Reexamining The Dark Arts

by Bob Jacobs2 min read1st Jun 202017 comments


Dark ArtsRationality
Dark Arts is a colloquial term for techniques or methods which involve deception and/or manipulation of others or oneself. Some use the term to refer more narrowly to techniques that work equally well to compel both true and false beliefs, i.e., they are symmetric weapons.

Scott Alexander writes:

Its study is forbidden to rationalists, and its tomes and treatises are kept under lock and key in a particularly dark corner of the Miskatonic University library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

The message is clear: The Dark Arts are evil and you shouldn't use them. Here’s why I don’t agree with this.

Graphic Design

When I made the updated hierarchy of disagreement I spend a lot of time working to make it aesthetically pleasing. Why? Well people have a beauty bias, things that are more beautiful tend to be trusted more. There are several studies that show that the thing that makes people trust the validity of a website the most is not it’s content, but rather it’s design.

This is of course an extension of the halo effect, where things with some positive traits will be more easily associated with other positive traits (e.g. sleek design and truthfulness). I wanted this guide to spread around the internet, so I made sure it looked professional. In other words: I exploited peoples biases to realize my personal preference. Why isn’t this evil? Because studies have also shown that beauty makes people happy. And I want people to be happy.

I know that in practice most of you aren’t actually unequivocally opposed to using the Dark Arts. If I said: ‘manipulate someone or else I will dunk a billion babies into vats of acid’, you would have no problem doing so. The point is that ‘The Dark Arts are evil and should never be used’ is a schelling fence. A symbolic rule we can coordinate around. And if I make an exception for graphic design I am weakening the schelling fence. "What about a marketer that boosts someone’s ego ridiculously high in order to sell them something?" you might say "That ego boost also makes people happy, but we don’t think that’s okay." I might also not be the best source for this argument since I already care about design and am quite good at it. It would be convenient for me if this talent of mine wasn’t evil. So maybe this whole argument is just a rationalization.

A New Schelling Fence

Unfortunately we are already breaking our own rules, because I'm not the only one who cares about design. The LessWrong website has beautiful UX and we aren’t above having logo competitions for our projects. So how do we rectify this discrepancy? Well let me propose a new (hopefully intuitive) schelling fence. Instead of never using the Dark Arts we ask ourself: 'Can we universalize this behavior?' I think this site severely undervalues Kant (and continental philosophy in general), but his principle of universalizability is truly one of the best tools for building schelling fences out there. Kant's ethics amounted to saying: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."
If you’re not familiar with universalizability I recommend you either read Kant’s work or (more realistically) Scott’s summary.

To put it in practice: If everyone made sure their arguments looked visually pleasing, would that be sustainable? Yes, in fact the world would look more beautiful so it's totally allowed. In contrast, conventional manipulations techniques like 'gaslighting' and 'negging' aren't. But what about the edge-case where everyone propped up each others ego to sell them stuff, would that be allowed? No, everyones ego would go through the roof making people more unpleasant and permanently shifting the ego baseline making it a self-defeating strategy. What about being friendly? Aren’t you exploiting the halo-effect to make your arguments seem more acceptable than they potentially are? Yes, but a world where everyone is friendly is both possible and would be a better place to live in, so Kant would actually recommended it. This ‘Kantian Dark Arts’ schelling fence lifts the discrepancy in our own behavior and allows us to use the Dark Arts some of the time, without ruining the world.