Related Posts: Prices or Bindings?

On the evening of August 14th, 2006 a pair of Fox News journalists, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were seized by Islamic militants while on assignment in Gaza City.  Nothing was heard of them for nine days until a group calling themselves the Holy Jihad Brigades took credit for the kidnappings.  They issued an ultimatum, demanding the release of Muslims prisoners from American jails within a 72 hour time frame.  Their demands were not met.

But then a few days later the journalists were allowed to go free... but not before they’d been forced into converting to Islam at gunpoint, and had each videotaped a statement denouncing U.S. and Israeli foreign policy.

The war raged on.

A couple of kidnapped journalists is nothing new (certainly not three years after the fact) and aside from the happy ending this particular case wouldn’t worth mentioning if not for a unique twist that occurred after they returned home.  A fellow Fox News contributor, Sandy Rios, openly criticized the two men; she said that no true Christian would convert – falsely or otherwise – merely because they were threatened with death.  As she later explained to Bill Maher:*

My point was that Christians – I don’t know what their faith is – but I’m talking about Christians who responded to the story and said that they would have done the same thing...

Christ followers can’t do that.  We don’t have that freedom.  We have to profess Christ no matter what... Christianity is, by its very nature, radical.  It is not normal or natural to lay down your life for a friend.  It is not natural or normal to say ‘I will not deny my faith even if you do cut my head off.'

I agree with her, and admire her courage for sticking with her convictions.  If you buy into Christianity’s metaphysical claims, then bearing false witness to your faith ought be considered a serious crime; not only does it show a pathological attachment to life (when eternal bliss lies just around the corner) furthermore, it completely ignores the core premises of Christianity, as well as the death of its founder.  This very question split the early Church: whether or not those who'd become apostates [had renounced Christ] due to persecution at the hands of the Romans could ever be forgiven.  There were some who said it should be forgivable (after the proper penance, of course), but no one argued that it ought be condoned. 

I’d wager that the guys in Guantanamo take the question just as seriously.  Not every religion has seen it that way, however.

*          *          *

In 1492 the joint Spanish monarchs, Isabella I and Ferdinand II, issued the Alhambra Decree upon completing the reconquista of Spanish land from the Moors.  They gave the local Jewish population three options: leave the kingdom, convert to Christianity, or face death.  While the majority left for Portugal, a significant number stayed behind and paid lip service to Christianity while continuing to practice Judaism in secret.

This was hardly the first time something like this had happened in Europe, and given Judaism’s tendencies towards isolationism, as well as their lack of evangelical tradition, it should come as no surprise that they didn’t give two figs about lying to Christians.  The Rabbinical body even has separate terms for meshumadim (those who’d convert voluntarily) and the anusim (those who’d converted under duress).  The latter wasn’t encouraged – at least, not by most Rabbis – but nonetheless it was accepted.

Now for the question that all of this was leading up to: what ought an Atheist to do in this situation?

*          *          *

In March of 2007 Iran took 15 British servicemen hostage, alleging that their ship crossed into Iranian waters.  They were eventually returned safely to Britain, but for some time they were paraded around on Iranian television, denouncing the country they’d sworn to protect.  Quite frankly, this was cowardice.

These were sailors and soldiers in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.  That they had they sworn an Oath of fealty to the Queen is the least of the reasons they should have kept silent.  Far beyond that, they trusted sufficiently in the rightness of British foreign policy that they were willing to take another human’s life.  Let me repeat that: they so strongly believed int he rightness (or at least the 'Less Wrongness') of British foreign policy that they were ready to kill for it.  I am not suggesting that there is something inherently immoral about serving in the military; I spent six years there myself, and my paperwork’s still up to date for when the Chinese land on the West Coast.  What I am saying is that if you’re willing to kill for a cause you’d better be willing to die for it, too.  Otherwise...

Now admittedly I don’t know the whole situation.  Maybe the Iranians were threatening to murder a dozen children if these servicemen didn’t read the scripts they were given.  There may have been some other extenuating circumstances.  But having a good reason to act like a coward – even a really good reason – does not transform cowardice into heroism.  It only transforms cowardice into adequacy.  It might be necessary to violate your morals at times, but it is not something to be proud of.  And yet, despite that...

