..fragments of a book that would never be written...

*      *      *

Captain Selena, late of the pirate ship Nemesis, quietly extended the very tip of her blade around the corner, staring at the tiny reflection on the metal.  At once, but still silently, she pulled back the sword; and with her other hand made a complex gesture.

The translation spell told Hirou that the handsigns meant:  "Orcs.  Seven."

Dolf looked at Hirou.  "My Prince," the wizard signed, "do not waste yourself against mundane opponents.  Do not draw the Sword of Good as yet.  Leave these to Selena."

Hirou's mouth was very dry.  He didn't know if the translation spell could understand the difference between wanting to talk and wanting to make gestures; and so Hirou simply nodded.

Not for the first time, the thought occurred to Hirou that if he'd actually known he was going to be transported into a magical universe, informed he was the long-lost heir to the Throne of Bronze, handed the legendary Sword of Good, and told to fight evil, he would have spent less time reading fantasy novels.  Joined the army, maybe.  Taken fencing lessons, at least.  If there was one thing that didn't prepare you for fantasy real life, it was sitting at home reading fantasy fiction.

Dolf and Selena were looking at Hirou, as if waiting for something more.

Oh.  That's right.  I'm the prince.

Hirou raised a finger and pointed it around the corner, trying to indicate that they should go ahead -

With a sudden burst of motion Selena plunged around the corner, Dolf following hard on her heels, and Hirou, startled and hardly thinking, moving after.

(This story ended up too long for a single LW post, so I put it on yudkowsky.net.
Do read the rest of the story there, before continuing to the Acknowledgments below.)




I had the idea for this story during a conversation with Nick Bostrom and Robin Hanson about an awful little facet of human nature I call "suspension of moral disbelief".  The archetypal case in my mind will always be the Passover Seder, watching my parents and family and sometimes friends reciting the Ten Plagues that God is supposed to have visited on Egypt.  You take drops from the wine glass - or grape juice in my case - and drip them onto the plate, to symbolize your sadness at God slaughtering the first-born male children of the Egyptians.  So the Seder actually points out the awfulness, and yet no one says:  "This is wrong; God should not have done that to innocent families in retaliation for the actions of an unelected Pharaoh."  I forget when I first realized how horrible that was - the real horror being not the Plagues, of course, since they never happened; the real horror is watching your family not notice that they're swearing allegiance to an evil God in a happy wholesome family Cthulhu-worshiping ceremony.  Arbitrarily hideous evils can be wholly concealed by a social atmosphere in which no one is expected to point them out and it would seem awkward and out-of-place to do so.

In writing it's even simpler - the author gets to create the whole social universe, and the readers are immersed in the hero's own internal perspective.  And so anything the heroes do, which no character notices as wrong, won't be noticed by the readers as unheroic.  Genocide, mind-rape, eternal torture, anything.

Explicit inspiration was taken from this XKCD (warning: spoilers for The Princess Bride), this Boat Crime, and this Monty Python, not to mention that essay by David Brin and the entire Goblins webcomic.  This Looking For Group helped inspire the story's title, and everything else flowed downhill from there.

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Why not put a copy of those acknowledgements at the bottom of the story itself, as well?

I suspect lots of people are going to see the story and only think of it as a neat story. Explicitly bringing out the lesson would help, plus I thought the Passover example was really interesting. It wouldn't hurt to make more people see it.

I wonder if you might have seen this essay by David Brin...

Now ponder something that comes through even the party-line demonization of a crushed enemy -- this clear-cut and undeniable fact: Sauron's army was the one that included every species and race on Middle Earth, including all the despised colors of humanity, and all the lower classes.

Hmm. Did they all leave their homes and march to war thinking, "Oh, goody, let's go serve an evil Dark Lord"?

Or might they instead have thought they were the "good guys," with a justifiable grievance worth fighting for, rebelling against an ancient, rigid, pyramid-shaped, feudal hierarchy topped by invader-alien elfs and their Numenorean-colonialist human lackeys?

Picture, for a moment, Sauron the Eternal Rebel, relentlessly maligned by the victors of the War of the Ring -- the royalists who control the bards and scribes (and moviemakers). Sauron, champion of the common Middle Earthling! Vanquished but still revered by the innumerable poor and oppressed who sit in their squalid huts, wary of the royal secret police with their magical spy-eyes, yet continuing to whisper stories, secretly dreaming and hoping that someday he will return ... bringing more rings.

My guess would be that Mordor is a totalitarian communist state, formed on promises of empowerment of the People, and then turned into a horrible labor camp with collective farms by lake Nurnen and armies of expendable mooks kept in line by harsh superiors (think Commissars), along with heavy racist and nationalistic propaganda so they hate their enemies more than they hate their own rulers. Remember the communist revolution that happened in the Shire while our heroes were out destroying the One Ring? It started out as a ham-fisted attempt at social justice, and before long people were disappearing for being enemies of the state. Imagine that, but on a larger scale, and many times worse, and festering for generations.

The orcs (et al) don't have to be inherently evil for Sauronland to be an evil nation.

6Eliezer Yudkowsky
Right! I forgot this. Will add to acknowledgments.
When Brin (via RH) invoked his article on Overcoming Bias, Brian Moore (and Eliezer) invoked Jacqueline Carey’s "Sundering.” I'm surprised that Carey didn't show up in the acknowledgements. Brin & Carey are mentioned in another (ex-)OB thread.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky
Carey's book is even more powerful but it sends a totally different message - the idea that both sides have their reasons.
Nick Perumov wrote a huge fan-sequel to LOTR in exactly this vein. In the end the new rebel leader (who started out pretty good and gathered races with legitimate grievances) zbecuf vagb n zbafgre orpnhfr ur'q hfrq gur anmthyf' yrsgbire evatf gb tnva fgeratgu, naq hcba ernyvmvat gung ur fheeraqref gb gur cebgntbavfg gb trg xvyyrq. EDIT: rot13'd the spoilers. Which doesn't mean I recommend reading the book!
5Eliezer Yudkowsky
Please edit this to rot13 the spoilers. You don't say: "X wrote a wonderful story and here's the ending", just "X wrote a wonderful story and here's the link".
Where can I read this?
I don't advise you to, and anyway who'd translate a Russian fanfic into English and put it online?
Google Translate? Assuming there was a digital copy, anyways.
I think Sauron did enough explicitly evil stuff to make himself the bad guy. Tricking the Numenorians into destroying themselves out of spite is pretty hard to justify. There's also the fact that orcs don't have free will. They were created from tortured elves and mindraped into obedience. The fact that Sauron was willing to use them as canon fodder rather than trying to find a way to reverse what Melkor did to them speaks worlds about his moral virtue. Finally, the rings. Using mind control to turn foreign leaders into your obedient thralls, consoling them with the promise that they will be able to crush others under their heel as you crushed them. Real nice of Sauron. Middle Earth was a flawed world filled with the same evils and injustices as our own, but Sauron was almost definitely the worst thing in it. I'll give David Brin some credit, though, as Tolkien did a pretty bad job of explaining the situation in Lord of the Rings. You have to read the Silmarilion (or, as in my case, talk to another guy who has read the Silmarilion, as I lacked the patience to wade through another gazillion pages of archaic English) to understand what's going on, which is a major failing of LotR.
Did you learn this from an unbiased source? Suppose you're the prime minister of a parliamentary republic, and the neighboring country is ruled by hereditary nobility that mostly hate each other, and wars between the barons ruin a lot of the land and kill a lot of the peasants. You, being a genius engineer, have figured out a way to control people, but it requires they wear the device for an extended period of time, the effects are obvious, and they can take it off before the process is complete if they feel like it. This hereditary nobility situation is obviously not going to fix itself- and you figure that the easiest way to fix it is to corrupt all the nobility, playing on their hatred of each other to get them to wear the devices long enough for them to work, and then have them give you power in a bloodless coup. As a bonus, you now have fanatically loyal assassins / spec ops forces, and an eternity of servitude seems like a fitting punishment for their misconduct as rulers.
"Did you learn this from an unbiased source?" I'm pretty sure it was in Tolkien's notes. "Suppose you're the prime minister of a parliamentary republic, and the neighboring country is ruled by hereditary nobility that mostly hate each other, and wars between the barons ruin a lot of the land and kill a lot of the peasants. You, being a genius engineer, have figured out a way to control people, but it requires they wear the device for an extended period of time, the effects are obvious, and they can take it off before the process is complete if they feel like it." Except that's exactly what Sauron DIDN'T do. Mordor was not a parliamentary republic; more like a military dictatorship with semi-mindless orc drones enforcing Sauron's commands over his human subjects. The monarchs who were given the rings - however just or unjust their rule might have been, and however flawed the notion of monarchy as a political system - were lied to about what the rings did, and the rings' effects were very subtle at first. Its also worth noting that the human kings didn't become any kinder or more democratic in their sensibilities once they fell under Sauron's influence. The Witch King was still a king, and a much more murderous one than he was in life. Unleashing barrow-wrights on a partially civilian population, torturing Gollum for information, and stabbing an innocent (if possibly misguided) hobbit when he didn't have to are all things that the Witch King did in person. "This hereditary nobility situation is obviously not going to fix itself- and you figure that the easiest way to fix it is to corrupt all the nobility, playing on their hatred of each other to get them to wear the devices long enough for them to work, and then have them give you power in a bloodless coup. As a bonus, you now have fanatically loyal assassins / spec ops forces, and an eternity of servitude seems like a fitting punishment for their misconduct as rulers." In other words, the only way to improve th
Right, and Brin's premise is that Tolkien is a biased source. If those slaves were the dictators of the old era? Seems suitably karmic. "My own moral judgment" is a tricky thing in this situation, as it depends on which situation we're describing. If I have first-hand experience of the events of LotR, and everything is as Tolkien describes it, then yeah, it's pretty obvious that Sauron is the bad guy. If I have third-hand experience of the events of LotR, think that at most 90% of the description is accurate, and I think that the philosophies of the modern day are present in the LotR world, then it seems plausible that Sauron is the good guy, for the reasons Brin describes. You might be interested in The Sword of Good, if you haven't read it. [edit] It looks like you commented there today, but I'll leave the recommendation here for any spectators to the conversation.
Amusing because you linked to this very post.
That is amusing, and what I get for jumping into conversations from the Recent Comments link and not thinking to check where the conversation is happening. I'm tempted to edit it out, but might as well leave it for posterity.

