating-live-bugs isn’t actually crucially load-bearing, for any of the activities I engage in. Maybe, if I look at it, I’ll discover that it’s just a silly hangup, and that we’re all disproportionately averse to it, and that eating live bugs is fine, actually.

But it’s still weird. It’s still implicitly taboo, and if I suddenly start doing this one thing that nobody ever does, people will start to wonder if maybe I might suddenly do some other things that nobody ever does (like trying to hit them over the head with rocks).

If I start eating live bugs off the ground, I’m going to pretty quickly find myself fighting an uphill battle against other people’s disgust and uneasiness. Even if I can persuasively argue that it shouldn’t actually matter, at best I’ll manage to gather around myself a small subculture of people who look past it, and any further innovation that we come up with that’s dependent on that niche tolerance is going to be impossible to export back to the culture at large.

Yes, Moreton says: you can change the world. But it has to happen slowly, one single step at a time, and each step (unfortunately) has to pay for itself.

VI. Pressures toward savagery

There were a couple of chapters on “modern disarmament,” and the Agori equivalent of stuff like how we’re backing off on racism and misogyny and gradually agreeing to be less dicks to one another than thirty years ago (and were in many ways less dicks to one another thirty years ago than sixty). Moreton talked a bit about what a new layer of civilization looks like when it’s in the middle of being laid down/becoming universal, and which ways Agori civilization seems likely to go next.

But much more interesting (to me) was the chapter on going the other way.

After all, people sometimes rearm, in Agor just as on Earth. They abandon their peace treaties. They use insults they’d previously eschewed, break contracts and agreements, call out and dox each other online (yes, Agor has an internet). Sometimes they engage in literal violence, start actual wars. They get pushed to the limit of their willingness to not use a certain set of tools, in their conflicts, and eventually say “screw it,” and go back to winning the old fashioned way.

Moreton claims that this is quite straightforward, actually, and that you can almost always see it coming, so long as you manage not to get caught up in the myth of believing that just because people don’t do that sort of thing around here, that means that they can’t.

(By “myth,” Moreton explains that he means something like: sometimes a small and physically weak person will mock and torment and harass a large and physically dangerous person over and over, pushing them to the breaking point, because the smaller person knows that both of them know that if the larger person does anything violent, there are police and courts and a whole system of consequences that will descend upon them. But none of this actually stops the larger person from just…beating the smaller person to death. It’s the self-restraint of the larger person that’s actually keeping the smaller person safe, in the moment, even though that self-restraint is grounded in the larger person’s own self-interest. And if the smaller person pushes the larger person to the point that they lose sight of that bigger picture, and temporarily lose control…)

According to Moreton, every single piece of social disarmament (whether it’s not hitting people on the head with rocks or whether it’s avoiding terminology that people find mildly hurtful) is, in essence, a purchase. You don’t use Weapon X because shelving Weapon X allows you to join the cool club of cool people who don’t tolerate Weapon X usage.

Sorry, this picture isn’t really relevant; I just like it a lot. (Wolverine is Weapon X.)

(I actually have a mild criticism here, in that just because shelving a weapon has the result of opening up the possibility of certain social interactions doesn’t mean that it was shelved so as to open up those interactions. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy, after all. Moreton acknowledges this point in a couple of places, but it’s easy to miss, and a lot of the other language in the chapter kind of pushes the implication that everything is socially motivated and transactional, which is obviously false here on Earth and probably false over in Agor, too. There are things that I don’t do because I either have no impulse to do them in the first place, or because I have some personal principle that rules them out. And sure, once other people notice that I reliably don’t do those things, this sometimes causes them to offer me certain opportunities that they wouldn’t offer to someone more wanton. But it’s not like them withdrawing those opportunities would cause me to suddenly turn around and start X-ing.)