You know what?  The Last Psychiatrist said it much better than I ever will; these are his words on the topic:

I'm sure those soldiers were thinking, "look, I know who I am, I know I'm not a coward, I'm not helping the Iranians, but I have to do whatever is necessary to get out of this mess."  What they are saying is that they can declare who they are, and what they do has no impact on it.  "I am a hero, regardless of how I act."  That's the narcissist fallacy...

But here's the thing: when they returned home to Britain, they were heralded as heroes by other people.  Including the British government.   Based on what?  They didn't actually do anything; heroism isn't simply living through a bad experience.  Well, of course: based on the fact that they are heroes who had to pretend to be something else.

That's the narcissist's tautology: you are what you say you are because you said you are.  What makes it an example of our collective narcissism is that we agree--  we want it to be true that they, and we, can declare an identity.

Screw narcissism.  How you act is who you are.

Maybe these men traded their integrity for a bloody good reason; let’s grant that for sake of argument, because the quality of their moral fibre is irrelevant.  Regardless of what they traded it for, they still traded it; whatever they got came at a price.

How many Utilons is worth to lie to a bunch of savages?  The Spanish Jews decided ‘not very many,’ and they prospered for a time.  But they only had a short-term advantage; the idea of lying during a baptism was inconceivable to the Christian populace back then.  It didn’t take long for them to catch on, however, and by that time the Spanish Inquisition was hitting its stride...

Modern day Muslims fundamentalists, on the other hand – whether or not they know how to use toilet paper – are not stupid.  They know perfectly well that these confessions are forced; I’d even say that there’s a good chance they’re familiar with the Koran’s prohibition against forced conversions, and the fact that these aren’t *really* conversions is their legalistic loophole (they’re generally not that concerned about converting us, anyways; they just want non-Muslims to be second class citizens under a Caliphate, is all - I've even heard anecdotes that Egyptians are more offended by evolution than Atheism).  Quite frankly, they’re winning more than enough converts in our prisons and our ghettos; they don’t need a couple more journalists.

So what is the point of it?  Quite simply, it’s the point of all terrorism (and all war, for that matter): they’re framing the conversation, creating a perception which becomes reality, winning the war before entering the battlefield.  It’s theatre.  The point is to demoralize; to expose the West as hypocritical and cowardly; to drive us into panics, sway our elections, to make us fearful.  They’re doing it to show us that terrorism works.  And so far it's working pretty well. 

The British servicemen surrendered peacefully to the Iranians out of fear of causing a national incident – as if capturing and detaining another country’s military forces isn’t already a national incident.

That is the long-term price of selling your integrity.

*          *          *

Few, if any, of the members of Less Wrong are here for the sake of expediency.  We say that Rationalists should Win – and of course they should! – but if all we cared about was winning (in the short term, proximate sense) then we’d be reading Pick-Up-Artist books [exclusively - this article was written before the recent debate], schmoozing the corporate latter, or pumping opiates into our veins.  The reason we dedicate so much time to this site is because we hold up the values of Truth, Knowledge, and Humanity as part of a higher purpose.  The only way for humanity to Win in the long term is if everybody is trained in the mental martial arts.  We train our minds, not to save ourselves, but to save the world.  We all assert these values implicitly in our writing, but writing isn’t enough; when the rubber hits the road, if we can’t walk the talk, then we might as well have plugged in to the heroin drip.  The ideals we spoke of will be nothing but empty words from empty men.

Penguins will crowd together at the edge of the iceberg, pushing and shoving, until one of them falls in.  After a few moments, if a killer whale hasn’t eaten the unlucky test subject, then the rest will jump in, knowing it’s safe.  Our species doesn’t work like that; our species needs Heroes.  Everyone here has already taken on the mantle of heroism, dedicating a significant portion of our time to trying to improve the world situation.  It's easy to be noble when the sun is shining and the weather is warm.  When winter comes that’s when we’ll really see what we’re really made of.

A single choice, a rationalization born out of cowardice, can undermine all that we are, and all that we stand for

So what should an Atheist - more than just a nihilist - do when the terrorist has a gun to his head?

This one would tell them to pull the trigger.


No.  Not even in the face of Armageddon.  Never compromise. ~Rorchach

There... are... four... lights! ~Capt. Jean-Luc Picard


*Minor syntactical edits; spoken and written English are different mediums.