Extend this beyond fiction. What misdeeds are we shrugging off because they're normal?

Apartheid based on age that replaces the previous versions based on race and sex.

The morally indefensible and insanely self-destructive attempt to mitigate drug addiction by banning drugs.

What misdeeds are we shrugging off because they're normal?

Religion. Schools. Television. Not caring about people remote from you. Spending effort on trifles. Akrasia. Irrationality.

Some would say, having political beliefs different from mine.


Loss of time to work. Loss of utility to unemployment.

The way children get so few civil rights they're used as excuses for removing rights from adults.

The way children get so few civil rights they're used as excuses for removing rights from adults.

I am aware of the poor state of affairs re: children's rights, but I'm not sure what you're getting at by citing consequences for adults. Can you elaborate?

Just think how much legislation that restricts adults has been sold on the premise that it "protects children", especially from non-harmful things like porn and homosexuality.

Oh, that one's easy. An appeal judge in Australia has ruled that an animation depicting well-known cartoon characters engaging in sexual acts is child pornography.
Thanks for saying it
As far as schools, do you mean something about the specific way that we have schooling set up currently (and do you include universities in that?) or do you mean more generally?
I had in mind the education of children in school, as done in, I think, all of the developed world and a lot of the rest, and critiques like this one. Universities may also have their faults, but not on the scale of misdeeds being considered, and, anyway, the people in them chose to go there.
Aaaah, okay. Yeah, I agree that that's a nasty aspect of our system.

having to kowtow/kiss-up to bullies because they're part of a hierarchy (eg in business), rather than being treated with respect as a human being. Further - being expected to also treat your subordinates badly and thus perpetuate the hierarchy.

What misdeeds are we shrugging off because they're normal?

Eating mammals. More generally; non-vegetarianism.

Who says it's a misdeed?
User:betterthanwell, I presume.
Specifically, most people assert that animals are sentient; yet most people are not vegetarians, even though eating meat is no longer necessary for survival. There is an inconsistency between these positions.

You missed the step where you assert that most people assert it is wrong to eat sentient animals, which is what would create the inconsistency, were most people to assert that.

You also need the word sentient to mean the same thing in both premises, otherwise it's like “feathers are light, what's light is not dark, therefore feathers are not dark”.

Okay, but if offered the opportunity to kill and eat a human, or an elf, or a Wookie, most people would recoil in moral revulsion, and if you asked them "is that because you think it's wrong to kill and eat sentient beings" would probably say yes, so I think most people do assert that.

Actually, "Would you eat a Wookie?" is probably a helpful distinguishing question here. For me the answer is obviously "No!" and occurs with the same fleeting nausea as "Would you eat a human being?" But I grew up reading SF books like Little Fuzzy that teach personhood theory in a very visceral way. Other readers claimed they weren't bothered by the Babyeaters because the children eaten weren't human!

because the children eaten weren't human!

Indeed, one thing that surprises ethicists their first time teaching is that in ordinary English, 'person' and 'human' mean the same thing - so most intro students, when asked 'is Yoda a person' will answer 'no', even though they'd answer 'yes' to 'is Luke Skywalker a person'.

Maybe you need to ask, "Would you eat Yoda if his species were tasty?"

I was just the other day lamenting how many people, even largely intelligent and conscientious seeming individuals, answer "Yes" to the OkCupid match question "If you landed on an alien planet where the local intelligent life form tasted unbelievably good, would you eat them?"

I'm TAing discussion sections for the first time today, and based on some of the nonsense the students spouted in lecture yesterday, I'm going to need to cover what those words mean.

Update: I had one person say she would be fine with barbecuing Yoda because he wasn't human. I used this to segue into my explanation of what it means to bite the bullet.

I begin to wonder if your students are people.

I imagine that would be because most people don't understand that sentient beings includes chickens, lobsters[1], and unborn fetuses (not that many people would agree with eating fetuses). If you asked "is that because you think it's wrong to kill and eat beings that are capable of perceiving stimuli" most would probably disagree with you. Now, if you asked "is that because you think it's wrong to kill and eat beings that are capable of doing algebra," you'd probably get a different response.

The reason people wouldn't eat an elf isn't because it's a sentient being, it's because it's a human equivalent sentient being. So you need to reach beyond sentience to find your inconsistency.

And of course, the reason people wouldn't eat a Wookie is because it probably would taste like an old boot.

[1]Research in recent years suggests that crustaceans may be capable of feeling pain and stress.

Pain and stress in crustaceans? Source: Applied Animal Behaviour Science. No more prawn cocktails or shrimp sandwiches for me.
Is there really a place where both 'prawn' and 'shrimp' are used? What's the difference?
You probably looked it up a long time ago, but for any future readers: They're different groups of species. Both are soft-shelled crustaceans, but that's where the similarity ends. Any morphological similarities are probably down to converging evolution.
Ha... actually, I didn't look it up at all. According to Wikipedia, you're right, but 'shrimp' is the common name for a lot of things that get called 'prawns' outside of the US.

Part of what bothers me about the idea of eating an elf or Wookie is that they don't feel like prey -- they feel like peers. When I see a fox, e.g., it doesn't make me hungry -- the fox doesn't seem like it's below me on the food chain. When I see a rabbit or a pigeon, it does make me hungry -- I can imagine what it would be like to hunt, clean, roast, and gnaw on it.

On the other hand, I wouldn't hesitate to kill 5 foxes to save one elf or human or Wookie.

I would not, however, hunt a rabbit or a fox for sport; that seems unnecessarily cruel.

One way of accounting for all these moral intuitions is that rabbits, foxes, and Wookies are all sentient; one should not cause pain to sentient creatures for amusement. Foxes and Wookies are ecological peers; one should not eat ecological peers. Wookies are people; one should not trade off the lives of people against roughly comparable numbers of lives of non-people.

I think I'm among the few who after realizing this, as well as how icky the sources of most foods are when you think about them, and that most danger from eating stuff is from things that don't seem disgusting, decided that food revulsion is not a part of me and that I should be perfectly fine with eating human flesh or drink [self-censored]. I haven't actually tested any of this, so I'm not sure if my brain would go along with it.
I think Joshua Greene, among others, has investigated these sort of things (moral intuitions, and the justifications people typically give, which may be a sort of confabulation). http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/

Specifically, most people assert that animals are sentient; yet most people are not vegetarians, even though eating meat is no longer necessary for survival. There is an inconsistency between these positions.

No there isn't. It implies that they violate another norm that you value but it is not inconsistent.

I think being non-vegetarian is less evil than being a morally inconsistent non-vegetarian. If you would have moral trouble being introduced to your food (or raising it) then you shouldn't be eating it.

I don't see why. For clarity, since we probably agree it's wrong, imagine you're making the same argument for cannibalism instead. One person says, "I'm fine with eating and farming humans but if I get to know one first, doing it would make me feel bad." Another says, "Screw that, I'll eat anyone, even if I know them and their children!"

The second person is more morally consistent and also more callous. Even if there's no difference in the way they live their lives, trying to end the holocaust of humans for food would be easier in a world full of the first type than the second.

Just as I would prefer the opposite of rule of law when the law is uniformly terrible, I prefer the opposite of moral consistency when a morality is terrible.

The consistency difference seems minimal. The most obvious moral rule in play is "Don't do harmful things to those people who are socially near" combined with a moral indifference to cannibalistic farming but acknowledgement that it is undesirable to be so farmed and eaten. This isn't a complex or unusual morality system (where arbitrary complexity seems to be what we mean when we say 'inconsistent').
I've never understood this argument. I have a visceral reaction against surgery (even the sight of blood can set me off); I certainly couldn't stand to be in the same room in which surgery was being performed. Does this mean that for consistency I'm required to morally oppose surgery?
4Bruno Mailly
Advertisement. AKA parasitic manipulation so normalized it invades every medium and pollutes our minds by hogging our attention, numbing our moral sense of honesty, and preventing a factual information system from forming.
It's striking how different our cultural response seems to be to political assassination by knife or political assassination by airstrike.
I don't think this is the right distinction. Osama bin Laden for example was killed in person by American special forces, which probably isn't that unusual a type of targeted killing but rarely makes it into the news, and the method didn't seem to attract much mainstream comment. I think we're looking at more of a tribal distinction, or possibly a cultural feeling that different rules apply in engagements among states than between states and non-state actors. (Compare the death of Chris Dorner, the shooter targeting LAPD officers a few months ago.)
People that deliberately brainwash their children into beliefs (for which the evidence overwhelmingly points to it being false) about the world, simply because it's what has been taught for >2000 years. Edit: technically not provably-false...