But setting all that aside—if you do, in fact, give up X mostly out of a sense that doing so is supposed to get you Y, and then it turns out that relinquishing X doesn’t actually get you Y…

Moreton teaches (to the Agori equivalent of seventh graders, no less!) that, in many cases, it’s sensible, rational, and morally correct to take X back up again. That if one is not receiving the benefits of the social contract—if society has in fact defaulted on the social contract—that it is not virtuous to continue to unilaterally abide by its terms.

(Here on Earth, we have the phrase “a peace treaty is not a suicide pact,” and apparently they teach that concept in social studies in Agor.)

This is pretty radical! It’s a departure from the sort of standard “you should follow the rules No Matter What because that’s how you be a Good Person” morality that’s so common in Earth cultures. It’s much more contingent, and transactional—Moreton is saying that, according to Agori cultural norms, being a chump is not a path to being considered a good person.

Moreton spends a good chunk of the chapter reminding his readers that it’s not as simple as tit for tat—that since it’s easier in general to unravel the social web than to rebuild it, you should be cautious about abandoning a given relinquishment, and taking up arms again. That there’s value in a general property of lawfulness and cooperativeness, above and beyond one’s specific situation or grievance, and that it takes a lot to outweigh that. That there’s a difference between being, in fact, justified in your rearmament, and that fact being legible, such that other people will agree that you were indeed doing a sane and reasonable thing and not being capricious or random. He spends a section outlining some game-theory-esque considerations that resemble stag hunts and prisoners’ dilemmas, and points out that the whole point of having things like police and courts is the known fact that everyone pursuing justice on their own terms and to their own satisfaction is just…much, much worse.

Et cetera—he in fact spends quite a lot of time on “just because the game seems rigged to you, at first blush, doesn’t mean you should immediately abandon the rules,” going in-depth into the many ways that people trick themselves and behave short-sightedly, to their own and others’ detriment.

But ultimately (he says) (and I agree, once all the caveats are in place) it is the job of society and civilization to earn your cooperation, by making themselves worthwhile to you, compared to what you can achieve without. If you have the power to flex a certain muscle, and society doesn’t want you to, it’s up to society to convince you that you’re better off not flexing it, as Green was better off giving up the option of violence.

(And, Moreton underlines, it’s society’s job to convince you that you’re better off because you’ll actually get more out of shelving the option, not that you’re better off just because the other monkeys can make your life artificially worse. Punishment and coercion have their place in the picture of civilization, but they’re patches and stopgaps, not the main incentive.)

It’s a sort of mature, non-naive libertarianism—yes, you owe the preexisting society a lot, both in terms of reverence and deference and in terms of what it has literally provided you in the form of clean clothes and good roads and no smallpox. That counts, Moreton says; no man is an island.

But at the same time, you don’t owe your society infinite or unquestioning obedience.

(c.f. Huckleberry Finn saying “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” In Huck’s mind, there was an available option of helping Jim escape to the North, but it wasn’t the sort of option that good and civilized people took, in 1830’s Mississippi. The culture of 1830’s Mississippi was crucially contingent on people not taking that option.)

For a more concrete example: one of the more realistic aspects of The Wire was its depiction of disadvantaged teenagers living in blighted urban areas struggling under systemic racism and generational poverty and various other hard-to-escape traps. Both in the show and in real life, the black youth of Baltimore were dropping out of school, joining gangs, selling and using drugs—engaging in all sorts of actions that you can’t engage in, if you want to be a part of the system.

But—and this, according to Moreton, is key—that’s because they weren’t reaping the rewards of being part of the system. Keeping your head down, staying in school, and obeying the law did not, in fact, give a poor black kid from Baltimore the same sorts of benefits and opportunities that I, an upper-middle-class white kid in suburban North Carolina, got from taking the exact same actions.

There’s an implicit promise in our society that if you make yourself go to school, make yourself follow the rules, refrain from all sorts of actions that are dealbreakers for the standard career path—

If you do all of those things, it’s supposed to unlock prosperity and mobility and peace. It’s in order to unlock prosperity and mobility and peace that people sacrifice the option to sell drugs and mete out vigilante justice.