[If anyone can suggest appropriate tags for this article I'd be much obliged]


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I disagree with the way you chose to argue this point.

Consider a statement like "Choosing to denounce your country is cowardly". Taboo cowardly and you get a statement like "Choosing to denounce your country is a decision made in order to avoid personal harm." I like the second sentence better, despite it being obvious and not really saying anything interesting. The word "cowardly" slips in an entire value system without anyone noticing, and this value system is precisely the point that needs to be proven here.

The digression to heroism looks like an attempt to create a false dichotomy: either these people are heroes or they are cowards, there's nothing heroic about doing something expedient, therefore they are cowards (or narcissists, or whatever).

In fact, I will play devil's advocate and entertain the opposite recommendation. The important question seems to be what signal a captured soldier praising the enemy gives. The enemy wants it to send two signals: first, that the captive really has realized that the enemy is right and the home country is wrong, and second, that our soldiers are so weak that they will betray our expectation that they remain loyal to the home country.

Let's say that we took your post at face value and created a strong societal norm that captives should never praise the enemy, no matter how much they are threatened. Assuming some captives still break, this is now a disaster. First, we have trouble explaining why our soldiers have betrayed us and started praising the enemy, so the enemy's preferred explanation - that the soldiers have suddenly realized the enemy is superior - becomes more plausible. Second, we are all demoralized the our soldiers were so weak as to betray the societal normal we created. Result: our society is demoralized and unhappy. This is to say nothing of the poor captives, who probably had to be tortured pretty thoroughly before breaking the norm.

Now, let's say we went the opposite direction, and the military instituted a regulation that all captured soldiers must immediately accept any demands the enemy makes to undergo forced conversions or praise their leadership or whatever. Let's even say the Queen or the President or whoever make a televised speech demanding that all soldiers captured in the future do this, for the good of the country. When the captives do so, we have no trouble explaining this: it's because they were forced. And we are not demoralized at all, because the soldiers followed orders.

(For this to work best, we'd have to make sure that people from the enemy country, for example, the Iranian people, knew about this declaration. Otherwise, it would be too easy for the Iranian media to display our soldiers' statements to the populace.)

I think we're already benefiting from this. I, for one, didn't feel the least bit demoralized when I heard some journalists had converted rather than be tortured and killed, because I just expected it as a matter of course. If we were classical Sparta and they'd done the same, we'd probably be facing an existential crisis as a society by now.

I'm not sure this would work in our current society, but it's how I'd organize things in a society of rationalists. And even in our current society, I would discourage anyone from going out of their way to create an expectation that people have to behave heroically. That's just helping the terrorists :P

Actually, you bring up the persecution of the Jews, and this reminds me of a Jewish tradition, the Kol Nidre. It's a ritual performed on the night before Yom Kippur. The congregation absolves themselves of all vows performed over the past year that...aren't supposed to count...although there's some controversy over what exactly that means.

The story I learned in synagogue was that it was developed by the Spanish Jews, who were forced to swear their allegiance to Christianity. They came up with Kol Nidre as a way of establishing a societal norm that these oaths didn't count, so that they could swear as many of them as they wanted without losing their honor or integrity.

I have since learned that this is an oversimplification of the origin of Kol Nidre and that it probably didn't have much to do with the Spanish Inquisition at all. However, it reminds me a bit of some of the concepts I discussed in the Applied Picoeconomics article. Swearing an oath is important because it provides a way to tie your present action to your future actions - sort of like saying "You can trust me when I take an oath, because if I betrayed you now, no one would ever trust me again when I took an oath, and this would cause me severe negative consequences, therefore it is in my own self-interest to follow this oath." This is why the oaths I discussed in Applied Picoeconomics all had some loopholes, so that if it was necessary to break the oath because of extreme conditions, I could break the oath with my honor intact.

Kol Nidre was (at least in the probably false story about it I learned) a way for the Jews to break an oath and keep their honor intact, at least among other Jews - who were probably the relevant community to them. I could break an oath to the King of Spain on Monday, and then make an oath to my business partner Moishe on Tuesday, and Moishe could have complete confidence that I would keep my oath to him, because the only reason I broke my oath to the King of Spain was that I was permitted to do so under Kol Nidre, which would not excuse my breaking of the oath to Moishe.