My first impression of this story was very positive, but as it asks us to ask moral questions about the situation, I find myself doing so and having serious doubts about the moral choices offered.

First of all, it appears to be a choice between two evils, not evil and good. On one hand is a repressive king-based classist society that is undeniably based on socially evil underpinnings. On the other hand we have an absolute unquestionably tyranny that plans to do good. Does no one else have trouble deciding which is the lesser problem?

Secondly, we know for a fact that, in our world, kingdoms and repressive regimes sometimes give way to more enlightened states, and we don't know enough about the world to even know how many different kingdoms there are or what states of enlightenment exist elsewhere. For all we know things are on the verge of a (natural) revolution. We can't say much about rule by an infinite power, having no examples to hand, but there is the statement that "power corrupts". Now, I'm not going to say that this is inevitable, but I have at least to wonder if an integration over total sentient happiness going forward is higher in the old regime and its successo... (read more)

I gathered that the choice being a difficult one was the whole point. It's not a genuine choice if the right choice is obvious, that much was explicitly stated. You say it "clearly" wasn't a Choice Between Good and Evil, but I don't think that's clear. One choice might still have a good outcome and the other an evil one. It's just that we don't know which one is which.
It would say that the likelihood is overwhelming that BOTH choices will lead to bad ends. The only question is: which is worse. That's why I was saying it was between two evils. Besides, its hard to reconcile the concept of 'Good' with a single flawed individual deciding the fate of the world, possibly for an infinite duration. The entire situation is inherently evil.
Though it wasn't explicitly said, it was heavily implied that either choice would be for a potentially infinite duration. This is a world of fantasy and prophecy, after all: I got the impression that the current social order was stable, and given that there was magic (not psychic ability but magic) it's also fair to assume that the scientific method doesn't work (not that this makes any sense, but you have to suspend that disbelief for magic to work [gnomes are still allowed to build complex machines, they're just not allowed to build useful machines]). The way I interpreted it was that he had a choice between the status quo for 1000 years, or and unknown change, guided by good intentions, for 1000 years. Besides, the Big Bad was Marty Stu. How could I not side with him? (Another great work, Yudkowski - you really should send one of these to Asimov's SciFi)
Interesting. Is hard to reconstruct my reasoning exactly, but I think that I assumed that things I didn't know were simply things I didn't know, and based my answer on the range of possibilities -- good and bad.

Huh; I thought my browser had failed, and this post hadn't appeared. Anyway...

There's an old army saying: "Being in the army ruins action movies for you." I feel the same way about 'scifi' - Aside from season 3, every episode of Torchwood (that I've recently started watching, now that I finished Sopranos) is driving me up the wall. I propose a corollary saying:

"Understanding philosophical materialism and the implications thereof ruins 99% of Science Fiction... and don't get me started on Fantasy!"

In my opinion, there are three essential rules to Fantasy:

  1. The protagonist is a priori important; by their very nature they have metaphysical relevance (even though they don't know it yet!). All other characters are living their rightful and deserved life, unless they are below their means with a Heart of Gold.

  2. The scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, conclusion, theory) only works in the immediate sense, not the broad sense; your immediate world will be logical, but the world as a whole is incomprehensible. You can only build machines if a) they already exist; or b) they serve no practical purpose. Magic, on the other hand, generally works as intended; t

... (read more)

The most rationalist-relevant TV Tropes would easily be worth a top post or three.

You'd lose your whole crop of rationalists. They would never come back out.

I agree, which is why I tend to shy away from performing a moral analysis of Fantasy stories in the first place. That way lies a bottomless morass.
Fantasy stories, and ninety percent of science fiction nowadays...

Good story. I love Yudkowskian fiction!

That said, I don't see why Vhazhar would want to touch the Sword of Good if all it does is "test good intentions". Isn't that just another way of saying that if the holder survives, he knows that his terminal values correspond to the Sword's?

It makes sense that Hirou would want Vhazhar to touch the Sword, because since Hirou can touch it, if Vhazhar can touch it too Hirou will know that Vhazhar's terminal values are similar to his own. But why does Vhazhar give a crap about the Sword's terminal values?


If the stories of previous wielders of the Sword were public and reasonably accurate, he presumably already evaluated whether the Sword's terminal values match the terminal values he wished to uphold.

Good answer. I guess it depends on what is meant by "good intentions". If subconscious intentions are included, then it would be possible to hold false beliefs about one's own intentions, and being able to touch the Sword would be evidence that these beliefs are mostly correct. It wouldn't be extremely strong evidence, though. All Vhazhar could know by studying historical records is that previous owners of the Sword acted in accordance with the values Vhazhar believes he has. However, these owners could have been deluded about their true terminal values their entire lives, and the Sword could therefore have been selecting for individuals with terminal values that don't accord with their actions, which means it would be a waste of time for Vhazhar to touch it, at best, or a fatal mistake at worst. And obviously, if "good intentions" means conscious intentions, then Vhazhar already knows he has the terminal values he believes he has.
As the sword killed 90% of those who touched it, Vhazhar could have, upon reading the records, discovered that the sword only allowed to survive those who help increase the CEV for sentient life (and thus slaughtering a ridiculous number of Cohen-esque "heroes").

No, the Spell of Infinite Doom destroys the Equilibrium. Light and dark, summer and winter, luck and misfortune - the great Balance of Nature will be, not upset, but annihilated utterly; and in it, set in place a single will, the will of the Lord of Dark. And he shall rule, not only the people, but the very fabric of the World itself, until the end of days.

No matter how good a person the Lord may be, if he's human, I'd have tried to stop the spell.

Something that occurred to me along these lines. (not directly the same, but "close enough" that some of the moral judgments would be equivalent) Let's say, next week, someone actually solved the mind uploading problem. They have a decision to make: go for it themselves, find someone as trustworthy as possible, forget about the plan and simply wait however long for the FAI math to be solved, etc... What would you advise? Should they go for it themselves, try to then work out how to incrementally upgrade themselves without absolute disaster, forget it, etc etc etc...? (If nothing else, assume they already have the raw computing power to run a human at a vast speedup) It's not an identical problem, but it's probably the closest thing.

go for it themselves

What, you mean try to self-modify? Oh hell no. Human brain not designed for that. But you would have a longer time to try to solve FAI. You could maybe try a few non-self-modifications if you could find volunteers, but uploading and upload-driven-upgrading is fundamentally a race between how smart you get and how insane you get.

The modified people can be quite a bit smarter than you are too, so long as you can see their minds and modify them. Groves et al managed to mostly control the Manhattan project despite dozens of its scientists being smarter than any of their supervisors and many having communist sympathies. If he actually shared their earlier memories and could look inside their heads... There's a limit to control, you still won't control an adversarial super intelligence this way, but a friendly human who appreciates your need for power over them? I bet they can have a >50 IQ point advantage, maybe even >70. Schoolteachers control children who have 70 IQ points on them with the help of institutions.

Schoolteachers control children who have 70 IQ points on them with the help of institutions.

Is it relevant that IQ is correlated with obedience to authority?

And how dumb do you think schoolteachers are? Bottom of those with BAs. I'd guess 100. And correlated with their pupils.

Estimations from SAT scores imply that the IQ of teachers and education majors is below average. Conscientious, hardworking students can graduate from most high schools and colleges with good grades, even if they are fairly stupid, as long as they stay away from courses which demand too much of them, and there are services available for those who are neither hardworking nor conscientious. Education major courses are somewhat notorious for demanding little of students, and it is a stereotypically common choice for students seeking MRS degrees. I'd like to imagine that the system would at least filter out individuals who are borderline retarded or below, but experience suggests to me that even this is too optimistic.
I don't buy the conversion in the first link, which is also a dead link. That Ed majors have an SAT score of 950 sounds right. That is 37th percentile among "college-bound seniors." If this population, which I assume means people taking the SAT, were representative of the general population, that would be an IQ of 95, but they aren't. I stand by my estimate of 100. I doubt you have much experience with people with an IQ of 85, let alone the borderline retarded.
What makes you doubt I have much experience with either? IQ 85 is one standard deviation below average; close to 14 percent of the population has an IQ at least that low. The lower limit of borderline retardation, that is, the least intelligent you can be before you are no longer borderline, is two standard deviations below the mean, meaning that about one person in fifty is lower than that. As it happens, I've spent a considerable amount of time with special needs students, some of whom suffer from learning disabilities which do not affect their reasoning abilities, but some of whom are significantly below borderline retarded. At the public high school I attended, more than 95% of the students in my graduating year went on to college. While the most mentally challenged students in the area were not mainstreamed and didn't attend the same school, there was no shortage of <80 IQ students. An average IQ of 100 for education majors would be within the error bars for the aforementioned projection, but some individuals are going to be considerably lower.
Those two sentences are not very compatible.
The rates at which students progress to college have a lot more to do with parental expectations, funding, and the school environment than the intelligence of the students in question. My school had very good resources to support students in the admissions process, and students who didn't take it for granted that they were college bound were few and far between.
It seems unrealistic to assume that we'll be able to literally read the intentions of the first upload; I'd think that we'd start out not knowing any more about them than we would about an organic person through external scanning.
You won't be able to evaluate their thoughts exactly, but there's a LOT that you should be able to tell about what a person is thinking if you can perfectly record all of their physiological reactions and every pattern of neural activation with perfect resolution, even with today's knowledge. Kock and Crick even found grandmother neurons, more or less.
I'd still expect it to be hard to tell the difference someone between thinking about or wanting to kill someone/take over the world and someone actually intending to. But I can imagine at least being able to reliably detect lies with that kind of information, so I'll defer to your knowledge of the subject.

