The forum has been very much focused on AI safety for some time now, thought I'd post something different for a change. Privilege.

Here I define Privilege as an advantage over others that is invisible to the beholder. [EDIT: thanks to JenniferRM for pointing out that "beholder" is a wrong word.] This may not be the only definition, or the central definition, or not how you see it, but that's the definition I use for the purposes of this post. I also do not mean it in the culture-war sense as a way to undercut others as in "check your privilege". My point is that we all have some privileges [we are not aware of], and also that nearly each one has a flip side. 

In some way this is the inverse of The Lens That Does Not See Its Flaws: The lens that does not see its strengths. 

On to the examples, as non-polarizing as I could think of, so no focus on race or gender:

  • Intelligence privilege. This one ought to be familiar to the regulars, but is often a blind spot. One manifestation of it being a privilege (i.e. being unaware that you have something others do not) is saying something like "anyone can learn calculus". No, not anyone.
  • Health privilege. Most healthy people don't give a second thought to how lucky they are compared to those who struggle physically or mentally to just get through the day.
  • Conventional beauty privilege. Everything is just invisibly easier when you look good. The flip side, of course, is that you have to deal with harassment a lot more. Or the judgment "you got where you are because of your looks".
  • A reasonably happy childhood privilege. Those who grew up in "normal" families rarely appreciate what it is like to be a child with a high ACE score. The flip side is the determination to get ahead that some high-adversity survivors develop.
  • Having an instinctive social "game". Not just for dating, but in general social interactions where a person is naturally likable and relatable, at least on the surface level. If you have that, you probably can't understand why others do not. Saying "I just go and talk to them, why don't you do the same, just be yourself" is an indicator of having this privilege.  
  • Wealth privilege. Not, like, billionaire-level, but middle- and upper middle class vs, say, working poor. 
  • A host of others, like education, location, culture, background...

One lesson to take from this is learning to notice this blind spot, where you naturally have something others do not, and it feels like nothing, like clean air without any wind. A possible suggestion as to how to go about it might be to focus on the feeling of being unable to relate to a person or to a group. Something like "I cannot imagine why/how anyone would/would not [be able to] do/feel/think X" can be an indicator of having something others do not.

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What are the advantages of noticing all of this?

  • better model of the world;
  • not being an asshole, i.e. not assuming that other people could do just as well as you, if they only were not so fucking lazy;
  • realizing that your chances to achieve something may be better than you expected, because you have all these advantages over most potential competitors, so if you hesitated to do something because "there are so many people, many of them could do it much better than I could", the actual number of people who could do it may be much smaller than you have assumed, and most of them will be busy doing something else instead.


  • Knowing the importance of the advantages people have makes you better able to judge how well people are likely to do, which lets you make better decisions when e.g. investing in someone's company or deciding who to hire for an important role (or marry).
  • Also orients you towards figuring out the difficult-to-see advantages people must have (or must lack), given the level of success that they've achieved and their visible advantages.
  • If you're in a position to influence what advantages people end up with—for example, by affecting the genes your children get, or what education and training you arrange for them—then you can estimate how much each of those is worth and prioritize accordingly.

One of the things you probably notice is that having some advantages tends to make other advantages more valuable.  Certainly career-wise, several of those things are like, "If you're doing badly on this dimension, then you may be unable to work at all, or be limited to far less valuable roles".  For example, if one person's crippling anxiety takes them from 'law firm partner making $1 million' to 'law analyst making $200k', and another person's crippling anxiety takes them from 'bank teller making $50k' to 'unemployed', then, well, from a utilitarian perspective, fixing one person's problems is worth a lot more than the other's.  That is probably already acted upon today—the former law partner is more able to pay for therapy/whatever—but it could inform people who are deciding how to allocate scarce resources to young people, such as the student versions of the potential law partner and bank teller.

(Of course, the people who originally wrote about "privilege" would probably disagree in the strongest possible terms with the conclusions of the above lines of reasoning.)

Excellent point about the compounding, which is often multiplicative, not additive. Incidentally, multiplicative advantages result in a power law distribution of income/net worth, whereas additive advantages/disadvantages result in a normal distribution. But that is a separate topic, well explored in the literature.

Absolutely.  For a quick model of why you get multiplicative results:

  • Intelligence—raw intellectual horsepower—might be considered a force-multiplier, whereby you produce more intellectual work per hour spent working.
  • Motivation (combined with say, health) determines how much time you spend working.  We could quantify it as hours per week.
  • Taste determines the quality of the project you choose to work on.  We might quantify it as "the expected value, per unit of intellectual work, of the project".

Then you literally multiply those three quantities together and it's the expected value per week of your intellectual work.  My mentor says that these are the three most important traits that determine the best scientists.

That makes sense! Maybe you feel like writing a post on the topic? Potentially including a numerical or analytical model.

I mostly meant your second point, just generally being kinder to others, but the other two are also well taken.


The word "privilege" has been so tainted by its association with guilt that it's almost an infohazard to think you've got privilege at this point, it makes you lower your head in shame at having more than others, and brings about a self-flagellation sort of attitude. It elicits an instinct to lower yourself rather than bring others up. The proper reactions to all these things you've listed is gratitude to your circumstances and compassion towards those who don't have them. And certainly everyone should be very careful towards any instinct they have at publicly "acknowledging their privilege"... it's probably your status-raising instincts having found a good opportunity to boast about your intelligence, appearance and good looks while appearing like you're being modest. 

I grew up knowing "privilege" to mean a special right that was granted to you based on your job/role (like free food for those who work at some restaurants) or perhaps granted by authorities due to good behavior (and would be taken away for misusing it).  Note also that the word itself, "privi"-"lege", means "private law": a law that applies to you in particular.

Rights and laws are social things, defined by how others treat you.  To say that your physical health is a privilege therefore seems like either a category error, or a claim that other people treated you better in a way that gave you your better physical health, which then raises questions like "What made you deserve that treatment?" or perhaps "Is it really because of how other people treated you, or other reasons like genetics or having made healthier life choices?".  The latter may then lead to "Yeah, but you grew up being taught better and/or in a situation where healthy choices were more affordable, which are probably partly caused by wealth and are privilege", both of which might be counter-argued in the specific person's case or in general, and so on.  Social justice arguments ensue.

"Advantage" seems like a more neutral term, one that doesn't inherently imply fairness-laden claims about how you got it.  I would recommend it.

Hmmm, I think the original post was an interesting idea. I think your comment points to something related but different. Perhaps taboo words?

The article suggests "invisible advantage". Other options: "unnoticed advantage", "unknown advantage".