This expectation that it wasn't important to keep oaths to the Spanish Crown helped the Jewish community survive with both their integrity and their religion, which the Spanish Crown probably thought was impossible. Creating a similar norm that it's okay to praise Iran when you get captured by them would have the same effect, at least in a fully rational community.

Ironically, this sort of thing was what got many of them in trouble with the Inquisition in the first place. The Church has no authority over non-Christians, and the Inquisition's only real concern was heresy, so Jews were entirely out of their jurisdiction unless they claimed to be Christians (In which case they would almost certainly commit heresy when questioned).

Of course, these rules didn't hold up that well in the Spanish Inquisition in particular.


I have a number of responses to this post; I'll outline of few of them:

Quite simply, it’s the point of all terrorism (and all war, for that matter): they’re framing the conversation, creating a perception which becomes reality, winning the war before entering the battlefield. It’s theatre. The point is to demoralize;

This, I think, is obvious to most LW readers (it is the only way to win against an enemy with millions of times your firepower, after all). And I do wish the US would realize that a bit more and fight back by e.g. building more large, exposed skyscrapers and not cowering behind ineffective, psychological security measures.

to expose the West as hypocritical and cowardly

On the other hand, part of being a non-savage (to use your word) is realizing when notions of honor or integrity become silly. It's up to us to define what hypocrisy and cowardice mean, after all, and not allow our opponents to do it for us.

We train our minds, not to save ourselves, but to save the world.

This is what it comes down to. What makes you think that throwing yourself on the sword for your integrity will benefit the world more than a lifetime's worth of dedicated effort? That's some narcissism right there, I think. I mean yes, if (you're pretty sure that) you can stop nuclear armageddon or save a busful of children then go right ahead and die. But something like

So what should an Atheist - more than just a nihilist - do when the terrorist has a gun to his head? This one would tell them to pull the trigger.

Really? You're confident the vague psychological impact of your resistance (should the story ever even come out) is worth more than you could accomplish with the rest of your life?

A single choice, a rationalization born out of cowardice, can undermine all that we are, and all that we stand for

Statements like this just smack of religion: "A single sin, a single moment of weakness can damn you to hell for eternity." We're human, we suffer from akrasia, we have multiple conflicting desires. Perhaps this site is working towards eliminating those things (though I hope not), but this absolutism still seems unnecessary.

I also refer you to my comment on Eliezer's post Prices or Bindings (and Eliezer's reply to it).

On the other hand, part of being a non-savage (to use your word) is realizing when notions of honor or integrity become silly.

Yes. There's a fantastic essay that develops this point: The world's most toxic value system by Steven Dutch.

To elaborate on your third point, I think the expected return from cooperating so as to bring back information and continue your work is far greater than the expected return from remaining defiant in order to deny the enemy a propaganda victory.

It's easy to be noble when the sun is shining and the weather is warm.

It is even easier to be noble when you're telling other people how they should act. The Last Psychiatrist made a totally different point. He doesn't say they should have not played along. He says they're not heroes for getting captured. Any idiot can get captured. They shouldn't have been given special honors for it, since they didn't actually do anything. They don't deserve credit for simply being a kind of person, or saying they are a kind of person.

This is the real issue: how useless this discussion is. It's very easy to say, sitting comfortably in my chair, that "If it were me, I'd stand by my principles." I may even feel like I'm a better person than they are, because I'd stand by my principles. This is narcissism; I am taking credit for something I have never done, and likely would not do were I actually pressed. If I'm in that position, and I do stand by my principles, then I deserve credit for my actions. To sit here in our armchairs and say men who literally chose their lives over their principles are cowards, while patting ourselves on the back for how principled we are for saying we wouldn't do that, is the very essence of narcissism.

There's also a legitimate argument they did nothing wrong, since only very specific interpretations of Christianity would make their actions wrong; God is supposed to be forgiving, after all. That story sounds more like the commentator wanted to feel superior about how good of a Christian she is, because she can claim she'd die for her principles without actually having to, y'know, die for her principles, or even be mildly inconvenienced for her principles.

"It's very easy to say, sitting comfortably in my chair, that "If it were me, I'd stand by my principles.""