Eliezer, I'm with you that a properly designed mind will be great, but mere uploads will still be much more awesome than normal humans on fast forward.

Without hacking on how your mind fundamentally works, it seems pretty likely that being software would allow a better interface with other software than mouse, keyboard and display does now. Hacking on just the interface would (it seems to me) lead to improvements in mental capability beyond mere speed. This sounds like mind hacking to me (software enhancing a software mind will likely lead to blurry edges around which part we call "the mind"), and seems pretty safe.

Some (pretty safe*) cognitive enhancements:

  • Unmodified humans using larger displays are better at many tasks than humans using small displays (somewhat fluffy pdf research). It'll be pretty surprising if being software doesn't allow a better visual interface than a 30" screen.
  • Unmodified humans who can touch-type spend less time and attention on the mechanics of human machine interface and can be more productive (no research close to hand). Who thinks that uploaded humans are not going to be able to figure better interfaces than virtual keyboards?
  • Argumen
... (read more)
You can make volunteers out of your own copies. As long as the modified people aren't too smart, it's safe keep them in a sandbox and look through the theoretical work they produce on overdrive.
AI boxes are pretty dangerous. (I agree that "as long as the modified people aren't too smart" you're safe, but we are hacking on minds that will probably be able to hack on themselves, and possibly recursively self-improve if they decide, for instance, that they don't want to be shut down and deleted at the end of the experiment. I'm pretty strongly motiviated not to risk insanity by trying dangerous mind-hacking experiments, but I'm not going to be deleted in a few minutes.)
*blinks* I understand your "oh hell no" reaction to self modification and "use the speedup to buy extra time to solve FAI" suggestion. However, I don't quite understand why you think "attempted upgrading of other" is all that much better. If you get that one wrong in a "result is super smart but insane (or, more precisely, very sane but with the goal architecture all screwed up) doesn't one end up with the same potential paths to disaster? At that point, if nothing else, what would stop the target from then going down the self modification path?
8Eliezer Yudkowsky
Non-self-modification is by no means safe, but it's slightly less insanely dangerous than self-modification.
Ooooh, okay then. That makes sense. Hrm... given though your suggested scenario, why the need to start with looking for other volunteers? ie, if the initial person is willing to be modified under the relevant constraints, why not just, well, spawn off another instance of themselves, one the modifier and one the modifiee? EDIT: whoops, just noticed that Vladimir suggested the same thing too.
If insane happens before super-smart, you can stop upgrading the other.
Well, fair enough, there is that.
Perhaps you mean to say that we're not particularly trustworthy in our choices of what we modify ourselves to do or prefer? Human brains, after all, are most exquisitely designed for modifying themselves, and can do it quite autonomously. They're just not very good at predicting the broader implications of those modifications, or at finding the right things to modify.
We're talking about direct explicit low level self modification. ie, uploading, then using that more convenient form to directly study one's own internal workings until one decides to go "hrm... I think I'll reroute these neural connections to... that, add a few more of this other kind of neuron over here and..." Recall that the thing doing all that reasoning is the thing that's being affected by these modifications.
Yes, but that would be the stupidest possible way of doing it, when there are already systems in place to do structured modification at a higher level of abstraction. Doing it at an individual neuron level would be like trying to... well, I would've said "write a property management program in Z-80 assembly," except I know a guy who actually did that. So, let's say, something about 1000 times harder. ;-) What I find extremely irritating is when people talk about brain modification as if it's some sort of 1) terribly dangerous thing that 2) only happens post-uploading and 3) can only be done by direct hardware (or simulated hardware) modification. The correct answer is, "none of the above".
Lists like that have a good chance of canceling out. That is, there are a bunch of ways people disagree with you because they're talking about something else.
Well, we're talking about the kind of modifications that ordinary, non-invasive, high-level methods, acting through the usual sensory channels, don't allow. For example, no amount of ordinary self-help could make someone unable to feel physical pain, or can let you multiply large numbers extremely quickly in the manner of a savant. Changing someone's sexual orientation is also, at best, extremely difficult and at worst impossible. We can't seem to get rid of confirmation bias, or cure schizophrenia, or change an autistic brain into a neurotypical brain (or vice versa). There are lots of things that one might want to do to a brain that simply don't happen as long as that brain is sitting inside a skull only receiving input through normal human senses.
Difficult question. I believe those links are relevant, but your formulation also implies the threat of an arms race. My best shot for now would be this: avoid self-modification. The top priority right now is defending people from the potential harmful effects of this thing you created, because someone less benevolent might stumble upon it soon. Find people who share this sentiment and use the speedup together to think hard about the problem of defense.
Perhaps an "anti arms race" would be a more accurate notion. ie, in once sense, waiting for the mathematics of FAI to be solved would be preferable. Would be safer to get to a point that we can mathematically ensure that the thing will be well behaved. On the other hand, while waiting, how many will suffer and die irretrievably? If the cost for waiting was much smaller, then the answer of "wait for the math and construct the FAI rather than trying to patchwork update a spaghetti coded human mind" would be, to me, the clearly preferable choice. Even given avoiding self modification, massive speedup would still correspond to significant amount of power. We already know how easily humans... change... with power. And when sped up, obviously people not sped up would seem different, "lesser"... helping to reinforce the "I am above them" sense. One might try to solve this by figuring out how to self modify enough to, well, not to that. But self modification itself being a starting point for, if one does not do it absolutely perfectly, potential disaster, well... Anyways, so your suggestion would basically be "only use the power to, well, defend against the power" rather than use it to actually try to fix some of the annoying little problems in the world (like... death and and and and and... ?)
FAI is one possible means of defense, there might be others. You shouldn't just wait for FAI, you should speed up FAI developers too because it's a race. I think the strategy of developing a means of defense first has higher expected utility than fixing death first, because in the latter case someone else who develops uploading can destroy/enslave the world while you're busy fixing it.
Given how misrepresented the official story is supposed to be, the part about personally ruling the fabric of the World can be assumed to be twisted as well.

Nope, they didn't get that part wrong.

Look, you should know me well enough by now to know that I don't keep my stories on nice safe moral territory.

A happy ending here is not guaranteed. But think about this very carefully. Are you sure you'd have turned the Sword on Vhazhar? They don't have the same options we do.

He's going to be the emperor. He could implement Parliament, he could create jury trials. He could even put Dolf and Selena on trial for their crimes.

It's interesting that Hirou holds the world accountable to his own moral code, which assumes power corrupts. Then, at the last moment, he grants absolute power to Vhazhar. So in the middle of choosing to use our world's morality, which is built upon centuries of learning to doubt human nature, in the middle of that - Vhazhar's good intentions are so good that they justify granting him absolute power. Lesson not learned.

his own moral code, which assumes power corrupts

Hold on. How can a moral code say anything about questions of fact, such as whether or not power corrupts?

Because "corrupt" is a morally-loaded term.

It seems to me that "power corrupts" means "power changes goal content," and that's a purely factual claim.

It doesn't mean that. It means something more like "power changes the empowered's utility function in a way others deem immoral". (ETA simplified) ETA: Just to make the point clearer, there are many things that change an individual's goal content but are not considered corrupting. For example, trying new foods will generally make you divert more effort to finding one kind of food (that you didn't know you liked). Having children of your own makes you more favorable to children in general. But we don't say, and people generally don't believe, "having children corrupts" or "trying new foods corrupts".
7Eliezer Yudkowsky
Okay, but that's still a factual claim underneath the moral one. It's a bit of argumentum ad webcomicum, but http://www.agirlandherfed.com/comic/?375 is not something I find particularly implausible. There was Marcus Aurelius.

Link's broken. Is this guess the page in question?

4Eliezer Yudkowsky
Also: it seems like a really poor plan, in the long term, for the fate of the entire plane to rest on the sanity of one dude. If Hirou kept the sword, he could maybe try to work with the wizards -- ask them to spend one day per week healing people, make sure the crops do okay, etc. Things maybe wouldn't be perfect, but at least he wouldn't be running the risk of everybody-dies.
Okay, but in any case, regarding the issue at hand, "power corrupts" is not a purely factual claim. (And I thought that hybrid claims get counted as moral by default, since that's the most useful for discussion, but I could be wrong.)
Then you need to separate the factual claim and the moral claim, and discuss them separately. The factual claim would be, "power changes goal content in this particular way", and the moral claim is, "...and this is bad."
Is this fair though? Let's say the passage had been, "... his position that it is immoral to possess nuclear weapons". That too breaks down into a factual and moral claim. Moral: "it is wrong to possess a weapon with massive, unfocused destructive power" Factual: "The devices we currently call nuclear weapons inflict massive, unfocused destruction." Would you object to "his position that it is immoral to posses nuclear weapons" on the grounds that "you need to separate the factual and moral claims"?