But if you do all of those things and it doesn’t unlock prosperity and mobility and peace, Moreton argues it’s not only strategically correct but morally laudable to do something else. If you can gain safety and security and happiness by not breaking the law, then great—but if you can’t, the law is not doing its job, and you have a sort of natural and inalienable right to pursue those things via other means.

(Moreton notes that moral judgment is distinct from law enforcement—he doesn’t claim that people should just give up on an imperfect system simply because it is imperfect. Rather, he says that we should continue enforcing the law and continue improving the law and treat the people who are making a reasonable choice, given their values, with sympathy rather than condemnation, even if we have to imprison or otherwise penalize them.)

This raises a fascinating question, which Moreton discusses but doesn’t fully answer, about how society (or a smaller set of individuals, or a single person) decides which wants are valid, and thus morally endorseable.

For instance, say that I really really want to kill and eat puppies that belong to other people. By a naive reading of Moreton’s principle above, since I can’t satisfy this desire by following the rules, it’s “correct” to abandon the rules.

But of course (Moreton says) this is a ridiculous conclusion; it’s not the case that every want or desire is morally valid, and should get our stamp of approval. I should applaud poor kids in Baltimore refusing to bend to a system that’s trying to screw them over, but I shouldn’t applaud a child molester who’s refusing to bend to the laws meant to protect children.

Where to draw the line? By what principle? It’s a hard question. A first pass is to say something like “your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose,” i.e. people’s desires are endorseable up to the point that they start to intrude on the desires of other moral patients.

But that’s clearly not how actual humans actually act, in practice. Over here, on Earth, Jody Plauché was an eleven-year-old when his karate instructor abused him over multiple months, ending in a kidnapping. The abuser was caught, and was being transported back to Louisiana to stand trial, when the boy’s father, Gary Plauché, intercepted the convoy and shot the man in the head on live television.

It’s unknowable what would have happened to the abuser as the result of a trial, but certainly many, many victims of abuse end up feeling that justice was not served, and many abusers go free or receive very little in the way of punishment or rehabilitation before being put right back out into society. This fact is probably a major part of why much of the country shrugged and said yeah, fair enough—Gary Plauché stood trial himself and received a conviction, but that conviction came with zero jail time.

People, in other words, get it. On some level, while there is tremendous disagreement about detail, almost everyone agrees that there is some point at which playing by the rules just doesn’t make sense. Almost everyone agrees that, if playing by the rules means that you will never actually get what you want, you should break the rules.

For some wants. For some rules. Wanting a millionaire’s yacht badly enough to murder him and steal it evokes very little sympathy. Wanting a loaf of bread to feed your family bad enough that you’ll steal it evokes a lot, even if the boulanger is also poor and struggling relative to many other people in the town. Some of the very same people who applauded Gary Plauché might, if raised in the early 1800’s, have not only returned runaway slaves to their masters but been morally outraged at those slaves’ temerity.

Interlude: The Veil of Ignorance

The question of “which wants should take precedence over the peace treaties?” is one that Moreton largely leaves up to the readers—

(Or maybe they cover that in eighth grade, in Agor?)

—but in the process of sketching out a few of the relevant considerations, he touched on one that I want to highlight.

There’s an excellent SlateStarCodex essay titled In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization in which Scott Alexander writes the following:

So let’s derive why violence is not in fact The One True Best Way To Solve All Our Problems. You can get most of this from Hobbes, but this blog post will be shorter.

Suppose I am a radical Catholic who believes all Protestants deserve to die, and therefore go around killing Protestants. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, there might be some radical Protestants around who believe all Catholics deserve to die. If there weren’t before, there probably are now. So they go around killing Catholics, we’re both unhappy and/or dead, our economy tanks, hundreds of innocent people end up as collateral damage, and our country goes down the toilet.

So we make an agreement: I won’t kill any more Catholics, you don’t kill any more Protestants. The specific Irish example was called the Good Friday Agreement and the general case is called “civilization”.