I agree. As much as professionalism and the weight of evidence (which admittedly I have not fully investigated - the morality of these individual men is not particularly of concern to me, the social attitude towards the accepted truth is more important) leads me to believe that these men probably acted in cowardice, I intentionally avoided stating that as truth. It is fully plausible that these men chose the lesser of two evils. I think you might be making the very same mistake I made yesterday:

But I get the sense that there's a thread of ad hominem present in your post. I'm not going to confront that, I'm more interested in your motivations behind it. Essentially you say that criticizing these men is nothing but Armchair Quarterbacking...

Isn't that precisely the point to these two websites? To review mistakes that were made due to predictable human fallibility, examine them, and then correct them?

If you want to say that I would be just as prone to cowardice as these men - well, that's irrelevant. My point was that they didn't behave rationally given their morals. I was constructing an argument that even us rationalists have deep moral obligations upon us, that we have an integrity to maintain; even if we're not in such scary situations as soldiers, we still have challenges that are frightening and we should be prepared to meet them.

Honestly, you seem to be avoiding the thrust of my argument - which is that you ought to have integrity - and your very manner of undermining my argument [ad hominem, a dark art] undermines your integrity as a rationalist. In some ways you're strongly supporting my point.

As to the debate on whether it was "true Christianity or not" - I'm at a loss. I'm well aware that Theology contains within it an infinite number of twists and turns, and I'd far rather spend my time deconstructing Star Trek (the show that killed science fiction) than any religion. I used her quote because it sent me on a fortnight of thought about Atheism.

As a finishing point, I'd just like to say that I am a fan of yours PsychoHistorian. I don't spend much time on the comment threads here, and for me to recognize a name speaks volumes. I couldn't cite your work, but I do have a deep level of respect for it.

I think this post hit a nerve with you. The idea that rationality combined with even the simplest of moralities might require sacrifice of life is deeply repugnant in civilized society, and even more in the Intelligentsia. That is precisely why I wrote this piece.

The idea that rationality combined with even the simplest of moralities might require sacrifice of life is deeply repugnant in civilized society, and even more in the Intelligentsia.

The post reads more like, "Yay, self sacrifice!" than it does, "If you ascribe to moral philosophy X, Action(self-sacrifice) yields a more desirable output than Action(Not-self-sacrifice)." If you'd written the latter successfully, that might have struck a nerve. As it is, you struck a nerve by (A) quoting TLP out of context (his post is unrelated to your conclusion) and (B) claiming moral superiority for something you've never and (P~=.99999) will never do.

I think it's pretty easy to hypothesize accurately what we'd do if Omega showed up with a couple of boxes. I do not think it's possible to hypothesize accurately what we would do with the world burning and a gun to our head. The mind estimates the future off our present emotional state, and no one here is in that emotional state, and almost everyone here never has nor will be. I have no problem with you claiming it's the right thing to do (well, except that I think you failed to support that claim), but it does bother me that you end the post by basically patting yourself on the back for your opinion.


This was a long response, but I changed it to a simple few questions. More interesting this way, I think.

What if you were ordered to convert to Islam or watch someone else be shot? 10 people? 10,000 people? When do you convert, if ever? After all, he's the crazy person killing people, not you. If you do convert, why does it make such a difference who the gun is pointed at? Why is it more moral to sacrifice your own life to a madman than it is to sacrifice someone else's?

Hm, I wonder what it says about me, my perceptions of the LW community, and Aurini's prose style that the idea of this sort of hypocrisy never ever crossed my mind while reading the post.

I ask that you look at my reply to PsychoHistorian.

I have to say, I object to the general spirit of this post. There didn't seem to be any attempt to engage us on an intellectual level. Whenever I read an article on LW I almost always come away having learned something new and interesting, even if I didn't share the author's value system. In this case, if you strip away the name-calling, bravado and inspirational quotes, there doesn't seem to be anything left.

To be more specific: I'm not convinced that a person's life is always more valuable than their "integrity", as you've narrowly defined it. I do value truth, knowledge, and humanity, as most of us do, but your views are simply not the next logical step from this. You need to give us some powerful mediating arguments if you expect us to agree with such an extreme claim.

You only bind yourself to favorable deals. This post is ablaze from applause lights, with little to actually defend its implausible thesis.


Agreed. I would also conjecture that a very large fraction of Rationalists will not tell them to pull the trigger. Integrity and honor are not very useful when you're dead.

Moreover, the fact that one is an atheist is excellent when being forcefully converted to a different religion. There is no sky-Dawkins watching over atheists who will be angered by this conversion.