Well, in fact it would be highly helpful to separate the claims here, even though the factual part is uncontroversial, because it makes it clear what argument is being made, exactly.

And in this case it's uncertain/controversial how much power actually changes behavior, who it changes, how reliably; and this is the key issue, whereas the moral concept that "the behavior of killing everyone who disagrees with you, is wrong" is relatively uncontroversial among us. So calling this a moral claim when the key disputed part is actually a factual claim is a bad idea.

3Wei Dai
What's the evolutionary explanation for power not corrupting?
Evolution doesn't do most things. Doing things requires oceans of blood for every little adaptation and humans haven't had power for all that long. Toddlers need to learn how to hide. How's that for failing to evolve knowledge of the obvious (to a human brain) and absurdly useful.
Be careful you don't end up explaining two contradictory outcomes equally well, thus proving you have zero knowledge on evolution's effect on power and corruption!
And then there are those of us who take moral claims to be factual claims.
I think my concern about "power corrupts" is this: humans have a strong drive to improve things. We need projects, we need challenges. When this guy gets unlimited power, he's going to take two or three passes over everything and make sure everybody's happy, and then I'm worried he's going to get very, very bored. With an infinite lifespan and unlimited power, it's sort of inevitable. What do you do, when you're omnipotent and undying, and you realize you're going mad with boredom? Does "unlimited power" include the power to make yourself not bored?
If Vhazhar has the option of editing the nasty bits out of reality and then stepping down from power, I'd help him. If he must personally become a ruler for all eternity, I'd kill him, then smash the goddamn device, then try to somehow ensure that future aspiring Dark Lords also get killed in time.

This could be how the 'balance' mythology and the prophecy got started. Perhaps the hero decided long ago that it wasn't worth the risk, and wanted to make sure future heroes kill the Dark Lord.

I assume that the sword tests the correspondence of person's intentions (plan) to their preference. If the sword uses a static concept of preference that comes with the sword instead, why would Vhazhar be interested in sword's standard of preference? Thus, given that the Vhazhar's plan involves control over the fabric of the World, the plan must be sound and result in correct installation of Vhazhar's preference in the rules of the world. This excludes the technical worries about the failure modes of human mind in wielding too much power (which is how I initially interpreted "personal control" -- as a recipe for failure modes). I'm not sure what it means for the other people's preferences (and specifically mine). I can't exclude the possibility that it's worse than the do-nothing option, but it doesn't seem obviously so either, given psychological unity of humans. From what I know, on the spot I'd favor Vhazhar's personal preference, if the better alternative is unlikely, given that this choice instantly wards off existential risk and lack of progress.

I assume that the sword tests the correspondence of person's intentions (plan) to their preference.

No, it's the Sword of GOOD. It tests whether you're GOOD, not any of this other stuff.

It should be obvious that the sword doesn't test how well your plans correspond to what you think you want! Otherwise Hirou would have been vaporized.

No, it's the Sword of GOOD. It tests whether you're GOOD, not any of this other stuff.

Wasn't it established that this world's conception of "good" and "evil" are messed up? Why should he trust that the sword really works exactly as advertised?

Only assuming that the sword is impulsive. If you take into account Hirou's overall role in the events, this role could be judged good, if only by the final decision. If the sword judges not plans, but preference, then failing 9 out of 10 people means that it's pretty selective among humans and probably people it selects and their values aren't representative (act in the interests) of the humanity as whole.
If the Sword of Good tested whether you're good, Hirou would have been vapourized, because he was obviously not good. He was at the very least an accomplice to murderers, a racist, and a killer. The Sword of Good may not have vapourized Charles Manson, Richard Nixon, Hitler, or most suicide bombers, either. The Sword of Good tests whether you think you are good, not whether your actions are good. Strangely, the sword kills nine out of ten people who try to wield it. However, if you knew the sword could only be wielded by a good person, you'd only try to pick it up if you thought you were good, which happens to be the criteria you must fulfil in order to pick up the sword. Essentially, if you think you can wield the Sword of Good, you can.

If the Sword of Good tested whether you're good, Hirou would have been vapourized, because he was obviously not good. He was at the very least an accomplice to murderers, a racist, and a killer.

Well, he was clearly redeemable, at least. It didn't take very much for him to let go of his assumptions, just a few words from someone he thought was an enemy. Making dumb mistakes, even ones with dire consequences, doesn't necessarily make you not Good.

What, realistically, does it mean to be irredeemable? Was Dolf irredeemable? Selena? Is the difference between them and Hirou simply the fact that Hirou realized he was doing bad, and they didn't? Why should that be sufficient to redeem him? Mistakes are not accidents; mistakenly killing someone is still murder. Surely if awareness and repentance of the immoral nature of your actions makes you Good, the reverse - lack of awareness - means animals that kills other animals without regret are more evil than people who kill other people and regret it.
No, it's manslaughter.
If you believe someone is evil, hunt them down and kill them, and afterward realize they weren't, it was a mistake. It was also murder. It's not as though you killed in self defense or accidentally dropped an air conditioner on them. Manslaughter is not a defense that can be employed simply because you changed your mind. Perhaps I should clarify: I don't mean "mistake" in that "he mistook his wife for a burglar and killed her". That's manslaughter. I mean "mistake" in that "he mistakenly murdered a good person instead of a bad one". Ba gur bgure unaq, jura Uvebh xvyyrq Qbys ng gur raq, ur jnfa'g znxvat n zvfgnxr (ubjrire, V fgvyy guvax vg jnf zheqre).
You present a compelling argument that murder can be a morally blameless---even praiseworthy---act. I do not believe this was your intention.
To be clear, you believe that, right wedrifid? I came this close to downvoting before I deduced the context.
I believe that there are times where the described behaviour is morally acceptable. I don't think it is helpful to label that behaviour 'murder' but if someone were to define that as murder it would mean that murder (of that particular kind) was ok. To be clear, there are stringent standards on the behaviour which preceded the mistake. This is something that should happen very infrequently. Both epistemic rationality standards and instrumental rationality standards apply. For example, sincerely believing that the person had committed a crime because you happen to be bigoted and irrational leaves you morally culpable and failing to take actions that provide more evidence where the VoI is high and cost is low also leaves you morally culpable. The 'excuse' for hunting and down a killing an innocent that you mistakenly believed was sufficiently evil is not "I was mistaken" but rather "any acceptably rational and competent individual in this circumstance would have believed that the target was sufficiently evil".
It's not too hard to imagine a scenario in which hunting down and killing someone is indeed the right thing to do... the obvious example is that, given perfect hindsight, it would have been much better if one of the many early attempts to assassinate Hitler had in fact succeeded. Bonus question: Which one of the failed attempts was most likely to have been made by a time traveler? ;)
Suppose you're a police officer trying to arrest someone for a crime, and there is ample evidence that the person you are trying to arrest is indeed guilty of that crime. The person resists arrest, and you end up killing the person instead of making a successful capture. Are you a murderer? Does it matter if it turns out that the evidence against this person turns out to have been forged (by someone else)?
If you have no intention of killing them and they die as a side effect of your actions, it's an accident, and manslaughter. If you kill them because you realize you can't arrest them, it's murder, complete with intention of malice. However, the fact that your actions are sanctioned by the state is obviously not a defense (a la Nuremberg), and so there's no point in adding "police officer" to the example. You could ask if I thought executing someone who was framed would be considered murder, but since I view all manner of execution murder, guilty or no, there's no use.
Actually, I think there is. If you kill someone without "state sanction", as you put it, it's almost certainly Evil. If you kill someone that the local laws allow you to kill, it's much less likely to be Evil, because non-Evil reasons for killing, such as self-defense, tend to be accounted for in most legal systems. Anyway, I think I'm getting off the subject. Let me try rephrasing the general scenario: You are a police officer. You have an arrest warrant for a suspected criminal. If you try to arrest the suspect, he is willing to use lethal force against you in order to prevent being captured. You also believe that, once the suspect has attempted to use lethal force against you, non-lethal force will prove to be insufficient to complete the arrest. The way I see it, this could end in several ways: 1) Don't try to make an arrest attempt at all. 2) Attempt to make an arrest. The suspect responds by attempting to use lethal force against you. (He shoots at you with a low-caliber pistol, but you are protected by your bulletproof vest.) You believe that non-lethal force will most likely fail to subdue the suspect. Not willing to use lethal force and kill the suspect, you retreat, failing to make the arrest. 3) Attempt to make an arrest. The suspected criminal responds by attempting to use lethal force against you. (He shoots at you with a low-caliber pistol, but you are protected by your bulletproof vest.) You believe that non-lethal force will most likely fail to subdue the suspected criminal, but try anyway. (You start running at him, intending to wrestle the gun away from him with your bare hands.) The suspected criminal kills you. (He shoots you in the head.) 4) Attempt to make an arrest. The suspected criminal responds by attempting to use lethal force against you. (He shoots at you with a low-caliber pistol, but you are protected by your bulletproof vest.) You believe that non-lethal force will most likely fail to subdue the suspected criminal, so you resort
I notice that you left off an outcome that if anything allows you to make your point stronger. 5) Attempt to make an arrest. You see that the suspected criminal has the capacity to use lethal force against you (he is armed) and you suspect that he will use it against you. You shoot the suspect. His use of lethal force against you is never more than counterfactual (ie. a valid suspicion). For consistency some "6)" may be required in which the first "attempt to use lethal force against you" is successful. I suggest that this action is not necessarily Evil, for similar reasons that you describe for scenario 4. Obviously this is less clear cut and has more scope for failure modes like "black suspect reaches for ID" so we want more caution in this instance and (ought to) grant police officers less discretion.
I think 'almost certain' may be something of an overstatement. The states that we personally live in are not a representative sample of states and killing tyrants is not something we can call 'almost certainly' Evil. The same consideration applies to self defence laws. Self defence laws in an average state selected from all states across time were not sufficiently fair as to make claims about almost certain Evil.
Once he uses lethal force against you, your use of lethal force would be self-defense, not murder.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky
I perceive that you have not yet learned to use the logic of the Phoenix.
Care to elaborate on that rather cryptic remark?
The logic of the Phoenix is that the Lord of Dark will resurrect everyone he can, including Dolf, so it isn't murder.
logic of the phoenix?
5Eliezer Yudkowsky
No, this logic of the Phoenix. What makes you think cutting off someone's head is murder? "He died, but you have taught me a new meaning for 'is dead'." (From the same book.)
Not every decapitation is murder, but "the wizard stopped, ceased to exist...as something seemed to flow away" is suggestive.
I was thinking the same thing. The way Eliezer wrote that bit seemed to make it clear that something rather more than mere decapitation occurred there.
1Eliezer Yudkowsky
Hm, so it does. Well, if Hirou had no way of knowing that, then it's manslaughter at worst.
Though, actually spelling it out directly does end up sounding funny. "Well... I don't know that cutting off his head with this sword would kill him... I mean, is it really reasonable for me to have expected that?" :)
0Eliezer Yudkowsky
(Actually, I thought I'd deleted the "ceased to exist" phrase. I'll go ahead and take it out.)
I figured that Vhazhar really wouldn't be able to save Dolf. That's why it's a sacrifice.
You are using two definitions of "good" - how much good your actions cause, and how good you believe yourself to be. Neither of those is used by the sword; rather, some sort of virtue-ethics definition - I suspect motive.
Doing a bad thing does not necessarily make one a bad person. Though it helps.
So a sincerely evil person would pass with flying colors? I assumed the sword tested compliance with the current CEV of the human race.
Why just the human race? Orcs are people too (at least in this story).
Good catch. Yes, of course.
Presumably, actual mutants are unlikely, with most "evil" people actually just holding mistaken (about their actual preference) moral beliefs. If the sword is an external moral authority, it's harder to see why one would consult it. On the other hand, sword checks soundness of the plan against some preference, which is an important step that is absent if one doesn't consult the sword, which can justify accepting a somewhat mismatched preference if that allows to use the test. This passes the choice of mismatching preferences to a different situation. If the sword tests person's preference, then protagonist's choice is between lack of progress or unlikely good outcome and (if Vhazhar's plan is sound) verified installation of Vhazhar's preference, with the latter presumably close to others' preference, thus being a moderately good option. If the sword tests some kind of standard preference, this standard preference is presumably also close to Vhazhar's preference, thus Vhazhar faces a choice between trying to install his own preference through unverified process, which can go through all kinds of failure modes, and using the sword to test the reliability of his plan. The fact that Vhazhar is willing to use the sword to test the soundness of his plan, when the failed test means his death, shows that he prefers leaving the rest of the world be to incorrectly changing it. This is a strong signal that should've been part of the information given to protagonist for making the decision.