So then I try to destroy the hated Protestants using the government. I go around trying to pass laws banning Protestant worship and preventing people from condemning Catholicism.

Unfortunately, maybe the next government in power is a Protestant government, and they pass laws banning Catholic worship and preventing people from condemning Protestantism. No one can securely practice their own religion, no one can learn about other religions, people are constantly plotting civil war, academic freedom is severely curtailed, and once again the country goes down the toilet.

So again we make an agreement. I won’t use the apparatus of government against Protestantism, you don’t use the apparatus of government against Catholicism. The specific American example is the First Amendment and the general case is called “liberalism”, or to be dramatic about it, “civilization 2.0”.

Every case in which both sides agree to lay down their weapons and be nice to each other has corresponded to spectacular gains by both sides and a new era of human flourishing.

…so far, this is largely the same as Moreton’s overall thesis (and I suppose Hobbes, too, though I haven’t read Leviathan and I assume Moreton hasn’t either).

But one interesting piece that leaps out is the justification for mutual disarmament—namely, a sort of veil-of-ignorance idea that you don’t know which role you’ll end up playing in the future society.

If you feel like you can ensure that you’re among the winners, you might be tempted to arrange society such that winners really win, and who-cares what happens to the losers.

But if you’re in a position of uncertainty, you’re likely to want the delta between winners and losers to be as small as possible. Uncertainty encourages egalitarianism—if you don’t know whether you’ll end up among the powerful or among the disempowered, you’re likely to lean toward solutions in which the disempowered are not that disempowered, and the powerful are not that powerful.

Hence: a preemptive agreement that neither of us will wield these various weapons against one another. Neither side will wield truly destructive weapons—the sorts of things that lead to total and final defeat—because as long as truly destructive weapons are in play, there’s a chance they might be turned on you.

Moreton draws a line between this style of reasoning and questions of rearmament. He offers that perhaps, when people are considering whether a given breaking-of-the-social-contract is justified and understandable, they think about whether they themselves would want to get away with that same rule-breaking, under similar circumstances.

From this perspective, it’s easy to see why lots and lots of people would fail to morally condemn poor urban kids selling drugs, or a father executing his son’s abuser. And it’s easy to see why fewer (though conspicuously not zero) people would fail to morally condemn the abuser. More people have a hard time seeing themselves in the abuser’s shoes, and hoping for mercy; it’s not hard at all for most people to see themselves in the father’s shoes, and desiring vengeance justice.

If you don’t know whether you’ll find yourself in the position of the majority or the orthodox (and thus benefiting from the system) or whether you’ll find yourself in the position of the downtrodden and oppressed (and thus chafing under the system), it’s easier to hang on to “okay yeah but maybe sometimes fuck the system—just try to be reasonable about exactly when and how hard.”

Of course (Moreton points out), you don’t have to settle the question of endorsement of rearmament to talk about the pattern of rearmament. Whether or not you approve of someone’s breaking of the contract (he argues), it’s straightforwardly true that people’s willingness to abide by the strictures of civilization is proportional to how well and how easily they can achieve their goals by doing so.

(Another way to say this, in light of the point above, is “how often do people expect to have goals that civilization makes difficult or impossible?” This will inform how easy they find it to be sympathetic to a local move toward savagery.)

Put someone in a situation where they can get what they want by doing what they’re supposed to, and they usually will. Put someone in a situation where doing what they’re supposed to leaves them no path to victory, and things get a lot shakier.

This is a crucial insight (says Moreton), because again: many people blind themselves to the fact that breaking the rules is, in a strict, physical sense, an available option!

The-things-that-aren’t-done become, in a sense, unthinkable; our minds learn the boundaries of the social box so well that many of us never bump into the walls, and forget that the walls are there. But in fact it is only people’s self-restraint that keeps the rules working. After-the-fact capture and punishment can motivate people to a certain degree, but it can’t do the bulk of the work. The bulk of the work is done by the society being visibly worth participating in—by people’s awareness, however implicit or subconscious, that signing on to the nonaggression treaty will open up more doors for them, give them more and more interesting opportunities.