So what should an Atheist - more than just a nihilist - do when the terrorist has a gun to his head? This one would tell them to pull the trigger.

If you really like chocolate, and someone comes and points a gun to your head, forcing you to claim that you dislike chocolate... Would you ask them to pull the trigger? Yeah, you wouldn't, and while that happened, you made a statement that you sincerely regard false. That much about the Truth.

Few moments are usually not worth rest of your life. The choice of giving your life for something shouldn't come just because the alternative is mildly inconvenient.

I do agree however that we underestimate how minor-looking things can actually be of a huge importance. But, atheism doesn't really seem to belong to that category.


Elaborating a bit: I wanna stress that once your choice is between two strategies, and the essentially same choice situation is presented for many other people, and the non-optimal choice by all of you would result to something terrifying, and you have no knowledge of others choices, your minor-seeming choice is actually really important.

Real-life example of this would be voting, though usually no candidate tries to accomplish any sort of totalitarian dystopia.

It looks to me like you're looking to instill a sense of military-style honor among rationalists. A strong code of honor might not be a bad thing to consider and encourage, given that many of us struggle with akrasia and with maintaining our ethical codes. However, on Less Wrong you'll have to argue that a code of honor would help us to achieve the things that we value, rather than hope to inspire us as you would many other groups. (We're generally wary of certain modes of persuasion.)

I'd quite like to see some discussion here on consciously promoted codes of honor, their effectiveness among human beings, their characteristic failures, and ways to optimize their content. Would anybody else be interested in such a sequence?

It is not normal or natural to lay down your life for a friend

Yes it is. That it is not is a Christian conceit. We had ethics long before we had Christianity.

Um. I think if you change a few words (e.g. atheism->christianity) you'll get a good reception with this piece at your local church.

Dying ought to be weighted with an awful lot of negative utility. Significantly more than lying, it would seem to me.

What if you were ordered to convert to Islam or watch someone else be shot? 10 people? 10,000 people? When do you convert, if ever? After all, he's the crazy person killing people, not you. If you do convert, why does it make such a difference who the gun is pointed at? Why is it more moral to sacrifice your own life to a madman than it is to sacrifice someone else's?

For some reason, I'm reminded of a short science fiction story I once read (it was by Orson Scott Card, incidentally). The local evil totalitarian government tortures captured political dissidents into making public confessions in which they denounce their previous views and praise the government. The main character of the story is one of these political dissidents, but he has a problem. You see, he's a really bad liar, and he doesn't believe what he's being forced to say. No matter how he tries, he simply can't read the speech in a way that's even remotely convincing...

If there's a way to get away with both your life and your integrity intact, then find it.

A Thousand Deaths. Basically, every time he fails to convince his audience, they kill him and bring him back. Far from being grim, it ends up a pretty hilarious story.

I'm going to toss out a general reply to most of the comments right here (I hope all of you stumble across it at some point).

First of all - thanks for all of the feedback. Especially those of you who went into depth about where I went wrong with my post. You've given me a lot to think about.

In response to Dustin's question of whether I'd changed my mind - well, not exactly. What I was trying to do with this post was elaborate on the SAS motto "He who dares, wins." My old sensei used to call it "The Look of the Samurai" - the idea that, if you're ready to give it your all (even if it costs you your life), then usually you won't have to. The "never negotiate with terrorists" mentality; it's not the sort of thing that can be faked.

I'm going to try reading up on some game theory (beyond the basics of prisoner's dilemma, particularly focussing on Hawk and Dove) and give it another shot in a couple of months.

Thanks again for the input - I'm really frustrated I didn't do it right - but hell, that's what learning curves are all about, ain't it?

I'd be interested to know if any of the comments on this post had led to a change in Aurini's opinions and feelings about the post content.

I've thought about this a lot over the past day and I just can't agree with many of the conclusions reached in this post.

On the point that dying for atheism does more good for the cause than converting....I just can't agree. If I saw someone refuse to "convert" at gunpoint, I wouldn't think "Wow, how inspiring.", I'd think "Wow, what a colossal waste." You just traded away all of your future and everything you could do.

I agree that if you are a person who intends to do X at t, when t rolls around, you ought to do X. If X involves dying, though, I don't think you should be a person who intends to do X at t.