After reading the whole thing, I'm appalled that my only thought against the enforced morality was approximately "they're just worms.." And then immediately accepting the characters' disgust.

FYI, part of the inspiration for this was reading the referenced XKCD and realizing I hadn't gotten that - albeit I first watched The Princess Bride as a child, which may have something to do with it. But yeah, although I seem more resistant to moral dissonance than average - probably more because my mind generally tries to visualize things as real, than out of any innate superethics - I'm still vulnerable to it, and that's part of the horror.

So of course I wanted to share that horror with the rest of you!

The inability to suspend moral disbelief is one of many things that can interfere with the enjoyment of basically good fiction. When I am screaming at characters that they FAIL ETHICS FOREVER, I'm rarely having fun.

Characters who FAIL ETHICS FOREVER can still be entertaining. For example, plenty of villains clearly have little regard for ethics. Authors who FAIL ETHICS FOREVER are usually less desirable. For example, Terry Goodkind. I've rarely felt personally insulted by a work of fiction, but, well, Naked Empire somehow managed to contain the purest, unadulterated essence of Ethics Fail I've ever encountered - it even managed to contradict the explicit moral lessons of the earlier books in the series!

I agree that screaming at characters that they FAIL ETHICS FOREVER can interrupt enjoyment of a story, but it is far worse to never realize that their actions are, in fact, contemptible.
Oh, I agree - but I try to postpone this contemplation until after I've finished the story, if I can.
No, maybe disgusting, definitely enraging, but usuallynot contemptible. Agamemnon is an exception, but he's pretty much the villain in a story without clear villains. Odysseus is heroic in the extreme, not contemptible, but his heroism has nothing to do with good intentions or outcomes, only with displaying his desirability as an ally.

Vfa'g Uvebh'f gehfgvat bs gur Ybeq bs Qnex yvxr gehfgvat gung nal Fvathynevgl jbhyq znxr guvatf orggre? Jung nffhenapr qbrf Uvebh unir gung gur YbQ vf Sevraqyl?

8Eliezer Yudkowsky
Because the Sword of Good didn't kill him; also he seems to be quite an excellent moral philosopher - someone who actually perceives morality. And if not him, then who else on the next try? (Of course there's going to be a next try eventually, given that it's possible in the first place.)
Why does Hirou trust the Sword of Good? How does he know that it's Friendly? I didn't get that from the story. All those fantasy books he's read, and he only now ponders whether something is good just because the author labeled it "Good"? He only now considers how immoral the actions of many fantasy heroes would be were they real? I remember being bothered by Aragorn's divine right to lead when I was eight and my Dad was reading Lord of the Rings to me. As your acknowledgments show, pondering whether it could really be moral to kill "bad guys" so willy-nilly is common in fantasy circles. One of the Austin Powers movies used this to humorous effect with a little vignette about how one of the henchmen killed by Powers had a loving family and had just celebrated his retirement surrounded by loving friends. Maybe these thoughts never occur to many fantasy readers, but I don't think that we're talking about some vanishingly rare perspicacity here. Maybe someone who's developed a rigorous theory of friendliness :). I guess I'm just surprised to see an allegory from you in which someone solves Friendliness by applying thirty seconds of his at-best-slightly-above-average moral intuition. I did not get the impression that Hirou was any kind of moral savant. And I had thought that even a moral savant, on your view, couldn't reliably make such a decision in thirty seconds.

I didn't get that from the story. All those fantasy books he's read, and he only now ponders whether something is good just because the author labeled it "Good"?

I think you're being a little optimistic here in thinking your skepticism is at all general.

Why was Norman Spinrad's _The Iron Dream_ so critically well-received and still read? (If you haven't read it, it's much like Eliezer's story except without the sane hero.) Because it demonstrated that most readers weren't critical, that they'd been reading fantasy stories for literally decades without cottoning onto how well the same stories justified genocide and fascism!

I thought the point of The Iron Dream was that Hitler's novel (the story is set in an alternate world where Hitler became a pulp writer) was the nastiest sort of inappropriate fantasy.

also he seems to be quite an excellent moral philosopher - someone who actually perceives morality.

I didn't get that from the story. All those fantasy books he's read

Not Hirou, Vhazhar. For some reason, even as a very young child facing religious indoctrination, I couldn't quite accept that Abraham had made the right choice in trying to sacrifice Isaac upon God's command. That was one of my first moral breaks with Judaism. The Lord of Dark is - almost necessarily - actually visualizing situations and reacting to them as if seen, rather than processing words however the people around him expect to process them; there's no other way he could reject the values of his society to that extent, and even then, the amount of convergence he exhibits with our own civilization is implausible barring extremely optimistic assumptions about (a) the amount of absolute coherence (b) our own society's intelligence and (c) the Lord of Dark's intelligence; but of course the story wouldn't have worked otherwise.

I guess I'm just surprised to see an allegory from you in which someone solves Friendliness by applying thirty seconds of his at-best-slightly-above-average moral intuition.

Vhazhar's... (read more)

Okay, Hirou has evidence that Vhazhar is a moral savant. But the reader, and Hirou, sees little evidence that Vhazhar has worked out a formal, rigorous theory of Friendliness. I thought that anything less than that, on your view, virtually guaranteed the obliteration of almost everything valuable.

But I draw a weaker inference from Vhazhar's ability to overcome indoctrination. Yes, it implies that he probably had a high native aptitude for correct moral reasoning. But the very fact that he was subjected to the indoctrination means that he's probably damaged anyways. If someone survives a disease that's usually deadly, you should expect that she went into the disease with an uncommonly strong constitution. But, given that she's had the disease, you should expect that she's now less healthy than average.