(Felons have a much harder time moving through and participating in society than non-felons, and furthermore people usually know this in advance. And yet, even so, many people behave in ways that put them at a very high risk of becoming felons, presumably because their other options seem even worse to them.)

In one of the later sections of the book, Moreton emphasizes a sort of Machiavellian/Sun Tzu/Slytherin-worldview principle:

Often, opponents within a civil society will forget that the rules aren’t real, and that weapons may be taken back up at a moment’s notice, and try to lock their enemy in a box made entirely of that enemy’s own self-restraint.

…in which case, that enemy may abandon self-restraint.

If you find yourself in a conflict (Moreton writes) and you notice that your opponent is held back only by the threat of consequences if they break rules, you should tread lightly, and start making contingency plans—because they may well decide that the consequences are a cost worth paying, if there’s no other way to get what they want.

Similarly, if you notice that you’ve left your opponent no way to achieve victory within the rules, you should not conclude that hooray, you’ve won—because often that very fact is what will drive your opponent to step outside of the game entirely, and into a much wilder and less-predictable action space.

Yes, I know this image is in here twice. It’s worth putting in twice.

This is why it’s often good to be something like gracious in victory, and give your opponents much more in the way of compromise and concessions than the rules strictly obligate you to. It’s often better to win less hard than you could have, when the alternative is your opponent flipping the table.

(Or, to put it another way: you can only reliably push people's self-restraint to the point where restraining themselves is the slightly better option.  Push harder than that, and all bets are off.)

(Not surprisingly, “don’t grind your opponents into the dust” is itself a civilizing move. Sacrificing the option of total victory means that you less frequently have to face an opponent with nothing to lose.)

And thinking in these terms—asking yourself “am I leaving my opponent with no way to get what they want? Am I creating an enemy who has no incentive to keep abiding by the peace treaty?”—is a valuable way to avoid fabricated options and unpleasant surprises. It’s easy, if you’re not paying attention, to trick yourself into thinking you have more power over an opponent than you actually do, and to forget that a lot of that apparent power is based in their own voluntary refusal to do X or Y or Z.

It’s often important, in such situations, not to push them so hard they change their mind.


There were other chapters in Moreton’s book—many of them. There was a section on diplomacy, and how ambassadors from cultures with very different civilizations come together to form a brand-new culture that makes room for various offenses and missteps and faux pas to be forgiven and smoothed over. There was a section on enforcement, and how the agents of a civilization often have a different set of rules to abide by. There was a chapter about the Jenga tower of civilizing agreements, and which and how many of them can stop working in a given society before the whole thing comes tumbling down. There was a really cool bit about the relationship between civility and culture that went in-depth on how specific shelvings open up various possibilities—Moreton gives a bunch of concrete historical examples of norms and institutions and industries emerging in response to individual disarmaments.  There were two full chapters on slavery and conscription and indentured servitude, castes and patriarchy and institutional bigotry—all the various ways in which societies incorporate people into their machinery without respecting their dealbreakers, keeping them captive in roles they would not freely choose.

(I’m particularly grumpy at myself for not taking better notes on the chapter on deception and malicious compliance—on people seeming to eschew certain options, pretending to abide by the terms of the social contract, but in fact defecting under the table, and getting both the benefits of savagery and the benefits of civilization. That’ll be the first page I turn to, if I get my hands on this book again.)

But most of that feels like consequences. It feels like I can generate that stuff, now that I can take the core claim and combine it with my knowledge of Earth’s history.

My biggest takeaways, for the future:

  1. I should think about and evaluate proposed disarmaments in terms of the space I think they’ll open up—which people they allow me to interact with, that would previously be distant from me, and what kinds of interaction I think they’ll allow, that I previously couldn’t take part in.
  2. I should watch the world around me for likely rearmaments, because I can probably see them coming. I can try to assess people’s wants and needs, and compare the difficulty of achieving them under civilization’s rules versus the cost of achieving them through things like brute force or deception, and get a sense of when things are likely to break.