If you tell people that being rational means dying for what you believe in, while being a Christian means you can lie, be called a hero, and be forgiven for your sin, what are they going to choose? What looks more rational to them? What point is there to the "mental martial arts" if they can't protect you from the biggest loss of personal utility we can sustain (infinite loss? I don't see why not. Non-existence is non-utility)? Death isn't noble, it's stupid.

Tags I'd suggest: ethics, honesty

You could also put some related posts at the top, e.g.

Related to: Prices or Bindings

tl;dr. Well, it's not true that I didn't read it, but I wish it was.

I really like the soaring tone pro-rationalist propaganda at the end of this post, but I'm not sure even that has a place here.

The tone regarding terrorism and politics, however, suggests this entire post belongs somewhere else.

/dev/null comes to mind.

"How you act is who you are."

Mostly yes, you can act counter to your beliefs for a short time, especially for a specific reason, without changing; but your actions over time, especially your routine and unforced actions are who you are. If you are not that way to begin with, you will gradually change to match your actions.

Cowardice is lacking in courage; that is you do not act with integrity when it would be difficult to maintain your integrity. And integrity is acting in concert with your beliefs (at least for me, given the apparent importance of signalling and status motivations to neurotypicals, I have no idea what it may mean to most of you). But courage is NOT bravery; there is no benefit in any modern Western nation to "defiant acts" no matter the odds (Heinlein defined bravery, as opposed to courage, as "a defiant act against great odds"). My primary goal is my survival; there are people and goals I would take risks, even of my life, for, but nothing I would sacrifice it for. So doing anything necessary to survive would not be cowardly for me, it serves my highest values.


With all due respect - are you sure you would do so when this really happens? When your safety and maybe that of people around is in mortal danger? When torture is involved?

How are you so sure that you are braver than the people ('cowards') who really were in such a situation? It's easier to be a hero in an LW-post than at gun point.

You are emphasizing the wrong point. A person can really do implausible thing X, but when they declare that intent, the right response isn't to challenge their ability to do so, but to challenge the sanity of their motives to even consider that option.

I'm not going to discuss any fight stories or my military record. I am not an Internet Tough Guy.

I will say this, though - there are times I've stood up, and I'm proud of them; and there are times when fear has filled me, and I'm ashamed of them. One of the ways to avoid the latter is thought experiments: What do I do in situation X? They are extremely useful for optimizing future behaviour.

Also; this is an ad hominem attack. Whether or not I live up to my words is irrelevant. Whether my words make sense or not is the real question.


Well, you explicitly called other people 'cowards' . And you made the assertion: 'This one would tell them to pull the trigger.' If you make such strong statements, it's only fair to respond to that, or?

If it's either saying 'God is Great' or having your arm cut off, I wouldn't blame anyone for doing the former.

It seems your desired behavior has more to do with some warrior-ethics ('victory or death', 'Molon Labe') than rationality perse. You can waterboard any kind of statement out of most people, and it seems the rational thing would be to not take any of such forced statements seriously. One could even argue that we are playing into the hands of evildoers if we call their victims 'cowards'.

An ad hominem is attacking an argument or idea by association with a person who holds it.

Whether you live up to your words is vital; if you don't, then who cares what you say, it's just random noise.

or pumping opiates into our veins

I've looked into this. Heroin and other opiates aren't very good ways to wirehead; if you have a life expectancy of more than six months, I wouldn't recommend them, because the long-term effects can be pretty nasty.

The post is full of applause-que*, but aren't many of Eliezer's pieces of fiction similar? Implicitly advancing a thesis, but never directly.

*I initially wrote "applause lights", and linked, but then I thought that using one of Eliezer's titles in your writing and linking actually functions as a que to agree; or at least they do for me.

Edit: as per Johnicholas's correction (thanks!)

Random persnick: I think you mean "cue". A queue is something else.

I'd define cowardice as sacrificing a large mind-value to a small but insistent evolutionary-adaptation-value.

Viewed that way, it blends into akrasia. The same problem - insistence.

It's normally defined as a vice of deficiency with respect to concern for risk-taking, when 'cowardice' is used as a trait of character.

Reminds me of heroes of accomplishment vs heroes of suffering.

I'd say any damn fool think I was told if I thought it would result in me living.

The post is underwhelming and the comments worse, but the title is breathtakingly brilliant.

Cross one's fingers?