8Eliezer Yudkowsky
Only by AIs. Human uploads would be a whole different story. Not necessarily a good story, but a different story, and one in which - whatever the objective frequency of winning - I'd have to say that, relative to my subjective knowledge, there's a pretty sizable chunk of chance. If Vhazhar was literally casting a spell to run the world directly, and he wasn't able to take advantage of moral magic like that embodied in the Sword of Good itself (which, conceivably, could be a lot less sophisticated than its name implies) then it's a full-fledged Friendly AI problem.
What are the justifiable expectations one could have about the Sword of Good? In particular, why suppose that it's a Sword of Good in anything other than name only? Why suppose that it's any protection against evil? I also didn't consider the possibility that Vhazhar was planning to run the world himself directly. A human just doesn't have the computational capacity to run the world. If a human tried to run the world, there would still be both fortune and misfortune. For that reason, I assumed that his plan was for some extrapolated version of his volition to run the world. But if he's created something that will implement his CEV accurately, hasn't he solved FAI?

I also didn't consider the possibility that Vhazhar was planning to run the world himself directly. A human just doesn't have the computational capacity to run the world. If a human tried to run the world, there would still be both fortune and misfortune.

There could be less misfortune. A cautious human god who wasn't corrupted by power certainly could plausibly accomplish a lot of good with a few minimal actions. Of course the shaky part is that "cautious" and "not corrupted" part.

Where does the ability to specify complex wishes become distinct from the ability to implement them though? What are the capabilities of a god with human mind? If there is a lot of automation for implementing the wishes, how much of the person's preference does this automation anticipate? In what sense does the limitation on a god's mind to be merely human affect god's capacity to control the world? There doesn't seem to be a natural concept that captures this.
Okay. I had taken the Prophecy of Doom to be saying that there would no longer be both "luck and misfortune". I can see that it could be read otherwise, though.
Well, there are at least several obvious fixes that we humans would want to make to the world we live in, but are unable to. For example, we would like to wipe out the malaria parasite that infects humans. The dragon is bad, the world is full of really, really horrible things, and I'd rather just make it stop rather than worry too much about being corrupted by power.
I wrote and deleted a comment to the effect of “The Sword of Good didn't kill him, and the Sword appears to be a judge of good intentions = Friendliness (though not good reasoning)”, then deleted it on consideration that unfriendliness-through-failures-of-reasoning might be worse than the current state of the world. But "there's going to be a next try" indeed outweighs that. I think.

Great story!

By coincidence, today I just read The Case for the Empire.

My metaphor lobes appear to be on fire.

Required reading for everyone serving in the army of whatever nation.

Depends whether they want soldiers who think. But yeah, expand the whole thing into a book and it would make a great moral story.

I found the ending to be highly telegraphed. No doubt this is partly because I know how the author is likely to think about things, but having the idea of an untrustworthy translation spell introduced in the fourth paragraph, combined with the Excessively Straightforward Names, certainly didn't help. Not to mention the bit about, Oh, let's think about what heroism really entails.

If you meet the buddha on the road, you must kill him.

The koan really strikes me in this situation. The character in the end accepts that he alone gets to make the final moral decisions for himself, regardless of what the labels are and what his teachings were. Many religious ceremonies are about abject submission, but many are also about the idea of "I freely give myself, and accept the consequnces of that submission" and so on.

Although I will add that I completely disagree with the hero. If he really was undecided, the current balance was hi... (read more)

I thought his conversion was too quick to be believable - he need to ask more questions, to have more back and forth in a random walk of opinion change.

Random walks are for agents who have thought through the possibilities and are responding to new information. Hirou's response is far, far more realistic for a human, though perhaps too quick.

I've had similar experiences myself, and try not to have them again. Evidence builds up behind a wall of denial, and when the dam breaks the flood is loosed.

Indeed. His willingness to kill Dolf without asking any questions or making any attempts to verify the Dark Lord's statements just shows that Hirou still hasn't learned anything.
There is nothing about status quo that makes it a preferable option in times of uncertainty, except that the expectation of the intervention may at some point be below or above status quo, which gives the decision.
The status quo is preferable when other option is of unknown goodness and irrevocable.
Value is associated with states of knowledge (about consequences), not with precise outcomes. What you are saying is that uncertainty confers low value, and so is generally less preferable than (well-known) status quo. This is not generally correct.
But easily changeable outcomes are preferable when there is uncertainty.

I'd like to think I would have noticed the moral problems with what the "good" guys were doing on my own, and without the benefit of knowing who the author was. I think I would have, but I'm not totally confidence in my Milgram Resistance.

The ending did bother me, though. Why was Hirou willing to believe everything Vhazhar told him without trying to verify it? Why did he kill Dolf instead of accepting that Dolf was simply limited by the moral myopia of his own society, which he clearly was? Maybe exceptionally good people like Vhazhar could see t... (read more)

In writing it's even simpler - the author gets to create the whole social universe, and the readers are immersed in the hero's own internal perspective. And so anything the heroes do, which no character notices as wrong, won't be noticed by the readers as unheroic. Genocide, mind-rape, eternal torture, anything.

Not true. If you've got some time to kill, read this thread on The Fanfiction Forum; long story short, a guy who's quite possibly psychopathic writes a story wherein Naruto is turned into a self-centered, hypocritical bastard who happily mindra... (read more)

People are a lot more willing to criticize the morality of the story if they didn't find the story itself to be competently written. Notice the amount of social criticism that's been leveled at Twilight. Seems to work the other way if the story's written to convince people of a moral point, though.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky
I.e., agree with the morals -> don't notice the bad writing?
Agree with the morals -> enjoy reading crude stereotypes of your moral opponents. Get enough enjoyment from that and the story's a net positive even if it has no other redeeming qualities.
I think proximity also matters. There are no modern romantic heroes, but there are modern heartthrobs with questionable gender politics.
6Eliezer Yudkowsky
I don't have permission to view that, says the board. But, just taking a wild guess here, that wouldn't be a Perfect Lionheart fic would it? Because unless the same forumgoers are also lambasting the Bible and David Eddings, one can't help but suspect that it's not the content so much as the writing which triggers the hate.
Yeah, you have to register to view the board, and yeah, it's the Perfect Lionheart fic. The reason that thread's gotten so many posts and the story's gotten so much negative feeling about it, though, is because it started off looking good, was well-written (as far as the technical aspects of writing like spelling, grammar, and so on go), and had occasional teases in a scene here and there that it might manage to redeem itself. If it was simply poorly written it would have been dismissed as just another piece of the sea of shit that makes up 90% of ff.net.

So Chuunin Exam Day, then? I've never read it, but I've heard of it.

Considering that I was able to identify the author and possibly the exact fic from the information that the morality was being heavily lambasted, may I suggest that readers noticing nonlampshaded evil doesn't actually happen all that often? TV Tropes is good at noticing Moral Dissonance, but literally nowhere else that I've ever heard of. It took a critic on the order of David Brin to point out that Aragorn wasn't democratically elected.

2Paul Crowley
I think people just think of it not being evil to be a dictator as part of the fantasy setting. I'd be more moved by an example in an everyday setting.
Have you read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bio_of_a_Space_Tyrant ?
1Paul Crowley
Nope, sorry!
Wah, but... how can people not see that Tyrant Hope Hubris becomes evil? Gur tubfg bs Qernzre cerqvpgf uvf snyy! Gur glenag uvzfrys cbvagf vg bhg uvzfrys juvyr vapbtavgb! Uvf rfgenatrq jvsr gur fnzr, nsgrejneqf! Cvref Nagubal rira anzrq uvz Ubcr Uhoevf! Anyways, if you can stand Piers Anthony it is an OK read.
Yah agreed. It definitely plays with the theme... which is kinda fun. I was mainly saying it's an example not in the fantasy setting ;) It's more along the lines of "If I were king, what would I do... and how would I become king anyways?"
Unfortunately half the examples of Unfortunate Implications on TV Tropes are places where the work's universe has rules that create problems for currently popular systems of ethics (the implication being it's wrong to imply such rules might be true). Or otherwise violating prevailing moral fashions.

The only fantasy book I've read where something similar happened is King Rat by China Miéville, and it doesn't hit it on your head quite so hard. :P

I can think of a few vaguely similar situations, actually. Near the end of Final Fantasy X, the characters decisively reject the quest they had been on, and end up using "forbidden" technology to permanently destroy the evil sea monster instead of merely winning a ten-year respite. The second big twist in Ender's Game also is a bit like this, when the surviving aliens finally figure out how to communicate with humans...
Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds also had a "quest finally judged a bad idea and abandoned after years of work and sacrifice" ending.

I found two misspellings: 1) Serena 2) Hiro

Does anyone have, as a step in copyediting, creating a concordance? eg, running "sort | uniq -c"?

That's brilliant and I shall do it nine times.
update: haven't done it nine times yet. It's still brilliant though.
Also, "rainment" should be "raiment".
3Eliezer Yudkowsky
fixed, arigatou
Personally, I think Eliezer stole the name Hiro from Snow Crash (seriously, he's named 'Hiro Protagonist', so it fits the story perfectly...) and forgot to run the search-and-replace.
Also "Selene" twice.

Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but is the opening line just a framing device for a short story with abrupt transitions, or does it mean that this is an actual draft of a book that won't be finished for whatever reason?

I'd say it means "This thing is more of a story outline than a story, but I can't be bothered to write the book it'd take to tell the whole story." If you'd categorise that as a 'draft'.... well, go ahead.
I think it's kind of a "have your cake and eat it too" way to transform the latter into the former.

...and, amazingly enough, FictionPress doesn't allow me to include double spaces in my writing. Deal-breaker in my book, so I'm giving up and hosting on yudkowsky.net instead. Can anyone suggest a better place to post in the future?

I believe that   is the html character code for a non-breaking-space. It wouldn't be hard replace all occurrences of a period followed by two spaces with ".  " before copying and pasting into FictionPress. Of course it's possible that FictionPress renders html character codes literally (as LessWrong apparently does). Edit: This might also work.
The Chicago Manual of Style recommends against double spacing. Do you have a particular attachment to it?
I usually despise double spacing. It bloats the length of the next unnecessarily. (Though I do admit that I didn't even notice it in this case.)
2Eliezer Yudkowsky
Let me amplify: By "double spaces" I mean two spaces after a period, not double spaces between lines.
Web browsers automatically condense double spaces to single spaces...
That is also what I meant, and what the CMS discourages. See double spacing at the end of sentences. While it does come down to personal preference, if there is any standard web convention it is toward single spacing.
Regarding double spacing: In the Old Days, type writers (and even the first word processors) did not add an extra half space after the period to separate the end of a sentence and the beginning of the next one aesthetically. It became convention to leave two spaces after a period and this was the proper thing to do. But now that proportional fonts leave the aesthetically "correct amount" of space after a period (something between 1 and 2 spaces), it is incorrect to try to force two spaces. When I use the words "correct" and "incorrect" I mean in the context of conventional writing. It's up to each person if their writing is a little bit more like a poem than prose, in which case they can bend convention as they wish. As an expert on what is aesthetic -- like everyone else- - I'll comment that the FictionPress font does not provide enough of a gap. I judge the font is going for an old-timey typing-in-the-attic-on-the-back-of-scratch-paper aesthetic; not easy to read but something typers over a certain age might feel nostalgic about.
It has consequences. Double spaces after periods cause readers to skim. That is good for many types of text, but I doubt most authors want the effect in their fiction. (and double line-spacing causes readers to read slowly, but not to read well.)
No it does not come down to personal preference, except that the writer's proper preference to produce more readable writing. In fact one thing I particularly dislike about HTML is that it (usually) automatically collapses two spaces to one. And conventions are only good when they are better than the alternatives - two spaces helps set off a sentence, just as capitalization does, and makes text more readable. Web "usability" is also strongly against long blocks of text, which tends to suggest (to me at least) that non-readers (or even anti-readers, witness the popularity of videoblogging and podcasts) have too much influence over web conventions.
It does come down to personal preference in choosing what style to follow. For example, while the CMS says you shouldn't double space, the MLA says it's okay. I was taught to double space in high school, but gave it up afterwards, first because I felt it was unaesthetic, and second because I prefer to follow the CMS in most respects.
One suspects this is mainly because all extra whitespace is simply ignored in HTML...
0Eliezer Yudkowsky
So you use   - unless your silly little editor won't let you.

  is non-breaking. It'll prevent the browser from breaking the line at what ought to be a good place to break it. If you want to force a wider space after a period than the renderer's default, then use  .

Not if you only use it once. The second of the two spaces should be normal. I agree that   is better, however.
About time someone said it
It sounds like one of those small quirks that might or might not have some value, but it's probably too small to bother fighting over it. All geeks have a few of those.
Ah. I'd missed that as well. I automatically include two spaces after a period, but have been trying to stop it. It's not preferred, especially on the web.
Ahhh, alright. That's interesting: I suspect it's an English-language convention, as this is the first time that I hear the term used in such a context. I've never heard anyone even mention the possibility of inserting an extra space after a period, and this includes my Finnish and Swedish teachers back in school.
The Chicago Manual of Style isn't for writing intended to be read onscreen. Double space between paragraphs is the accepted convention because it's the easiest to read.
Somehow, I'm missing the distinction. What's the stylistic difference between the two?

Hey I know you posted this a long time ago but I found this a few weeks on tvtropes and found it very clever. But the ending confuses me, so I'm hoping you'll reply to my message:

Are we supposed to agree with the antagonist? When I first read it I thought "ahah I get it, its about people blindly accepting whats put in front of them, so Hiro representing that blindly accepted what he said about remaking the world and we're supposed to think about it and realise he was too gullible" then reading some of the comments made me wonder if he was suppose... (read more)

If the power to remake the world exists and you know how to get it, then the responsibility is already upon you. From then on, if you refuse to act, every evil and wrong thing that happens in the world is your fault.
If you act, and you screw up and destroy the universe or send everyone into everlasting torment, then that is also your fault. WanderingHero was asking whether the risk of benefits would outweigh the cost. I think that if god like power wasn't accompanied by god like knowledge, it would probably be a very good idea to give up that power.
I think I disagree. The arbitrary and unfeeling processes of the universe can probably be outperformed by anything with a shred of empathy and intellect. You'd just want to be really, really careful, and try to create something better than yourself to hand off control to.
I don't think I'm capable of having that much power and not being tempted to use it recklessly. I would need to think about it.
...though it's worth keeping in mind that the usual connotations of "my fault" don't necessarily apply. For example, if lots of other people also know how to get that power, then it's also equally lots of other people's fault.
Yeah, of course. Not to mention the actual direct perpetrators of the evils themselves.
Law makes a distinction between but-for cause and proximate cause. All proximate causes are but-for causes, but not all but-for causes are proximate causes. The distinction exists to differentiate effects of one's acts that one is responsible for and effects that are not one's responsibility.
Unless you're talking about the act-omission distinction I don't see how this doesn't blatantly contradict what "MarkusRamikin" was saying. "Every evil and wrong thing that happens in the world is your fault" vs. "effects that are not one's responsibility". But you don't make an argument that the law or the act-omission distinction is justified so I don't understand what your comment was trying to do. Are you just criticizing the way the legal system works?
Yes, American law disagrees with the position MarcusRamikin appears to be articulating. Under American law, Alice can do something wrong, that act can harm Bob, and Alice will not be responsible for the harm if her act was not a proximate cause of Bob's injury. The wikipedia article lays it out pretty well. In the cases the article cites, X erred in operating a boat, damaging a bridge and therefore disrupting the commerce along the river. X was held liable for the damage to the bridge, but not the losses from disruption of the commerce. Even though X was not held (financially) responsible, no one thinks that X did not cause the disruption of the river traffic.

I saw what was coming when I got to the bit about the wormarium and Dolf's hyperbolic reaction to it. Are my moral instincts just really warped relative to the norm, or do others agree with me that this was way too obvious?

Yeah, I already wrote above that the ending was telegraphed: I pretty much concluded that the "Lord of Dark" was going to be a nice guy about the time they murdered the first wizard with absolutely no explanation of why he deserved it.

It's a convention of fantasy and science fiction that there can exist sentient races which are, by their very nature, inimical to mankind, and can therefore be justifiably killed on sight. In principle, there's no reason why such creatures can't actually exist. So that scene didn't set off any alarm bells for me. The first thing that made me look askew was that Hirou's company included both a pirate and a thief, and the wormarium was my confirmation.

9Eliezer Yudkowsky
And by the way, I'm willing to buy that. Hirou's sin is that he didn't actually buy it, as in, pay for the conclusion, if you see what I mean.
No, I don't. Can you clarify?

Hirou didn't bother to verify that the orcs actually were irredeemably evil, which is possible, but you would have to see evidence. Hirou just saw something physically ugly, and his social surroundings expected him to kill them. But the view which he acted-as-if-believed was possible, it simply wasn't true. Arguably my Orthodox Jewish parents committed more blatant mistakes - if far more theoretical mistakes - in endorsing God's murder of the Egyptian firstborn.

Reading it at first I was sad because I thought it did not belong on Lw but did not want to downvote it. I was happy that the ending justified its inclusion.

Vs Iunmune pna naq jvyy erfgber Nyrx, jul abg Uvebh nf jryy?

[will de-rot13 on request; I don't know what spoiler policy to apply]

3Eliezer Yudkowsky
Wasn't assuming he was dead - but sure, if he was, then of course.
Well, not dead, but “sleep[ing] until the end of the world” rather suggests that he’s not going to do any more interacting with anyone else, which is (under a principle I've attempted to develop to deal with future personhood/identity/instantiating-people problems) equivalent to him being dead (unless he can make something out of the end of the world). [I've thought about writing up said principle, but I'm not good at the sort of discussion it would likely prompt, and it's probably too simplistic. Anyone want to see it anyway?]

I thought "end of the world" meant "end of the world as it was"... ie, "by the time he wakes back up, the spell will have completed and our friendly neighborhood dark lord will have already started fixing the place up"

Yup, that was the intended interpretation.

Please not that the youtube link and Brin's essay are broken link


In writing it's even simpler - the author gets to create the whole social universe, and the readers are immersed in the hero's own internal perspective. And