That’s “only” two things, but they feel like really really powerful lenses for understanding what’s going on around me. A lot more of the world makes sense to me, viewed in this light, where before it was all just sort of confusing and arbitrary-seeming. I feel like I’ve lost a pretty large blindness, gained the ability to see a whole new color that was always there but imperceptible.

Which is pretty rad, for a middle school social studies textbook! (Even if it is from another plane of existence.)

10/10, would recommend, and if you happen to stumble across any other books from Agor, please reach out to me. Having read this one, I can’t wait to see what their middle school science curriculum is like.

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I like reviews of imaginary books as much as the next guy, but I'm a bit miffed that you didn't do it the cool way: by recounting a point from the book and then saying "the author is wrong and a moron, actually things are this way", then doing the same for the next point and so on. This way the review wouldn't come off as being fawning toward your own ideas (which let's face it is a bit weird), and also the readers would get a valuable rationality exercise in figuring out who's the moron in each instance. Bonus points if you yourself genuinely don't know who's the moron - that can elevate the whole thing into art.

Seems much more deceptive and dark-artsy to me; I disagree that's "the cool way" (or if it is the cool way in some objective sense, those are the cool kids I'm avoiding like the plague).  I'm also not into the idea of effortfully creating very wrong versions of views so that I can then have fun knocking them down.

The actual historical reason it's structured this way is not because I was trying to optimize for coolness or convincingness or w/e but rather that I tried for three years to produce the fully-fledged sequence and it kept not happening and I decided it was better to get some kind of abbreviated version of the content out (rather than nothing) and this was the format that ended up allowing me to write it at all.

You don't need to weaken your views, they can be criticized just fine as they are. My main criticism is that you believe in a kind of social contract that includes and benefits most people, but I think in reality there's much more coercion, much more rules that benefit the powerful at the expense of everyone else. For example, the whole system of land ownership and rent would look very different if it was designed with majority interests in mind.

Mmm, I don't think that anything that I've said in the essay contradicts that.  Like, I think you have leapt to a stronger conclusion about what I believe in than what I actually believe.

(e.g. I don't think the essay makes any claim resembling "the whole system of land ownership and rent was designed with majority interests in mind." That's sort of a strawman, in the sense that it's much easier to knock down than what the essay actually says.)

There's a big difference between "this system had no dealbreakers"/"this system was designed such that every participant was getting an epsilon more from participation than they expected from breaking its rules" and "this was designed to actively please the most people."

”this system was designed such that every participant was getting an epsilon more from participation than they expected from breaking its rules”

I do agree with this as stated. But a system can be very coercive and still meet the letter of this (by making "what is expected from breaking the rules" really bad). So maybe you need a stronger statement.

Er, I'm not sure why I would need a stronger statement, since the essay is describing civilization, which includes very coercive systems.

(There's an interesting sort of rhyme here with, like.  It seems to me that your first comment implies a goal of entertainingness, when the essay was not written to be entertaining (so much as informative/hopefully enlightening; entertainment helps to achieve that but isn't the primary thing to optimize for). And similarly, these later comments seem to imply a goal of describing how to achieve a good civilization, when the essay is simply trying to describe what civilization is, in practice (with the idea being that once you know what it's made of, perhaps you'll be more able to make it good).  Your comments seem to me to want to dock points for missing targets that aren't being aimed for in the first place.)

Yeah. To me your post first read like it was making a historical claim - about gradual voluntary self-disarmament. But maybe I misread and you only intended to make the smaller point about "getting epsilon more from participation", in that case yeah, my criticism is off target and sorry.

It inspired me to add a line near the end, which I think should've been there in the original (so thank you):

There were two full chapters on slavery and conscription and indentured servitude, castes and patriarchy and institutional bigotry—all the various ways in which societies incorporate people into their machinery without respecting their dealbreakers, keeping them captive in roles they would not freely choose.